If you could buy only 3 lenses for your Canon 5D, 7D or 1D which lenses would they be?

Filmmakers using new DSLR technology have been graced with the ability to use cameras that allow for interchangeable lenses without having to use Depth of Field (DOF) adapters. DOF adapters inevitably limit light from hitting your camera’s sensor and therefore often slightly degrade the image quality.

However, with the advent of DSLR’s with video capabilities filmmakers are now given access to cameras that shoot 24p and can handle interchangeable lenses without an adapter. Cameras such as the Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 7D and Canon 1D Mark IV are all capable of holding an assortment of lenses.

Filmmakers who choose these Canon cameras will then need to ask themselves the following question: “what should my lens kit consist of?

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.

Back to lens selection – 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.

Similarly, there are “independent” lens manufacturers such as Carl Zeiss and Sigma who manufacture lenses that fit directly on to the Canon 5D, 7D and 1D. 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 Canon 5D, 7D or 1D and I’d save around $1000. 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 $900. 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 5D. It would be a great lens if you’re 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 5D, 7D or 1D 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… this EF-S lens only costs around $600 (EF-S lenses don’t fit on the 5D).

The video below was shot on the Canon 7D using the Tokina 11-16mm & Zeiss 50mm f1.4 with a Nikon mount.


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