What Is the Difference Between Cinema and Still Lenses?

What Is the Difference Between Cinema and Still Lenses?

The majority of the readers of this article who shoot video probably use still lenses. You might ask yourself why you may need different lenses for video while your existing photography ones work just fine. In this article I'd like to show you certain features of the cinema glass that you probably always wanted subconsciously. Maybe after reading this you'll start saving up the money for one.

The Definition of "Affordable" In Video

If you haven't invested much in video, it's way more expensive than still photography. When I say "affordable" in terms of video gear, it is affordable only in the world of video. From a photographer's standpoint, this may sound crazy expensive. There are lots of cinema lenses on the market ranging from four-figure price tags to six-figure ones. The most common cinema lenses of high quality costs five-figure amounts in US dollars. That's why glass that's below the $5,000 range is deemed "affordable."

In this article I will speak about cinema lenses in general and although I'll give examples with lenses that cost a fortune, there are affordable models that can do a great job too. Don't get discouraged by pricing, but focus on their features, so next time you work on a higher budget project, you know the advantages and disadvantages of cinema and photography glass.

Distinctive Features of Cinema Glass

The lens is one of the tools for making a moving picture. It allows changing focus, zooming, and combining it with different accessories that aid the shooting workflow. When I started working with video, I never thought there was more than just optical quality of the cinema glass. Here are some features you have to be aware of.

Cool Factor

Look at the image above. Don't you think cinema lenses look way more professional than the professional still ones? Definitely. If you want to look more professional, you may get cinema glass just for looks' sake.

Lens Size and Weight

If you've noticed, most cinema lenses are way bigger on the front than their stills cousins. The 28mm Carl Zeiss Compact Prime on the picture is much larger than a 28mm stills lens. Just as with the "affordability" term, this lens on the right is a compact cinema lens.

Zeiss 28mm cinema vs. stills lensYou can find whole series of cinema lenses that are exactly the same as the outer diameter and the same size, such as this Leica cinema set:

Leica Summicron Cinema Set

The reason for having lenses of the same diameter is the accessories that may be used with them. Imagine using ND filters for a certain scene. By switching lenses you don't have to switch to different filter sizes. You are going to put the same filter and thus not only saving money on filters (OK, for a $140,000 set, the expression "saving money on a filter" is inappropriate), but you are sure the image will be exactly the same, because you use exactly the same filter.

When using matte boxes you don't have to worry if the lens' front diameter will fit it. You just change the lens and it fits with everything else seamlessly. The same for follow focus units, remote zoom, and aperture control units. Having the same lens diameter doesn't require changing the configuration of the units or switching matte boxes.

Being of the same weight means you can change different focal length primes of a given set and you don't have to re-balance any stabilization system. If you've worked with one, you know what it means.

Larger rings allow to fit more lens marks such as focus distances or aperture values.

Focus Control

One of the most used features of a lens in video is changing focus. For still lenses your focus is most probably electronically controlled from your camera's autofocus capability. Let's say you have a scene where you need to rack focus from one fixed object to another. As objects don't move you can set the focus ring at the position where the fist object is in focus. Then you rotate the focus ring until the second one is in focus and mark that position. How do you mark it on a still lens?

Canon 24-105 EF lens

You can't. See how moving the focus from 3 to 5 meters (on this lens on the image) requires working with a clockmaker's precision when rotating the ring. Also the ring doesn't have a hard stop. When you reach to the infinity mark and you can continue rotating the ring... to infinity. Although using follow focus units with photography lenses allows for more precise control you still have a very little room for movement.

On the other hand with cinema lenses the focus ring has hard stops at the beginning and at the end. Also its movement is more comfortable from its minimum to its maximum distance mark. You can be more precise even without a follow focus as marks are clearly visible and distributed on a larger scale.

Canon cine 35mm T1.5

Lens Breathing

Talking about focus, there is a defect in the lens optics called "breathing." This is when racking focus the image looks as if it's scaled up or down. Still lenses do that all the time because they are not intended for video use. Cinema lenses, however, have that breathing minimized or completely eliminated. You can see the effect of breathing of a still lens in the beginning of the following video:

Aperture Control

The aperture, or the iris, is controlled by a ring on the cinema lenses. The ring moves smoothly from value to value without any clicks or the need of electronic controls such as on the modern still lenses. The cinema lenses are marked with T-stops instead of f-stops. T-stops is a more precise value. I discussed that in a previous article.

