Bruce Dorn, DGA
Bruce Dorn, DGA

Bruce's early career with the camera took him around the globe shooting photo-journalistic and editorial assignments for United Press International, People, Conde Nast Publishing, Money, and Business Week magazines.

Canon EF and EF-S lenses for Cinematic Video Capture

June 06, 2014

Canon’s terrific HDSLRs and Cinema EOS cameras have many advantages over other HD capture devices, but the one that resonates most profoundly with me is their ability to natively use a huge variety of Canon EF and EF-S lenses.

Back when the 35mm motion picture film cameras were the most popular choice for theatrical quality productions, the PL (Positive Lock) lens mount was by far the most common choice. A most DPs routinely did, I shot with a basic assortment of cinematic prime lenses and, if budget allowed, a couple of zoom lenses. The prime lens box generally included half a dozen lenses that ranged from around 17mm through 85mm. If you had the budget, a short zoom and a longer zoom were often added to the kit and used as “variable focal length” lenses — primarily to help keep lens swaps to a minimum.

When “specialty” lenses were required, essentially anything beyond the scope of the standard lens set described above, the best Hollywood camera rental houses offered specially-adapted still camera lenses. I recall that the first Canon lens that I encountered on a motion picture set was an EF 500mm f/4 super telephoto that had been modified to fit an Arriflex PL mount. The second Canon lens I had occasion to use was a 45mm Tilt-Shift that had been similarly converted. Whenever a customized lens appeared on-stage or on-location, it was almost invariably a piece of fine Canon glass that undergone a bit of “lens-mount surgery.”

Thank goodness those days are gone! Digital capture has now almost totally replaced silver-based film and, with the advent of a new generation of ultra-capable CMOS-based cine cameras, we can all enjoy – and creatively exploit – Canon’s amazingly broad range of high resolution EF and EF-S lenses.

Before we talk about some of my favorite lenses for video capture, let’s clarify the differences between EF and EF-S lenses. Simply put, EF-S lenses will only fit cameras with APS-C (approx. 23x15mm) sensors or “Cine Super35” (approx. 25x14mm) sensors. Both of these sensors closely match the size of a frame of “3 perf Academy” 35mm motion picture film and are terrific for video capture.

APS-C sensors can be found in the digital EOS Rebels, the EOS 60D, the EOS 7D, and the amazing EOS 70D. The Cinema EOS cameras, with their Super35 sensors, also accept the EF-S lenses.

The image circle size that an EF-S lens projects is perfect for these smaller sensors, but is simply not big enough to cover a Full-Frame sensor (24mm x 36mm) as is installed on cameras such as the EOS 5D Mark II and Mark III, the EOS 6D, the EOS-1D X, and the mighty 4K-capable EOS-1D C. For these cameras, we need to use an EF style lens only.

Please note: While EF-S lenses may not be used on Full-Frame cameras, EF lenses may be used on all EOS Cameras — both APS-C and Full Frame sensors camera styles alike.

The Noob Specials

Let’s assume that you’re an avid still photographer — but curious about HD filmmaking — and that you’re reading this article because you’ve heard that Canon makes one of the best HD-capable DSLRs. Well, my friend, you’ve heard absolutely right! There’s nothing that I could recommend more to a beginner than a lovely little EOS 70D with any of the new STM-style kit lenses. The EOS 70D is the very first Canon HDSLR to offer sensor-based Dual Pixel CMOS AF — autofocus that works brilliantly and seamlessly in the video recording mode. This camera is a wonderful choice for anyone who wants point & shoot simplicity, but it’s equally great for those with a limited budget and professional filmmaking aspirations. The EOS 70D is also available with a new generation of budget-priced STM style “kit” lenses. These ultralight Image Stabilized EF-S lenses feature autofocus stepping motors that are absolutely silent — and that’s a huge benefit when shooting sound with the in-camera microphone or a hot shoe-mounted mini-shotgun microphone.

