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Cine Lens or Photo Lens - Are Cine Lenses better?

alisterchapman
Top Contributor

There is often a lot of discussion around Cine Lenses. I think that often Cine Lenses are considered aspirational or the assumption is made that they must be better than photo lenses. But is this really always the case. We know that Sony's G and GM lenses generally produce really nice images, so why choose Cine Lenses over these. Will a Cine Lens instantly improve the way for footage looks. Will a cine lens make your footage more film like?

There are a lot of differences between different lenses. There is colour, contrast, bokeh, sharpness, flare, halation, distortions, breathing etc. But even in a workflow whether you grade, colour remains important as a more highly coloured lens will tend to have different flare characteristics depending on the colours in the scene compared to a more clinical lens.


In practice there very little that is fundamentally different about the optical designs of prime lenses for photo or cine other than perhaps the focus mechanism or in some lenses the addition of floating elements for stabilisation. Many lower cost Cine primes are simply adaptations of readily available photo lenses or use the very same optical formula as common photo lenses.

Cine zooms are almost always truly parfocal and will include some means of adjusting the backfocus whether with a backfocus adjustment or via shims. Stills zooms are rarely truly parfocal. Most Cine zooms will have a constant aperture throughout the zoom range, this isn't always true of photo lenses.

Cine lenses will typically have an entirely mechanical, long focus throw with accurate witness marks. Still lenses often have a very short focus throw and may not have any witness marks at all, especially modern lenses where good AF is seen as the primary factor and a complex mechanical focus system would slow the AF down.

When you buy a set of cine lenses you can expect them to have matching optical performance, they should not look different from each other. Thats important when using prime lenses if switching between different focal lengths within the same scene. 

But I doubt many viewers can look at a well executed shot and categorically tell whether the lens used was a photo lens or a cine lens. So much about lens choice is a personal thing. What are you looking for, what is important for you. And different lenses suit different jobs. For run and gun and fast and dynamic shoots there is a lot to be said for light weight photo lenses with great autofocus. For drama you might want larger lenses with big focus rings and pitch gears for a follow focus system. Some projects will be better suited to sharp, colour free lenses that provide a clean and clinical look. Another project might benefit from a lens that imparts a warm, smoother look.

It really isn't as simple as "cine lenses are better than photo lenses" as there are both excellent and rubbish examples of both. The capture process starts with the lens, so everything about your final image is determined by that lens and it's very hard to remove unwanted optical defects later on. So, it's not really a case of whether to choose cine lenses or photo lenses but rather choosing the lens that best fits the jobs that you do.

Alister Chapman
Cinematographer/Producer/Trainer
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