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The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

There are many reviews of entry-level or so-called "cheap" cinema lenses all over YouTube, which is great for people looking to invest in cinema glass. However, when it comes to looking for a roundup of actual cinema lenses which are widely rented throughout the film industry, on feature films and commercials, there’s a bit of a shortage of accessible information.

It’s important to understand that these lens sets I’m going to mention are designed to be rented out by companies and not bought by individuals. Equipment rental houses produce or purchase cinema glass knowing that it will last for many decades, which is why these lenses are often prohibitively expensive.

In this article, I’ll go over the 14 most popular cinema prime lenses which are currently used on professional sets. These are all lenses I’ve worked with before, either as a DP or Camera Assistant but I’m not a lens technician by any means so if anyone in the comments has more info to add that would be great.

We will analyze each set of lenses according to two criteria: its ergonomics, how easy it is to work in practice, and its appearance. The 2 most important considerations (if you ignore the rental price) when choosing which lens is right for the job.


The 14 Most Popular Cinema Lenses




1. Panavision Primo

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

Panavision’s spherical Primo lenses are a workhorse in the features industry for productions shooting Super 35. Not to be confused with the Primo Anamorphics, which use a blend of modified Primo glass to create large anamorphic lenses, the Primos were introduced in the 1980s and have been manufactured in different series to this day. There are a vast 14 focal lengths to choose from in the range, and even more, if you include the other series.

  1. They are exceedingly well constructed
  2. Hardy lenses
  3. In a medium-size with many distance markings
  4. A 112 front diameter, and a T1.9 stop.

Their solid, uniform construction makes them quick and easy for camera assistants to work with. Like all Panavision lenses, they come with a PV mount instead of the standard PL mount.

A PV mount features a locating pin on the lens which is lined up at the bottom of the mount. The friction locking ring is then turned to secure the lens in place, resulting in an extremely strong lens seating - which is important for heavier lenses. Alongside the regular set, Panavision also offers a set of close focus Primos from 14.5mm to 35mm - which are great for achieving close-up shots in focus on wider focal lengths.

The Primo look is a fixture of Hollywood films. The lenses are sharp, with high contrast and resolution and negligible distortion and artifacts. However, they are far from being bland and produce what I see as a subtle radiance that translates beautifully to skin tones in particular.

Their flares are rich, warm, and circular. They are consistent in their look and intercut seamlessly with zooms across the Primo line. Their reliability, ergonomics, and flattering, consistent look has made them exceedingly popular spherical primes.


2. Kowa Anamorphic

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

Although Panavision probably remains one of the most popular choices when it comes to shooting in the anamorphic format, certain lesser-known brands such as Kowa are still a fixture across the industry. These 2x anamorphic lenses were made in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Kowas are exceedingly compact and are therefore a popular choice for lightweight setups such as:
  1. Movi
  2. Steadicam
  3. Car mounts.

Only 4 focal lengths were manufactured, ranging from 40mm to 100mm. This means that DPs who require a wide selection of focal lengths may find the set undesirable or be forced to supplement the set with additional glass if longer lens shots are needed. As is often the case with vintage glass, the ergonomics of each set are dependent on their condition and whether they have been rehoused or not.

The older sets which I’ve worked with before have had delicate internal mechanics, meaning that assistants need to take care of them, and use a lower torque strength on wireless follow focus systems, so that the extended focus gears don’t turn too fast or hard. This shouldn’t be the case with more rugged, newly rehoused sets. Above all, the Kowa's are valued for their look.

They have all the sought-after characteristics of vintage anamorphic, especially when shot wide open:

  1. With lower contrast
  2. Pronounced flares
  3. Significant focus falloff around the edges - so much so that on wider focal length lenses only the very center of the frame will be sharp.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique elected to shoot the stage shots on A Star Is Born on the Kowa's specifically for their beautiful, exaggerated flares.

