Insights Into Hollywood's Favorite Lenses

As Gray Kotzé points out, there are bushels of reviews for entry-level cinema lenses on the web, lenses you might look to pick up on sale maybe. However, most feature films are shot on prohibitively expensive lenses that were always intended to be rented out over their multi-decade lifespans. The cost for these lenses puts them out of reach for most filmmakers who aspire towards ownership, but, if you have a budget and you're looking to shoot feature/cinema quality films, it's important to understand what's available for rent.

Kotzé's two recent YouTube essays evaluate the ergonomics and look (achievable results) from each lens set he focuses on. These essays are designed to be used by filmmakers to get a handle on what is available and what might be useful for each project.

Each essay provides examples of how these lenses look, a critical first step when moving on to cinema-quality glass without an endless budget to test. Kotzé's discussion of the ergonomics, or ease of use, provides us something that can't be learned without hands-on experience. Kotzé looks at the sensor coverage, metadata collection, ease of focus pulling, flare, sharpness, contrast, bokeh shape, and color and T-stop matching across the various sets.

Kotzé is clear that he isn't a lens technician, but over his career, he has worked with most of the lenses he references in his videos.

In his first video, Kotzé looks at:

  1. Zeiss Super Speeds
  2. Panavision C - Series
  3. Cooke S4 Set
  4. Hawk V-Lite Set

In his second video, Kotzé looks at:

  1. Cooke Speed Panchro Set
  2. Arri/Zeiss Master Prime Set
  3. Angénieux Optimo 24-290mm
  4. Canon K35 Set
  5. Arri DNA Set

Have you shot with any of these? Do you have any comments on the lenses Kotzé chose to look at?

Lead images of Cooke's S4i lenses, from B&H Photo

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12 Comments

Gary Pardy's picture

I've been fascinated by what I like to call the "Netflix Original-look" - backgrounds are just a mass of bokeh, and a limited, deliberate colour palette is super duper saturated. Are these done with cine lenses? Or just super fast, full-frame lenses?

Ryan Cooper's picture

It likely varies from show to show. The palette is the result of lighting and grading more than the lenses. Both cine or lenses designed for stills cameras can make creamy bokeh. In fact, over the last little while I've noticed a ton of shows using lower quality lenses to create certain looks at the cost of image quality.

The main differences that cine lenses offer and what makes them so unique are 3-fold:

1: The adjustment rings (usually both focus and aperture) have teeth so that a gear based focus pulling system can be attached. This is because in a cinema production the camera operator usually isn't the one managing focus. Rather, a dedicated focus puller is remotely adjusting focus via a wireless or cable monitor.

2: Modern Cine lenses tend to be the same length regardless of focual length. A high end set of cine primes will be exactly the same size throughout. It doesn't matter if a lens is 35mm or 85mm. Every lens in the set is identical in size and weight. This is because productions don't want to waste time rebuilding the camera rig or re-calibrating gimbals every time a lens change happens.

3: Cine lenses measure light in T-stops rather than F-stops. An F-stop is a representation of aperture size relative to sensor size. It correlates to brightness but isn't an exact measurement because it doesn't account for loss of light due to transmission through elements of the lens. Not all lenses with the same aperture setting will allow the exact same amount of light to project onto the sensor. T-shops, in comparison, are measurements of light transmission in a standardized way. As a result, a cinematographer can say pop a 35mm at T/2.0 off the camera and swap it for a 135mm at T/2.0 and expect identical exposure.

In terms of optics, Cine lenses aren't really all that different than non-cine lenses. They often enjoy similar if not identical optical formulae. They are radically expensive because they are manufactured to an insane level of consistency and quality control. Elite cine lenses represent the absolute best possible performance that a given manufacturer is capable of producing. Does a Zeiss Cine lens produce IQ that is 20x greater than say a Zeiss Otus? Nope. Does it have a unique look that sets it apart from the Otus? Not really. It does, however, have features that the Otus lacks which productions are willing to spend $25k per lens to gain access to.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

WOW! Thanks so much for taking the time to provide so much information! I love it when our forum works the way its designed to!

Sam Sims's picture

Also, cine lenses don't suffer from focus breathing or focus shift - just part of the reason why they are so expensive.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Well, it varies. ;) Most modern ones claim not to but there are a ton of cine lenses over the years that focus breath. It certainly is a huge selling point though for the ones that don't.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Or, if you can use it or control it, a selling point for the ones that don’t - or at least don’t in a dependable way.

Sam Sims's picture

Sadly, the irritating trend for shallow depth of field for video has been very popular over the past decade, likely started when DSLR's first included video and amateur photographers started shooting a lot of videos with wide open apertures. It can be very annoying seeing it in so many TV shows/films, some using the 'hardly anything in focus' style as a creative look.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Agreed - For lack of better phrasing, style without intention isn't art.

Ben Coyte's picture

Do they come in M4/3???

Nick Rains's picture

Yes. Via adapter. The Blackmagic Cinema Camera 4K is a 4/3 sensor and can use cine lenses.

Deleted Account's picture

Part of why cine lenses are more expensive is that many of them are “zoom” lenses with an automatic slight geared zoom which counteracts focus breathing.

Sam Sims's picture

Photography lenses were never originally intended for video so things like focus breathing (extending barrels) and focus shift were never an issue that needed correcting and helped keep the cost of the lenses down.