A Low Budget Filmmaker's Lens Kit: Nikon Primes

A Low Budget Filmmaker's Lens Kit: Nikon Primes

One of my favorite cameras for shooting video is still the Canon 5D Mark ii. Ever since '08 I've been loving this little box that does two jobs in one: high resolution photos and 1080p video at 24fps.


If you've picked one up recently (or for that matter, if you have a DSLR that shoots video, a BlackMagic Design Cinema Camera, a Red One, a micro four thirds camera, or any other video camera that takes Nikon lenses with the correct adapter), to shoot your film and are struggling to find a lens kit, let me tempt you with the following list.


Are there better choices out there for shooting your film? Almost certainly. There are $45,000 cinema lenses that you can buy or rent for your production if you have the cash, and these types of lenses are made for professional use, but they also are huge and weigh a ton.


You could also just get a nice zoom like the Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8 to cover several focal lengths in one lens. You're also talking a hefty lens, weight-wise and price-wise. Personally I'm not a fan of zoom lenses for any serious work. They are made for convenience first in mind. The 24-70mm f2.8 is a great lens though. 



On the right starting in the center are the 35mm f2, 50mm f1.4, and Series E (yuck!) 28mm f2.8.

Size comparison with two newer AF lenses on left


Small primes are available in many forms. Canon makes consumer and pro-level quality lenses of almost any focal length (they also offer a line of cinema lenses now)...but again we're talking big price tags and lenses made for photography...so mostly plastic construction is common. The Canon EF 50mm f1.4 is so fragile I have to make sure it doesn't bump into anything as I know it will break if not babied.


Now this is where Nikon manual focus primes come in. These little lenses are almost always made from 90-100% metal. They deliver image quality around the same level as Canon's L lenses, and they are usually small enough to fit in a pants pocket. I've compiled a kit of some of the best Nikon primes for shooting video, as well as some more budget-friendly lenses that are still insanely great for their price. 


First of all, if you have any budget at all, stay away from Nikon's E-Series manual focus lenses. Some of them are actually nice, but all of them are made with more plastic than regular Nikon manual focus primes. You should go for Nikon's Nikkor AI or AIS lenses, as these are newer lenses, some of which are still made and sold new today. Here we go: 


(These links are to either amazon, ebay, or wherever each lens is most available)

(I call these lenses "Nikon," but they are really "Nikkor" branded, which is just Nikon's brand for their lenses)


Nikon 20mm f2.8 AI or AIS ($300 used) - There are several different versions of Nikon's 20mm prime out there. Several of them are f3.5 or f4, so I just recommend the f2.8 version for filmmaking as this is the fastest 20mm Nikon offers. I used the f3.5 AI version for a long time and it is seriously the sharpest ultra wide prime I've used.


Nikon 28mm f2 AIS ($300-$500 used) - A fast wide angle for a relatively cheap price. Sharp as Christmas. 


Nikon 28mm f2.8 AI or AIS ($100-$200 used) - More affordable alternative to the f2 version, this one is smaller and still very sharp. 


Nikon 35mm f1.4 AIS ($800 new, $400 used) - Arguably one of the best and most unique 35mm f1.4 lenses out there. Extremely high build quality and image quality. Get this as your fast wide angle lens, as this is the most affordable super-fast wide angle from Nikon.

Many people are also picking up cheap Samyang lenses of this same focal length and aperture which are supposedly really good too. The Nikon will retain its value better and probably last longer in terms of build quality.


Nikon 35mm f2 AI or AIS ($100 - $200 used) - An alternative to the f1.4 version, this f2 is one of the best values along with the 50mm lenses from Nikon. This lens is sharp at f2 and the build quality again is all metal and unmatched by modern AF lenses; a perfect piece of glass for filmmaking! 

Watch ebay carefully as I did. I found one of these AI versions in good condition for about $70! 

Older versions of this lens tend to have looser focus rings from age and use. This doesn't affect anything, and will still work great on a follow focus.


Nikon 50mm f1.2 AIS - ($500 new, $300-$400 used) - This little nugget is the ultimate low-light lens at a pretty affordable price. It's not much more than the f1.4 version, so if you're looking for a fast prime this could be your lens. Same all metal construction and sharp optics of other Nikon primes.


Nikon 50mm f1.4 AIS ($400 new, $100-$300 used) - This lens is still sold, although oddly available everywhere for only $100-300 used, and usually closer to $100. I guess because this lens is so common it doesn't sell used for very much like other Nikon manual primes. 

My AI version of this lens has an AI coupler issue where when I focus quickly on my D800 the aperture blades close and open in a flickering sort of motion. This is not an issue on the 5D as it doesn't couple mechanically with the aperture. 


Nikon 50mm f1.8 AI or AIS ($100 used) - This little gem is as sharp as the f1.4 and usually even less expensive. Build quality on this lens seems even better than the f1.4, but they are about the same- all metal.  


Other 50mm primes from Nikon - There's the 50mm f2 AI - no reason to jump for this lens unless you find a great deal on one and don't mind a slightly slower aperture. Same all metal build.


Nikon 58mm f1.2 NOCT - This is more of a collectors item, fetching around $3,000-$4,000 on ebay. It is the sharpest Nikon lens at its larger apertures, so it has that going for it. It could be one of the sharpest lenses made by anyone when used wide open. Other primes used wide open will be less sharp. None of this hardly matters when talking about video. I'd recommend going for the regular f1.2 50mm instead of the NOCT, unless you demand the highest quality wide open images for photos, not just video.


