Filmmaking: Have-to-have Lenses for Nikon Types

If you are shooting a narrative film where you have time for composing and setting up lighting, then you have time to change your lens and time to manually focus it. Zooms and auto-focus lenses are for wimps.

In filmmaking, prime lenses are KING - unless you're one of those French New Wave filmmakers influenced by Italian Neorealism.  Just kidding, they didn't use zooms much.

Prime lenses are faster, lighter, smaller and perform better optically. Oh yeah, sometimes they're cheaper too. I like FAST lenses that can render very narrow DOF. This is a common trait of the following lens recommendations.

Before I go on I have to acknowledge one of my favorite resources when it comes to all things Nikon. Ken Rockwell at - You need to know anything about Nikon cameras and/or lenses this is the website to visit. Don't forget to donate a little in return for Ken's work...

The following lenses are available used from many sources, and are not too expensive.

Your going to need a wide angle for establishing shots. Typically with 35mm full frame you want to stick to 28mm or wider. If you don't mind spending $1000, for a used one, I would recommend the Nikon 15mm f/3.5 wide angle lens. I love this lens. The only reason it is not a part of this list is because of its high cost. I'll blog about the 15mm soon.

On 4/3 or APS-C sensors 28mm field of view is approximately equivalent to 40mm which is close to the human eye's FoV. 40mm is not very wide, but if you have space to move far enough away from your actors you can have nice coverage. For this range here's my favorite:

Nikon's Nikkor 28mm f/2.8 AI-s - (see post below) What makes this lens extra special is the incredibly short focus distance and the lack of any noticeable barrel distortion. This allows you to get some extreme close-ups as well as your medium-wide shot from the same prime lens. An extremely sharp prime lens that's reasonably priced. Nikon makes a wider lens with no barrel distortion, the 15mm f/3.5 AI-s, but it will cost you over a $1000 used. BTW, Make sure that you get an AI-s version of the 28mm f/2.8 the older AI version is a completely different lens. Do not get that one!

Most filmmakers will agree that if you had to choose one lens to take along on a film shoot it would undoubtedly be a 50mm. This focal-length will work great for medium to tight shots. I like the fastest one made by Nikon:

Nikon's Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-s - Another favorite of mine. This is a big chunk of fast glass. At a maximum aperture of f/1.2 this baby lets in a lot of light. This bastard will see things in the dark. On my APS-C sensor it is equivalent to a 75mm lens, still good for medium to tight shots. The beauty of this lens is the extremely narrow depth of field that can be achieved. Gorgeous bokeh. Focus on the eyes and the ears are a soft blur - careful, the nose will be just as soft.

See more on this lens in its own post:

Are you starting to notice I'm partial to Nikon - they are readily available and in my opinion they have made some of the best manual focus lenses in history. I'm sure you can find Canon or other lenses of equal quality. Maybe we can explore that in a future post.

For ECU or telephoto, and to squeeze perspective a lens over 100mm is typical. Lets explore two of my favorites:

Nikon's Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 AI-s - Did I mention that the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 was big? This monster is bigger. The APS-C multiplier of 1.5x makes this equivalent to a 127mm lens well into the telephoto range. This Nikkor also creates very narrow depth of field thanks to its f/1.4 maximum aperture. Heavy, big, sharp lens with very good performance.

See More:

Nikon's Nikkor 105mm f/1.8 AI-s - Not to be confused with the 105mm f2.8 that I wrote about in another post. Either 105mm will make you a beautiful photo - the f/1.8 will need less light and will give you a sharper image. It will also cost you more money. These are great for portrait shots, and therefore, great for single or tight shots. Don't leave home without one.

In my opinion you won't need longer focal-length, except for rare occasions when you need to shoot long distance telephoto scenes. As far as wide-angle shots are concerned the $1000 15mm f/3.5 Nikkor AI-s lens, with no barrel distortion, is king. On the other hand you might have a need for a wide shot where barrel distortion is desired - a fish-eye lens would be appropriate.

Typically narrative films require lenses to be transparent or invisible, meaning that they do not add editorial content by way of distortion or perspective manipulation - unless that's what you want to do.

I remember someone once told me when I was a photography student " want a standard photo, use a standard lens." I suppose he meant if I wanted a compelling shot I should use anything but a "standard" 50mm lens... 

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