How I select lenses for Long Form Projects
A long form project (it’s a word I cooked up) is one which will have several shots spread across many days and locations under many different lighting conditions. These could be features, documentaries, a wedding video business, etc.
The key problem with long form projects is that you might not always be able to switch your gear midstream. If you haven’t packed it, you’ll have to make do without it.
If you have an unlimited budget, you could buy all the lenses in a particular range (like L glass from Canon) and lug that around. But not all of us have an unlimited budget, or a spine made of steel.
This is the critical point that all working professionals face. How much is enough? The preceding section talked about planning for contingencies, but just like it doesn’t mean all lenses should be f/1, you don’t have to carry every lens on planet earth.
Sometimes the choice also boils down to prime vs zoom lenses. If you are strictly after aesthetic quality a simple test might decide it. But if your usage scenario is more vague (maybe you’re making corporate videos and you don’t know where the client will send you), then it becomes a nerve-wracking exercise.
If it comes down to that, my methodology might help:
1. List all the shots you are likely to take (or need). This is mandatory on most productions anyway. For each setup or shot, I list the focal length and the f-stop. If you can’t decide, write down more than one. It’s okay. This is what it may look like:
I use Microsoft Excel for all my spreadsheet work, but you can use a pen and paper too. The advantage of spreadsheets is that the next step becomes easier:
2. Sort the list according to focal lengths, and then do a second sort of f-stops within each focal length.
It should look something like the table on the left:
3. You could convert that into a graph, but it’s not necessary. The idea is to see which focal lengths are used the most, and what the maximum f-stop requirements are, for those focal lengths.
Important: Sometimes productions happen in schedules, and it might be a good idea to limit your lists within each schedule so you don’t lug everything around unnecessarily.
4. From the chart or graph, you’ll be able to tell which focal lengths are critical, i.e., you’ll find your bread and butter focal lengths and apertures.
Here’s a rule of thumb:
Invest more in your bread and butter focal lengths and apertures.
You will need all your lenses anyway. The point is to find out how to distribute your time, attention and budget for maximum productivity and efficiency.
This evaluation will also point out any lenses or apertures that are used for only one or two shots – do you really need them? Can you make do without them? It forces you to streamline your thought process, and to be more objective in your selection.
5. Let’s say you’ve considered all possibilities, and you have a final list that you are sure will cover your particular usage scenario.
Now’s the time the list will tell you whether a zoom lens or a prime lens might be a better investment.
Aesthetic criteria aside, here’s the rule:
If you have a range of bunched up focal lengths with similar maximum apertures, then get one zoom lens that covers this range.
If your focal length stands alone, or has a unique aperture requirement, get a prime.
6. Rinse and Repeat – eliminate every redundant possibility. You can ask all sorts of questions with this method. It is flexible enough to adapt to many scenarios or projects.
7. Finally, if there are still any more doubts, comparing these characteristics should give you your winners:
- Focus Mechanism
- Aperture Control Mechanism
- Weather Protection
- Flare Characteristics
- Replacement and Warranty
- Resale Value
Budget is last because it allows you to focus on your art. How? You will appreciate why the look you want requires an expensive lens. You will also have a clear idea of what compromises you’ll have to make to get a lens within your budget. Otherwise you’re just prey to clever marketing.
In the end, you’ll know exactly what lenses you need and at what apertures.
Will this make you perfect? No. Will it give you confidence? Yes, you bet it will.
I use this line of reasoning and analysis even on smaller projects. Why not? It’s fun, and faster with a spreadsheet. With enough experience under your belt, you will be well-set on the road to lens mastery!