Do I like the EOS 70D? Yup! I own three of them at the moment and have aspirations for a couple more. What about the new STM kit lenses? Well, I tried the ultralight EF-S 18-55mm IS STM and absolutely loved it for use with my handheld Steadicam Merlin 2. I quickly learned that these new kit lenses offer great bang-for-the-buck and immediately added both the EF-S 18-135mm IS STM and the EF-S 55-250mm IS STM as well. Look, I love my “L” series EF lenses for their amazing optics, fast apertures, and great weather resistance but I really appreciate the uber quiet nature of these awesome little EF-S STM lenses.

And sticking with my sommelier concept, let’s move on to...

Zoom, Zoom, Zoom

Zooms are a very practical solution for filmmaking as long as you remember one very important point: In the theatrical production world, “zooming” in and out is considered to be rather tacky and is a technique rarely used — except for those occasions when a specific visual or emotional effect is clearly required. There are exceptions, of course: you might be an unrepentant hipster and simply love to make your uber cool camera technique as obvious as humanly possible. Or, perhaps, you’re a documentarian shooting uncontrolled action and suddenly need to change composition but mustn’t cut, lest you lose the continuity of your sound track. For every “rule” there is an “exception,” but please, please do your viewers a favor and avoid gratuitous zooming — if you want to get a tighter composition, “dolly in.” That’s why we have dollys...

Even investing in a single zoom lens will give you an amazing range of focal lengths and compositional opportunities. To become skilled at the use of a variable focal length lens, one must become aware of the psychological effect of perspective. Don’t just plop your camera and tripod down randomly and then zoom to whatever focal length fills the frame and gives a reasonable looking composition. Where you stand, both literally and figuratively, really does matter.

As you consider the emotional intent of a scene, also consider what focal length you’ll need to use to create the spatial relationships that will support that emotional theme. For example, let’s imagine a scene on a crowded train station platform. What is the emotional intent you wish to convey? Do you want your principal subject to seem alone and isolated from his or her background? Select a wider focal length and move the camera close to your subject. This perspective, and choice of lens, will make the subject dominant in the frame, minimize the background players, and add a bit of self-conscious anxiety to the scene. If your intention is to show your subject as “lost in a crush of humanity,” try moving back and capturing the scene with the longest focal length your zoom allows. A longer focal length compresses the foreground and sucks in the background. This effect, along with the choice of a very open f-stop, will isolate your hero among a crowd of equally sized figures and thus, psychologically render your main character as a special “one among many.”

Focal length matters! Think about what focal length does in relationship to your foreground and background, select a focal length, and establish your camera position accordingly. Use your zoom to avoid constant lens changes and to fine-tune your composition once the camera is properly located — not to avoid moving to find a better camera position.

EF-S Zooms for APS-C or Super35 Cameras
My Single Favorite “Fast” Cinema Zoom for APS-C Cameras

If I had to pick one lens to twist onto the front of my EOS 70D or EOS C100 for a day of random shooting, it would almost certainly be the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS zoom. This lens’s range of focal lengths give me APS-C sensor coverage that, if we translated to a Full-Frame camera, would be the approximate equivalent of a 28-90mm f/2.8 IS zoom. It’s fast, has a classic range of focal lengths, and is Image Stabilized! Perfect! Being, as it is, an EF-S “Non-L” lens, it’s not as well weatherized as some of its more expensive siblings, so take a little extra care in dusty or soaking wet environments.

My Favorite Two-Lens Cinema Zoom Package for APS-C Cameras

If I can add another lens to my always-there EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS, I would most likely go for the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom. Now I have the effective equivalent coverage of a 16-35mm zoom on Full-Frame. Nice!

This little lens is a variable aperture lens — I prefer the consistency of wide-open light transmission of a consistent maximum aperture lens whenever available — but I solve the variable aperture problem by never using this lens at an aperture wider than f/4.5, thus effectively eliminating the issue.

My Favorite Three-Lens Cinema Zoom Package for APS-C Cameras

Take the two lenses mentioned above and add in the lightweight champ of the classic 70-200mm range, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM, and you have a really killer zoom lens array. From tight interiors to wide-open African plains, this tidy little zoom assortment does it all!

