At Lights Online Film School we’re always getting questions from students in our online filmmaking course regarding equipment. Lately we’ve been getting a lot of questions about lenses for DSLR cameras. So we thought we would answer the question here.
Gone are the days when we were choosing between only the Nikon D90 and the Canon 5D. It seems like only months before DSLR’s came onto the scene, that there was an “adapter revolution” where we were all rushing to attach adapters to our video cameras. One of the most common setups for indie filmmakers was the HVX200 with a lens adapter and a few lenses.The HVX200 was fairly affordable, and for the first time indie filmmakers working with video were starting to capture images with a cinematic aesthetic. For the first time, these adapters allowed us to use interchangeable lenses to better express our cinematic ideas. It seemed almost too good to be true. However, an even more exciting technology was waiting just around the corner. The adapter revolution was short lived. In what seemed like only a few months later, DSLRs burst onto the scene wiping out the need for most lens adapters.
However, at first, filmmakers were skeptical of using DSLR cameras for video purposes. The cameras seemed too small and their aesthetic seemed to cater to photographers rather than filmmakers (Pardon me! No XLR inputs?).
Filmmakers proved the DSLR critics both right and wrong. It really depended on whose hands the camera was in. Camera operation amongst DSLR filmmakers varies greatly. On the one hand, a quick youtube search provides countless examples of sloppy handheld camera work where you can see the coffee jitters from the morning coffee in the camera operator’s movement.
On the other hand however, some filmmakers studied the limitations of these DSLRs and then found ways to creatively work around these issues.
Cameras such as the Canon 550D (T2i), Canon 600D (t3i) and the Canon 60D have found their way into some very talented hands and the footage being captured with these cameras is nothing short of spectacular (take at look at the videos at the end of this article for example).
All three of these cameras are great cameras. Your budget, the projects you’re interested in shooting and your ergonomic preferences will determine which camera is right for you. The T2i is the most affordable of the bunch while the 60D is the most expensive. However, with the increase in price comes extra battery life, a bigger and brighter viewfinder as well as an articulated LCD screen. Each of these cameras share an 18 megapixel sensor and, 24p capabilities and they all have an ISO range from 100-6400 making them great cameras for low light shooting.
That being said, the camera you choose won’t make you a better or worse filmmaker. The image quality from each camera is more or less the same. All of these cameras are capable of capturing beautiful video if the filmmaker understands how to use lighting, sound, composition, movement, blocking, design, color psychology, casting, location scouting and all of the many other elements that go into the creation of a strong film or documentary.
Arguably, even more important than the camera, are the lenses you’ll decide to put on the camera. So what are best lenses for the Canon 550D (T2i), Canon 600D (t3i) and the Canon 60D?
In short, there is no one right answer. A while ago we wrote an article about this topic for the Canon 7D and 5D. The information is the same, but now we’ll use sample footage from the 550D, 600D and the 60D to help us illustrate our point.
Best Lenses For The Canon 550D (T2i) / 600D (T3i) or 60D?
In our opinion, your first lenses should be lenses that don’t quickly become redundant. It’s also helpful to have a “normal”, telephoto and wide angle lens. You’ll be looking for quality, speed and adaptability. But of course lens preference is subjective. What works for one filmmaker may not be ideal for another. For example a fiction filmmaker looking for a moody, textured and shadowed look will want to shoot in dark environments which means lens speed would be a priority. On the other hand a documentary filmmaker working on a project about animals in the wild would likely place more emphasis on the telephoto capabilities of a lens rather than just its speed.
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And of course, price is always and issue for documentary and fiction filmmakers alike. Some filmmakers will be able to spend $2500 while other filmmakers will only be able to spend $300. Some filmmakers will like the colors and contrast of the Carl Zeiss lenses and others will prefer the colors and contrast of Nikon lenses. The point is there is no “one size fits all” answer. Different lenses have their own “character”. The world of filmmaking would be in a tragic state if we could mathematically deduce what the “best” or “perfect” lens was. Students in our online filmmaking program have a tutorial entitled “using lenses expressively” where they learn how to express their cinematic ideas through the careful selection of lenses that suit their story best. If you want to dive deeper into the topic of lens selection, you should consider enrolling in our 3-6 month online filmmaking program here.