“I would characterize them as having even more aberrations - more bokeh, more flares - than a Panavision C series set.” The personality of these pronounced vintage characteristics is what has made Kowa's popular, sought-after lenses.



3. Cooke Speed Panchro

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

Cooke began producing their original, spherical Speed Panchros lenses in England way back in 1920. Their extremely fast T/2 to T/2.4 prime lenses revolutionized the optics of the time, which were typically far slower. These faster lenses quickly became popular as they let in more light and negated the use of large arc lamps, which had a noisy buzz and were, therefore, difficult to record sync sound with.

The lenses themselves are tiny compared to modern glass, meaning they don’t always cover larger modern sensors without vignetting. They come in different series, SI, SII, or SIII depending on when they were manufactured. Since PL mounts only became standard in the 1980s, this has meant that these little lenses needed to be rehoused with a new mount to be usable with modern cinema cameras.

This is where the original glass is taken out and put into a new case or housing. As such, the usability and ergonomics of each set is dependent on how well they were rehoused. Some companies do it better than others, making some sets difficult for camera assistants to work with and some easier. A good rehousing, such as by TLS in the UK, makes the lenses user-friendly with a smooth focus motion.

As a side note, the Speed Panchros should not be confused with Cooke’s modern Panchro/i Classic lenses which attempt to emulate these older lenses but with more modern glass.

The Speed Panchros have amazing close focus.

The 32mm, in particular, has a close focus of only 16 inches, which means you can almost focus all the way up to the matte box and get very tight shots in focus with a wide lens. Despite having a wide aperture, the lenses were only recommended to be shot at T/4, which is where they start becoming sharp across the image.

Breaking this rule by shooting them wide open at T/2.4 creates beautiful, painterly bokeh which is sharp in the center with lots of soft fall off around the edges - almost like an anamorphic glass. They have features named "Cook Look", which is warm and romantic, but with slightly less contrast than the modern S4s.

This vintage look has made them a popular choice for period films or for DOPs who want a dreamy, vintage look to their images by shooting them wide open.

As these lenses were made before standardized, precise factory production techniques were introduced for cinema lenses, the look of each lens may vary slightly, meaning that some lenses may be slightly warmer or have slightly different image characteristics for example. Despite, or rather because of, their flaws the Panchros remain one of my personal favorite spherical lenses.


4. Zeiss Super Speeds

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

SuperSpeed was the unofficial name given to the T1.3

Made by
spherical prime lenses made by German manufacturer Zeiss.

Year
In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

The standard set includes
18mm, 25mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lenses.

There are different versions of Super Speeds depending on when they were manufactured.
Today the MKII and MKIII versions are most popular and available.

Ergonomics-wise
They are small, fast, lightweight, well-designed lenses.

Popular for handheld, gimbal, and drone work, yet they are not without certain flaws. They all have a front diameter of 80mm which makes it easy to use a single back for a clip-on matte box.

One drawback is that the barrel of the lens extends when focusing. Too tightly placed on a matte box can prevent the barrel from turning properly and making it stiffer, something modern wireless focus motors sometimes struggle with. As with many older lenses, there are fewer focus distance markings than on modern ones.

This means that in-between distances, such as between 2 and 3 foot for example may have no markings, making it difficult for the focus puller to know where 2’3” or 2’9” is. They’re favored for their sharp, lower contrast, and slightly milky characteristics when shot wide open, which is now used by many DPs to complement sharp, modern digital sensors.

The lenses have a neutral to cool color rendition with soft, circular flares that fog up the lens with light. Films with pastel, lower-contrast visuals, such as Her and Lost In Translation, used Super Speeds as the basis for creating their look.

Overall, these little lenses are quick to work with, ideal for light jobs, with sharp yet subtle vintage characteristics, and are partially responsible for setting the standard for modern cinema lens construction.


5. Panavision C - Series

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

Possibly, the most iconic is the anamorphic lens that is set to be a C-series from Panavision.

Released year
1968.

