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How to Find the Right Lenses

What Lens to Get? Comprehensive Guide to Finding the Right Lenses for Cinematography

If you’re a beginner and don’t know what lens to get, then this article will tell you exactly what to get, and why it is best for you.

What lens to get? This is a question every newcomer faces.

Do you go for the 18-55mm kit, the 18-300mm kit, or a 50mm (the nifty fifty), or a 24-105mm f/4, or what? Why are there so many options, and how do you know which one you’ll need?

Let’s find out!

Canon 50mm f/1.4

Let’s face it. You can’t be expected to know what you’ll find useful unless you have some experience under the belt. If you are an absolute beginner, wisdom from experienced filmmakers is exactly the kind of information that will save you time and money.

Let me show you how you can find exactly what you need right now.

The four questions of a shot

Hopefully, when you aim your camera, you’ll be aiming it at something worthwhile. This something is called the ‘Subject’.

It could be a human being, a tree, a cat, a bird or insect, a building, a car or whatever strikes your fancy. It could even be something abstract, like a bunch of colors.

Tip:

You should have an idea of what subjects interest you. If more than one subject interests you, make a list of them on paper and then sort them according to the order of importance.

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Once you have your subject in mind, it’s time to see how it relates to a frame or shot. The four questions of a shot are:

  • How big is the subject within the frame?
  • How much of the subject is visible?
  • How close can you get to your subject?
  • How far can you go before your subject can no longer be shot?

E.g., if you want to shoot a tiger in a jungle or forest reserve, you won’t stray too close. You’ll have to decide how far you can go and still get the tiger (your subject) in the frame.

On the other hand, if you’re shooting photographs at a crowded cocktail party or wedding, you can’t go too far. You’re limited by the walls and space you’re in. Yet, you can’t stick a camera into somebody’s face, too!

Understanding the four questions of a shot can give you strong indications on what lenses might serve you well. For starters, ask yourself these questions:

  • How big do you want to show your subject? Does it fill the frame or is it smaller?
  • What parts of the subject do you want to show?
  • How close can you practically get?
  • How far can you practically go before the subject is too far away?

The answers to the above questions are tangible things. Let’s look at them one by one.

How big is your subject?

I’m going to choose the most popular subject: human beings. If you’re into filmmaking, you’re most likely shooting humans over any other subject. You can apply the same principles to any subject.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m assuming our human subject is 6 feet tall and 2 feet wide (width of shoulders can vary from 15″ to 25″ for adults).

I’m also going to assume the same width forwards as sideways, so it looks like this:

Human Subject

Which parts do you want to see?

Typically, video frames are categorized as follows:

  • Close up
  • Mid Close up (Bust Shot)
  • Mid Shot
  • Mid-long Shot (Cut off just before the knee)
  • Long Shot

Don’t get hung up over the names. Here’s what it looks like on our human subject:

Shots of Body

Real humans can, of course, be taller or shorter than our test subject, but we have no control over that. It is important to understand what we’re doing here. This is a process of simplification. There’s no need to be precise.

If you’re wondering why the second image has a length of 7 feet while the first is 6 feet, it’s so that we can leave a small gap at the top and bottom. It’s not very important, but it makes our life a little easier.

What about motion and other important stuff?

Humans move. Luckily for filmmakers, they move sideways a lot more than they do up and down, even if they are basketball players.

When we have more than one human as a subject (Two-shot, group shot, whatever), it is highly unlikely they will be on top of each other! They usually stand next to each other.

It is probably for this reason, and more, that the video frame is rectangular, with the length almost twice the size of the height. Here are some common aspect ratios:

  • 4:3 or 1.33:1
  • 3:2 or 1.5:1
  • 16:9 or 1.78:1
  • 1.85:1
  • 2.39:1

It is obviously in our interest to use the height has the standard measure, because it is unlikely to change much. More humans? Sure, go sideways. They want to move? Sure, go sideways.

How do we benefit from this exercise? We have a standard vertical size for each shot. Once we have the distance, we can calculate the angle (basic trigonometry, anyone?). The angle will give us the focal length.

Will this work? You just wait.

How close can you practically get?

Most lenses cannot focus closer than one foot (unless it’s a macro lens). In any case, you don’t want to get that close to any human.

Here are some typical shooting scenarios:

  • Portrait, beauty or glamor
  • Interview
  • Drama
  • General Action – Doing something, doesn’t have to be dramatic
  • Fast Action – Sports

You could be shooting a wedding, a sports event, a fashion shoot or a fictional piece. Most of the time, you’ll be confined to one of the above scenarios.

Each scenario places its own set of demands on the shooter, one of which is the minimum distance you can be from your subject.

If you’re shooting beauty, you won’t go any closer than the point where a lens might distort your subject. If you’re shooting interviews, you won’t go any closer than the point after which your subject will become intimidated by the camera.

If you’re shooting drama or general, you won’t go any closer than the circle of motion – the area over which the talent move during a shot. This is dictated by the blocking or the nature of the activity. You can get a lot closer to a woman writing your name on a grain of rice than you can to a man studying deadly bacteria in a sealed lab.