Lens Zooming

Cinema zoom lenses are generally quite expensive. When zooming in or out they don't change their physical size. This is a very important property especially when the camera rig is balanced on a stabilizer systems. If zooming affects the balance even a slight focal distance change would require rebalancing. High-end still lenses also don't change in size. However if you need to zoom them while recording they don't have a smooth zoom transition. Most of the time it looks jumpy. It's not a problem for still photography but it is for video. On cinema lenses the zoom is smooth all the way.

Parfocal Lenses

Most of us who are used to zoom lenses in still photography know that when you zoom in you may have to re-focus. Lenses that keep the focus regardless of the zoom level are called parfocal lenses. This is very important for video. There are parfocal still lenses too, although this is something you may have never noticed or used because you have autofocus kicking in on every half-press of the shutter.

Optical Quality

Good stills glass will have good optical quality for video. It's hard to recognize cinema from stills glass quality just by recording a video of your cat in your living room. But if you put the lens in difficult lighting situations such as direct bright light or high contrast scenes, you will see the picture is different.

Color, Contrast, and Sharpness

Although lenses of different manufacturers may vary as color and contrast interpretations, most of the time the cinema lenses of one brand will have consistent color and contrast features throughout a production set. Sharpness in the corners is a must.

Chromatic Aberration

This is the optical defect where lines of high contrast in the image are accompanied by rainbow colors that originally weren't there. The cinema industry is highly intolerant to such imperfections. That's why production of lenses for video minimizes or completely eliminates such issues.

Vignetting

Cinema glass should not vignette whatsoever. Although that's easy to fix in post, it is not present in the cinema glass or is almost impossible to be detected.

Barrel Distortion

Pictures shot with wide-angle or long focal length lenses in photography may have barrel distortion. We can fix that in post sacrificing resolution. In video, distortion is highly noticeable. That's the reason why cinema lenses minimize distortion, although it's sometimes present even in high end ones. Big distortion on a 24mm lens is something probably negligible for the stills photographer's eye.

Bokeh and Light Flares

This is all subjective, but cinema lenses have a beautiful bokeh and produce great light flare effects. Shooting with lights aiming towards the camera can introduce really beautiful results, especially if you combine them with a shallow depth of field.

Pseudo-Cinema Versus Real Cinema Lenses

You are still wondering why there's cinema glass that costs $4,000 and one that costs $40,000. Although lots of the sub $5,000 lenses are of great optical quality, most of them are based on still glass optical technology in terms of glass properties, coatings, and so on. They are also called pseudo-cinema lenses. On the outside they have the properties of a cinema lens required by the very industry. These properties include the physical aperture control, smooth zoom, hard stopped focus rings, minimized breathing, etc. For our eyes, we will find most of these affordable lenses great for our needs. I have watched comparisons such as this below and I was pleased to find that a sub $5,000 lens investment can be a very smart one:

In most cases, if you don't rack focus and do not zoom, still lenses may look great in most situations. But once you see the image of a cinema glass in difficult light situations, even a pseudo-cinema lens, you will know why it costs more. I'm glad there are pseudo-cinema lenses. They are the bridge to higher end visual quality for those of us who are working on sub-million-dollar projects.

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31 Comments

Killer post. As someone who is basically a professional videographer at this point, it's probably time I learned this stuff.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I appreciate that Lee.

Great read, you broke down a lot of concepts really well! Thank you.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Thanks a lot!

Chris Kennedy's picture

Pretty good read!
To me any cinema equipment must be consistent and reliable/rugged. Which is why you pay prime $ for cinema lenses: The quality of the materials, supply and demand, R&D in the design phase, extensive labor, and quality control (each lens individually tested and evaluated), etc.

They are designed to have the image hold up on a 40'+ screen. Being "4K capable" is one thing but how does the image resolve in a theater? All in a package which is built like a tank to take the abuse from normal film production. Unfortunately most of the more "affordable" cinema lenses aren't quite up to par, even when compared to more vintage cinema lenses.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I've never used a real cinema lens. Only a pseudo, so I don't know the feel but I'd like to experience that some day.

Chris Kennedy's picture

You could always rent them. One thing I've been doing the last couple years is rehousing my Leica R lenses into cinema housings. Companies like GL Optics, P&S Technik, TLS, etc. could all make certain stills glass "cinevised" with longer focus throws, declicked aperture, metal housings, focus gear, etc. I'd take my Leicas any day over the newer Xeens or CP2s.