Considering anamorphic lenses require housing many glass elements, C-series lenses are incredibly compact and lightweight, which makes them great for anamorphic work which requires a small camera build such as for Steadicam or handheld work.

As they were designed in a time before the mainstream use of clip-on matte boxes, the front diameter of these lenses wasn’t standardized across the range. This means that using a clip-on matte box requires custom rings manufactured in-house by Panavision to fit each lens and means changing out matte box backs to different sizes for different focal lengths which slow down lens changes.

The close focus on these lenses isn’t amazing, meaning diopters are required to achieve focus on tight shots.

The aperture on each lens is not standardized and varies slightly, from T2.3 to T3.5. Focus breathing is noticeable, which is when the focal lengths or size of the shot shifts when the focus distance is adjusted. Despite these mechanical difficulties in working with the lenses, their look is legendary.

The C-series range established in the 70s and 80s is now seen as the classic, Hollywood anamorphic look on films such as Star Wars for example. They are not overly sharp, warm, have a graduated depth of field, beautiful oval bokeh, and famous, pronounced blue streak horizontal flares.

Although not the quickest or easiest for camera teams to work with, shooting on the C’s gives films that iconic, vintage Panavision look that is impossible to otherwise replicate with modern lenses.


6. Angénieux Optimo 24-290mm

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

French manufacturer Angenieux has a long history of creating spherical zoom lenses. One of the staple zooms that has featured heavily on many films is the Optimo 24-290mm which came out in 2001.  This 12 to 1 workhorse zoom has incredibly high magnification at a fixed stop of T / 2.8 with no ramps and a focus scale is accurate when zooming.

For all of this to happen, a large amount of glass is required, which means that the 24-290 is a large piece of the lens, weighing in at around 11kg. Its length and weight mean that it has to be operated off ahead and is unsuitable for any lightweight rigs or setups.

It’s used for shots that need an extremely long focal length, a crash zoom, or quick, flexible reframing capabilities:
Such as when working on a boat or somewhere were moving the camera around is difficult. Its varied focal lengths also make it a good single lens for productions looking to save money on renting many prime lenses.

It is a fairly sharp lens, very sharp for a slightly older zoom but less sharp than many primes or modern zooms made today. At wider focal lengths such as 24mm, it does start to distort slightly and it compresses the background at longer focal lengths with textbook round bokeh.

It’s been a workhorse for years in the film industry mainly due to its versatile zoom range, solid build quality, and consistent optical design.



7. Canon K35

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

Canon released the K-35s in the 1970s and 1980s to compete with Zeiss super-speed lenses based on the glass in their existing SSC Aspherical FD lenses. They are however much rarer to find than the Super Speeds. The K-35s are similar to the Super Speeds in many respects.

They also are,
  1. Compactly built
  2. Lightweight
  3. Feature a fast T/1.4 aperture.

This makes them a good choice for light builds such as:
Handheld, gimbal, or drone work.

Like the Panchros, K35 glass also sometimes comes rehoused with a PL mount in lens casings which makes them ergonomically easier to work with. Unlike many vintage lenses, which only cover Super 35 sensor sizes, the K-35s can cover a broader Full Frame sensor.

This capability of larger coverage has made them popular once again with the resurgence of larger form factor digital sensors, such as the Mini LF. In addition to ergonomic similarities, these lenses also share visual similarities with Super Speeds, are sharp, and have notably lower contrast than modern primary lenses.

Their flares are interesting and take on an orangey, purple color. Like the Super Speeds, the K-35s have been used on films for a lower contrast look and are sometimes even paired with the Super Speeds, such as on Handmaid’s Tale which was shot on the K35s, with select close-ups shot on wide-angle Zeiss glass.



8. Arri DNA

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

From one large format lens set to another more modern iteration, the Arri DNA primes are manufactured by Arri in Germany. To make these lenses they custom selected old glass from Hasselblad still lenses which could cover a 65mm or Full Frame sensor size. Arri worked with some cinematographers to tweak each set, such as Bradford Young and Greig Fraser.

