What is a Cine Lens and How is it Different from a Photo Lens?

Cine lenses or cinema lenses are specifically designed to meet the specific demands of filmmaking. They record continuous motion and offer exceptional video quality, which makes them perfect for cinema production. A true cinema lens is highly superior to still photo lenses in terms of design, features, and construction. Thus, any lens that possesses the true capabilities of a cine lens will definitely cost a fortune, with a price tag ranging anywhere between four to six figures.

In order to enjoy some of the benefits of cine lenses without overspending, many go for cine-modified still lenses.

Cine Lens Features & Characteristics

Cinema Gear on Table

  • Professional Design
  • Sturdy Build
  • Precise Focus Control
  • Light and Aperture Control
  • Internal Zoom Control
  • Exceptional Photo Quality
  • High Price and Value

A cine lens may look similar to other lenses, but they have several very distinctive physical and optical features. Find out the most striking characteristics of cine lenses and why filmmakers simply won’t go for any other lens.

Professional Design

Cine lenses definitely look more serious than professional photo lenses, thanks to their exterior markings and manual adjustment rings for aperture, zoom, and focus. But of course, apart from its exterior appearance and controls, the cine lens has a sophisticated design that allows it to bypass many of the problems that photographers often encounter when shooting with still lenses.

Sturdy Build

These special lenses are built for heavy use. Typically, a true cine lens has a durable, all-metal body that makes it good for shooting even in the harshest weather conditions. It is noticeably bigger and heavier compared to photo lenses, and comes in one standard or fixed diameter as this allows the shooter to use a wide range of accessories (and even cameras) with every lens. If using matte boxes, the standard diameter allows you to use different lenses without having to worry if the front lens diameter will fit.

Precise Focus Control

One of the best and most important features of a cine lens is its ability to maintain focus on moving subjects or smoothly switch focus from one subject to the other. Moving subjects in a movie scene are kept in focus by slowly rotating the focus ring and “following” the subject. This is a difficult feat with regular still lenses, as their focus rings have no hard stops and will require extreme precision on the user’s part to achieve proper focus while following a moving subject. On the other hand, a cine lens has a focus ring with clearly visible markings and hard stops at the beginning and at the end. This makes it much easier to get accurate and smoother focus pulls every time, even without the help of a follow focus system.

Sigma T1.5 24mm Cine Lens

The focus ring on the cine lens allows the rotation of past 270 degrees, from the minimum focusing distance to infinity, for more focus throw. Focusing is also steadier, which means that focus breathing is significantly reduced. If you’ve worked with still lenses before, then you’re likely familiar with “focus breathing.”

Cine lenses are also parfocal lenses. These are lenses that are able to keep their focus locked on subjects even when you zoom in on a particular scene. With a non-parfocal lens, the simple act of zooming in or out may change your focus, requiring you to refocus your shot. And since zooming is an unavoidable part of cinematography, a cine lens (a true cine lens that is parfocal) will allow you to smoothly zoom in or out without losing focus.

Close Up Cine Lens Body Markings

Light and Aperture Control

Unlike other lenses, cine lenses don’t just control the aperture. Cine lenses have iris rings with T-stop markings (as opposed to f-stops) that give you the exact measure of the amount of light that actually passes through the lens, instead of how wide the lens opening is.
This cine lens-only feature offers high-precision manual control over the exposure and allows you to maintain your exposure in every scene, regardless of the weather and ambient exposure. The iris ring is also click-less, so you can adjust the aperture much more smoothly and change the exposure without taking your audience out of the story.

Internal Zoom Control

As with most professional lenses, you can zoom in and out with the cine lens by rotating the zoom ring on its body. However, it doesn’t expand or change in length as it adjusts the focal distance internally. This offers great convenience for filmmakers, especially when their camera rig is on stabilizer systems that can be thrown off balance by a slight change in focal length.

Videographer with Camera Rig
And like cine lenses’ focus and iris rings, the zoom ring is always smooth and delivers the smoothest transitions between different focal distances.

Exceptional Optical Quality

The optical quality of a lens is highly dependent on the glass. A premium still photography lens is usually made of high-end glass and is therefore a viable options for video in terms of optical quality alone. And while the optical performance of a cine lens and still lens may seem similar under regular filming circumstances, it is when the lighting is difficult where cine lenses truly shine. Cine lens glass allows it to shoot under difficult lighting conditions, such as under direct sunlight or even scenes with high contrast.

