Zoom in. Check Focus. Iris up a touch…no too far. Walk it back. Stop. Perfect. If you’re a videographer or filmmaker, these thoughts will be racing through your brain on any given day of production. But what lens will you be irising down and racking focus with? That’s a big choice every filmmaker has to make.
We can’t all shoot with our dream set of lenses all the time. So it’s important to take a look at what type of story you’re trying to tell, and what practical decisions you have to make when you’re selecting what lens rental will work for your production. For that purpose, we’re selecting a Top Pick, Runner-Up Pick, and a Budget Pick for each category below.
Why You Should Trust Us
I’m your primary guid (hi!). I’ve been working as a gear expert at KitSplit for three years, and have been in the camera department on a variety of TV shows and films for the last 10 plus years on projects including Say Yes to the Dress, Property Brothers and Flea Market Flip.
My recommendations were also reviewed, updated, and vetted by three other KitSplit staff members/ Gear Experts, including Daniel Gurzi, head of Business Development at KitSplit, who has over 10 years working in camera rentals and previously ran the camera rental departments at Adorama and AbelCine New York; Kristina Budelis, cofounder of KitSplit, who also has 10 years of experience shooting short documentaries for spots like The New Yorker and Vogue; and Katie Hinshaw, Gear Expert at KitSplit and filmmaker with over five years experience on set. We’ve used and thoroughly tested all of the lenses mentioned in this piece.
Documentary Filmmakers Gather Round:
Documentaries and Narrative Film may have a lot in common, but when choosing lenses, the practicalities are different.
One major consideration in documentary making is that very often, production is spread out over many days, weeks, even months. “Hey, the farm will let us shoot the corn harvest, but only for an hour, and it has to be tomorrow.”
So if you’re renting lenses, how do you maximize your image quality while also keeping a longer time frame in mind? Plus, you have to balance between the different kind of shooting demands a documentary presents. . Most docs have two parts: The “Run N’ Gun” verite scenes and the “Sit Down Interview” talking heads. It’s important to be prepared for both.
Best Lenses for Doc Interviews
In most interview situations, it is desirable to have two angles on your subject to cut between. Sometimes your interviewee’s response may be a little long winded and you have to cut their response for time. Or they might get emotional and so you want a tighter angle for emphasis on a dramatic moment.
You can of course accomplish this with 2 cameras, each with 2 different lenses. One tried and true method would be the pairing of the Canon 50mm f/1.2 USM for a medium shot and the Canon 70-200m f/2.8L IS II USM for a tighter close up.
The 70-200mm is widely beloved in the industry for its range and solid construction. A staple at events such as sports or weddings where a high millimeter lets you get intimate shots from afar, it is also a versatile lens when shooting someone in the interview chair. By setting up your interview with a fair amount of distance between the subject and the lens, you can zoom in and use depth of field to your advantage to create a crushed, out of focus background and a sharp, in focus subject.
This makes for a very cinematic look. But shallow depth of field can be an issue. If you have an animated person sitting in the interview chair it can be difficult if they lean forward or talk with their hands a lot. So when you end up having to operate the camera for tilts or pans during the interview, the Image Stabilization of the Canon 70-200mm ii helps keep your movement smooth. And its average lens rental cost is quite low: they’re available for $18 to $30 a day to rent on KitSplit or $1,799 to buy. So it won’t break the bank, and can be used throughout your production.
Partnering it with the Canon 50mm f/1.2 USM is a natural choice. The 1.2 aperture will allow you to crush your background to a larger degree than other lenses in this class and allow you to obtain a cinematic look while keeping the natural and uncompressed look of a 50mm lens. The 8 blade iris (same as the 70-200mm) will provide pleasing bokeh for any pinpoints of light in the background. But it is sharper than other lenses in its class, like the Canon 50mm 1.4, and the extra third of an aperture stop can really come in handy in low light situations or when you want to push the background a little further out of focus. You can find them for rent from $25 to $35 and can purchase for $1,449.
But maybe you don’t have two cameras or two operators. That’s okay, there are ways around that, particularly in today’s 4K sensor (and up) world. More and more we are able to manipulate images in post. If you are not planning to deliver your content in 4K and are instead doing 1080, this offers you a unique opportunity.
If you frame up a medium or medium close up shot as your single angle, you can then resize this shot in post using editing software to ‘zoom in’ to provide you with a closer shot. This works to varying degrees, as zooming in in post does degrade the image quality. But if you shoot 4K resolution and deliver in 1080 or even 2K, this allows you lattitude to punch in without diminishing the image by a noticeable extent.
