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Gear & Apps

How Much of A Difference Is There Between Cheap and Expensive Lenses in Filmmaking?

By Hanssie on May 22nd 2015

The topic has been debated ad nauseam that photography is not about the type of equipment you have, but all about the photographer. In any case, most of us eventually will end up spending thousands upon thousands of dollars (and almost as many hours) on trying to figure out how much lens (or camera) we can get with our hard earned dollars.

We know that there is a difference between a $150 lens and a $15,000 lens – at least we hope there is. In a pinch, both can get the job done, but how much better can those two extra zeroes on the end of the price tag actually add to your final product in terms of image quality? Can you actually tell a difference after post processing and color correction has been applied to your footage?


Rocket Jump Film School looks to answer this question in the following video comparison. Using lenses in the low ($100), mid ($5000) and high ($15,000) price range – from Canon’s nifty 50 to a Zeiss Ultra Prime – on a Red Epic Camera in 5K resolution, they put them to the test in three different filming conditions. They then have their DP team look at the footage and guess what lens was used in the shots.

I’m not going to give anything away, but I will say that if this were a test for school, I would’ve failed miserably (low single digits out of 18) and probably been held back a grade. Watch the first video below to see if you can tell a difference and then check your answers in the second video below.

$150 Lens vs $15,000 Lens: Can You Tell The Difference?

Test Yourself! Lens Comparison Answers Revealed

If you’re interested in more lens comparisons, check out our Canon Lens Wars Series where Pye compares Professional L series lenses versus Professional and standard primes at the same focal lengths and aperture settings to find out the perceivable visual differences between them.

How’d you do on the test? Comment below!

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Hanssie is a Southern California-based writer and sometimes portrait and wedding photographer. In her free time, she homeschools, works out, rescues dogs and works in marketing for SLR Lounge. She also blogs about her adventures and about fitness when she’s not sick of writing so much. Check out her work and her blog at Follow her on Instagram

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Sedric Beasley

    Quality of material and features are the only thing I think you really get but; budget holds us back and it really comes down to how much you can get away with charging your customer and where that money is spent percentage whys on gear and equipment.

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  2. Thomas Horton

    I like his attitude against test targets. Test targets and 100% zoom have been one of the worst additions to the photography world.

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    • Drew Valadez

      Maybe the worst thing to come into the hands of the wrong people or worst things to come out of labs at lens manufacturers like Zeiss/Canon/Nikon/Sigma/Tamron…etc.

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  3. Brandon Dewey

    great video

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  4. J. Dennis Thomas

    Funny but not overly snarky. I feel like Digital Rev could take some lessons from these guys on how not make an obnoxious video.

    I wasn’t surprised at all by the outcome. With films things are moving, making it more difficult to pinpoint and hone in on the “flaws” of the lenses. With stills you can sit there and pore over every minute detail for hours, not to mention the higher resolution at which still images are. Even an 8K camera doesn’t resolve as much detail as a D800 still.

    Of course at slower moving films you can look closer at the “bokeh” and all of that stuff, but let’s be real. About 95% of moviegoers don’t know what that word even means, nor do they care how it looks.

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  5. Andre G.

    Well, that was quite illuminating! It’s difficult to tell the difference while watching a Youtube quality video, but maybe that’s the whole point? I would think that if you’re going to be projecting in an IMAX theatre you might think differently than if your end product is going on Youtube.

    In any case, what I was very happy to see was that the colour saturation, contrast range/detail and bokeh were all nice, even with the cheap glass. I was a bit surprised by the colour similarity and thought this would be where there was the biggest difference that would be visible via Youtube, but that wasn’t the case.

    I’ve recently decided to derail from buying only L glass and instead am doing my homework on specific lenses and deciding if each one needs to be L in that focal range. I found the Canon 85mm 1.8, for instance, to be a fantastic lens even without being an L, same for the 40mm 2.8 STM. On the other hand, the 70-200mm L glass is the only way to go in that zoom range, but the 100-300 (old) lens is a good one if you don’t use the far end too often or don’t need a continuous f-stop or IS. My point being that with a bit of homework, you can save yourself a small fortune but still end up with a great set of lenses.

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    • J. Dennis Thomas

      I’ve seen may movies on the big screen at SXSW that were shot on DSLR’s with budget lenses. You gotta remember that as with still photos the viewing distance has a lot to do with how the image is perceived. And as I mentioned before, the more a picture moves the less time you have to dissect the finer qualities of the lens.

      Whats funny is I watch anamorphic films which people seem to think is the best and I really hate the oblong OoF areas. To many filmmakers that is the best thing ever.

      I think we need to stop (especially still photographers) looking so hard at the inconsequential background garbage that we miss the real point of the the film, the STORY.

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  6. Lauchlan Toal

    Very interesting. At 1080p, I can’t tell anything about sharpness or contrast, but it’d be interesting to see if there was a difference in 4k. Still, 1080p is probably the best test for current day videography. The only area I could really notice a difference in was bokeh – it became progressively more circular with the more expensive glass.

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