Although there may be slight differences in color and contrast between lenses of different brands, same brand cine lenses will usually have consistent image output.

A cine lens is also built to ensure complete sharpness across the frame (even in corners). They also reduce or eliminate chromatic aberrations, barrel distortion, and vignetting—all of which are highly noticeable in video.

While not a requirement for most filmmakers, cinema lenses also produce beautiful out-of-focus blurring (bokeh) and attractive light flares when combined with a shallow depth of field.

High Value and Price

One disadvantage with cine lenses is that they are very costly. Premium cine lenses can cost up to $100,000 (or possibly more) so they’re usually just rented out. However, there are more affordable options, like pseudo-cine lenses and cine-mod photo lenses, which are basically digital photo lenses that offer some of the functionalities of cine lenses and can be used on DSLRs, mirrorless, and compact film cameras.

Cine Lens vs Still Photo Lens

Artistic Filtered Shot of Videographer Using Cinema Lens

  • Manual Lens Settings
  • Output Quality
  • Size and Price

Due to the popularity of modern cine lenses, many brands have developed pseudo-cine lenses and cine-mod photo lenses so others can enjoy some of the functionalities and benefits that cine lenses have to offer. Below are just some of the main differences between these cine lenses and regular still photo lenses:

Manual Lens Settings

At first look, cine lenses may look like certain photo lenses, but the former is noticeably built with more rings for manual focus, zoom, and aperture adjustments.

Still photo lenses, even those that are widely-used for cinematography on DSLRs, have electronically adjustable settings, which means some settings (like the aperture and focus) are changed with a press of a button or a slide of a ring, sometimes via a menu on the camera’s screen. With cine lenses, on the other hand, the focus, zoom, and iris are easily adjustable on the body and have a much smoother operation. You are also assured of getting exact results, thanks to the markings on each of the cine lens rings.

The focus ring on cine lenses also has more focus throw, as you can rotate it past 270 degrees (unlike in photo lenses) when moving from the minimum focusing distance to infinity.

Output Quality

The most amazing benefit in quality is that cine lenses are able to offer consistent output in terms of lighting and exposure, thanks to the iris ring’s highly-calibrated T-stop performance. While photo lenses offer measurements of the opening of the lens (aperture F-stop), the cine lens offers offers a more exact measure of the amount of light that passes through the lens (iris ring T-stop). This cine lens feature enables the shooter to maintain continuity in scenes that were recorded hours or days apart.

All adjustable ring settings are also extra smooth, so zooming in and out, as well as making any adjustments in focus and exposure are easier on the eyes and more attractive for the big screen. Unlike still photo lenses that have “jumpy” zoom rings, cine lenses offer smooth transitions between different focal distances, so they’re clearly the more desirable choice for cinematography.

Another difference is that cine lenses within a given series are usually developed to deliver matching image characteristics, such as color and sharpness. Photo lens brands are not as strict about color consistency, so cine lenses are definitely easier to work with when you have to change lenses.

Cine lenses have superior glass that produce sharp images with little to no chromatic aberrations or visible vignetting, which are sometimes present in images taken using photo lenses. However, both types of lenses can’t avoid barrel distortions, especially in video where it is more noticeable. Nonetheless, it is significantly reduced in cine lenses.

Size and Price

Cine lenses are often bulkier and heavier than most of their still photo lens counterparts because most of their settings are adjusted manually. And unlike still photo lenses that come in a wide variety of sizes and lengths, cine lenses have a standard size. The latter doesn’t need any sort of mount to attach it on any professional film camera and will not require you to adjust the matte box that blocks stray light from your lenses.

Video Camera Setup with Cine Lens in Matte Box

Real cine lenses may cost 10 times more than photo lenses, primarily due to its build and output quality.

Cine Lenses vs Other Lenses

Cinema Prime Lenses and Other Accessories

Cine lenses greatly differ from both lower-end and professional lenses in terms of optical ability, construction, and usage. Below are just some of the comparisons of their key features, and it’s easy to see why cine lenses are larger, heavier, and more costly.