So by framing up for post, you can get two angles for the price of one. For a job like this, we can recommend the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens. It is known for its sharpness. There are 13 elements in 8 groups that make up the lens, and this does mean it is heavier and larger than most 50mm lenses in its class. But as we’re talking about an interview set up where you’ll likely be on a tripod or monopod, the weight doesn’t factor against it here. And it is still affordable from $30 to $40 or to purchase at $949.
If you’re on a budget, consider the Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM. This is the ultimate budget lens (it was originally called the Nifty Fifty because it used to be $50 to buy… the new and improved version is still just $125 to purchase. On KitSplit you can rent it anywhere from $7 to $15. And though the build is plastic, the lens itself has a sturdy piece of glass that is capable of obtaining high caliber images. The teeth aren’t a good fit for most follow focus situations, but for a sit-down interview that shouldn’t be a consideration.
Best lenses for Doc Run N’ Gun
For following action in an unscripted environment, the 70-200mm doesn’t afford enough leeway to get wide and capture what is unfolding in front of you. Plus there are limits to what image stabilization can do on a longer lens. And a fixed 50mm won’t offer enough versatility in framing.
With this type of shooting, you’ll be best off with a lens rental that will hold focus as you zoom in and out (a parfocal lens). If it’s in your budget, the Canon Cine-Servo 17-120mm T2.95 is a workhorse of a lens with a smooth zoom (manual or servo) that can help you frame up on the fly. And for a zoom, it’s relatively fast at T2.95 from 17mm-90mm. For the tail end of the range it is T3.9 from 91mm-120mm.
The macro focus function allows for maximum flexibility if your producer wants you to steal some close up broll shots of your subject’s stamp collection.
It does require a little more technical skill to set this lens up, because you will have to back focus it prior to shooting, but any AC worth their salt can handle that for you.
These lenses are very popular with Reality TV shooters, and while high-brow documentary makers may roll their eyes at that, the esthetics and process of shooting verite in a documentary shares a good bit of process with reality shooting. Let’s keep in mind that the tools can be the same even if the content differs. The price can vary based on whether you need EF or PL mounts, but we have them from $295 to $375 and you can buy one for $26,350.
The Fujinon XK 20-120mm T3.5 Cabrio is another choice that works well under similar situations. The ENG Style handle drive is actually removable here, to remove some weight or use more precise motors in a cinema-style setup. It also sports macro focusing, but it loses out to the Canon in this reviewer’s opinion because of the speed. If I can have the Canon’s T2.95 over the Fuji’s T3.5, I’ll take it. The price is comparable at $220 to $249 and is available to purchase at $13,499.
If you’re shooting with a Sony camera like the FS7, you’ll want to consider another lens that is still parfocal but easier on the wallet. Take a look at the Fujinon MK18-55mm t2.9. You will sacrifice build quality (it is made with plastic housing) and range on the millimeters it covers , but it offers a wide enough play to make it more than worth your while. And at a third of the cost, that’s not too shabby. You can rent them at $75 to $80 a day and purchase at $3,799.
But what’s this you say? You can’t afford any parfocal lenses? Okay then. Our Budget Pick is the Canon 24-105mm F4. I know, it’s an F4. But that’s what bumping up the gain is for! If you’re on a budget, you have to compromise somewhere. Losing a little speed in favor of being able to get the shot by having the focal length flexibility to get it is worth it. They are available for as little as $15 or $30 or for purchase at $1,099.
Also, if you’re shooting on a Sony or Panasonic camera, you can always add a Metabones Speedbooster as your adapter and get more flexibility out of your f/stop. And the housing and construction of the Canon 24-105mm is solid, with it being weather proofed and widely regarded as a hearty lens for in the field shooting.
You might also consider the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM. Some prefer the optics to the Canon 24-105 and it is is less expensive to purchase at $879 and only $15 to $27 to rent. Also keep in mind is that the 35mm equivalent (if you’re using a mount adapter) comes out to be about 27-88mm.
Now the Best Lenses For The Narrative Folks With A Script In Their Hands:
So you’ve got a story to tell, but no money to tell it. That’s okay! If you want to put the money you do have up on the screen, renting a superior lens is one way to do that.
Still lenses like the Canon L series can obtain some impressive images. But when working on a narrative film, there are other demands one has to accommodate. Having a de-clicked iris that can handle follow focus gears is one. Also, having a lens set that is consistent with color and image quality is a must.
Best lenses for Narrative Indie Darlings
So for the narrative filmmaker looking to make a step up in quality without spending a small fortune, take a look at the Zeiss CP.3 lenses. Rolled out last year, these updates to the ever popular CP.2 lenses aren’t cheap, but they do offer a superior glass quality and build with a new and improved coating to reduce unwanted flare.
