With the ubiquity of high quality camera phones and the popularity of instagram and other photo based social media sites, it seems that everyone is a photographer nowadays.  However the complexity of professional photography is immense, a combination of both technical knowledge and skills and artistic instincts.  Snapping a quick photo on your new iPhone is easy, but what exactly makes that camera a good camera? Very few know the details…

One entree into knowing the technical backend of cameras is to study the different types of lenses.  Lenses are obviously extremely important and probably the most impactful element of a camera.  One of the more fundamental differences between lenses is whether they are leveraged for video/cinema, or whether they are meant for single shot photography.

Let’s take a look at the differences:

Photography Lenses vs. Cine Lenses – The Differenes

Video lenses do have many similar attributes to photo lenses, with a some very distinct differences.  We will go through the 3 main purposes of a lens, i.e. the focus, iris, and zoom, as well as physical characteristics.

  • Physical/Dimension Characteristics

As you will see, video lenses need to support much more functionality as cinema lenses, and as such will be much larger and more expensive.  Many photo lenses, with the possible exception of telephoto lenses, can be small, compact, and may or may not have advanced mechanical functions like auto-focus/etc.

  • Differences in Focus Control

Maintaining focus is extremely important in any lens.  In photographic lenses, the quickness of the autofocus is extremely important, since you are trying to capture one point in time, and can lose a great shot if you don’t have it in focus.

But when you have subjects that are in motion like in video, auto-focus is rarely used.  In fact, it introduces a new concept calls “follow focus”, which is often used with an additional piece of equipment (in fact, on film sets, there is a specific person responsible for the follow focus, to make sure the focus is maintained.   The best camera/lens brands, such as canon lenses for video (which I use as part of my gear) integrate with these external controls.

  • Differences in Iris

Aperture control in still photo lens is usually chunked into 1/3 stop increments, and controlled within the camera.  Since changing the iris won’t ever be caught on film, it doesn’t matter if the change is a bit clunky.  However in video cameras this would be very noticeable, so they have continuous iris controls that allow for smooth transitions with no built in stops.

  • Differences in Zoom

A main difference in zoom capabilities is that in still photos you don’t need to maintain focus while zooming.  However very often in video shots you will be shooting video and zooming in or out at the same time, hence focus will need to be maintained.  This is called “parfocal”, same focus, different zooms, as opposed to “varifocal” which has different focuses at different zooms.