Cinema vs Photo Lenses: What’s the Difference?

If you really want to take your production capabilities to the next level, you might want to consider cinema lenses. You might also have wondered how they differ from traditional photo lenses and what they are best used for. If any of this is the case for you, then you’re in the right place. In this article we’re going to have a closer look at the subject and analyse the main differences between cinema and photo lenses, along with why you might want to invest in some to take your production capabilities to the next level.

What are cinema lenses?

As you can probably guess from their name—cinema lenses are primarily for high-end video production and shooting movies. That doesn’t mean you can’t shoot a movie without a cinema lens, and it doesn’t mean you have to use cinema lenses solely for movie shoots, but they’re a high-end piece of kit for serious videographers.

Standard lenses are generally built for photography that have been co-opted for video, rather than designed for movie production from the ground up and have film in mind for all their applications and features.

There is a big variance between the features of a cinema lens and a photo lens. Not just the size and the weight, but also the materials used and the mechanics of the equipment. Photo lenses are designed for easy use by a single person who both operates the camera and adjusts the functions, while cinema lenses may be used by a small team with their own roles and multiple people working on one camera. It could be one person’s role to handle focus while someone else takes care of framing or moving the camera. Another team member could even be used to adjust exposure. As you can see, cinema lenses aren’t really for one person to use alone, and are only for people who are very serious about video production.

Cinema lens size

Cinema lenses are much bigger than photo lenses, and this is obvious to anyone who simply looks at them. Some cinema lenses can be absolutely massive. They also normally use much higher quality materials, like metal casing, large glass elements. Most of what goes into a cinema lens has been designed to be durable for a long period of time, potentially even decades.

Cinema lenses have been built for ruggedness and to stand heavy use and wear and tear on a film set, unlike their photo lens counterparts.

When a cinema lens is changed, a lot of the extra gear that comes with the lens will also need to be moved, like the gears and more. This means cinema lenses aren’t exactly versatile for those who want to quickly move equipment or change the features of a film set.


The size of the cinema lens also has a big role in the dynamics of focus. Cinema lenses have large gears around them, and these are used to operate both focus and aperture.

Unlike many photo lenses that have auto-focus features, cinema lenses must be adjusted manually, normally by a trained professional—making it harder for an amateur to just start filming with a cinema lens. The operator will have the ability to change the focus as filming progresses.

Cinema lens aperture

As well as controlling exposure and focus, a crew member will also be responsible for aperture. With many normal cameras, the camera itself is responsible for controlling the lens’s aperture setting. The aperture can also be fine-tuned much more precisely than having broad clickable settings.

Cinema lenses also have what are known as T-stops which are similar to F-stops in a normal lens. These refer to the aperture in a different way, While the F-stop notes the size of an opening, the T-stop notes the amount of light being transmitted. All of these make the features of the lens much more adaptable and customisable, but also make it more complicated to use unless you know what you’re doing.

Cost of cinema lenses

As you’ve probably already guessed, cinema lenses aren’t cheap. Not only are they made from high quality materials that are built to stand the test of time, they’re also intricate pieces of kit and only quality is adequate. This means even the cheapest cinema lenses are way more expensive than some more expensive photo lenses.

A reasonably adequate entry-level cinema lens like the Sony FE 24mm will cost around $1,400. Not cheap, and a lot more than many photo lenses. But that’s just the beginning of where your budget could take you. A high-end ZEISS Supreme Radiance Set costs a massive $170,000!

These sets are so expensive because they’ve got extremely high quality glass. They’re so expensive, that production companies might actually rent them instead of owning them themselves, but they are built to last decades so could be a worthwhile investment for serious firms.

Budget cinema lenses

You might be put off by the cost of cinema lenses, but budget versions are available. These aren’t as good, obviously, but can still be good enough. Some entry level options can be got hold of for as little as $400.

Getting started with cinema lenses

You might want to stick to standard lenses or the ones you already have until you’re sure a cinema lens is for you. You can still do a really good job with it, and the results might surprise you if you really learn what to do. You can also customize your standard lenses with new gears or other features to make them better and more like a cinema lens.

Before buying a cinema lens, try using or borrowing one to see if they’re for you. Experiment with all the features and do some trial shoots. Cinema lenses aren’t for everyone, but they are the best in the business if you really want next level video production capabilities.

Hopefully, you can now see how cinema lenses differ when compared to traditional photo lenses.

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