Feature Budget Photo Lens Professional Photo Lens Cine Lens
Full range of focal lengths Limited to cine requirements
Calibrated T-stop performance for consistent exposures x x
Matching image characteristics x Hardly
Anamorphic x x
Reliable markings x Usually
Uniform front diameters and filter threads Rarely Sometimes
Focus throw Jerky Short throw for quick focus Long throw
Aperture ring x x
Super smooth zoom x Hardly
Focuses using AF AF / Hand Follow focus system
Weather-sealed Rarely Usually
Sturdy and rugged construction Unlikely
Extending barrel when zooming/focusing Sometimes x
Consistent physical length x x
Easy service repair x x
Consistent weight x x

How to Choose a Cine Lens

  1. Pick your “normal“ lens
  2. Add wide-angle and zoom lenses
  3. Go vintage
  4. Test your lenses
  5. Only get what you will use

Behind the Scenes Shot of Videographer

Choosing a cine lens kit can be a very difficult decision, especially if you’ve only just started using cine lenses. There are many great cine lenses to choose from, such as primes and zooms. It all boils down to your personal preferences and cinema requirements.

Most shooters choose their lenses depending on what their priority is—focal length, build quality, or output. Then again, there are other factors to consider, such as the possibility of eventually needing other kinds of lenses along the way, especially when changing your story or type of film.

For narrative film and other similar types of cinematography, the tips below could be very useful for putting together a good lens package.

Choosing a Cine Lens Tip #1: Pick your “normal” lens

A “normal” lens is usually a prime lens that mimics the human eye in terms of angle of view and perspective. These offer a natural and more realistic view of the world, making it the ideal walkaround lens for realistic photography and cinematography. For many, it is the 50mm, which is just zoomed in enough to provide a natural perspective for a full-frame 35mm camera sensor. However, some prefer a wider lens, such as the 35mm or the 40mm, as their normal lens. For smaller-sized camera sensor formats such as the Super 35 and 16, an even wider lens is usually needed to achieve the angle of view that’s similar to your full-frame sensor normal lens.

As a cinematographer or director, your normal lens will be your favorite, main lens and will usually provide you with your “signature” film output.

Choosing a Cine Lens Tip #2: Add wide-angle and zoom lenses

Canon 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm Cinema Prime EF Mount Lenses

The next step is really to just complete your set with good lenses that offer a wider and tighter perspective than your normal lens. However, many professionals advise that you go for multiple prime lenses as opposed to getting fewer lenses that cover more focal lengths. We’ll explain why.

Shorter lenses are lighter, faster, wider, and sharper, mainly due to the fact that they don’t have to work extra hard to focus at different focal lengths and maintain their optimum performance. While it’s true that they make quick lens changes more challenging and time-consuming, you can at least be assured of more consistent output.

Then again, it’s always the shooter’s prerogative to get zoom cine lenses, especially if it is crucial to your production or shooting style. If you’re set on getting zoom lenses, it would be helpful to get a wider one (such as a 24-70mm) and a telephoto one (such as the popular focal range of 70-200mm). These would easily fill the gaps between your primes and finally complete your set.

Choosing a Cine Lens Tip #3: Go vintage

Vintage sets of cine lenses offer great value, despite them not having a few of the newer features that you get to enjoy with today’s modern cine lenses. Brands like Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Minolta offer manual vintage SLR lenses that are smaller, more lightweight, and can be used on most camera systems—even on compatible mirrorless cameras. Older lenses also produce that classic, low-contrast look that gives your output a more cinematic feel. If you’re on a budget or are still raising funds for that dream cine lens, vintage lenses are your best option.

Choosing a Cine Lens Tip #4: Test your lenses

The best way to find out if you’ve chosen the right lenses to purchase or rent for your kit (or if you’re still missing a piece or two) is to test your lenses out. Make sure they offer the optical quality that you want for your video, particularly the color temperature, sharpness, contrast, color consistency, and even the accuracy of the lens markings. Also, make sure to test them on the cameras that you plan to mount them on, as the final look also depends on how the lens works with the camera sensor.

Choosing a Cine Learn Tip #5: Only get what you will use

We mentioned earlier that you can choose to foresee and consider the demands of future productions when choosing a cine lens. However, if you’re on a budget, it’s still best to choose lenses that will best suit your current production. Otherwise, you would be wasting money that you could have spent on other lenses that you’d presently make more use of.

A good way to know the exact lens types that you will need is to go over the script or storyboard and to take note of any specific lens requirements that will help you achieve the required shots. You can also consult the film director to discuss his vision for the film and have a much better idea about the kinds of cine lenses that you’ll need for your specific project.

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