And they run the gamut of size from 15mm to 135mm with colors that match quite well for a lens of this price range. The 14 blade iris housed in the CP.3s results in a bokeh that is very rounded and pleasing to the eye. And most of the lenses in this line are able to open up to a T2.1. In addition, the action on the 300 degree barrell is more fluid than the CP.2s, and the marks are spaced apart to allow a heavier duty follow focus rig.
The CP.3 lenses are available at KitSplit to rent from $300 for a set of 4 to $625 for a set of 5. And depending on the camera you’re using, the CP.3s have 5 interchangeable mounts available: PL, EF, MFT, Sony E, and Nikon F. If you’re looking to purchase a lens set, this is another way to future proof yourself. You might be working with an EF or MFT camera now, but as you grow as filmmaker, you may want to utilize PL mounts as well.
While we’re talking about upgrades, there is another version of the CP.3 lenses available: the CP.3 xD. The xD stands for eXtended Data and is the Zeiss expansion of the Cooke i/technology allowing for recording of metadata like focal length and distance, T stop, etc via a 4 pin lemo connection. And Zeiss has added settings for falloff and distortion correction. This information comes in handy for filmmakers with visual effects work as well as for posterity with anticipated reshoots.
The Rokinon Cine DS lenses are another option we enjoy for a low budget. For the price tag, you won’t find a de-clicked aperture cinema lens with optics this good anywhere else. We know there are a lot of naysayers out there, but when you need cine lenses on the cheap, these aren’t a bad option. They have been upgraded from the earlier generation of Rokinon lenses so that they are geared and can be set to work with a follow focus and mattebox more easily. This offers a huge advantage to have cine glass at an affordable cost of anywhere from $70 to $99 to rent a set of 6 and $2,494 to buy.
That said, one thing that is tough when using the entire line of these lenses is that they are different sizes in length and diameter. So when using rails and matteboxes with a follow focus, these accessories must be slightly adjusted to fit between different focal lengths. So if you’re on a wide shot with your 24mm, you can’t swiftly slap on an 85mm and get that close up.
When you’re an indie filmmaker, this time is crucial. The extra time for those lens changes add up and might make or break your day. So you do have the option of going with the Rokinon Xeen lenses. The optics are the same quality, but they do have the advantage of being a uniform shape and size.
You will pay for that advantage though, as you can get five or six Cine DS lenses for the same price as two or three Xeen ones. And for that reason, with our indie Budget Pick in mind, I would go with the Cine DS models. The optic quality is so similar and budget is always a consideration of the indie filmmaker when lensrentals are concerned. The Xeen lenses range from $125 to $200 for kits or for purchase at $9,595.
Best lenses for Bigger Budget Narratives
But if you have deep pockets and you want that feature film to sparkle, spring for the ARRI/Zeiss Master Prime lenses. These puppies are co-created by geniuses at both companies. They debuted back in 2005 and were so advanced they were recognized with a Scientific and Engineering award at the Oscars.
The entire line of lenses start at an incredible T1.3. That is fast! Above all, they are regarded for their clarity of image. The skin tones are natural and consistent across the entire line of lenses from 12mm to 150mm. The aspherical elements result in an elimination of chromatic aberrations and flare is relatively non-existent. That’s why they’re the choice of Academy Award winning filmmakers like Rodrigo Prierto on Wolf Of Wall Street and Emmanuel Lubezki on The Revenant.
And did I mention how fast they are? T1.3! How else do you shoot Leo DiCaprio fighting a bear in the middle of the woods with available light? You can find them on KitSplit from $975 to $1,095. They can also be purchased for around $25,000 each.
But if those are out of your price range, you may want to take advantage of that famous “Cooke Look”. Always regarded for their creamy optics in close ups of actors’ faces, and the fact that they never breathe when focusing, Cooke is a name that cinematographers agree means quality. And their newer line of lenses comes forward at a much lower price point.
The Cooke mini S4/i line sacrifices some stop by going to a T2.8 across the board. But this allows the price to drop significantly as well by giving up the Cooke S4i’s T2.0. But they can still take advantage of Cooke’s /i Technology by displaying information in the readout like lens setting, focusing distance, aperture and depth-of-field, hyperfocal distance, serial number, owner data, lens type and focal length.
With their bokeh and roundness they present a classic cinematic look that helps give an analog feel to today’s digital world. For this reason, they’re my Runner Up Pick for a narrative production without major budget constraints for $380 to $549 and for purchase for around $7300 a piece.
The Right Tool For The Job
Narrative and Documentary filmmakers may have different challenges, but in the end, you’re both telling stories. And when looking at lens rentals for your project of either kind, remember that you have choices. Practical ones like budget and esthetic ones like how round you want that bokeh.
Each time around, take stock of what you’re trying to accomplish, and you can find a happy medium between the two (that is, until you’ve got a nice big budget for lensrentals and you can get those Master Primes!).
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