The EF Series Zooms

Whereas the previous collection of zooms will only work with cameras with the smaller APS-C or Super35 sensor equipped cameras, the following lenses will work with any EOS or Cinema EOS camera, including full frame sensor cameras such as the EOS 5D Mark III.

Short EF Zooms for Cinema Capture

The EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II and the EF 17-40mm f/4L lenses are the widest non-fisheye Canon EF zooms in the line-up. Both are excellent choices, especially if you need full-frame coverage. I choose and usually recommend the EF 17-40mm f/4L for HDSLR cinematographers because it accepts the same 77mm ND filters that I use on my other favorite “L” series zooms.

Mid-Range EF Zooms for Cinema Capture

Mid-Range zooms are great “walk around” lenses for those times when you need to be ready to shoot, but you’re not quite sure what you’ll be shooting. There are several zooms to consider in this category and they all have good selling points...

The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM is considered to be one of Canon’s sharpest zoom lenses. With a maximum aperture of f/2.8, it’s twice as “fast” as it’s nearest sibling, the EF 24-70 f/4L IS USM. If you want that extra light gathering capability, you can’t go wrong. When you mount this lens on an APS-C camera, the effective “look” of the lens is the equivalent of a Full-Frame 38-112mm zoom.

The Canon EF 24-70mm f/4 IS USM is one stop slower than the f/2.8, but it has Image Stabilization — a feature I value very highly. There are times when I simply must go handheld and for those times, I’ll always choose a lens with Image Stabilization. Unlike still photography, where that extra stop of light gathering can be directly converted to a higher shutter speed, in cinematic capture we just don’t do that. For cinema work, I’ll always choose a stabilized lens over a non-stabilized lens. And as a notable bonus, the EF 24-70mm f/4 IS zoom has Macro capabilities, thus giving the user a chance to capture small objects at close ranges. Nice!

For those who want a mid-range zoom — but desire a bit more telephoto on the long end of the range — there’s the very affordable EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM. This lens is often bundled with EOS camera bodies as a “kit” lens, but don’t underestimate its capabilities — it is an “L” lens and that means that it achieves Canon’s highest standards for lens construction. All “L” lenses are optically superior and have excellent weather resistance as well. When used on an APS-C camera, the effective “look” of the lens is equivalent of a Full-Frame 38-168mm zoom.

Longer EF Zooms for Cinema Capture

I love the EF 70-200mm zoom! The versatile and flattering range of focal lengths from this lens always delivers. I wouldn’t dream of going on location without one. Mine is always accompanied by the Canon Extender 1.4X III to conveniently extend my reach out to 280mm. I recommend you do the same!

My personal choice is to always have the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, but I appreciate the slightly slower and considerably lighter EF 70-200mm f/4 IS. There’s also a budget-priced EF 70-200mm f/4 — non-IS — but I recommend that you get either IS version instead.

Specialty EF Zooms for Cinema Capture

Extreme sports filmmakers, who love to use wide-angles super close to their subjects, will appreciate the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM. Like any spice, the fisheye flavor is most effective when used with good taste.

The EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM lens is as big as its name suggests, but worth every ounce of its not insubstantial weight for documentary shooters working in extreme weather conditions. I’m one of those guys. Sometimes I simply can’t change lenses without the risk of destroying my camera’s sensor so this is an excellent tool. I only wish it focused a bit closer on the wide end.

I also like the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM. It collapses to a very small and packable size and works on my standard-length IDC SYTEM ZERO follow-focus rig, which is very important to me. It’s more compact than my EF 70-200mm and gives me more reach. A compact long reach cinema rig would be great for safari or motorsports work — two shooting situations that benefit from a compact cinema package.

If professional sports or wildlife work is your focus, you’d love to use the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X. It has a nifty built-in 1.4 Extender that allows you to optimize any fixed shooting position. It covers a breathtaking range of focal lengths and is an “L” lens with all of the quality that implies.