One thing that nobody every talks about with cinema lenses is maintenance and the cost that comes with owning them. About every 2-3 years the focus points need to get checked/lens shimmed... Even $20k+ Cookes need maintenance every now and then :(

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Very interesting about the maintenance. I didn't know that. How much does it cost that on average?

As for the rent — yes, I could, although in my country there are few rental houses for cinema gear and most of them have pseudo-cinema glass. I just found one that had Cooke primes. I'll have that in mind.

Chris Kennedy's picture

It varies, I know a lens technician who services them for $75/each. At least in my area it seems like most companies charge around $150-$200 per lens per day. Adds up quickly for a full set of lenses

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Thanks. It's not a huge amount having in mind it's only every 2-3 years.

Dallas Dahms's picture

Very interesting! Thanks for the information.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

You are very welcome. Thanks for the feedback!

Arun Hegden's picture

Amazing post. Thank you for writing it down so simple so that everyone can understand. :)
Cheers. :)

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I'm humbled to read that. Thanks!

David Strauss's picture

Love this article, I had never really realized the differences.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I'm glad it helped David. I myself also didn't know the differences a year ago thinking still cameras and lenses are more than enough for video work.

Andrew Swanson's picture

Thanks again Tihomir for the great post. Some people would argue investing that much money into a lens or set of lens is crazy, but investing in cinema glass is a smart financial choice because they retain their value for long periods of time. The video/film industry will always need high quality glass. Unlike camera purchases, if someone was in the need to sell equipment you can count on getting the majority of their money back on glass.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That's true. I think lower budget videogaphers like us can take advantage of the pseudo-cinema glass as it's better to get a house than get a $100K set and have no food to eat :)

But if someone has the money and wants to make an investment that would pay off in the long run, glass is definitely better than cameras.

Eric Lefebvre's picture

Awesome review and the Xeen lenses really held their own considering the price point. the Canon lens is better at giving you more details in shadows due to lower contrast but those Xeen lenses ... for that price? Nice.

UI personally preffered the Canon ... even with the pink tinge but then again ... i shoot with my still lenses so the Xeen would be a huge step up anyways. :)

Now ... WTH was going on with all the interference noise in the video?

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Which video are you referring to?

Spy Black's picture

Unless you can fit some rentals in your budget, a low budget film with have to make do with DSLRs and DSLR lenses, as well as any other type of video recording gear you can get your hands on. Is it really the end of the world if your rack has focus breathing? The only people that' will cringe are pros, everyone else will just be following the story.

In other words, if you can't afford it, don't sweat it. Take your script, find good talent in front and behind the camera, and run with it.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Of course you can do lots of things with a DSLR and DSLR lenses when you try to stay away from the situations where the image from them falls apart.

Cinema lenses are for those who know story is king and want to elevate the production value using glass in situations where *they now* it will look better. Cinema glass has to be bought only by those who know why they rent it or buy it. Otherwise there will be videos such as "why getting a $5,000 or a $50,000 lens when a $50 one works too."

Simon Patterson's picture

Very interesting! Whilst you haven't quite convinced me to save up for cine lenses (I'm just dipping me toe into the world of video), you've definitely helped me understand why others use them.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yes, they are different tools that look like DSLR glass but they are not.

I'm just an amateur and I like shooting movies. But it is not hard to see that these kind of lenses are not within reach of an amateur. I'm not willing to sell my house to spend the money on lenses. Still the T rating would be very nice to have on the normal camera lenses.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That's why they've invented the pseudo-cinema lenses.

The cinema lenses that cost a fortune are most of the time rented even by the high end professionals. Most of the time they are bought by companies that offer rental services. Of course if one can afford it, they delight in the ownership of a nice piece of true cinema glass.

BTW, the article is not intended to tell people to buy lenses for $100K. I want to give some insight of the differences between cinema and stills lenses, so next time someone wants to level up their production they may rent a nice cinema glass to get the job done easily and with more visual quality.

Great article!! always had wonder the difference between both lenses, but one question can a cinema lens be use for stills for creating different looks? it would be great for some product or food photography and it would be easier to when doing focus stalkin since this lenses have no focus breathing.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The answer is yes. You can use the lens as long as the mount allows it and depending on the size of the sensor and the lens type there could be some vignetting.

I haven't thought about that "breathless" property for focus stacking. Great idea!

"cine lenses look cooler"

aaaaaaaaaaaaand close article.

you didn't even use the same lighting on the lens comparison.. wow... is this serious?