They are very fast for large format lenses with stops ranging from T/1.6 to T/2.8 over a broad range of focal lengths. This fast aperture combined with a large format digital sensor creates an incredibly shallow depth of field, even when using wide focal lengths, which is beautiful but tricky for focus pullers.

  1. The DNAs are nicely rehoused and feature a smooth focus motion
  2. A standardized front diameter
  3. Well-spaced distance markings.
  4. They have an LDS connector which means they can record metadata, a useful feature for VFX.

An interesting quirk I picked up when I worked with them as an AC was that some of the lenses feature a reversed iris ring, meaning that some lenses had an iris reading from top to bottom, while others had iris’ which were reversed. The image they produce is stunning.

  1. They are sharp enough to capture detail in the skin without highlighting flaws
  2. Have a neutral color rendition
  3. Gorgeous skin tones with a beautiful focus falloff, swirling, and dreamy
  4. egg-shaped bokeh.


9. Tribe7 Blackwing7

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

Let’s look at a slightly unusual lens set. Tribe7 is a new, boutique company founded by cinematographer Bradford Young and lens technologist Neill Fathom. The calling card of their Blackwing7 line of large format lenses is that they have tunable optical qualities. This means that visual properties such as sharpness, focus roll-off and flares can be personalized across a set as per the request of the owner.

Each lens set comes with a choice of 3 looks,
Ranging from the moderate S, or Straight, look to the X, or Extreme, look which has increased distortion, flares, and optical distress. True to their name, they come in 7 unusual focal lengths, which all end in a 7, ranging from 27 to 137mm. Lots of 7s.

The Blackwing7s come with a fixed T1.9 stop across the range in the solid modern casing with a 114 front diameter.

The lenses were manufactured using the old formulas from Zeiss lenses from the 1930s to the 1960s combined with contemporary manufacturing technology.

These lenses are suitable for cinematographers using large format cameras who desire a degree of texture and optical imperfection in their images. However, their low production volume makes them hard to come by.

At the moment they have mainly been used on short-form content, such as music videos, where optical experimentation is more accepted.


10. Leica Summilux-C

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

Leica introduced the spherical cinema Summilux C’s to accompany their photographic lenses in 2011. The fast, T1.4 primes come in 12 different focal lengths from 16mm to 135mm. Leica’s unique focusing scale design means these lenses have many focus markings, especially in the critical close focus range, which allows them to be built in a very compact form factor for such fast lenses.

Their build quality is top class. They come in a standard, small size across the line with the same 95mm front diameter. This makes them excellent for lightweight camera builds such as Steadicam or gimbal.

Their look is very modern:
  1. Super high resolution
  2. Sharp
  3. Clean across the frame, and even illumination across the field.

When paired with digital cameras, their high resolution of images makes them a popular choice for blockbuster films with lots of VFX work.

This combination of a compact form factor with an excessively clean look appealed to DOP Jeff Cronenweth.

We chose the Leica Summilux-C lens for Gone Girl because, unlike other options, the Summilux-C has this amazing ability to maintain extreme resolution when understanding and considering the complexity of the human face. The fact that they are able to maintain the same small profile throughout the entire focal length range further distances the filmmaker from any complications created by invasive fingerprints.


11. Cooke S4

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

Moving on to modern lenses, the spherical S4s.

Created by
Cooke in the late 90s. Unlike the C’s they are incredibly well designed and easy to work with.

  1. They have the same T stop of T2-T22 across the range.
  2. Good close focusing abilities.
  3. The same 110mm front diameter.
  4. Many distance markings for focus.
  5. Color-matched across the set.
  6. Durable with a smooth focus motion.

The newer S4/i’s implemented in 2005, has the ability to store and display all kinds of metadata:
Such as the focus distance and aperture reading, which can be useful in facilitating Vfx post-production work. There is also a large range of prime lens focal lengths to choose from in the set.