So where do we start then? Well, if you’re looking to start an adaptable lens kit that will allow you to work in both indoor and outdoor environments, with landscapes and portraits, during both night and day and lenses that won’t break the bank, then the lens choices below will serve as great starting point.
Canon owners looking for lenses may become quickly confused when starting their search for compatible lenses. Let us help clear the air. Just because you have a Canon body that does not limit you to only using Canon lenses. New adapters are being created that allow you to attach Nikon and other lenses to your Canon body. In fact recently a new adapter was built that would allow you to attach your older FD lenses to your EOS body (Called an FD to EOS adapter).
There has also been the development of the PL adapter which allows DSLR filmmakers to attach older cinema lenses to their Canon body. This is all leading towards some pretty exciting times!
Similarly, there are “independent” lens manufacturers such as Carl Zeiss and Sigma who manufacture lenses that fit directly on to the Canon 550D (T2i), 600D (T3i) and the 60D. These manufactures make lenses with “mounts” that will fit different camera bodies. For instance Sigma makes lenses with different mounts to fit Canon, Nikon and Pentax bodies.
The point being is that the options are slowly working their way towards limitless. As a filmmaker you’ll work on different projects and hopefully get the opportunity to work with different lenses along the way. Through this process you’ll discover your own aesthetic preferences. A good place to start would be to rent lenses. The cost of renting a $1500 lens is often only $35 – $50 / day.
That being said let us guide you with some ideas and suggestions that would help you start building your own lens kit.
You’ll need to start somewhere. One of the most important first lenses to buy would be a 50mm prime lens. Prime lenses are lenses with a fixed focal length which means that they don’t have telephoto capabilities. A 50mm lens is also roughly comparable to how the human eye sees which is why you sometimes hear them called a “normal” lens. They are neither too wide nor too narrow. They are also relatively inexpensive, generally costing anywhere from $200 – $500. You should consider a fast lens for your “normal” lens. I’ve used many but I really like the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4.
Next, I would buy a telephoto lens. Canon makes some really great telephoto lenses but they are more expensive than some of the independent brands available. Carl Zeiss isn’t making telephoto lenses anymore but you can get used, as well as older (never been used) Zeiss lenses at camera equipment stores.
In fact, I was just in a camera store this morning. I myself use the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 which is a great lens but it also costs around $1300 to buy new. While in the camera store I looked through their used section and I found a little Nikon 55-200mm f/4 lens for $250. With an adapter I could attach this to the 550D (T2i), 600D (T3i) or the 60D and I’d save $1500. The lens was in great shape. The only down side is that it wouldn’t shoot as well in low light and it requires manual focus.
Another option in this range was a new Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 lens for $899. It has almost the same specs as the Canon EF 70-200mm (mentioned above), but it’s roughly $400 cheaper.
Given these options, if I didn’t already have my Canon telephoto lens I would have gone with the $200 Nikon lens and used an adapter to put it on my Canon. It would be a great lens if you are on a tight budget.
Next, I would buy a wide angle lens. I really like Zeiss lenses. I love the color and contrast they offer. True, they can be a little expensive, but you can get them built with a Canon mount so they’ll fit right on your 550D, 600D or 60D body. That being said, if you have a limited budget I would recommend getting the Tokina 11-16mm. It’s a popular lens amongst DSLR indie filmmakers and it’s been used in some of the most breathtaking work I’ve seen. Best of all… it only costs around $600.
Now let’s look at some short films shot on these cameras:
Short film shot on the 550D (t2i)
Lens used: Canon 50mm f/1.4