When it comes to sports, your minimum distance is dictated by the size of the ground or arena. We all wish we can run along with our heroes in their moment of glory, but we can’t. Shooting weddings or documentaries is the exact opposite. You have to go where the action is, it won’t come to you.

Office Space

How far can you go?

Not very far, unless you are spying on your subject. Usually, they are aware of being shot. This means you are likely to be within earshot.

Unless you are documenting a scene from far away, or if you’re shooting birds or wildlife, you’ll want to record some kind of audio with your visuals.

A Sennheiser G3 series wireless lavalier microphone can transmit to about 200 to 300 feet when everything’s perfect. At line-level voltages, amplified, you could transmit audio via XLR to about 200 feet. At mic-level, you can’t go more than 30 feet.

Generally, I’d fix the upper limit for most human-based shooting within 200 feet, with most of it being within 100 feet. That’s good for starters.

Right! So we have a general idea of our subject, and how close or far we can get. Well, not quite. We need to get more precise with these numbers.

Canon 55-250mm

Why the area is important

Your area of operation varies widely, so as a beginner you are not expected to know it. Heck, even pros walk in blind sometimes, so don’t worry about it.

How can we know how close or far we can get, without the experience to back us up? Simple, we look at locations. Here are a few common locations:

  • Home – Living Room
  • Home – Bedroom
  • Senior Executive’s Office
  • Employee’s Cubicle
  • Place of Worship
  • Streets
  • Large Hall
  • Studio
  • Park or Garden
  • Open Space (where you can see the horizon), Aerial or Underwater
  • Tight Corners (dictated by the specific geometry of rooms or spaces)
  • Sports Arenas
  • Vehicles

You’d be surprised how most image-making is confined to these generalized locations. These ‘locations’ are just ‘boxes’, when you come to think about it. No matter what location you might be faced with, it is simpler to think of them as ‘boxes’ of space.

We broke down our human subject into boxes of shots. We can do the same with spaces. Let’s start with some examples:

  • Typical large living room – 16 x 16 feet
  • Typical small living room – 12 x 12 feet
  • Typical large bedroom – 12 x 12 feet
  • Typical small bedroom – 10 x 10 feet
  • Large Office – 12 x 12 feet
  • Conference Room – 10 x 25 feet
  • Small Office or Cubicle – 6 x 6 feet
  • Basketball Court or hall – 94 x 50 feet
  • Football/Soccer Field – 200 x 350 feet
  • Car – Less than 4 x 4 feet
  • Typical mid-size sound stage – 100 x 150 feet
  • Small sound stage – 50 x 50 feet

Even sound stages fall below the 300 feet mark, so we were quite justified in setting our upper limit at 300 feet.

As far as the lower limit is concerned, most shooting happens at no closer than 4 feet. There’s nothing stopping you from filming a human at 2 feet, but try it, even for fun. I’ve generally found anything closer than 4 feet is supremely uncomfortable to the talent. Typically, 6-10 feet is the sweet spot. But just for fun’s sake, we’ll fix the minimum distance at 3 feet.

Small spaces will limit you. Typically, you’re always shooting within a distance of 25 feet. If your location is a large hall, you might be able to shoot at 100 feet or more. If you’re shooting soccer, you might be able to catch action at the other end of the pitch with a super telephoto lens.

You can go even further, because there are lenses that let you shoot sport in larger arenas, or wildlife, etc. But these are specialized activities. As a beginner, if you already know you’re going to do this, your choices are somewhat limited (not to mention expensive).

Let’s not make it more complicated. The closest distance is 3 feet and the farthest is 300 feet.

Now, let’s find the vertical angle of view (values in degrees):

Distance (feet)Close upMid CloseMidMid LongLongExtreme Long
318.936.960.579.698.8136.4
69.518.932.545.260.5102.7
105.711.419.928.138.673.7
202.95.710.014.319.941.1
301.93.86.79.513.328.1
401.42.95.07.210.021.2
501.12.34.05.78.017.1
700.81.62.94.15.712.2
850.71.32.43.44.710.1
1000.61.12.02.94.08.6
1250.50.91.62.33.26.9
1500.40.81.31.92.75.7
1750.30.71.11.62.34.9
2000.30.61.01.42.04.3
2500.20.50.81.11.63.4
3000.20.40.71.01.32.9

Assumption: Extreme long shot has a vertical length of 15 feet.

Don’t let the table scare you. You don’t need to do any math. I’ve done it for you.

It’s basic trigonometry. Knowing the height of our frame (part of our subject we want to fill the frame with) and the distance to the subject, we can calculate the angle of view required.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume we are shooting on a full frame sensor camera (36mm x 24mm). We can always convert to any other length later using the crop factor.

