Every week I get at least two or three emails from filmmakers asking for advice on buying lenses. I'm usually asked what modern cinema lenses you'd recommend to a filmmaker on a tight budget. Would the Rokinon XEEN lenses be a good choice? "
I usually answer by explaining that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to lenses. Every filmmaker has different needs (and creative preferences) and no lens kit is suitable for all circumstances …
I add that just because something is labeled as a cinema lens does not mean that it automatically performs well. From an optical point of view, most cinema lenses with a lower budget are similar, if not identical to DSLR glass. In some cases, DSLR lenses may be even worse (in terms of performance) depending on which two you compare.
The prices are of course corresponding and are currently filling an important gap in the market. Filmmakers who need cinema lens functionality at a reduced cost.
However, functionality is only one side of the equation. In order for a cinema lens to really be a cinema lens, it must, at least in my opinion, work on two fronts: Image quality and physical design.
Most low-budget cinema lenses only meet one of these two criteria – the physical design. They work like a cinema lens, have gears, manual iris, long focus throws, distance markings, etc., but they don't resolve particularly cinematic images … At least not more than any other decent DSLR lens.
Take the Rokinon XEEN lenses, for example. For about $ 2,000 per lens, you get the same image quality as the Cine-DS range, which only costs a few hundred dollars per pop. There is practically no difference in image quality, and both lenses use the same glass. One only wears the clothes of a cinema lens and the other looks like most other DSLR lenses.
Shown below is a 50mm XEEN next to a 50mm Cine DS. Both from Rokinon –
This is by no means a blow to Rokinon. I owned several of their lenses and made many films with them. They have served me well and I really respect what they are doing – bringing the functionality of cinema lenses to the low budget market.
There are several other companies trying to achieve this goal, but I use Rokinon as an example because they are one of the most affordable (and therefore most sought after) in this area.
In general, most inexpensive cinema lenses (under $ 2500 / lens) are more about appearance and functionality than image quality. If you're recording corporate spots, industrial spots, or certain types of television content, these may be the perfect choice. They work like a real cinema lens on site and also look professional. This is important when you do customer work.
However, if you're recording narrative content, high-end commercials, music videos, or something with an artful aesthetic, these may not be the best choice. Instead of spending more than $ 8,000 to $ 10,000 on a kit with XEEN lenses, you can spend a fraction of that on some DSLR lenses, deactivating the iris (if necessary), and adding some follow focus gears. For less money, you can have lenses that deliver better pictures and work almost as well as a movie theater lens.
They won't be real cinema lenses in terms of functionality, but they'll almost certainly produce superior quality. And if this is your primary goal, you should definitely consider it …
Some of my favorite lenses are old Nikkor manual lenses or Canon FDs. I shot a 50mm F1.4 Nikkor that was practically unused for under $ 100. I think it delivers far nicer pictures than any inexpensive 50mm cine lens I've ever used. It's not exactly a pleasure to take photos with him, but for a hundred dollars and an excellent IQ, I'm willing to take care of the workarounds.
And let's not forget that when buying lenses it is possible to find the best of both worlds. You don't always have to choose between functionality and quality. There are low budget cinema lenses that work on both fronts.
In most cases, this means buying used lenses (more on that below) or considering special lenses like that Veydra Mini Primes, that produce incredibly beautiful pictures and how small tanks are built. I can't tell you how many filmmakers I also recommended these lenses to. The same applies to SLR Magic, one of the few companies that produces relatively affordable cinema lenses that do not compromise on image quality.
But these companies are the exception, not the rule. Most of the ultra low budget cinema lens options available on the market do not fall into this category.
However, as soon as you throw vintage lenses into the mix, a completely different conversation opens up. There are so many incredible classic cinema lenses from Zeiss, Cooke, Angenieux, etc., many of which are available for less than the price of a Rokinon XEEN (or similar). They have so much character and are built to last a lifetime. That is why they retain their value even decades after they have been hired.
And if you're lucky enough to buy Super 16 glass, you'll really find some bargains. Some of my favorite lenses ever made were vintage S16 primes and zooms, many of which are now available online for $ 1,000 to $ 3,000. It's still a good chunk of money to spend, but at least you really get tremendous value …
Conclusion: Newer and more expensive doesn't mean better. With most modern low-budget cinema lenses, you usually pay for the physical construction of the lens and not for the image quality. This does not mean that the image quality is not sufficient, but may not be the strongest function. If that suits your needs, definitely invest in a set. There are countless productions that like to use lenses like the XEENs and thus earn a good living.
However, if you want the best possible look, you'll likely have to look beyond most of today's affordable cinema lens deals. You will almost certainly get more for your money if you buy and convert manual DSLR lenses or buy a used vintage glass.
Do you buy used cine lenses? Let me know what some of your favorites are in the comments below.
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Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!