Choosing the Right Lens for Filmmaking

DP Doug Bischoff Gives His Best Tips for Finding the Right Lens

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Whether you're shooting an intense sporting event or the next Lifetime movie, selecting the right lens for the job is critical. Directory of Photography Doug Bischoff of BES Studios shares his advice for choosing the right lens for each project and which lenses are his favorite. 

PH: How did you get into the production industry? How did you know this is what you wanted to do?

Doug Bischoff: I started on the audio side. I was in a full-time touring Celtic Rock band for 6 years, and after I left that group I tried to make a go of it as an audio freelancer. I ended up not finding any recording work, but I did get a few gigs as a location recordist for some commercials. After doing a few of those, I was hired by a location production house, BES Studios, to be part of their audio team full-time.
Two years later they bought a new camera, a RED Scarlet, and the Director of Photography at the time was looking to hire a camera assistant for nearly every job. I was interested in the process, so I volunteered to be cross-trained. Totally fell in love with the camera side of life, and started going out and looking for work on independent films and shorts to learn more. Two years later the position of Cinematographer at BES Studios opened up and I was offered the job!
I suppose if you were to put a reason to it, it’s the perfect combination for me. I’m a techie and a visual artist. Being a Cinematographer in this digital age blends the two in a way that’s hard to find elsewhere. Plus, I really enjoy being part of the telling of a story, and the cinematographer is right at the heart of it all!
PH: Before starting any project — how do you determine what lenses to use? 

Doug Bischoff: I consider three main factors. First, what sort of look is the director going for? Vintage? Clean and "poppy"? Soft and full of flares and light effects? Each lens type is going to have a personality that might make it more or less suited for a particular job.

Second would be technical factors: can that lens or lens set work with the camera and support gear that will be required? A great example is using a gimbal. Some lenses just aren’t suitable for gimbal work due to weight or size, while others are perfect.

Lastly, the budget. Sure, we’d like to think that the creative vision will drive all decisions, but the truth is that it isn’t always possible to buy or rent the “perfect lens set” for the job, and you have to go with the best you can get for the budget.

PH: What does your pre-production process look like? 

Doug Bischoff: It starts with a conversation with the director and/or producer. What is the project? What’s the format: film or video; broadcast or online; 8-bit or RAW? A lot of time will be spent on talking about the locations, and how to light them to craft the look that supports the creative treatment. If I’m called in early enough, I’ll give my thoughts on the kind of gear and crew that will be needed to achieve the vision described, and let that be factored into the budget.

If the budget, or even crew and gear, are already locked in when I’m hired, then I’ll suggest any alterations to that plan that may be needed, and move on. Sometimes part of why you were hired is that you’re easy to work with: being known as someone who can come in and take what’s available and do a great job is often the deciding factor when personnel choices are being made.