The following table is from Wikipedia, and it shows typical angles of view for each focal length:

Focal Length (mm)Vertical (°)Horizontal (°)
1481.2102.7
1673.995.1
2061.982.4
2453.173.7
3537.854.4
502739.6
7019.528.8
8516.123.9
1001319.5
2006.8710.3
3004.586.87
4003.445.15
5002.754.12
6002.292.86

We are mainly concerned with the vertical angles. We can simply replace the angles with the focal lengths in our own table, to get this (values in mm):

Distance (feet)Close upMid CloseMidMid LongLongExtreme Long
375352014105
61357040282010
1020013570503516
204002501351007035
3060035020013510050
40120050030020013570
50n/a60035025015085
70n/a800500300250100
85n/a1200600400300135
100n/an/a700500350150
125n/an/a800600400200
150n/an/a1200700500250
175n/an/an/a800600300
200n/an/an/a1200700350
250n/an/an/an/a800400
300n/an/an/an/a1200500

Important: Fields of View are not necessarily the same for a given focal length from two different manufacturers (or even versions of the same lens). However, the differences are negligible for our purposes.

Wow. Here are some observations (all based on full frame sensors):

  • When you’re less than 30 feet away from the subject, you don’t need a focal length greater than 300mm (full frame equivalent).
  • If you’re shooting at greater than 100 feet, then you start at 200mm.
  • Between 30 feet and 100 feet you start at 70mm.
  • Focal lengths less than 10 mm are extremely wide, and you are unlikely to find one that is rectilinear (not fish-eye) and still at f/2.8.
  • Focal lengths from 8 to 14mm are only necessary if you’re shooting large buildings or landscape at close distances.
  • At 6 to 30 feet, 20mm to 200mm is fine.

What does this all mean? Here is my analysis:

  • Is it a wonder that the most-used zoom lens for a full frame camera is the 24-70mm? Most people shooting weddings, beauty, drama, etc. stay in this range.
  • For occasions when you’ll need to go further than 30 feet, you could use a lens that starts at 70mm and ends somewhere in the 300mm mark. Is it a wonder then, that most manufacturers have a telephone zoom in the 70-300mm zone?
  • Finally, for those who need wide angle, the usual range is 17-35mm or so.
  • The most useful regular lens is 35mm. Is it a wonder that most still frame cameras with a fixed prime chooses 35mm (FF equivalent) as their focal length of choice?
  • The most useful long lens is 75/85mm. This is the most widely used focal length for portraits.
  • The most useful mid telephoto focal length is 135mm.
  • The most useful telephoto focal length is 300mm.

So, theoretically speaking, if a manufacturer offered us an 18-300mm lens, we’ll be gold. Guess what? They do offer this, with a catch: there isn’t one with an f/2.8 aperture across this entire zoom range.

Which brings us to factors other than focal length.

Factors to consider before choosing lenses

Here are a few important considerations:

  • You must get a lens with an f-number of at least f/2.8. It gives you the best balance between low light and shallow depth of field.
  • It is better to get zoom lenses and not prime lenses if you’re a beginner, simply because you don’t know your favorite focal lengths yet. Nor do you have experience with tight spots and curve-ball situations. Get a zoom lens, period.
  • The lens must have a usable and rugged focus ring, so you can use a follow focus system, or your hands.
  • Image Stabilization isn’t mandatory, but useful sometimes. If you can afford the Image Stabilized version of a lens, go for it. You can always turn it off if you don’t want it.
  • Weather sealing is a big plus, but a luxury for most beginners. Don’t sweat it.
Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8

What Lens to Get?

Okay! Based on everything we’ve covered, this is my advice:

  • If you can only get one zoom lens, get a lens with a focal length range of 24-70mm f/2.8 (full frame sensor). If you’re shooting on an APS-C/Super 35 sensor, the equivalent focal length is 16-50, which is why they give you an 18-55mm kit lens.
  • If you can afford two zoom lenses, get the 24-70 (for full frame sensors) and the 70-200 f/2.8.
  • If you can afford three zoom lenses, get the entire zoom range – 16-35mm (12-24mm for Nikon), 24-70mm and 70-200mm – all at f/2.8.
  • Don’t buy prime lenses until you know which focal lengths you really need. Only experience and an artistic eye can tell you this.

Now, here are some concrete recommendations for your first lens:

Full Frame Sensor (EF Mount)

APS-C Sensor (EF and EF-S Mount)

Micro 4/3 Sensor (m43 Mount)

If you can’t afford any of these lenses (f/2.8), then go with the kit lens. It’s not as bad as people make it out to be. Sometimes, it’s even hard to tell them apart from a professional lens 10 times the price!

What lens to buy?

You’ll hear this question many times throughout your career. Whenever you do, please remember not to give advice based on hearsay or subjective opinions. There is a reason manufacturers divide their zoom ranges into certain groups. They know better than most people.

We’re done. Hope you have found this article useful in determining your first lens.

2 replies on “What Lens to Get? Comprehensive Guide to Finding the Right Lenses for Cinematography”

I’m really enjoying using my manual focus Zeiss Otus lenses on my Z6 using the FTZ adapter as I’m learning about the magic of cine lenses. Potato Jet’s video on Arri Signature Primes have caused me to add one to my wishlist!

I was wondering if you have any advice on whether a LPL mount Arri Signature Prime on my Z6 would work. Love your blog!

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