Which Lens To Buy?

Which lens to buy?

Sigma offers a full set of Cine Prime lenses. I’ve used and tested these lenses; they’re impressive and offer excellent value for the money. But are they the right lens choice for your needs? Have you been wondering which lens to buy?

In 2018, I wrote a blog entry called “The Lens Dilemma.” It’s now 2021 and I thought that this subject was worth addressing again, simply because the amount of lens choices available has continued to exponentially increase since then. Depending on where you are in the midst of your video/digital cinema/content creator career, you may or may not have a ton of experience with different lenses and mounts, but if you’re new to all of this, you should take a look at all of the different choices available. It’s easy to simply be overwhelmed by which lenses you should consider because the choices seem to increase almost weekly.

Cart Before The Horse?

If you break down lenses for modern video, mirrorless and digital cinema cameras, it really seems bewildering when it comes to which lenses you should invest your hard-earned money into. There are so many choices, so many brands, focal lengths, price ranges, styles, looks and quality levels, how do you decide which lens or lenses are right for your needs?

In my opinion, it’s best to consider your camera and lenses as a unified system. As a practical matter, you should decide which lenses you might want to buy, rent or save for later down the road as you choose your camera platform. Not every lens can be easily used on every camera. Let’s discuss a few examples of this:

Scenario One—The Mirrorless Hybrid Camera User

The latest generation of mirrorless cameras like Canon’s EOS R5 offer Canon’s latest lens mount, the RF mount. Is the RF mount the best choice for your shooting scenarios? Do you want or need to adapt many different types and styles of lenses from different manufacturers?

We all know that mirrorless cameras have become tremendously popular over the past few years, in many cases, replacing the traditional video camera and/or digital cinema camera for the filmmaker. It’s easy to see why it all boils down to bang for the buck. Mirrorless camera systems are offering sensors, lens options and quality that were almost inconceivable just a few years ago.

There are mirrorless offerings like the Canon EOS R5 that are 8K capable, cost under $4,000 and output some of the best-looking images and footage that we’ve ever seen. What makes a camera like the Canon R5 even more appealing to many are the potential lens options available. The camera utilizes Canon’s new RF lens mount, which correlates to Canon’s new mount standard lens lineup, the RF mount lens system. But what makes the RF system exciting for many of us is the ease it has in adapting many other lens mounts, everything from Canon’s older EF mount, all of the way up to state-of-the-art PL mount cinema lenses with many choices in between.

Obviously, there are a LOT of mirrorless camera choices on the market that utilize a tremendous variety of different native and adapted lens mount systems. Many of these mounts and systems have a fairly shallow flange depth, which means that the native mount is generally easy to adapt several other shallow flange depth mounting systems. How do you choose which mirrorless camera system to use? I suggest that while evaluating different mirrorless camera systems, also evaluate the lens mount that the system/camera you’re considering uses and think about how many different lens mounts can be utilized with the camera via lens mount adapters.

You Chose Which Lens Mount?

The Fujinon MKX18-55mm cinema zoom lens is a high-quality, small and lightweight cine zoom that’s capable of being mounted on my Fujifilm X-T3 mirrorless cameras. The ability to utilize lenses like this as well as AF capable Fujifilm XF still lenses or Canon EF lenses via a Fringer XF to EF adapter have proven to be good options for me over the past couple of years.

I personally chose a mirrorless camera system a few years ago that’s not as versatile as some others, the Fujifilm X-Mount, which is only utilized by Fujifilm X series cameras. Why did I choose this system and lens mount? I liked the variety of lenses available in the Fujifilm lineup and I knew that a third-party company called Fringer made an AF capable Canon EF to Fujifilm X mount adapter that would allow me to mount and utilize my 14 Canon EF mount lenses that I owned. I switch between my EF mount lenses and my Fujinon XF mount lenses as I shoot and so far, these two brand options have been more than sufficient for my needs.

Frankly, newer mirrorless systems like the Canon R5 and R6 and the Sony A7 SIII can both mount many more lens options that aren’t possible to mount on my Fujifilm X mount, but for my needs, I’m good with that. Your needs may vary. Canon’s RF mount and Sony’s E Mount systems used on these cameras are good choices if you want to use lenses in many different mounting systems. All three models, the Canon R5/R6 and the Sony A7 SIII also happen to be great mirrorless cameras. Not perfect, but all are very good choices as the state-of-the-art mirrorless camera.

Scenario Two—The Mid-Level Pro Video Camera User

The Sony FX9 with its 28-135mm f/4.0 G OSS Kit lens has proven to be very popular among mid-range pro users.

A colleague recently bought a new Sony FX9 camera. I’ve used and reviewed the FX9 for HDVideoPro when it came out. It’s an excellent mid-level pro video/digital cinema camera that’s amazingly capable for its $10,995 price tag. He bought the camera with the Sony “kit” lens, the 28-135mm f/4.0 G OSS. I’ve used this lens, and it’s pretty impressive for the price. The downside is that it’s an f/4.0 lens, meaning that it’s not particularly fast and it’s only a 28mm wide-angle focal length, which is on the upper side of what most consider “wide.” Good enough for many scenarios, but not wide enough for others. 