Low-Cost, Light Weight Prime Lenses

Okay, so the STM IS zoom lenses are very nice kit lenses but they’re still all variable-aperture lenses and relatively “slow” with maximum apertures from f/3.5 to f/5.6. And don’t forget: their image circles only cover the smaller EF-S sized or Super 35 cine sensors. No good for the full-frame cameras!

If you love low-light work — and are budget conscious — take a good look at this fast, economical, and optically-overachieving non-“L” EF lens trio:

  • EF 28mm f/1.8: It’s fast and at 28mm, this is my favorite “not-too-wide, just right” wide angle.
  • EF 50mm f/1.8 II: The rightly famous “Nifty Fifty”! It weighs next to nothing and is a real bargain.
  • EF 85mm f/1.8: It’s a physically small, short telephoto with a classically flattering perspective.

All three lenses use the same 58mm filter and that’s a great savings right there. When shooting video — and looking for the most natural and “filmic” result — we should follow the traditional motion picture “rule-of-thumb” and use a video shutter-speed that is “twice the frame rate.” Don’t panic! This “Rule” is simple to remember: If you’re recording at 24fps, use 1/50th of a second as your shutter-speed; if you’re recording at 30fps, use 1/60th as your shutter-speed. With these movie-camera-mimicking shutter speeds, your light sensitive HDSLR will definitely need “sunglasses” in bright, daylight conditions. Not real sunglasses, of course, the photographic equivalent: an ND or “Neutral Density” filter. I suggest a Variable Neutral Density filter, like those sold by award-winning cinema filter manufacturer Tiffen.

These three lenses are great in low light and, with a proper ND filter, equally great in bright light!

Please note! These lenses do not have image stabilization. Don’t overestimate your famously rock-steady handholding skills when transitioning from shooting stills to shooting video. Use a monopod or a proper fluid-head tripod when shooting! Sure, we want to keep the “move” in “movies,” but inadvertent camera shake is really, really uncool.

The Speedsters

For those lens connoisseurs with somewhat thicker wallets, a taste for visually intriguing “paper-thin” depth-of-field, and a ravenous need for speed, I suggest the following sumptuous offering:

  • EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM: Wide & Quick and excellent wide-angle choice for both Full-Frame and APS-C
  • EF 35mm f/1.4L USM: The fast “Standard Wide” for Full-Frame and “Normal” for APS-C
  • EF 50mm f/1.2L USM: A super-fast “Normal” for Full-Frame and a handsome “Short Tele” for APS-C
  • EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM: A very fast short Tele for shallow depth of field on full-figure compositions
  • EF 135mm f/2L USM: Experienced users consider this to be one of Canon’s sharpest primes
  • EF 200mm f/2L IS USM: Canon’s shortest - and fastest! - Super-Telephoto

Please note! Just because these lenses offer owl-like maximum apertures doesn’t mean that you should shoot everything wide-open all of the time! Things actually move in this craft we call “Movie Making” and chasing excessively shallow depth of field can make your life miserable in a millisecond. People actually breathe and shift their weight and even well-trained actors miss their “marks.” If you miss hitting the correct plane of focus, it can ruin an otherwise perfect take. Until you are very, very good at following focus, give yourself a fighting chance by shooting at a maximum aperture of something like f/5.6 to f/7.1...

Most HD cameras, like 100% of their film-based brethren, are “Manual Focus Only.” Manually tracking focus on a moving subject (often from a moving camera) is a real skill and not one that is mastered instantly. Just like learning to master any instrument, we must practice, practice, practice to achieve anything resembling grace.

Even a ground breaking camera like the EOS 70D, with its amazing Dual Pixel CMOS AF, will need to be manually focused quite often. All autofocus systems bias their focus towards the most foreground object within the autofocus sensors’ field of view. Good filmmaking often demands shooting through window mullions, past interesting foreground foliage, or within a tightly packed group of people. Get a good follow-focus device and learn the craft! Selectively assigning the plane of focus at a specific moment is one of the filmmaker’s most powerful tools.

