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Favorite Lenses for Shooting Documentaries

Key Contributor

For those out there working in the documentary space, I am curious what are your go-to lenses?  

For people just getting started in the world of filmmaking, lenses are an important consideration.  Some in the doc world lean heavily on what is known to photographers as the Holy Trinity - a set of three classic zooms that cover most of your range: 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm.  

Between these three lenses you can accomplish quite a lot.  The widest end might be good for establishing shots, landscapes, etc.  The 24-70 could be a good run/gun verité lens.  And the 70-200mm is a classic you’ll see in many cinematographer’s kit used for b-roll, interviews, close ups.  

In recent years I’ve switched to shooting mostly on primes, both for the image they produce and for the challenge that it presents.  I enjoy learning how a 35mm or 50mm interprets the world and moving myself and my camera to achieve a different shot, rather than just zooming in/out.  Of course, the needs of the production and the desired aesthetic will often dictate these choices for you, but it is fun to experiment with how different lenses change the perspective for the audience, and your experience as a filmmaker.

All of this is subjective and there is no right/wrong choice when it comes to picking lenses.  But I will say this: cameras come and go, but generally the investment you make in good glass goes a long way.  

What are you shooting with?  


Leading Creator

Danny, are those your favorite lenses for super-35 or full-frame cameras?  Or both?

When I'm shooting run & Gun "documentary" style these days, I'm almost always going to be using my full-frame FX6 or full-frame A1. And 20mm on a full-frame camera is as wide as I would ever care to go, so the 16-35mm that you have doesn't fit my needs.  In fact, I have the Sony FE 20mm f/1.8 G lens and it is so wide that I can count the number of times I've used it on one hand.

My three most-used lenses are:
Sony FE 24-105mm f/4 G
Sony FE 70-200mm  f/2.8 GM OSS II
Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS

Between those three zoom lenses, I've got 99% all my bases covered.   I wasn't a big fan of the 24-105mm  when I first got it, but it has grown on me.  It is a good solid workhorse lens that is great for handheld shooting.  I also carry Sony's 35mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.8 for times when I want the nice shallow look you only get from a fast prime.

I'll be interested to hear what other people have chosen, and why.

Key Contributor

Hey Doug, 

Thanks for the reply and your insights.  The three lenses that I listed aren't necessarily my favorites, but just a 3 lens set common to photography that also finds its way into the kits of some shooters.  I don't personally shoot with the 16-35mm much, but when I have it's been for landscapes, timelapse, sports, and unique POVs that add to the storytelling.  I agree that it's not the ideal run/gun lens for doc, but there is a place for big wide lenses depending on the scenario.  I own a Sigma 20mm 1.4 Art prime lens that I like a lot and gets a lot of use for big wides, TLs, etc.  It is sharp and super fast!

I shot a lot with the 24-105mm as well and I agree with your take.  What it lacks in character, it generally makes up for in range.  My favorite use of that lens was actually the Canon version with the Metabones Speedbooster on my old FS7.  That combo was sweet because it gave me the range plus added a stop of light (magically...) and allowed shooting at 2.8.  

The 70-200mm is an ideal b-roll lens for docs, especially when you're trying to put a little distance between yourself and the action.  There will always be a place in my bag for this one!

All of these lenses should work in the service of telling the story in the best way possible.  I like to think that all of these lenses, from wide to extreme telephoto, find themselves on a scale of subjective to objective.  I mean this in so much as how they interpret things for the audience.  A wide angle, close up to a subject, allows the audience to feel as if they are part of the action, intimately involved in the lives of the subject.  A longer focal length lens feels more objective, and gives a voyeuristic perspective on the action - akin to the audience looking at the scene through a monocular. 

Overall I prefer shooting full frame with lenses that were intended to cover the whole sensor.  That said, I am happy when shooting long lens on the FX9 and can quickly switch to S35 mode and get more out of that 200-600mm!

Top Contributor

I too have grown affinity for using primes for documentary. I remember Omar Mullick, the director/DP of "These Birds Walk" (a phenomenal documentary following a runaway kid in Pakistan) on how he mostly used a 50mm prime lens to shoot the entire film. I was like, you can do that? I agree that, while it depends on the production, something interesting happens when you are limited to composing without zoom!

Yep, I think it all depends on the scenario.  But shooting on a single prime does offer a fun challenge and perhaps encourages the cinematographer to move around more to shoot a scene.