Sony has a surprisingly large amount of E Mount Sony lenses available for this camera and has widely opened up the E Mount lens control protocols to almost all other lens manufacturers, so the market is full of many, many different choices for native E Mount lenses. Most of these lenses also feature autofocus capability of varying levels, some as good or better than the native Sony E mount lenses and some not as good. And, of course, there are plenty of manual focus choices as well.

The popularity Of The Sony E Mount And Why It Matters

The Metabones PL to E Mount adapter allows FX9 users, as well as any other Sony E Mount camera owners, to mount the highest end PL mount cinema lenses to their cameras. Choices like this have boosted the popularity of the E Mount system.

The FX9 is also a good choice for pro-level video work simply because it’s so easy to mount high-end cine glass in PL mount to the Sony E mount with the addition of a simple and relatively inexpensive PL mount adapter, which can even be bought from Amazon for a few hundred dollars. For a camera like this, I feel it has an edge with some of its direct competitors like the Canon C300 MKIII, simply because it’s much easier to mount almost any lens you can think of to the Sony versus the C300 MKIIIs EF mount.

There are many EF mount lens choices, but not nearly as many different brands and models as for the Sony. The EF mount is a much older design that features a deep flange depth, necessitating a larger, deeper lens flange on EF lenses. The design is simply not as modern and widespread as Sony’s E Mount. Both are amazing cameras, I’ve shot with them both but the Sony wins in the lens choice department. If you are choosing to jump into this tier of camera, choose your mount based upon which lenses you may already own and which you may want to rent.

Scenario Three—The High-End Pro Cinema Camera User

Higher-end PL mount zooms like the Arri 65-300mm are typical of the lenses utilized in high-end TV and film production. Lenses like this cost what a high-end luxury car goes for and the images they generate are also quite special in comparison to the images from lower-end lenses.

In this realm, the choices, in a way, begin to narrow. While there are some outliers, cameras like the Arri Alexa Mini LF, the RED camera lineup and the Sony Venice are all generally equipped with a PL Mount. Conversely, the vast majority of commensurate high-end cine lenses are almost all exclusively available in PL mount. Sure, there are outliers like the relatively inexpensive RED Komodo that utilizes the Canon RF mount, but most other RED cameras are mostly utilized with PL mount lenses, although some users may opt for the RD EF mount or a Sony E Mount option.

The PL (Positive Lock) mount became the defacto current high-end cinema mount simply by being so mechanically sound. When you’re mounting large, long, heavy and incredibly costly cinema zoom lenses to a camera, most of the other mounts on the market pale in comparison to the relative strength and massive size of metal on metal contact and support that are characteristic of the PL mount. While the PL mount doesn’t allow for AF capability, newer innovations like Cooke’s /i Technology allow for the transfer and recording of lens metadata.

What Is Lens Metadata?

This set of Cooke Mini S4 Cine Primes feature a metadata protocol known as the /I Technology system. This allows the inclusion of every kind of lens into the camera’s metadata when recording. This lens data is useful in high-end post-production workflows and compositing.

The Cooke /i Technology is a metadata protocol that enables film and digital cameras to automatically record key lens data for every frame shot. Equipment identification is by the serial number and lens type. Metadata includes focal length, focus distance, zoom position, near and far focus, hyperfocal distance, T-stop, horizontal field of view and entrance pupil position. Data is recorded in either metric or imperial and can be selected for either format. The information is digitally recorded for every frame, at any frame rate up to 285 fps and is stored as metadata. Human error is eliminated because there’s no longer a need for the script supervisor to manually write down lens settings for every shot. The metadata is very useful in the post, visual effects and compositing worlds to help visual effects mesh seamlessly with the footage shot.

The Big Decision

As we’ve laid out in these three scenarios, your choice about which lens, camera and lens system to buy isn’t simple or straightforward. I often see users, more on the still photography side but plenty on the video side who are “switchers,” meaning that they have acquired and used a particular camera and a set of lenses to go with it. Often, the lenses that are used with their present system aren’t compatible with a new brand/model camera they’re considering buying. Hence the need to sell off their old camera body and entire set of lenses.

As you might imagine, many of these switchers lose a tremendous amount of resale value when they bought into a system that may or may not currently be in favor. “Switching,” for many users, is an expensive proposition and, in my opinion, a decision not to be taken lightly. Switching, to me, only makes sense if the switch is going to result in increased earnings and profit for you. If not, I personally don’t feel the perceived gains of switching brands, or for instance, from a full-frame sensor system over an S35 based system, are very significant, but of course, your mileage and use case may vary from mine.

Generally, in 2021 and moving forward, it’s advisable to invest in lenses that can cover a full-frame sensor, even if you’re currently shooting with an S35 sensor camera. Unless you’re sure that for the foreseeable future you won’t be selling lenses or upgrading to a full-frame camera system, buying full-frame-capable lenses seems to be a good business decision for most pro users. Lenses generally last and are relevant for much longer than modern digital cameras, so choose wisely.