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Advice on lenses for indie documentary

Yurena A De Dios

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I've been assigned to shoot and direct and documentary in Nepal in two months time and I'm looking to gear up for the shoot.

The project is a low budget / indie documentary for which I thought to get the Sony A7s ii for the job for its low light conditions as most likely I'd use very little available lights.

I own a Blackmagic 4K ef mount which I plan to sell as I find it to bulky and heavy for the job and not great on low light.

I am currently looking for lenses, and understanding more about the different type of glass.


I'm looking for recommendations I want to achieve a filmic / cinematic look, nice aesthetics, soft nice skin tone and color rendition rather than sharp HD video and I have a very little budget to cover the whole rig. I even thought of old film slr lenses to give me a softer look but I am scared of vignetting of which would be best to go for.


The documentary will be 30 mins highly visual, poetic biopic rather than talking heads, so any help on the choice of lense would be great .


I currently own Nikon prime DX 50, 85 mm 1.4 lenses but don't think they're good enough or if it'd vignet.

I'm not super technical so any advice on this would really help, many thanks.

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This new Zeiss zoom is really exciting. Great quality in an unbelievable price point. I don't know your budget though. For what it is, it's a fantastic deal at $9,900


The new Sigma zooms are being released soon as well. 12-24, 35-50 and 50-100. However you'll be taking around 3 lenses instead of just the one and spending slightly more. But they are slightly faster.


I don't know if you have any interviews to do but I'd plan on having a backup video camera on those days as DSLR's are prone to overheating when they run too long.

Edited by Michael LaVoie
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Not exactly sure what your budget is, but I've seen a couple documentaries shot entirely on Canon L Series Zooms and they looked in credible for what they were.

The shots in this with a bit more sunlight really stuck out to me.

Edited by Macks Fiiod
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You really can't make "soft" image with current lenses and the Zeiss or L-series look is quite far away from that: they have more like a neutral or colder look, higher contrast (at least the Zeiss) , ugly flares (L-series), sharp or very sharp all the time.

Have you considered making the look with filters instead and choosing the lenses based on other aspects like ease of use, f-stop, size and weight?


I shoot with Nikon AI-S lenses all the time with GH4, Sony FS7, Eclair Cameflex, BMPC4K, Bolex, etc. in UHD, DCI 4K, 4perf 35mm, N16mm and they are normally very good lenses unless you want to shoot wide open all the time. If shooting wide open most of the time you will really need MODERN ASPHERICAL PRIMES, nothing old will be good enough wide open.

The Super Takumar look might be worth investigating though the AI-S Nikkors or similar small size lenses are great when on the road.


I would maybe take different glass for low light (two or three very good primes) and "daytime" (scenes where you can stop down two stops to get away with a zoom lens without too much aberrations and vignetting) , so it would be two or three very fast primes for low light and one or two lightweight zooms for everything else

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I think the main problem here is the Full Frame shooting rather than resolving power. for example those AI-S Nikkors work perfectly fine for 4k even with small sensor camera like the GH4.

But full frame sensor size limits all the more affordable but rather good and lightweight crop-sensor lens options like the Sigma 18-35. I think one should sacrifice the "cine lens mechanics" for lighter lens weight and smaller size. definitely a still lens job, but which specific lenses, it kind of depends... I would not cheap on the Primes though if you want good resolving power wide open and especially and more importantly less aberrations and vignetting. especially chromatic aberration is usually quite bad with low to mid price and old lenses when shooting wide open. I suggest something like L-series 50mm F1.0 or similar higher end stills primes. you will need an adapter with aperture control of course

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Hey Yurena, Nepal for a doc sounds like a great gig. I'm completely jealous. My favorite all time lens for personal, intimate docs is the Sigma 18-35. T1.8 . It's small, compact, the zoom smooth as butter, does not breath and it's minimum close focus distance I think is around 1ft. I shot a recent feature doc, The Skyjackers Tale, using the 18-35 on a C300 about 95% of the time. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in mid September. Watching the show on a huge screen with an audience of 1,500 was electrifying. I shot wide open at 1.8. Sometimes I was so close to the subject only a single eye was in focus! The picture quality knocked me out. Lush, creamy images that looked feature drama like. I know you want to use the Sony A7s but I find that camera too small for me to handhold and keep the shot still. A C100 would be a cheaper option. Used ones are now very cheap.


