DSLR Video Lens Guide
In the worlds of professional video and photography, “kit” lenses – the lenses that are included in package deals with camera bodies – are generally avoided. While the skill with which you use your equipment (whatever equipment that might be) is the single most important thing, any serious photographer will tell you that the quality of your lenses is probably more important than the quality of your camera body. A good lens will serve you through multiple cameras – I still have several lenses that I picked up during my days shooting on 35mm film.
Unfortunately, quality lenses come at a premium – a good lens might easily be the single most expensive item in your camera bag. That being said, there are some excellent bargains out there on lenses that will produce beautiful results. While not necessarily top-of-the-line, the following lenses should prove good investments and provide you with many years of use.
Obviously, these lenses are just my suggestions and there are many, many more options out there. So what should you look for when shopping for a lens for DSLR video? First of all, you should find a lens that fits your specific needs. Filming sit-down interviews? Grab a nice prime lens for smoothly blurred backgrounds. Running and gunning at a live event? Pick up a mid-range zoom for maximum versatility. Capturing footage of wildlife or sports? You probably want a longer zoom with a tripod for support. Pay attention to whether a lens has image stabilization – it’s a big plus when shooting handheld – and how fast the aperture is, since that will determine how well you can film in situations with challenging lighting. You should also take into consideration whether your camera uses a full frame or cropped (such as ASP-C) sensor – cropped sensors capture a smaller field of view. This means that a 50mm lens on an ASP-C camera (like a Rebel T4i) will be the equivalent of a 75mm lens on a full-frame (like a 5D Mark III).
A quick note – this list has been compiled with Canon cameras in mind and there are a few Canon-exclusive lenses on it. I have been a Canon user for many years and they are what I know the best, but I have nothing against Nikon, Sony, Olympus, or any other camera manufacturer – you can achieve great results with them all. Most of the third-party lenses on this list are available for multiple camera brands.
For the cinematographer:
Rokinon Cine Lenses – Rokinon’s appropriately named “Cine” prime lenses were clearly designed with video in mind: they feature built-in follow focus gears, versatile aperture ranges, and “de-clicked” aperture rings for smooth adjustments during filming. These lenses are unapologetically manual – you’ll need to focus by hand – but if you’re serious about getting cinematic with a DSLR, they’re perfect. I’d recommend the surprisingly affordable 85mm T1.5, the super-wide 8mm T3.5 Fisheye, or the versatile 14mm T3.1. If you want to get outfitted in a hurry, you can even pick up a bundle of three, four, or five lenses together. These are high-quality lenses for serious filmmaking and they’re a great bargain for the results you can achieve with them.
Canon 50mm f/1.8 – With mediocre plastic construction, no image stabilization, and a nubby little focus ring, it would be easy to dismiss the “nifty-fifty” as a subpar product – if it didn’t perform so well. The Canon 50mm f/1.8 is a cheap little lens that can produce gorgeous images. The f/1.8 aperture can make the most of a poorly-lit shot and the image quality, sharpness, and color saturation are great. What is most remarkable about the 50mm f/1.8, however, is almost certainly its price – you can easily pick up this lens for under $100 new. On a cropped sensor camera, 50mm can be a little constricting, so it probably won’t be your default lens for all situations – but it is a fantastic secondary lens. However, if you can afford to spend just a little more, you should move up to the Canon 50mm 1.4, which offers an even wider aperture and greatly improved build quality and focusing.
Canon 35mm f/2 – While the price tag of the 50mm f/1.8 makes it an easy impulse buy, Canon’s 35mm f/2 – still a bargain at under $300 new – is often overlooked. That’s a shame, because the 35mm focal length is actually much more useful on cropped sensor cameras than 50mm, especially for video. With a real focus ring and more solid construction, the 35mm f/2 feels a lot more professional than the somewhat fragile 50mm f/1.8 and, like the 50mm, it has a nice, wide aperture for beautifully blurred backgrounds and good low-light performance. Canon makes a few other relatively low-cost prime lenses – notably, the 40mm f/2.8 and 28mm f/1.8 – and they’re all great additions to any camera bag. Depending on how and what you film, choose the focal length that best suits your needs. If you happen to shoot Nikon, check out their 35mm f/1.4, an excellent little lens that can be scooped up for under $200 new (suggested by Karl – thanks, Karl!).
Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 A – Sigma has called this the “world’s fastest zoom lens” because of its constant f/1.8 aperture. While hyperbolic advertising like that is difficult to both define and back up, the 18-35mm f/1.8 “Artistic” is an impressive, sexy lens. Going from 18mm to 35mm is not a ton of zoom, but serious cinematography shouldn’t involve a ton of zoom and what’s there should give you enough flexibility to play around with your shot composition. The wide aperture is undoubtedly the star of the show, though – having any zoom at all with a constant f/1.8 is pretty remarkable and ideal for video. At around $800 new, the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 A is not a cheap lens, but, given the feature-set, it’s a pretty great deal. For whatever it’s worth, this is also a great looking lens, with sleek, understated styling.
