Best Lenses for Documentary Interviews

Camera LensIf you’re a documentary filmmaker, you’ll appreciate how unruly and stressful run-and-gun shooting can be. Unfortunately, it’s the primary condition of most documentary film shoots. However, when you shoot interviews, it’s a whole different approach. Interviews set-ups are those rare situations where you have the time to stop and consider your motivation, your POV, and your lens selection. You’re probably shooting interviews in a more controlled environment at your own pace. So why not use this opportunity to get more creative with your lens choice?

Why Lens Selection Matters

As with all other aspects of filmmaking, your lens selection can affect your final product’s look and feel. A busy filmmaker looking to finalize your camera rental in Miami or elsewhere, it’s easy to default into thinking that you can shoot all your scenes with the same lens. But the reality is, every person you’re interviewing has a different personality. To bring that out, choose the right lens for the right interviewee.

For instance, wider lenses might be perfect for someone who often uses grandiose expressions or talks with their hands. On the other hand, longer lenses help compress your interviewee’s features and are great for capturing more subtle expressions. If you’re looking for a more realistic look, go for a 50mm lens. But lens selection isn’t only about choosing the right focal length. There are many other factors to consider, such as sharpness, parfocality, and sensor size.

With so many options out there, choosing the right lenses for your documentary can be overwhelming. The good news is we’ve done the hard work for you. Here are our top picks — distilled over years of projects large are small, utilizing different lenses and comparing them for size, weight, budget, and optics.

Top Lenses for Documentary Interviews

It’s always a good idea to use two cameras for your doc interviews. Shooting your subject with two cameras will help the editor cut between different angles, which will make your interviews look more dynamic. Keep this in mind when booking your camera rental and lenses with us in Miami. 

Lens, 50-100mm

Typically, you’ll set one camera on a wide medium shot and another on a close-up, with each camera having at least two different lens options. In situations like this, we recommend pairing the Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 50mm with the Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 85mm.

You can also choose to use a zoom lens for your close shots. In that case, we recommend using the Angenieux 28-76mm Optimo Zoom or the Canon 17-120mm, or the Fujinon 19-90 Cabrio.

The Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 lenses feature manual iris with 14 blades, meaning you use them to create smoother, rounder bokeh or out-of-focus highlights. It’s also easier and faster to swap out these lenses, thanks to their interchangeable mounts, including PL, EF, F, E, and MFT. These mounts also mean that you don’t have to worry as much about matching lenses with your rental camera. Another good thing about the Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 lenses is they offer full-frame coverage (24 x 36 mm) and are 4K compatible. You can rent them all at Moving Picture Rental.

Focal Length Flexibility

Angenieux Optimo 28-76mm lens

On the other hand, the Angenieux 28-76mm Optimo Zoom is an excellent choice for those who want more flexibility with their focal length options. You can zoom from 28mm to 76mm, with almost no breathing or ramping. This lens has a minimum focus distance of 2 feet, which allows you to shoot your subject from a close distance. Angenieux made lenses to withstand extreme temperatures, from minus 20 degrees Celsius to 45 degrees Celsius. As a documentary filmmaker, you’ll often find yourself shooting in extreme weather conditions. This lens would be the perfect choice in those situations. The Angenieux 28-76mm Optimo Zoom Lens is also available to rent from Moving Picture Rental.

Extended Zoom Range Lenses

If you’re looking for a more extended zoom range, we recommend the Canon Cine-Servo 17-120mm T2.95-3.9 lens. This lens is perfect for taking close-ups from afar. It will help flatter your subject, making them look bigger and sharper against a crushed, out of focus background. A staple of broadcast crews, this lens has a servo motor for zoom control. That means you can zoom in and out more quickly. Its 180-degrees focus throw versus the standard 360-degrees means that you can adjust focus on your own when interviewing an on-the-move subject. The Canon 17-120mm is one of the sharpest lenses out there and is perfect for capturing rich, warm color or skin tones. 

Another great lens with servo zoom is the Fujinon 19-90 Cabrio. This lens gives off neutral colors, cooler skin tones, and lovely contrast. It is incredibly sharp and great for high-end documentary shooting if you look for a medium-range lens. The Fujinon 19-90 Cabrio is available from Moving Picture Rental.

Coverage Tricks with 2K and 4K

While it is always desirable to shoot your interviews with two cameras, it’s not possible in every situation. If you don’t have two cameras, you can still hack your way to make your interview scenes look like a dual-camera production.

The way it works is simple. If you’re using a single camera, shoot in 4K and crop your image slightly in post. That way, you’ll get two different angles to cut in-between. For instance, if you capture a medium shot and reframe it in post to a close-up, now you have a tighter angle.

One problem with this trick is that you might lose some parfocality when you’d crop your shot. But if you shoot in 4K and output your videos in 1080p or 2K, you won’t notice a significant drop in image quality.

To pull off this trick successfully, however, you’ll need to use an incredibly sharp lens. We recommend the Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 50mm for this job. It’s a 4K compatible lens known for its high optical performance.

Why You Can Trust Our Recommendations

I’m David Wells, a Producer, Director/Cameraman, life-long technologist, and the President of Moving Picture Rental, an integrated Production Services, and rental house. I started in the film industry as a PA on the TV series Miami Vice. Over the years, I’ve produced and directed many award-winning commercials, branded content, and corporate industrials for PwC, Cover Girl, Kaplan University, Harley Davidson, CNN, and others.