When I want to get close and intimate to a subject I always go handheld. It's all about gaining access and trust. Once they let you in you can get the most incredible shots shooting wide open. There is a dream-like dance that can sometimes happen between subject and camera. I have a clean shaven head but if I had hair it would be standing up during those shots! I did carry a few Canon L series lenses, the 24-100, 70-200 and the 100-400 but I hardly used them. It did not feel right for this show. The story was so dramatic and personal I knew I had to be right in there.


Here are a few screen shots from The Skyjacker Tale to help illustrate what I mean. The story follows an American who hijacked a airplane to Cuba in the 1980s and has been hiding out there ever since.

Edited by Derek Rogers
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The file upload can be fidley untill you get used to it. I think we only have 300kb we can upload in one stting and there is a max total accumulated upleads, so one may have to purge old uploads.


At the bottom of the reply box I select "more reply options".

"Browse" lets me find files to upload from my PC, I select or "open" one, and it shows in the box by the paper clip. Then you have to click on "attach this file".


Put the curser where you want the pic to be...

You'll see a thumbnail of your pic, click "add to post". Adjust placement of the code for the pic in your message.




Then I preview post, edit it or click on "add reply".

It is fidley, and I've done plenty of times before.

Edited by Gregg MacPherson
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Thank you very much everyone for all the replies,


* no it doesn't have to be 4 k Tyler.


*Thank you so much Aapo, do you have examples of the Nikkor lenses , what would you suggest as primes?


*Really liked the sigma screenshots Derek and I wish I could take you with me . I'm using that camera because of how small it is, I could then afford a cheap steadycam to have smooth shots, interesting angles and could shoot for ages alone in various landscapes and oxygen levels.Kathmandu is already 4000 meters above sea level. But I'm not sure if the canon c100 is that heavy?im going to look into it. Thanks ! I want to see your documentary. I love Cuba.


I'm looking into all your suggestions now.

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You can't go wrong with those sigma zooms. Just don't cut costs on the adapter...it is essential that it works and works well.


Lots of info on this already, but my takeaways working with the A7Sii on docs:


1. Bring tons of batteries. Generally around 7-10 per day. They take forever to charge, so the "dual" chargers are very helpful.

2. I shoot PP7 (Slog-2) with SGamut3.Cine. Expose 2 stops over.

3. Get this eyecup. And a chamois.

4. You need ND. For doc, variable ND is definitely the most flexible. Schneider's is in my experience the best. Tiffen a close second.



They're great cameras, but not without limitations.

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do you have examples of the Nikkor lenses , what would you suggest as primes?


I personally like the ai-s 50/1.2 but it starts to perform correctly at F2 and if I understood correctly you would not like its aberrations wide open.

That's actually why I suggested the Canon F1.0 primes because then you could stop down the lens to get rid of the aberrations which almost every lens creates wide open but could still shoot at F1.4 or so, so that you would benefit a lot from them compared to a zoom like the 18-35/1.8 Sigma shot wide open. If the goal is to capture a flat evenly illuminated and sharp frame then this is much better way than trying to find a lens which would perform well enough wide open but would still be affordable. because you would really need something like the Otus primes to get great performance wide open at very wide apertures

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I agree with Kenny on the primes vrs zooms. It's rock n' roll on docs. You have to capture the moment. That's why I like the Sigma 18-35 so much. It's a zoom (short yes) but feels to me like a variable prime when you are at 1.8. I actually like the picture quality of the Sigma compared to many primes! Some primes are too sharp. I don't like it. Everything looks too perfect and clean. And now with shooting 4K do I really want to see every pimple on an actors face?


Shooting wide open on a doc takes practice and a bit of zen! After awhile of following a subject you get to understand the way they talk and move and before you know it you are in focus sync with them. It's strange but really cool when it works. If you are having trouble holding focus you can increase your distance from the subject and also adjust your variable ND filter to get a slightly deeper stop.

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