The S4s have been used extensively in films in the 2000s.

Popular for
  1. Their warm look
  2. With increased contrast
  3. Minimal aberrations
  4. Healthy reproduction of skin tones.

Hence, this glass is popular with cinematographers for its easy consistency, workability, and sharp, warm appearance without vintage lens aberrations.


12. Hawk V-Lite

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

In the world of modern anamorphic lenses, there are the Hawk V-Lite’s from Germany’s Vantage. These high-performance anamorphic lenses were introduced in 2001 with the goal of producing lightweight, lenses with increased definition and contrast across the 8 focal length image.

They are precisely designed to have no shift in T stop while focusing and an accurately calibrated focus scale with nicely spaced outdistance markings, making it easier for assistants to pull focus. Their range is fairly standardized, featuring the same T2.2 to T16 stop range from the 28mm to 80mm primes, which is then stepped up to T3.5 for longer focal lengths.

From 40mm to 140mm the front diameter of the lenses remains the same, although it gets larger for the wider focal lengths which have more glass. Despite efforts to minimize distortion, straight lines still bend significantly when using wider focal lengths. They are fairly sharp anamorphic lenses, with increased contrast and milky, rainbow flares.

This makes the V-Lites a good choice for DPs looking for a light, easy to work with glass that is sharp and modern, yet still has the clear trademarks of anamorphic lenses. These are just a few of the most popular lenses in circulation in the film industry today.



13. Arri/Zeiss Master Prime

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

From old to new, the Master Primes were co-developed by Arri and Zeiss in 2005. These modern lenses feature a constant, super-fast T/1.3 aperture from their 12mm to their 150mm primes. They are excellently engineered and well built, with a smooth focus speed, well-laid outdistances marking with a standardized 114 front diameter.

They are not the most compact of spherical primes, but they are solidly constructed.

Being standardized across the range makes them easy for assistants to work with when changing lenses or rebalancing a gimbal or stabilized head. Cinematographers who value clean, high-resolution, sharp images often choose these lenses. They were designed to be as sharp as possible to provide maximum clarity that counteracts shooting 35mm film.

This sharpness is enhanced even more when applied to digital sensors. also wide open at T/1.3 the lenses maintain sharpness across the frame. They are notable for having virtually no distortion of straight lines even at their widest focal lengths and no focus breathing or aberrations.

Master Prime has medium to high contrast and significantly lower flares. They’re often used by DPs shooting on film, or by those who require a perfect, optically superior digital image that is totally devoid of vintage characteristics or optical imperfections.



14. Bausch & Lomb Super Baltar

The Most Popular Cinema Lenses

From one vintage set to another, the Super Baltars are classic Hollywood spherical cinema lenses. They were originally produced in the 1950s and 1960s to be compatible with 35mm Mitchell BNCR cameras.

Their construction is fairly compact and standardized over the six focal lengths:
With a fixed T2.3 aperture.

Most Super Baltars now have added focus and iris gears for easier use with follow focus systems as well as PL mounts.

As always with vintage lenses, modern rehousing will make the Baltars easier to work with. They have a distinctly retro image which is low in contrast, warm, fairly sharp in the center with a gradual focus falloff. This look has been used to give footage a desaturated, vintage feel, such as on-period films. When shot wide open they have a soft, blooming halation effect on the highlights which is reminiscent of shooting with an effects filter like a Pro-Mist.

The aberrations disappear and they sharpen up when stopped down to around T5.6. However, as half the charm of their look is due to their optical imperfections shooting them stopped down doesn’t make much sense to me. Why Lens Choice Matters In Cinematography.

Last words

These are the most popular industry cinema lenses which are used to shoot feature films and commercials. Now you know the ergonomics of each lens, as well as their look, by using footage shot with this glass. Hopefully, this provided some insight into what kind of jobs and stories each lens is practically and aesthetically suited for. If you find this more technical information useful, then share this article, and also share your thought on this article in the comments below.

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