Daniel Haggett

London based Lighting Cameraman / DoP 

Lenses vary hugely in price, so what do you get for your money?

Let's take a look at a few 50mm lenses.  50mm probably the most commonly used lenses, manufacturers sell large numbers of them, and every manufacturer makes a 50mm, so it is easy to compare them.
 
This is by no means a complete list of all 50mm lenses, but just illustrates the price difference.
 
 

 Lens                

Price in Dollars

Stills 

 

 Canon 1.8   

125 

 Canon 1.4

349 
 Zeiss 1.4 725
 Canon 1.2 1349
Cinema   
 Ziess CP2 1.5

4500 

 Canon CNE 1.3 4950 

 Cooke s4 mini 2.8   

7300

 Arri Master Prime

21000
 
As you go up the price range two things change, the housing that the lens is in and the optical quality of the glass.  
 
The Canon 1.8 is so cheap, it isn't fair to criticise the lens, for what you pay it is a bargain.  However, the housing is light weight and plastic, the focus ring is so small that it is very tough to use.  This lens is really designed solely for photographers using auto focus.  I have seen people using these lenses for video, but I would only advise it if you are on a really tight budget.
 
The Canon 1.4 has a better focus ring and is easier to use manually.  The housing is slightly better than the 1.8
 
The Canon 1.2 is an L series lens, so the housing is weather sealed and a bit tougher.  Through the canon EF range, the more you pay the faster the lens becomes.
 
If using a lens for video, I would choose the Zeiss 1.4 over the Canon 1.2.  Zeiss make a good solid metal housing for their lenses.  The focus throw on the Zeiss is also larger than on the Canon lenses, which makes manual focusing much easier.  Zeiss lenses also hard stop at infinity.  Canon EOS lenses are designed with auto focus in mind, the focus ring will circle around forever, pushing a touch past infinity and then you have to bring it back. With the Zeiss lens, if you just roll it all the way and infinity is where the focus barrel stops, altogether much better when you are filming.  Leica is another lens similar to Zeiss in this aspect, and also similar in terms of cost and build quality.  The image of the Leica and Zeiss do vary, but which you prefer is down to individual taste.
 
The Arri Master Prime
 
 
The next set of lenses are a big step up both in price and the quality of the housing.  Zeiss Compact Primes have been around for  a while and in a similar price bracket are the new Canon CNE range.  One of the things you get at this price range is uniformity.  All of the lenses in these sets are roughly the same length and barrel size.  This means changing lenses is quicker, as there is no need to adjust matte boxes or moose bars as you may have to with stills lenses, which all tend to vary in size.  Another big change is that the iris control is alway on the lens itself, this is obviously a massive plus when shooting.   The distance marks on the lens are accurate and the lenses can be easily used by a focus puller.  (Stills lenses are really tricky in this regard as you can roll the focus around indefinitely and loose all of your focus marks.)
 
So how much should you spend on your lens if looking at the housing and mechanics alone?  This really depends on what type of work you do now, or see yourself doing in the future.  If you think you'll be on a film or commercial set then spending the extra to get the dedicated lenses could be a good idea.
 
If you are a solo operator and don't see yourself using a focus puller very often, the decision is a bit more difficult.  Having a big focus throw and an external iris wheel are very nice, but they aren't essential, and you also have to deal with the added weight.  
 
So what about the quality of the glass and the image you get from the lens?  At the lower end of the cinema lens range, the quality of the glass is very similar to the optics used on the top end still lenses.  For example the Zeiss CP2 are close to the Zeiss ZE and ZF stills glass, and the Canon CNE range is similar to the L series EOS lenses.  There are however a few differences.  You tend to get much more dramatic lens flare on the cinema lenses, simply because the lens is that much bigger on the front end.  I have also noticed the Canon CNE lenses create very round out of focus highlights, whereas the still lenses have an octagonal shape to them, and that is due to the larger number of iris blades on the cine primes.  It is said that the better quality glass is cherry picked for the cine lenses and that these lenses are also given better coatings.
 
 
There are also clear differences between manufacturers and the type of image the glass produces.  Generally speaking, the more you pay the less the lens breathes, contrast also tends to be better and the way the lens deals with highlights improves.  I have noticed reds really pop out on Canon lenses, whereas Zeiss have a slightly colder, clinical look to them, which I quite like.  Leica tend to produce a beautiful buttery smoothness in the out of focus bokeh, which I am also a fan of. 
With lenses you need to pay a huge amount of extra cash, to get a small increase in the quality of the image.  Another thing to note here is that in many situations that extra money won't show.  If the lens is stopped down and the lighting is very controlled, there often isn't much to choose between two lenses, even though they maybe hundreds of dollars apart.  However, open those lenses up and film in some more unusual lighting conditions and the more expensive lens with likely start to shine.
 
The video below, as unscientific as it is, shows how the 125 dollar Canon compares to the 20k Arri Master Prime.
 
Before you rush out and buy a Canon 1.8f, remember that this video doesn't really show much of the Master Prime.  Go and watch The Danish Girl at the Cinema, which was shot on Master Primes, it looks unbelivable.  Much of it looks like it was shot wide open at T1.3.  It's also worth noting that Fstop and Tstop measurements are not the same. F stop is relative to the size of the lens, Tstop is not. So the T stop in most cases will be much faster than the Fstop equivalent.
 
Another thing to say here is, I have only once seen what I have shot projecting on to a cinema screen, but it's a humbling experience.  Every details is really visible when you are looking at a giant screen.  I suspect if you were to watch this lens test at your local cinema, instead of on your iPad, you would start notice a few more details.
 
Unlike cameras, lenses don't seem to loose much value over time, so it makes sense to spend a bit more money on lenses if you can afford to.  If you are shooting with a small crew and always pull focus for yourself you can probably get away with stills lenses.  If you can afford to do so, it is well worth getting something at the top of this range, from Leica or Zeiss who make stills lenses with metal housings, large focus throws and in some cases external irises.  If you can't afford this, then go for something like the Canon 1.4f or similar.
 
The video below is from Shane Hurlbut's crew and it compares Canon L, Leica R and Zeiss CP2s
 
 
There is also a really in depth lens comparison here, which looks at Ziess CP2s, Ziess Super Speeds, Canon CN-E and Leica Sumilux Cs amoung others.
 
In the cine lens range it really depends on the work you are getting and your ability to get your lenses onto a job.  If you buy a set of Zeiss lenses and then a director says they really want to shoot with Cooke, you'll end up having to rent.  If you really love the look of a certain lens and can persuade any director that they are absolutely the best lenses for the job, then the investment could well pay off.
 
Don't be put off by pixel peepers and geeks on forums. Buy the lenses that you can afford and which have the look that you like.  A lot of it is subjective anyway, some like the  Leica look, others hate it, some like ziess, some don't.  Few lenses are perfect and you are always going to get a certain amount of breathing, distortion and other flaws (unless Master Primes are in your budget).
 
 Buying a set of primes could easily cost as much as your camera, but on the plus side they will certainly out live it by many many years.