What Are the Differences Between a $1,000 Photo Lens and a $4,000 Cinema Lens?

For those of us not fortunate enough to have a considerable budget for our next film project, using regular photo lenses, such as Sony E-Mount primes or Canon EF zooms still seem to be the most obvious choice and a real viable option for the job. The main reason behind this decision is not only the affordability aspect (more options for different price ranges) but also because these lenses are really capable of putting out some great images. While this may be the case most of the time, there are a few drawbacks associated with still lenses that just don’t work for video, such as struggling to achieve the best and most precise focus, chromatic aberration issues, distortion artifacts, lens breathing, just to name a few.

These shortcomings are addressed through the broad adoption of cinema lenses, designed to work even in the most demanding shooting scenarios and situations. In fact, the use of cinema lenses has grown in popularity in the recent years especially since the majority of them have been made compatible with non-cinema cameras such as mirrorless cameras and DSLRs.

Regardless of the price tag that is over quadruple the price of a regular still lens, it’s reasonable to ask yourself is it really worth investing in a cinema lens these days and what can a cinema lens do that a still lens can’t?

According to Caleb Wojcik and camera rental company LensProToGo, there are several reasons as to why you might want to buy or even rent a cinema lens for your next production. One advantage includes the ability to adjust the aperture in a more precise manner.

With traditional still lenses, you typically control the aperture electronically within the camera, which means you can only adjust the setting in particular increments. Since cinema lenses have a dedicated ring for the aperture, you’re able to fine-tune your settings and make adjustments in a smooth manner.

Another advantage to using cinema lenses over still lenses is the use of T-stops vs. f-stops. Traditional still lenses rely on what is called an f-stop, the ratio between the diameter of the lens and the focal length of the lens. This means that when you change lenses, the amount of light actually hitting the sensor will change, even if you keep the same f-stop and camera settings.

Cinema lenses, on the other hand, rely on T-stop, which measures the amount of light transmitted to the sensor. With this, you’re able to change lenses and maintain the same amount of light in your shot, granted that you keep the same camera and T-stop settings.

When you try shooting video on a still lens, you may notice how your subject may be out of focus as you zoom in. With cinema lenses, you don’t need to worry about that issue since these lenses are considered to be parfocal, meaning that as you zoom in, your subject remains in focus.

In addition to the features listed above, cinema lenses have much more upsides to them including consistent filter thread size, longer focus throw for precise focusing, reduced chromatic aberration, increased consistency in terms of edge-to-edge picture sharpness, and reduced breathing effect in the edges of the frame when racking focus.

While cinema lenses undoubtedly have a significant list of advantages over still lenses, these are not the ultimate replacement since they have their own quirks as well. For instance, cinema lenses do not have any autofocus or optical image stabilization, making it hard to operate in run-and-gun situations, or even when shooting fast moving objects.

And most importantly, cinema lenses can get crazy expensive. According to Wojcik, be prepared to spend over four times as much for a cinema lens than you do for a still lens. If you want to be able to use a cinema lens but can’t afford to purchase your own set, renting out the lens of your choice still would be an excellent alternative.

[source: Caleb Wojcik]

B&H Order Links:

Canon CN-E 35mm T1.5 L F Cinema Prime Lens (EF Mount)

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM Lens

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  • John Stockton

    OK you’ve stated why a cinema lense is better suited to filmmaking than a DSLR lens. But that doesn’t explain why the £3000 difference in price. Those reasons can only be manufacturing. The truth is they charge the money because they can. that’s it. Modern manufacturing techniques and tooling makes all of these lenses as easy to produce as each other. The materials used will be more expensive yes but not so expensive as to justify the massive price difference. Don’t kid yourself. Remember you can buy a brand new car for around £7000 only a small one and probably no special extras but still, a whole car with all of the engineering and legal safety requirements built in to make it legal and roadworthy. If you an afford to hire a cinema lens you should if only to make your life easier but buying one? Maybe have a think about that one. Just saying.

    • Steve Oakley

      I mostly agree. However part of the eqaution is selling a very limited number of units. sell a few hundred, maybe 2000 units a year, pay everyone good wages etc and thats where the price goes up. you aren’t selling a million of them a year…

      however there is one big factor not mention : durability. the vastly better build quality will hold up after years of regular use. I currently have a 2 year old canon 17-55 2.8 I’m about to send in for service. Its loose – the zoom barrel, lens overall. its not been abused, but has been my main ENG / doc lens on C300’s because of AF and IS. thinking I may buy a 2nd one just as backup… so don’t underestimate that a metal cinema lens and how its built may be working 20 or 30 years from now. in that context pretty cheap after you have trashed a couple plastic stills lenses.

  • Ross Finnie

    Yeah, that’s the bit that fucks me off the worst – when you’ve got exactly the same optical design and optical components, but in a different shell for a stupid markup. Classic examples being the Zeiss CP lenses, the Sigma Cine Primes, or the Canon EOS Cine primes…

  • Southerndude

    It would be rental only for me. Way over priced. I wish I could afford one as I like a lot of the Cine lens’s features for Still Landscape shooting.