Nikon 55mm f2.8 AI or AIS micro ($400 new, $150-$250 used) - Great lens for doing macro work, and can be used as a standard 50mm lens if you don't need the speed of a f1.4 or f1.8 lens. Extremely sharp, sharper than other 50mm lenses, and with less image distortion. Very high quality all metal construction. Many good reasons to get this lens, only downside being not as fast as other 50mm lenses. 


Nikon 85mm f2 AIS ($200-300 used) - There are several 85mm Nikon lenses and they are all sharp and well made. I wouldn't hesitate to get any of them. I have the AF-D version of this lens and it has chromatic aberrations at f1.8-f2, clearing up by f2.8. Not really an issue for most situations, except for outdoor shots, but in those instances you'll be shooting at smaller apertures anyway.


Nikon 105mm f2.5 AIS ($200 used) - Many consider this lens one of the sharpest out there. Really, there are tons of sharp telephoto lenses similar in size, weight, and price. This one is all metal, sharp as heck, pretty fast at f2.5, and doesn't cost too much. There's the f1.8 version that will cost a bit more understandably for the extra half stop. 


Nikon 135mm f2.8 AI ($75-$200 used) - This is a less popular focal length for manual focus lens lovers, so you can get it for next to nothing. Super sharp. Older versions may show some chromatic aberrations at f2.8, but so will most of these primes when used at larger apertures. These CAs are usually only obvious when shooting bright white subjects and in areas of high contrast, so indoors you're okay and outdoors just stop down a bit.

There are some f2 versions of this lens selling for around $500. That is a different lens altogether, and sells for so much because of its f2 aperture. I'm sure the less expensive f2.8 versions deliver similar quality images. 


If you need longer lenses, 200mm or 300mm primes start to get expensive, especially if you need a fast f2.8. I'd recommend the Nikon 80-200mm f2.8D zoom or the 300mm f4.5 AI with a tripod collar


I've recently picked up a Nikon Series E 70-210mm f4 AIS because I wanted to try it for myself. It has sort of a legendary status as a super sharp lens. It really does deliver sharp images, close to my 80-200mm f2.8D AF. Seems like a good backup lens or something to take into places where I wouldn't take my more expensive lenses. It's a push pull lens and I'm not sure how great it works as a serious filmmaking lens, but for around $75 I'm sure it'll satisfy. Take a look at www.keh.com and browse their selection of old Nikon lenses. There are tons and most deliver sharp images and are built to last. 


Image Stabilization (or VR, OS, etc.)

If you don't already know, using lenses on a quality professional tripod means image stabilization is not necessary. So if you're looking at any IS-equipped lenses, remember that their non-IS counterparts will work just as well and be less expensive for shooting video. The only time IS may be useful is for handheld shots, but in that case a real SteadiCam rig is way more useful and effective. Buy a non-IS lens and a SteadiCam rig for the same price as a IS lens. IS is more useful for photography. 



You have to use an adapter on anything other than Nikon bodies like the d800, d600, d4, d7000, etc. I'd recommend getting a well-made, more expensive adapter, like this one, rather than a cheap $10 one. The cheap ones work, but may break in the middle of an important shoot, and they are always hit-and-miss because they come from different overseas factories with varying degrees of quality. I've gotten $10 ones that were great, and ones that sucked horribly. This Fotodiox adapter is one of the best values, and it can be used to change the aperture on Nikon's newer AF-S lenses as well.


You have no electronic control over the Nikon primes on a Canon EOS camera. You cannot change aperture or have auto focus. Some of the adapters give you focus confirmation when used in regular picture taking mode, and this does come in handy for that use, but for filmmaking this is worthless and usually only a feature on those shoddily-made adapters. 


You need a follow focus setup for these lenses to get accurate, smooth focus while shooting your film. Focusing by hand will work, especially for wide angle lenses, but if you shoot longer than 50mm you can't get away with focusing by hand any longer. Don't be cheap and get an inexpensive follow focus setup either. Make sure it has a good reputation and is made of mostly metal. The plastic ones will disappoint. Here's an example of a quality follow focus - yes they are not cheap, but worth the investment. Here's an example of a cheap follow focus that will only frustrate you and only prolong your inevitable purchase of the quality one. 


What lenses to buy for particular uses

If you've seen some beautiful looking video taken on a DSLR and want to know what lenses people are using, I'll fill you in. When you see video that looks extremely shallow, with lots of creamy, blurry backgrounds, they're shooting a wide aperture lens. I consider a wide aperture anything f2.8 and faster (like f1.8 or f1.4). 

You can get the same shallow beautiful footage by shooting with a Nikon 50mm f1.4 or f1.8 wide open or at f2-f2.8 on a full frame camera like the 5D Mark ii. If you're using a crop sensor body like a Canon 7D, then you'll need to shoot a faster (wider) aperture to get the same shallow depth of field as 5D. 

If you're shooting these Nikon lenses, any of them will give you the shallow look you crave, but make sure you've set your aperture to the proper setting - from wide open to f2.8. Once you get to f4 or f5.6, you lose that shallow look. On telephoto lenses smaller apertures still have a shallow depth of field, so keep that in mind. Wider lenses like 35mm to 50mm need to be shot at around f2. 

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