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When NOT To Invest in Modern Budget Cinema Lenses Like Rokinon’s XEEN Lineup

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.

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About Author

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!

19 Comments

  • Art Bell
    November 14, 2018 at 2:22 pm

    The Canon 14 mm cine prime we bought on what felt like a shady eBay deal…but it all worked out. We bought it mainly for timelapses – but the odd time its an amazing lens on our c500 and c 200 – taught us how much higher we need to get to the plane of view to not have distortion.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 14, 2018 at 4:58 pm

      Glad it worked out! That’s an awesome lens.

      Reply
  • Michelangelo Torres
    November 18, 2018 at 2:17 pm

    Always interesting reading about lenses.
    Less than one year ago I had the chance to try exactly a Xeen lens on a GH5s (the 24mm T1.5
    if I remember correctly) and to be honest I was very impressed firstly by the dimensions (I use micro four-thirds lenses mostly) to the point that my exact words were “Wow, it looks like a colander!”. Then when I looked at the footage I didn’t find a huge difference from something shot with the same camera and a Voigtlander Nokton.
    I was more impressed when I tried the Asahi Pentax Super Takumar 50 f1.4, so I agree with you when you talk about the good quality of some vintage lenses on the market,
    If one day I will buy or rent cine lenses I will probably go to Veydra Mini Prime

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 16, 2019 at 7:55 pm

      Interesting to hear, Michelangelo! Thanks so much for sharing this hear – and glad to hear you are a fan of the Mini Primes from Veydra as well.

      Reply
  • Glenn
    November 19, 2018 at 9:09 pm

    How’s the focus ring on that Nikkor AF-D lens? I’ve had a plethora of ai/ai-s lenses but never owned any of the AF-D lenses. Obviously, ai-s lenses have great manual dampening, is your 50mm AF-D the same?

    I shoot ML Raw on the 5D3 and have a few EF lenses but I’m looking for a couple manual lenses. I’ve always shot with vintage lenses and have owned my fair share of inexpensive ones but I’m looking for something with a little more pop. I stupidly sold a Canon FD 50mm 1.4 that was modified to the EF Mount and was thinking about getting another one, or the FD 1.2L, and having it modified but I’m also considering the Zeiss Classics… the 35mm f/2 is supposed to have amazing micro contrast and since I may have an upcoming film in B&W, this may be a better option.

    Have you had any experience with the Zeiss classics. With the Simmod mod sale this week, it’s a great time to buy a manual lens.

    Anyway, good luck with your film and thanks for always delivering real world, useful content.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 16, 2019 at 7:58 pm

      Thanks for the note, Glenn! The 50mm is an amazing lens, although the focus ring has always been a bit loose. It can be finicky, but for my needs (outside of a full scale feature film production), it will often do the trick. I have also worked with the Zeiss lenses you mentioned, and love them too. Depending on the project, I could go either way.

      Reply
  • Marc B.
    November 27, 2018 at 4:03 pm

    If you can’t justify owning a set of cinema primes based on meeting your ROI, they are a rental item. Renting my preferred Cooke or Schneider cinema prime set for jobs that will be only be used for perhaps 4-6 weeks out of the year makes more $$$ sense than owning an affordable budget set.

    Reply
  • AK DP
    January 4, 2019 at 2:27 pm

    How about those Sigma Art lenses for photography? I have the 35 1.4 and 85 1.4 and it is super sharp. I read somewhere that their new cine primes line up are basically the photo glass in a rehoused cine body. Any chance you are reviewing that?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 17, 2019 at 1:32 am

      Yes, you’re right about their cinema lenses. It’s really just the housing that is different – but they are great (both the still version and Cine version). If you search Sigma cine lenses on my website, you will find some articles I’ve written about them… Mainly to do with my feature film, which was shot on them.

      Reply
  • Ivan
    April 1, 2019 at 8:21 pm

    Hi! I am considering several lenses
    Zeiss Milvus: 25 mm / f1.4 and 50mmf1.4
    Can they be used as an artistic tool for movies, clips? I’m worried that they will be very contrasted. Now I love and work with helios 77m-4 50mm f1.8.

    Thanks for the answer !

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      May 17, 2019 at 9:56 pm

      Absolutely they can be used. I haven’t shot with them myself, but they are great lenses and certainly capable of capturing a nice image… Even if not actually “cinema” glass.

      Reply
  • Ty Peck
    May 21, 2019 at 5:29 pm

    Hi Noam. Considering buying a used Zeiss 50mm CP.2 Makro. A decent investment in 2019? I rent a set of Cp2s for gigs often and they’ve always done well. They also match my Zeiss ZF (same glass apparently). Thoughts are appreciated!

    Reply
  • David
    May 26, 2019 at 6:31 am

    Hello Noam.

    Great site….
    I have a number of old Zeiss V lenses for my old Hassy’s and a number of lenses for my old Mamiya RZ bodies — Do you feel that these could be used as Cine lenses given the correct adapter??
    Thanks,
    David

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 22, 2019 at 1:16 am

      Potentially, yeah! As long as they’re in good shape and don’t have any focus issues, they could do the trick. If you try them out let me know how it works for you.

      Reply
  • Oleg
    December 22, 2019 at 9:11 pm

    Hello.

    How do you like Kowa Prominar lenses and IRIX?

    I am looking for MFT lenses. There are many options now. Rokinon, Samyang, SLR Magic, Meike, Kowa, Voightlander, IRIX.

    IRIX seems to be the most professional of these. Which would you recommend? I am inclined to choose between Kowa, Voightlander and IRIX.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      March 3, 2020 at 12:53 am

      I haven’t used the IRIX / Kowa lenses but am a big fan of Voigtlander. Veydra is a great option too.

      Reply
  • Ben Hoffman
    January 28, 2020 at 7:58 pm

    Wandering the web wondering if Xeen has any plans to make zooms. Why? Because, they’re fantastic.

    I’ve read and enjoyed many of your pieces over the years but this one has me scratching my head. In a test I pitted the Xeen against the Zeiss CP.2’s and Canon L-Glass and without question the Xeen was far more beautiful. And that’s not just me; three other DPs agreed that the Xeen was indeed prettier.

    DSLR glass ALWAYS lacks the fundamental thing cinematographers are looking for – creamy, realistic skin that is also very sharp. They simply can’t give you that look. Xeen’s as an example, aren’t rehoused DSLR glass. They are proprietary pieces of gear, with re-designed glass, and fantastic coatings.

    Simply put, there is no comparison. If one truly has a keen eye, and wants the best image quality possible, glass like the Xeen’s IS without question a very worthwhile investment.

    That said, as I desperately need a real cinema zoom. Far too much of my work ends up being L Glass because I do so much run and gun. It’s looking more and more like an Angenieux EZ series. Interesting. At $14k for a cinema zoom, does that qualify as a low budget lens?

    Thanks much

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      March 3, 2020 at 1:50 am

      Thanks for this, Ben. There are definitely some pros to XEEN lenses, and for some filmmakers they are the best option hands down! At the time I wrote this, they weren’t a fit for my needs but that’s a moving target for sure!

      Reply

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