Every week I’ll get at least two or three e-mails from filmmakers asking for advice on lens purchases. I’m usually asked some variation of “which modern cinema lenses would you recommend for a filmmaker on a tight budget? Would the Rokinon XEEN lenses be a good choice?”
I’ll usually respond by explaining there is not a one size fits all approach when it comes to lenses. Every filmmaker has different needs (and creative preferences), and no lens kit is right for all circumstances…
I also add that just because something is labelled a cinema lens doesn’t mean it automatically will perform well. From an optical standpoint, the majority of lower budget cinema lenses are similar if not identical to DSLR glass. In some cases they might even be inferior (performance-wise), to DSLR lenses, depending on which two you’re comparing.
They are priced accordingly of course, and fill an important gap in the market right now; Filmmakers who need cinema lens functionality at a reduced cost.
But functionality is only one side of the equation. For a cinema lens to truly be a cinema lens, at least in my opinion, it has to deliver on two fronts: Image quality and physical design.
Most low-budget cinema lenses only meet one of these two criteria – physical design. They function like a cinema lens, they have gears, manual aperture, long focus throws, distance markings, etc. but they don’t resolve particularly cinematic images… At least no more than any other decent DSLR glass would.
Take the Rokinon XEEN lenses for instance. For about $2000/lens you are getting identical image quality to their Cine-DS lineup, which are only a few hundred bucks a pop. There is virtually no discernible difference in image quality, and both lenses use the same glass. One is just wearing the clothes of a cinema lens, and the other looks like most other DSLR lenses.
Pictured below, a 50mm XEEN next to a 50mm Cine DS. Both from Rokinon –
This isn’t a knock on Rokinon by any means. I used to own several of their lenses and shot many films with them. They served me well, and I really respect what they are doing – bringing cinema lens functionality to the low budget market.
There are several other companies trying to achieve this goal too, but I use Rokinon as an example because they are one of the most affordable (and therefore sought after) in the space.
Generally speaking, most budget-friendly (sub-$2500/lens) cinema lenses are more about physical appearance and functionality than image quality. If you are shooting corporate spots, industrials, or certain types of television content, they may the perfect choice. They will function like a true cinema lens in the field, and they will look professional too, which is important if you’re doing client work.
But if you’re shooting narrative content, higher end commercials, music videos, or anything with an artful aesthetic, they might not be the optimal choice. Rather than spend upwards of $8K – $10K for a kit of XEEN lenses, you could spend a fraction of that on a few DSLR lenses, get the irises de-clicked (if you even need to) and add some follow focus gears. For less money you can have lenses that deliver better images and function almost as well as a cinema lens.
They won’t be true cinema lenses with respect to functionality, but they will almost certainly produce superior quality. And if that’s your #1 goal, it’s certainly something to consider…
Some of my favorite lenses to shoot on are old Nikkor manual lenses or Canon FD’s. I picked up a 50mm F1.4 Nikkor that was virtually unused for under $100 and to my eye it delivers far nicer images than any budget 50mm cine-lens I’ve ever used. It’s not exactly a pleasure to shoot with, but for a hundred bucks and stellar IQ I’m willing to deal with the workarounds.
And let’s not forget, it’s possible to find a best of both worlds solution when shopping for lenses. You don’t always need to pick between functionality and quality. There are low-budget cinema lenses out there that will deliver on both fronts.
In most cases this will mean buying used (more on that below), or considering specialty lenses like the Veydra Mini Primes, which produce incredibly beautiful images and are built like little tanks. I can’t tell you how many filmmakers I’ve recommended those lenses too. The same goes for SLR Magic, who are one of the few companies creating relatively affordable cinema lenses that don’t compromise on image quality.
But these companies are the exception, not the rule. Most of the ultra low budget cinema lens options on the market do not fall into this category.
Once you throw vintage lenses into the mix though, a whole other conversation opens up. There are so many incredible classic cinema lenses floating around the used market from Zeiss, Cooke, Angenieux, etc. – many of which can be purchased for less than the price of a Rokinon XEEN (or similar). They have so much character to them and are built to last a lifetime… This is why they still hold their value decades after they’ve been discontinued.
And if you are fortunate enough to be shopping for Super 16 glass, you will really be able to find some steals. Some of my favorite lenses ever made were vintage S16 primes and zooms, many of which can now be bought for anywhere from $1000 – $3000 online. It’s still a good chunk of change to spend, but at least you are truly getting tremendous value…
The bottom line – newer and more expensive doesn’t mean better. With respect to most modern low-budget cinema lenses, you are usually paying for the physical build of the lens, not the image quality. That doesn’t mean the image quality won’t be sufficient, it just might not be it’s strongest feature. If that suits your needs, then by all means invest in a set. There are countless productions out there that are happily using lenses like the XEENs, and making a great living with them.
But if you want the best possible optics, you’ll likely need to look beyond most of today’s budget-friendly cinema lens offerings… You will almost certainly get more bang for your buck buying manual DSLR lenses and converting them, or buying some pre-owned vintage glass.
Do you buy used cine lenses? Let me know what some of your favorites are in the comments below.
Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!