The Prime Directive-Shooting with Prime Lenses

If you could only buy ONE lens, this should be it.

If you’re a Star Trek fan, you recognize this blog post title as a reference to the #1 law in the Federation: don’t interfere. Well, this blog post has absolutely nothing to do with the final frontier. Instead it’s about the #1 type of lens many DSLR filmmakers like to shot with: primes.

A prime lens is a single focal length lens, i.e. it doesn’t zoom. For many videographers switching from the world of professional or prosumer camcorders with built-in, zoomable lenses, to shooting with primes may seem like a pain not worth taking. But there are two primary reasons why filmmakers love primes lenses.

  1. Better glass: Prime lenses tend to have higher quality glass. And more of it. Because there are no moveable parts required (as is the case with zoom lenses), more of the lens can be focused on the glass (pun intended.) You therefore will get better looking imagery with a prime lens vs. a zoom lens.
  2. They’re usually faster: a lens is said to be “fast” when it can open up to a wide aperture (i.e. the “F” number on the lens is small). So an F1.4 lens is faster than an F2.8 which is faster than an F4.0, etc. Again, because of the glass quality, and because there are fewer elements needed to make the lens, there’s more room to allow for a wider iris opening. Therefore more light can get into the lens, ergo, they’re faster.

Naturally, the downside to shooting with primes is that they require more set-up when filmmaking. As they say in the biz, you have to “zoom with your feet.” So, if you want a tighter shot, you need to either move the camera closer, or get a longer prime lens. If you shooting an event that requires getting larger variety of focal length shots in the least obtrusive way possible, then I strongly suggest using zoom lenses. Especially during sacred ceremonies like weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, etc. Use something like a 70-200mm so that you can get tight and wide shots without have to disturb guests by picking up your tripod every now and then to move back and forth.

SOME FAVORITES

Here’s a short list of popular focal lengths to consider when picking primes for DSLR filmmaking. I primarily use Canon lenses, but I also like Tokina and Tamron lenses as well. Note: if you’re using a camera with a crop factor, divide these numbers by that crop factor to get the equivalent needed lens. For instance, if you want a 50mm look on the Canon 7D which has a 1.6x crop factor, you should use a 30mm or similar focal length lens. I use the Canon 35mm f1.4L when shooting with this camera and I want a 50mm look.

  • 14mm f2.8: great for “flying” shots on a Glidecam or Steadicam style device.
  • 24mm f1.4: another good lens for flying shots with less distortion around the edges that you may see from a wider lens like the 14mm.
  • 35mm f1.4 and 50mm f1.2-f.18: these offer a more natural view (50mm approximates the human eye’s field of view). Great for interviews or medium shots. For many filmmakers, if they could only get one lens, it would be a 50mm (ideally f1.2 to f1.8)
  • 85mm f1.2: this is a great lens if you want a beautiful bokeh narrow DoF.
  • 100mm f2.8 macro: great lens if you need a super-tight close up of something very small like an insect or eyeball.
  • 135mm f2: if you need a long shot that is crisp and clear.

RENT vs. BUY

Lastly, I couldn’t write a blog post about lenses without addressing the issue of cost. These lenses can get pretty pricey, especially if you go for Canon’s L-series (the lenses with the red line). As many of you who follow me know, I don’t advise going into debt to get equipment. So, if you can’t afford these lenses outright, rent them for places like LensProToGoBorrowLenses.com or LensRentals.com.

What are your favorite lenses to shoot with?

9 thoughts on “The Prime Directive-Shooting with Prime Lenses

  1. Primes are fantastic when you have a controlled shoot. I prefer to shoot with primes as much as possible but there are times where you are going to need a zoom. I think shooting with primes forces you to better compose your shots and to prepare more on the front end of your work. Zooms allow you a little more flexibility.

    If I could only choose one it would be a prime though.

    1. Thanks for the comment Mike. You’re absolutely right. As I mention in the post, particularly for event work, there are times when zooms will be necessary. But I also like your point about primes forcing you to better compose your shot. I think in many ways, they make you a better filmmaker. Would you agree?

  2. I couldn’t agree more with this post–our filmmaking has made a 180 as we have changed over from HD video cameras to DSLRs and along with that, from zoom lenses to primes. Our films are more carefully shot (like Mike just said) and SO MUCH SHARPER. We have been renting for the past year (owning just the basics like 50 1.4) and this week we finally bought our very own L-series prime–the 135 2.0. LOVE that lens – it is just yummy! But it lacks image stabilization so it’s amazing when you’re in a stable location on a tripod, but sucks if you have shaky floors (like near a reception speaker, wooden floors, etc) or on a monopod. Carefully chosen primes – and strategically used zooms – really take event films from “video” to really cinematic masterpieces!

  3. Hello Dawson,
    I am Moses from Chennai, India. First of all let me tell about myself, I’m more passionate towards cinematography and photography. I have done many projects like short films, corporate films advertising and documentaries. Recently I have found this DSLR Film making and it turned my interests towards it. At present I’m using Canon EOS 400D & Nikon D300 for my Photography assignments. Right now I’m planning to buy Canon EOS 5D Mark II which I think it’s very good for film making. I dedicate the usage of 5D only for making films so kindly suggest me the products (lens, accessories) which i require Awaiting for your reply

    Thanks in advance
    Yours Faithfully
    Moses S

    1. Hey Moses,

      Well, there are so many ways you could go about it. It really comes down to what you will be using the camera for. My suggestions to you might change based what most of your work would be. Also, what is your budget. Accessories can cost many thousands of US dollars. I encourage people to rent the equipment they need if they can’t afford to buy it without going into debt. Since you’re in India, I don’t know what’s available as far as rentals. But, if you want a basic answer, I would suggest the following as a minimum: a good tripod, a Zoom H4N or H1N for audio; a 50mm lens (doesn’t have to be an L lens, but get it if you can afford it). If you have additional funds, look into getting a rig you can do hand-held shots with (check out Zacuto.com, cinevate.com and redrockmicro.com). These companies also have additional gear like matte boxes, etc.

      I could write many blogs posts on equipment. If you want a great overview and education, check out Vincent Laforet’s CreativeLive seminar (the first one he did. creativelive.com). It should still be for sale. Also, check out Philip Bloom’s DVD on 5D filmmaking (philipbloom.net). Lastly, (shameless plug) I have a digital download recording of a 3 hour webinar I did on both the business and art side of DSLR filmmaking ( http://bladeronner.com/training/).

      Hope this helps.

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