Through the Looking Glass: Choose Lenses, Not Cameras

I know what you’re thinking.

Story is the only thing that matters in a film — everything else is secondary. Cameras and lenses are just tools, nothing more. You’re right to think that, of course, and I guess we can be friends now.

If the screenplay is bad and the story is boring, it doesn’t matter what tools you use to try and make it come to life. It probably won’t.

Be that as it may, most indie filmmakers that I know — present company included — have asked themselves these questions:

“What camera should we film on? Do we need to film on RED? Can we afford to rent one? Should it be a Dragon or an Epic? What’s more important — cameras or lenses?”

This has a tendency of spiralling out into long discussions that have no end. They frequently stretch far into the night, fuelled by equal parts desire to not fuck it all up, and the fear of doing just that. There are only so many times you can debate what’s more important — cameras or lenses — before you start seriously considering just filming everything on an iPhone.

(Which is not a bad idea, by the way.)

Let’s take a moment to understand how every digital film camera works. In essence — it’s all about light.

The lens is the one thing you have the most control over because once light passes through it — everything else works in the exact same way for every camera out there.

Every digital camera has this thing called the sensor, which acts as the brain. The sensor captures and analyzes the amount of light that the lens lets in. The way that’s done is simple in principle.

The sensor is built of millions of light-sensitive cavities called photosites. When you hit “Record” they start collecting light photons that pass through the lens, which the camera then converts into electrical signals that are stored as data. The bigger the camera’s sensor is — the more light it can capture, which translates into better image quality.

To capture coloured images, each sensor has another layer that sits on top of the photosites. Because colour is just light of different frequencies and wavelengths, this filter works kind of like a one-way mirror. Each photosite filter lets only one of three primary colours pass through it — red, green, or blue — and reflects the rest back. These filters are arranged on top of the sensor in rows that alternate the colours they record or reject.

Most camera manufacturers use something called a Bayer filter array, which records 50% green light, 25% red, and 25% blue. The reason Bayer Filter Array favours green light is simple — the human eye is more sensitive to green.

Bayer Filter Array

Everything that happens after light enters the lens is fundamentally the same for almost every camera on the market — light is converted into data.

Different cameras are perfect for different applications, and all things being equal — the lens is the one thing you have the most control over.

So what do different cameras do best? To answer that question, let’s look at the latest, top of the line gear from three companies — ARRI, RED, and Blackmagic.

The first thing you’ll notice if you look at the tech specifications is the difference in sensor size and resolution:

ARRI ALEXA 65: 54.12mm x 25.58mm sensor, 6.5K resolution.
RED WEAPON: 40.96mm x 21.60mm sensor, 8K resolution.
BLACKMAGIC URSA: 25.34mm x 14.25mm sensor, 4.5K resolution.

It is tempting to declare RED or ARRI as the best because of how technologically impressive both cameras are. It is just as tempting to say the same about Blackmagic because of how cheap the URSA is, and how well it holds up even when compared to ARRI’s Alexa.

Assumptions about “this camera is the best because of X” are usually misleading because they fail to address one important question — best for what? Let’s try to answer that by looking at the following two things — sensor size and resolution.

RED Weapon

The bigger the camera’s sensor, the more light it can capture. That translates into two things — higher image quality, and a lot of information for each frame of filmed footage. The more information each frame has, the more malleable it is in post-production.

Resolution is the potential for detail. More potential for detail means greater creative flexibility in editing — re-framing, zooming, cropping.

So what is each camera best suited for?

Film on ARRI if you’re adding a lot of high-grade visual effects. Because ALEXA 65 has the biggest sensor, each frame it produces carries a lot of information that can be changed and added to in post-production.

Film on RED if you care about two things — maximum creative flexibility (even David Fincher re-frames), repurposing content for future platforms, and higher quality playback.

Film on Blackmagic if you’re making your first/second/third short film, a music video, or a commercial and use a great lens that gets everything out of what that camera has to give.

The important thing to remember is this — the lens directs how light rays hit the sensor. The sensor just interprets that information. To better understand what that means in practice — I talked to a cinematographer friend of mine, Matvey Stavitsky.

Matvey Stavitsky |

What’s more important — cameras or lenses?” I say into the phone, skipping the customary greeting.

“Lenses, of course,” says Matt, without skipping a beat, “A lens is like a beautifully crafted piece of art.”

When the phone rings, Matt is preparing for the next day’s shoot — a promo spot for Adidas Running Club. His camera bag is packed with twenty different lenses, a majority of which are handmade and vintage — his most prized possessions.

“A few years ago it was thought that cinematographers should own lenses, not a camera. Roger Deakins probably has his own set. If he’s working with the Cohen brothers and they’re giving him freedom in terms of how he wants the film to look — he would use his own lenses. I’m probably wrong,” Matt laughs, “but I want to think that!”

Her, a 2013 cinematic marvel shot by Hoyte van Hoytema, used high speed prime lenses from Zeiss (35mm and 50mm) as well as a vintage Canon zoom lens from the 1970s. These lenses set the tone of the film, giving Her that contemporary nostalgic look.

Still from “Her” — Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Stanley Kubrick’s famous last work Eyes Wide Shut was filmed by candlelight on two lightning-fast Zeiss lenses that were originally developed for NASA (50mm and 35mm f/0.7)

Still from “Eyes Wide Shut” — Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Matt continues, “You can get great footage with a Canon 5D and an anamorphic Cooke lens. The image quality would be amazing if the lighting is right. The picture style and the feel of the image would also depend on the camera.”

Matt pauses to think.

“But in the end — you can definitely achieve much more if you have a budget camera and a kickass lens.”

A version of this article originally appeared in Format Magazine — “Should You Invest in a Camera or Lenses?

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