Get the fixed focal length habit for a truly cinematic feel
Remember the article about how great zoom lenses are for shooting video? Convenient, speed up your workflow, offer great flexibility? All true. So who needs any other kind of lens? Why bother with a prime, a lens with just one focal length? Forget those, right?
Well, no. Not least because by that logic a monster 14-600mm zoom (if such a thing existed) would be the only lens you’d ever need. And good luck running round shooting for a day with that on the front of your camera.
Prime lenses are a fantastic choice for filmmaking. Pretty much every movie you’ve ever seen is mainly shot with primes. And why are they the first choice for moviemakers? Some of the reasons are creative, but there are also some very good practical reasons for including a prime or two in any camera bag.
Zooms do their thing by very clever shifting of optic elements, moving glass around in your lens. That means more optical elements, more mechanisms, more weight. Fast zooms (ie lenses with a big aperture) especially so.
Primes don’t. They do one thing and the simpler construction and lack of weight has great advantages. Easier to balance on gimbals, easier to put on dolly tracks, easier to handhold and just plain easier to cart around. Over a long shoot you’ll be glad of a prime lens.
Purple fringing? Barreling? Pin cushioning? There are countless vloggers on YouTube railing against these aspects of lens performance. I’m more of a ‘I think it’s cool/it’s really not a big deal’ filmmaker but they do make a point. The complexity of zooms means things like chromatic aberration and image distortion can be more noticeable compared to primes. Primes are, by and large, simpler and sharper.
NIKKOR zoom lenses are marvels of complex engineering to be able to do what they do – and they do it brilliantly. But all that complexity comes at a cost. The simpler construction of prime lenses often makes them more affordable options.
Ready for your close up
Your prime is faster than your zoom. Not only does it feel sharper even wide open, but you can focus much closer to your subject and enjoy beautiful bokeh. Suddenly, it might feel that a zoom’s convenience isn’t as cool as a prime’s creativity.
Part of the trick of a zoom’s ‘handiness’ is that you can frame and then reframe a shot from one position. With a prime, to reframe your shot, you need to move your tripod. And now you’re starting to think like a true movie director. You’re not changing your focal perspective, i.e. your creative story-telling choice, you’re moving your set-up to frame the subject.
This is a key artistic choice that every great director makes dozens of times a day, because to do the opposite is to compromise. If you have a great wide angle shot, but want to frame it tighter, zooming in loses a little of that amazing panoramic feel.
That great isolation you have around that person? If you just zoomed out to include more of the scene, you’ll start to lose that great subject ‘pop’ you’re getting from the longer focal length.
If you prioritise the focal length choice, you’ll notice you set up very differently. Even with a zoom, I generally pick the focal length I want for the shot and set the camera position to make the frame. Ultimately, I’m treating a zoom pretty much as a prime, and if I have any time or opportunity to grab a prime instead I always do.
It’s a subtle shift, but I guarantee once you start thinking ‘fixed focally’ you’ll notice your footage looks more considered, sharper, and in a way more cinematic. So, move your feet! If great directors are willing to move a big camera with three people operating it, the sound guy and half a dozen people behind them to get the shot they want, you should be willing to move your super-compact Nikon mirrorless.
Choosing your prime lens
Focal length is a very personal stylistic choice, so you won’t need to cover every conceivable angle, but there are some lens choices below that are worth considering to get the ball rolling.
Long distance lover
I love the NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S. It was the lens that made me fall in love with the Z mount. Fast, but so light and compact, ridiculously sharp, and makes everything look a million dollars.
Coming from portraits it’s a focal length I know at a DNA level for stills, but it is also great for video. It’s naturally isolating for your subject, especially flattering for people, and gives a great pro look to moving shots as well as stills. At a time when everything seems like it’s shot with wide angles and is very “smartphone-y” this can be a real standout look.
The NIKKOR Z DX 24mm f/1.7 is a the first prime for Nikon mirrorless DX cameras – the Z 50, Z 30 and Z fc. It’s a fantastic video lens. Its 35mm equivalent length shows its worth when shooting both street style stills and rural landscapes, so you’ll find it really exciting thinking the same way about using it for video. Not only does that focal length give a great documentary feel out and about, but that wide aperture means you can get subject separation and background blur, even at this slightly wider focal length. Again, smartphone-style footage tends to mean everything is pin sharp in a frame, and this lens is a very creative and cinema-style antidote to all that.
This focal length is incredibly versatile, especially when shooting people. First, it’s not super-wide, and the minimum focus distance of 0.18m lets you get very tight in with a subject, making a dramatic and intimate frame.
The AF is very snappy and near silent too, so close-up interviews won’t be interfered with by a noisy, hunting focus system. And with the light and compact construction this is a great all-day handheld lens.
The NIKKOR Z 26mm f/2.8 lens is a cute option that is both versatile, but also creative and quirky. Very close focusing, its small size means it’s not intimidating to get into people’s faces. Plus the f/2.8 aperture gives some great bokeh blur to backgrounds and means you can get great results in some pretty challenging low light situations.
The tiny pancake format makes it ideal on gimbals because it balances almost instantly and won’t be heavy to move around — and believe me, as soon as you start to move with this lens, you’ll find it a fantastic creative tool. Even handheld, with something like a Z 7II with its in-body VR, this lens can generate incredibly immersive tracking shots and panoramas. This is a lens that really demonstrates a prime’s advantages in weight, performance and speed — but also gets you thinking a little differently in how you approach your shots.
None of this is any proof that using a zoom is ‘wrong’ because there are many situations where using a zoom will save your bacon on a video shoot.
Primes, though, unlock something beyond improved performance. That little extra sharpness is instantly more ‘pro’ perhaps, but it’s more how it makes you think about the camera as a participant in a scene. What is the frame I want? How does the action work around it?
It’s maybe a subtle change in approach, but when you stop thinking ‘I’ll just zoom in/out,’ the change can be incredibly profound. And the more you think it and practice it, the more involving and engaging your videos will become.
Want proof? . Most directors plan out, or ‘block’ every scene in a movie well in advance. ‘What is the script saying? How should the action unfold to tell this part of the story? What do I want the audience to feel? Where do I need the actors to be?’
Spielberg? He does it on the day. He’s walking around as the camera, effectively making himself the audience. He even knows the lens choice he wants and how it will work with the camera position and movement. Never once is he thinking about fudging a frame by zooming or ‘making do’ with where the camera is.
What you’re seeing in action here is the mastering of craft by repetition — and the insight into camera lens choice and movement he’s demonstrating is as relevant to your video as it is to the biggest blockbuster.
Primes are an incredibly powerful storytelling tool and once you ‘get’ them, you’ll find that rather than being limiting they are in fact liberating. This approach to shot choice will help you put yourself in the audience’s shoes and move them through the scene and story. It will start to show in your edits too. You’ll find your footage starts to join up into a much more compelling narrative with a real sense of flow.
Even the choice of focal length on a simple interview or your own vlog channel can dramatically change how you engage the viewer. And when you make this decision once, I promise you’ll never think any other way.