After that, I’ll work with the pre-production team to figure out the shooting schedule and make any arrangements needed to be sure that the gear is lined up. Depending on the size of the crew I may be the one who packs the truck and preps the camera…. or I may show up on set with the camera prepped and the lights roughed in already!
PH: You use a Fujinon Cabrio 20-120 zoom in the studio — let's start with specs. 
Doug Bischoff: It’s a Fujinon XK20-120mm Cabrio. That means it is a zoom lens that can be set anywhere from 20mm (typically a wide shot) to 120mm (a rather tight shot). It sells with a PL style mount, but this particular one was modified by Duclos Lenses to have an EF-S mount for use on our RED camera.
The lens is “parfocal" which means that it will stay in focus throughout the zoom’s travel, unlike many lenses where you have to re-focus every time the zoom changes. It has an ENG-style motor drive for zooming in with a motor, or you can remove that and handle the zoom “on the barrel” by hand (which is what we usually do). It has a maximum aperture of T3.5, which is a good number for the kinds of work we do. It lets in a good amount of light, and yields a very satisfyingly shallow depth of field through most of the zoom range. It's a bit on the long and heavy side, which is why we have other lenses that we go to Leica Elmarit lenses for example.
PH: What types of projects are shot on the Fujinon? 
Doug Bischoff: We shoot commercials and product shots on the Fujinon: it’s so sharp and the colors are so vivid without being unrealistic! It doesn’t flare unnecessarily, but when it does it’s rather pretty. To be honest, when we got the lens it was almost like we got a new camera system: our images gained a “snap” to them which we’d previously found hard to achieve.
PH: How has it helped you achieve the shots you want? 
Doug Bischoff: Mostly vis-a-vis the look. The lens has a “resolving power” that easily handles our 4K workflow, meaning that the final image it puts on the sensor is sharp even at Ultra High Definition resolution. There isn’t a particular color cast to the image, as sometimes happens with certain lenses, and it is particularly good at skin tones and greens (such as trees, grass, and the like).
The fact that it is a zoom lens allows us to pick our framing and depth of field very quickly without having to change lenses to achieve a particular effect. While it’s often true that prime lenses (those that have a fixed focal length and don’t zoom) have a higher quality to them, this lens will give just about any prime lens a run for its money! Sure, you can just plop the camera down wherever and then frame up using the zoom, but knowing what focal length you WANT to use, and putting the camera in the RIGHT place for that focal length to work with the desired framing is a far better way to get high-quality images.
PH: Let's talk about your projects where you've used Leica, Rokinon, Zeiss and Cooke lenses (and a short break down of each). 
  • Leica 
  • Rokinon
  • Cooke 
Doug Bischoff: While the Fujinon is a great all-around lens that lets us be fast and flexible in the studio or on location, there are times where we need a lighter lens or a particular look for a project. For example, a set of Rokinon primes may be called up when we need something lightweight to fly on a gimbal like the Ronin. Or when we’re doing a two-camera shoot and need a set of primes to make sure the two cameras have a consistent look.
Prior to purchasing the Fujinon, we used a set of Leica primes for all our work. These were fantastic lenses: vintage German glass that had been modified for cinema and video use by Duclos Lenses. They had a “smoothing” effect on most subjects, easing the harshness that sometimes plagues video production. It’s hard to describe. I heard one director call the look “creamy” without being “unfocused” or “soft.” They also had the benefit of being extremely lightweight, making them a good fit for gimbal or handheld work. They are compact: very short barrels, which is a blessing when you’re on a gimbal or handheld, but can be a problem when you want to put wireless follow focus and aperture control on, or perhaps a teleprompter!
Another great example of lens choice was on a spot aired nationally on PBS and shot in a very modern library setting, featuring kids spending time there and learning. The whole project called for a look that was warm and inviting, but also clean and modern. That’s a tall order, but tailor-made for a set of Cooke S4 primes. The famous “Cooke Look” fit the bill exactly, and that’s what we elected to go with. Those lenses call for a rather high-end camera system, and all the support in people and equipment that goes with it, but it was definitely the right choice.
PH: What factors influence your lens choices? What tips would you give others who need to decide on what lenses to use for their projects? 
Doug Bischoff: Well, they say the best tool for the job is the one you have with you at the time. While there’s some truth to that, it discounts the value of planning for success! My advice on choosing lenses would be to try and gain some experience shooting with, or at least looking through, as many different lenses as you can. Go to your local camera rental shop and ask if you can see some of their rental lenses demoed for your next upcoming project. You may be surprised to see a lens that just jumps out at you as “the right lens” for the project. Trade shows are another great place to get a chance to see various lens and camera combinations and take a look at the results “right out of the camera” without a lot of processing applied.
When choosing lenses it’s really important to get a few technical details right. The main ones would be the size of the image that the lens will project: does it cover your sensor? And the mount: can you attach it to your camera or get an adapter that will make it possible? Common sensor sizes such as Micro 4/3rds, Super 35 or APS-C, and “Full Frame” 35mm require that your lens make an image that doesn’t leave the edges black in a “porthole” effect. Some mount types can be converted to work with others, while some cannot! It’s pretty easy to adapt a Canon EF mount lens to work on a Micro 4/3rds camera, for example, but much harder to put that same EF mount lens on a PL mount camera!
PH: How do you know when a lens isn't right for a project? 
Doug Bischoff: The main things that will discount a lens before it even lands on location are technical, in my opinion. If it won’t fit on your camera, you don’t have the right support hardware to make it work right, it doesn’t resolve well on your sensor or even doesn’t cover it entirely, or it’s too heavy to work with your support system... then it’s not the right lens for the job! Beyond that, a lens with the wrong “feel” can make it harder to get the right mood to the finished piece. If we’d chosen a super-sharp, cool, technical and “edgy” or “harsh” lens for that spot that wanted warm and inviting, it would not have looked right.
PH: What projects are you currently working on?
Doug Bischoff: I currently am in post with two feature films I shot over the past year, Last Call and Hawks Ridge, and am in preparation for another film, The Ghosts of Cumberland Gap, with independent film production company Ceridwen Productions. In the meantime, I work with BES Studios as their in-house Director of Photography on commercials, training films, and corporate pieces. We’ve just finished a training film for the US Army, and are shooting a series of interviews for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
PH: Is there anything else you'd like to add? 
Doug Bischoff: It’s never been a better time to be a filmmaker! The variety of cameras on the market that are even easier to get your hands on, at prices that were unheard of just 5 years ago, and the lens choices and camera support choices that exist are all the more reason to get out there and start shooting!
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