As cameras have become more video-capable over the last decade and a bit, cine lenses have become more of a thing. Once confined to Hollywood film sets, they’re not readily available for anybody with the cash to spare. While some are uniquely cine lenses, others are photography lenses in new housings. But does the cine housing and feature set really make a difference?
In this video, Syrp Lab takes a look at photo vs cine lenses to see if the latter really is more “cinematic”. There are certainly plenty of advantages and disadvantages to both types of lenses, depending on your needs and how you prefer to shoot, but
What’s the difference?
There are many considerations when it comes to which type of lens to go for. In fact, not only the type of lens but the specific lens within that type. Even if you know you definitely want a cine lens, do you go with something high-end like Arri or entry-level like Meike or Sirui? And if you go with a photography lens, do you stick with your camera brand and go Nikon, Canon or Sony? Or do you look at 3rd party manufacturers like Sigma and Tamron? And which lens do you get? Which will match the look of the lenses you already own for more seamless edits? And countless more.
The Syrp team looks at half a dozen lenses in the video above. Three are photography lenses – Canon EF 50mm f/1.4, Sigma Art 50mm f/1.4 and Canon RF 50mm f/1.2 – and three are cine lenses – Meike 50mm T2.2, Canon CN-E 50mm T1.3 and Arri Ultra Prime 50mm T1.9. It’s quite the varied array of lenses, with prices ranging from as low as just under $400 for the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 to an eye-watering $15,400 for the Arri 50mm T1.9.
There are a lot of characteristics that are specific to the individual lens. How well they control flare, what the bokeh looks like, how sharp they are and at what apertures. But there are things that are fundamental differences between the two types of lenses that will often make you go for one type or the other. And this isn’t to say that one type is always objectively “better” than the other. Sometimes those differences will favour one side and at other times they’ll favour the other.
One big difference between photography lenses and cine lenses is the focus system. Most photography lenses are autofocus, making them potentially ideal for use on a gimbal. Maybe you’re tracking a subject that’s moving and you’re shooting solo. Sometimes you need the camera to keep the focus on the subject. The idea of trusting the camera to focus on the subject seemed like science fiction just a few years ago, but these days, pretty much all of the mirrorless camera brands can manage it just fine for the most part. Even Panasonic. Finally.
Cine lenses have traditionally all been manual focus lenses. But this may be changing with advancements in the autofocus technology of cameras. Last year, Samyang announced the world’s first autofocus cine lenses. That’s right, lenses, plural, in 20mm, 24mm, 35mm, 45mm and 75mm focal lengths and a T1.9 aperture. Despite this, cine lenses should generally be regarded as manual focus lenses. This is more advantages when you need to have very specific focus control. Perhaps you want to pre-focus on a subject before it moves into frame, or perhaps rack focus from one subject to another at a very specific time.
But can’t I manually focus with photography lenses, too?
Sure, you can manually focus with photography lenses, but cine lenses typically have a much larger focus throw. Focus throw is the term used to denote how much the focus ring turns between the minimum focus distance and infinity. In photography lenses, this is typically quite small. In cine lenses, it’s pretty huge. And there’s a reason that each of them are like this.
When you’re shooting stills, it’s all about getting to where you need to be as quickly as possible and you can tweak the fine control when you hit the shutter. Many photography lenses also use focus by wire. Exactly what focus by wire is, is outside the scope of this post, but essentially, it sucks for video and you don’t want it if you’re manually focusing.
When shooting, you may often need to change the focus distance while actually shooting. In such circumstances, accuracy and consistency are far more important, and cine lenses handle this beautifully, with consistent, repeatable results. Cine lenses also don’t use a focus by wire system. They’re a mechanical link with the focus ring and the focus distance being a linear relationship.
Along with the larger focus throw, cine lenses typically have focus (and aperture) rings with gear teeth on them. These allow them to mesh with focus motors and manual follow focus systems, too. These let you control the focus distance more easily without having to wrap your hand around the lens itself and risk throwing your camera’s horizon off. They also let a second operator pull focus while you just focus on what it’s pointing at. You can add toothed belts and 3D printed doohickies to photography lenses, too, but you’re still usually not getting the same level of control.
Another big factor between photography and cine lenses, although not always, is the size and weight factor. Traditionally, cine lenses have been built with all-metal housings. And because they need to be larger than photography lenses to account for the focus rings and gear system, this means they’re usually massively heavier, too. There are a number of smaller, lightweight cine lenses out there, but they’re usually rehoused low-end photography lenses that don’t offer the full capabilities of larger and more expensive cine lenses.
But this weight can make a difference on a gimbal or even when going handheld. On a gimbal, a large front-heavy lens can make it impossible to balance your camera. This means your motors are working harder to keep things level, draining your batteries more quickly and potentially risking burning out the gimbal motors. Going handheld, an improperly balanced camera rig can lead to all kinds of muscle strain and pain issues.
What else is different?
The two biggest differences between photo and cine lenses have been outlined above. Cine lenses are larger and heavier, and they make it easier to manual focus. Photo lenses are difficult to manually focus, but they’re often smaller and lighter, and with the autofocus systems built into mirrorless cameras these days, they keep up quite well.
But there are a lot of other differences, as mentioned in the video, including how well the lens renders colour, what the lens flare looks like, how good is the contrast, whether is it sharp from edge to edge, whether it has any barrel or pincushion distortion and so much more. Not to mention, there’s typically a massive price difference between photo and cine lenses, even two lenses that are essentially the same insides in different housings.
Another thing to keep in mind is that cine lenses are often released in groups of the same product line – for example, the Samyang autofocus cine lenses mentioned above. Typically, all lenses in a particular family lineup from a brand offer similar optical properties. They have the same lens coatings, which means they have a similar flare appearance. They’ll also often have near identical colour and contrast. You’ll see similar levels of sharpness between the lens, too. You don’t often see this with photography lenses, even from the same manufacturer.
So, which should I get?
Ultimately, whether you go for photo or cine lenses is going to depend on you. Everybody has different shooting needs. Sometimes you’ll need autofocus and sometimes, you’ll need that manual focus control. Sometimes you’ll want to save weight (or $), which becomes more of a deciding factor than the overall user experience. Maybe you’re willing to sacrifice a little comfort while shooting to save a bunch of money.
If you’re serious about shooting video, you’ll eventually have a good mix of both types of lenses. And if you can’t afford to invest in a bunch of cine primes yet, you can always look at some old manual focus vintage primes originally designed for photography. All of those are fully mechanical, manual focus and often have a large focus throw. They’re a bit of a compromise, but they can often present some interesting and unique looks that modern glass can’t capture.
Do you prefer photo or cine lenses for shooting video? If you’re not sure which you like yet or you haven’t tried both, be sure to have a good watch of the video up top to see what the differences are, how they might impact you, and help you figure out which direction you want to go.