Canon 85mm f/1.8 and 100mm f/2.8 – These two were suggested to me by a friend of mine who happens to be a very talented photographer. Both are Canon primes with decently wide apertures and both are great alternatives to considerably more expensive premium lenses. While 85mm and 100mm are a little on the long side (especially if you’re working with a cropped sensor camera), you can get a lot of drama out of the focal length and depth of field these lenses offer. The 100mm f/2.8 is actually a macro lens and will focus on subjects around a foot away, which adds to the creative possibilities. (Suggested by Ryan – Thanks, Ryan!)
For the event videographer:
Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 or 28-75mm f/2.8 – If you bought your camera with a kit lens, it probably came with a mid-range zoom, usually something like an 18-55mm. While zoom lenses won’t give the most pristine image quality, the convenience of being able to punch in and out is a real benefit, especially when filming live events. Tamron’s mid-range zooms are great replacements for standard kit lenses – the image quality is great and the constant f/2.8 aperture is a vast improvement. Note that the wider 17-50mm features image stabilization (while the 28-75mm does not), which can be a huge help in capturing steady video footage – for image stabilization with more zoom, you need to move up to the pricier (but highly regarded) Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8.
Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 C – If you’re willing to sacrifice the constant f/2.8 aperture of the Tamron mid-zooms for a still-respectable f/2.8 – f/4, Sigma makes a very nice, reasonably-priced zoom with image stabilization and more range. The 17-70mm “Contemporary” also features a close focusing distance of only 8 inches, so it’s great for macro work. Sigma has been creating some very exciting lenses lately, and this one is an excellent replacement for whatever kit lens probably came with your camera.
Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 – Tokina’s 11-16mm is one of the go-to lenses for capturing the drama of wide angle photography without the distortion of a fisheye lens. While 11-16mm isn’t much range, this lens does a specific task – capturing sharp, wide images – very well. Like the Tamron mid-zooms, the Tokina has a constant aperture of f/2.8, which will give nice results in low-light situations. Wide lenses are also great for handheld shooting, since camera vibration is less noticeable at wide focal lengths.
Canon 24-105mm f/4 L – Canon’s “L series” is a set of extremely high-quality lenses, generally with proportionately high price tags. “L” lenses are very highly regarded – they are absolutely built-to-last and feature superior optics. Photographers joke that once you use “L” glass, it’s tough to go back and I have to agree – they feel great in use and capture stunning images. The 24-105mm f/4 L lens is included on this list because, despite being the most expensive, it’s also the most versatile. Simply put, if I had to choose one lens to take with me on a shoot, this would be it. The zoom range is perfect for unpredictable shooting conditions and the f/4 constant aperture – while not as wide as other lenses on this list – is more than sufficient in most environments. Most importantly, the image quality is excellent and the image stabilization provides a forgiving buffer for hand-held filming. I’ve seen this lens sell for as low as $800 new and it generally hovers around $1100. While that’s a significant investment, the cost of picking up multiple lenses can reach that level very quickly. If you’re a run-and-gun style filmmaker who needs the convenience of zoom, autofocus, and image stabilization, this lens could save you money in the long-term.
For the specialist:
Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 –The 70-200mm focal range is really only suited for capturing action from a distance and you’ll probably want to use this lens with a tripod. That being said, some situations call for long lenses and Tamron’s 70-200mm gives you a lot of zoom with a surprisingly wide aperture. Canon makes a few 70-200mm zooms as part of their “L” line, which are fantastic and expensive. Tamron’s long zoom will get the job done for less than half the price.
Rokinon 500m f/6.3 with 2x Teleconverter – Sometimes – not very often – you need a very long focal length. Like, a very long focal length. Maybe you’re capturing footage of grizzly bears, maybe you need a close-up of the moon, maybe a volcano is erupting in the next town over. Whatever the case may be, when you can’t (or shouldn’t) get close to what you need to film, you might think about picking up something like the Rokinon 500mm f/6.3. It has manual focus, a fixed f/6.3 aperture, and looks completely bizarre – sort of a cross between a lens and a coffee can. While the image quality is not great, it has two things going for it that make it a solid buy – it has a ridiculously long focal length (1000mm with the included teleconverter) and it’s cheap – around $150. You will absolutely want to use this lens with a tripod, since the slightest movement will make your footage unusable at this focal length. While you probably won’t use something like this very often, it’s inexpensive enough to be a nice addition to your gear collection.
Bower 8mm f/3.5 Fisheye – Fisheye lenses – lenses so wide that the frame distorts around the outside edges – have been favorites of skateboard/extreme sports photographers for a long time. While the look is definitely stylized, you can use a fisheye lens for lots of creative applications – unique point-of-view shots, tight indoor photography, or sweeping outdoor vistas that make the most of this lens’s huge 180 degree field of view. Bower’s 8mm f/3.5 has manual controls and a bargain price – it’s currently available for less than $250 new.
Lensbaby Composer – The “tilt shift” effect – wherein only a select area of the frame is in focus, making things look miniature – has enjoyed increased popularity over the past few years and Lensbaby is at least partially responsible for that. While “true” tilt-shift lens can get pretty expensive, you can achieve a similar effect with a Lensbaby kit for under $200. It’s a very specific effect, but also a very cool one – time-lapse footage, for example, looks great with tilt-shift focus.
I’d love to hear what your favorite high-value lenses are – either leave a comment below or head to the “About” section to get in touch with me directly.
For more equipment recommendations, be sure to check out the Gear Guide!