The Shifty Ones

Canon’s collection of TS-E (Tilt / Shift) lenses is unequalled in the industry. TS-E lenses were originally intended for “corrective photography” and their unique mechanical characteristics empower digital filmmakers with capabilities that are unavailable in any other type of lens.

“Tilting” or “swinging” the lens allows the user to angle the plane of focus for both technical and artistic effects. To learn more about the technical possibilities available when one purposefully tilts or swings the Lens Plane away from parallel with the Sensor Plane, Google “The Scheimpflug Principle” — I am not kidding — for a number of mind-numbing but fascinating dissertations on the subject. It’s a bit too much to tease apart in this discussion, but well worth the investigation if corrective filmmaking is on your menu.

If you’re more of an artistic type and are mostly interested in weird or fashionable “looks,” simply grab a TS-E 45mm f/2.8 or TS-E 90mm f/2.8 lens and crank the tilt control back and forth until you find a look that appeals to you. The dream-like or hallucinogenic look offered by this “improperly” used technical lens can be a very effective tool for cinematic storytellers when the story demands a trippy look...

“Shifting” the front element of the lens laterally allows the camera to look a bit to the left or right — without actually panning the camera. This can be very useful when the camera needs to look into a mirror without actually seeing the camera in the reflection. When the lens is rotated to convert the shifting motion into movement on the vertical plane, the movement is referred to as a “Rise” or “Fall.” Using maximum “rise” allows the camera to see upwards with much less tilting of the tripod head and this means much less of a keystone effect on vertical parallel lines. Architectural photographers love having this capability as it results in images of tall buildings that look nice and “square” — without too many converging lines.

On the wide end of the TS-E line-up, Canon offers the breathtakingly sharp TS-E 17mm f/4L Tilt-shift lens. Its massive front element means that this lens cannot accept a screw-on front filter, so for cine applications, this one is best utilized on one of Canon’s Cinema EOS cameras with the very handy built-in Neutral Density filters.

The TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II does accept screw-in filters and is another great wide-angle lens. The TS-E 45mm f/2.8 nicely fills out the classic mid-range while the TS-E 90mm f/2.8 offers full corrective capacity with a greater working distance and the resulting flattering perspective.

The Long Ones

Canon offers an amazing series of Super Telephotos. This series includes the EF 200mm f/2L IS USM, the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM, the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM, the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, the EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM, and the EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM.

I own the EF 200mm f/2 IS USM (a seeming redundancy considering that I also have the wonderful EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II USM zoom) and I love its special “look” for beauty work. I also own the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II  USM and the EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM — a pair of lenses that are worth every bit their considerable size and weight when speed and magnification are paramount. Yep, they’re large lenses but I’m a large guy. Filmmakers of smaller stature can get excellent super-telephoto performance with less physical mass by choosing the classic EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM and the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM.

I have used the EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM on the great plains of Africa and have concluded that while it is a great “birder” lens, it is a bit too much magnification for large-mammal safari work. When I was far enough away from a lion or cheetah to fill the frame, the EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM’s incredible perspective compression also resulted in exaggerated “heat shimmers.” Very cool looking, but definitely a visual and psychological cinematic effect to consider.

The Macros

Canon again offers a full compliment of macro lenses. But for cinema work, I recommend one above all the others: the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM. It’s a nice short telephoto focal length, it’s fast for a macro at f/2.8, and features image stabilization. Very handy.

The Dream Team

In conclusion, I call this eclectic group of EOS-mount cinema-capable lenses “The Dream Team” because they’re the stuff of any ambitious filmmaker’s dreams.

I love using the EOS system of lenses for digital filmmaking! You can’t come any closer to assembling such a broad spectrum of lenses in PL-Mount — and that’s why so many other brands of HD cameras now offer the Canon EF mount as an option.

But who cares about that? I use both Canon glass and Canon cameras so I know that everything will work together — seamlessly.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

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