Good camera lenses don’t come cheap, but if you’re shopping at Amazon or B&H Photo, you may notice some extreme deviations: cine lenses (or cine lenses) designed specifically for filmmakers. While you can get a Canon 50mm f/1.8 for $125, a Canon 50mm T/1.3 lens with a Cine lens is a steep $3,950. So what makes this lens different? Let’s find out.

Most lens manufacturers offer several lenses with the same focal length at different price points. To continue the example above, Canon has the 50mm f/1.8 at $125, the 50mm f/1.4 at $329, the 50mm f/1.2L at $1299 and the 50 -mm T1.3 cinema lens for $3,950. They all have the same focal length, so the image will look the same no matter what lens you use, especially if you use the same aperture. However, there is a big difference between them.

The best materials

One of the biggest differences between cheap photographic lenses, expensive photographic lenses and cinema lenses is the quality of the materials used. The Canon 50mm f/1.8 — an example that is popular with amateur videographers — is made of plastic, while the c/1.2 lens and T/1.3 lens are metal. This means that more expensive lenses tend to be better able to withstand the daily abuse of professionals.

CONNECTED: What is optical distortion in photography?

It’s not just the outside that the materials are of higher quality. A lot of work goes into making cinema lenses as optically perfect as humanly possible. While distortion, chromatic aberration, or vignetting is a common occurrence even in high-end photographic lenses, manufacturers go to great lengths to minimize it with cinema lenses. It’s much easier to fix a few small issues in a photo post than it is in a 120-minute feature film.

RELATED: Photography: What is chromatic aberration and how can I fix it?

While the difference in image quality between a camera lens and a cinema lens will in most cases be too subtle for anyone but experts to notice, it is the experts who capture it.

T-Stops instead of F-Stops

For photography, aperture is measured in apertures. It is simply a measure of the relationship between lens aperture size and lens focal length. Apertures aren’t good enough for video, however: you also need to know how much light is lost as it passes through the lens. This is where T-stops or transfer stops come in.

CONNECTED: What is T-Stop in photography and videography?

If you have two different lenses — say a 35mm and a 50mm — with the same aperture at the same shutter speed and ISO, the resulting image will have very similar, but not identical, exposure. This isn’t really a problem in photography, but it’s a big problem in filmmaking when you change lenses frequently and need everything to stay identical. To correct this, cinema lenses use T-stops.

If you take the same two lenses and set them to the same T-stop, shutter speed and ISO, the resulting image will be identical. That’s why Canon’s 50mm Canon T1.3 lens has a series of sister lenses, 24mm T1.5 and 85mm T1.3. They are intended to be used together as a set. T1.5 is the same for all three lenses.

More precise focus control

The vast majority of photographs are taken using autofocus. It’s gotten so good with modern cameras that the only time you really need to use manual focus is when you’re doing something super-powered like astrophotography. This means that many modern photography lenses have rather poor manual focus control. They often don’t have markings for focal lengths, and, even if they do, they have very limited «focal focus» — how far you can turn the focus ring before you’re at close focus or infinity — meaning you don’t have much control.

CONNECTED: What is autofocus and what do the different modes mean?

All Cine lenses are manual focus and have clearly marked focal length scales. There are hard stops at the closest focus distance and infinity with long focal lengths in between for ultra-precise settings. They also have grooves on the focusing ring that can be used with automatic and subsequent focusers. This means filmmakers can quickly switch between two preset focus points or track focus on someone as they move through the scene. If the cine lens is also a zoom lens, then the focus point will remain the same when focusing, which is not necessarily true for fixed lenses.

In general, cine lenses give you much more control over focusing, while still photography lenses mostly leave it up to your camera.

Fixed design

Cine lenses tend to come in sets such as the Canon 24mm, 50mm and 85mm which I used as an example in this article. All lenses in a set share the same form factor, filter size, optical design, focus adjustment, and the like. This means that the image will not only be incredibly consistent between lenses, but can also be used with the same accessories. While this may seem like a minor point, it’s actually a huge benefit for filmmakers who often work with complex setups that include focus trackers, balanced gimbals, ND filters, and any other kit they can put on. If you can just change lenses without having to change anything, it will be much easier for you to focus on the finer details of filmmaking.

Cine lenses are incredible pieces of glass, but their special shooting characteristics mean they don’t come cheap. In fact, most filmmakers don’t even own cine lenses (some of which can cost north of $100,000) — they shoot them on a daily basis for filming. The good news is that if you ever want to try it, you can probably rent it too.

Image Credits: ShareGrid, ShareGrid via UnSplash.

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