Filmmaking with just one lens

While it can be tempting to bring a wide arsenal of lenses on a shoot, sometimes you really only need one.  Being restricted to a single focal length forces the filmmaker to think creatively about framing, and provided you’re using a “normal” focal length (about 35mm to 75mm FF equivalent), you can walk in or out to vary your perspective and still have natural-looking results.

Lately I’ve been using my Sony NEX-5n with a 50mm f/1.4 lens for my personal projects.  The single-lens approach eliminates the need to bring a camera bag.  Plus, the prime lens is lighter than a zoom and has a faster aperture, so I can bring it anywhere and shoot in any light.

Next time you go shooting for fun, try leaving the arsenal at home and using your feet to zoom instead.

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Latest Comments
  1. lee mackreath

    Great stuff as usual…can you talk me a bit more through your workflow on this one and answer the below questions?

    1. Was this all handheld shot at 60p in Sunset Mode dialled down to -3 across the board?
    2. Did you use an nd filter and maintain a constant shutter speed throughout?
    3. In edit did you import the native avchd files into Premiere or did you convert them first?
    4. Was color correction the only grading you did on the footage?
    5. What export settings (bitrate etc) did you use for the vimeo upload?

    Keep up the good work!..I am off to the beach this weekend (wet and windy Scotland though!) so hope to take a few of your tips on board!

    • brandon

      Thanks again for watching, Lee!

      1. Standard Mode, 60p, -1 Contrast, 0 Saturation, 0 Sharpness
      2. No ND filter. Shutter varied from 1250 to 4000. I have a variable ND, but it adds bulk so I left it at home.
      3. Native
      4. Yes, just some mild color grading. I added some warmth, lowered the highlights, and lifted the shadows.
      5. I used the Vimeo 720p export setting. I didn’t export 1080p because you’re stretching the same 5mbps bandwidth over more pixels, so you get more compression artifacts.

      This was mainly an exercise in editing, however. I’m basically cross-cutting several mini storylines to create an overall arc.

      • Lee Mackreath

        The editing is spot on… The cuts from one person jumping to another landing is superb!

        What bitrate does the premiere inbuilt vimeo 720p export set for the footage?

        I assume you used aperture priority mode then to get the shallow dof?

        I am surprised you used sharpness at 0 and not the usual -3.. Any reason for that?

        • brandon

          Thanks, Premiere’s Vimeo setting uses 5mbps for 720p.

          The lens I used was all manual, so I varied the aperture from f/1.4 to f/4

          I left the sharpness at 0 because the NEX-5n image is pretty soft to begin with. And honestly, I’ve never noticed a big difference when tweaking the sharpness settings.

    • Braian

      I wonder if the zeiss 50mm f1.8 will be worth my hard eaernd student money.I was thinking of putting the NEX 7 hand in hand with the zeiss 50mm f1.4 and focusing manually with a significantly smaller price tag.Maybe i’ll dish out for this if the quality is good enough, apart from bokeh im looking for razor sharp pictures wide open which shouldnt be too hard for a 1.5 factor zeiss!eventually i will get even more lenses like a macro and a tele which will prob be connected via adapter.

      • Brandon Li

        I’m not as much a stills photographer as I am video, but for my purposes the Konica Hexanon 50mm f/1.4 has been just about perfect when used as a portrait lens. I tried a 50mm f/1.8 and found that I was hurting a bit in low light environments when I wanted to avoid going to ISO 3200. For stills, you might want to consider the Sony e-mount 50mm for its autofocus and image stabilization at a reasonable $300.

  2. Bob Krist

    Great stuff and great advice, Brandon. Really enjoying your work and instruction. You mentioned a few posts back about shooting two cameras at once. For the last couple of years, I have had to document a couple of run and gun exotic tours for a client in video (I’m an old pro still shooter just starting to mess with video) and I’m always looking for new ideas on that. I shoot the 5n, and the RX 100 too (along with a 7, an NEX VG 20 and a bunch of Nikon stuff).

    • brandon

      Hi Bob,

      Thanks very much. I’m preparing a blog post about dual-cam shooting which I’ll air pretty soon. I’ve done quite a bit of shooting in this style, and while a second camera operator is almost always preferable to going solo, it can be quite efficient to operate two cameras instead of relying on multiple takes or whip pans for coverage.

  3. Max

    Is that the Voigtlander 50mm lens you’re using?

    • Brandon Li

      No, it’s the much cheaper Konica Hexanon 50mm f/1.4, which I got off craigslist for about $100.

  4. John

    Great work and great blog Brandon!

    3 x questions

    1. Did you use a tripod/ monopod on this shoot or was it all hand held?
    2. Did you improvise your shots or storyboard/ write a shot list?
    3. How do you charge? Day rate/ project rate/ hour? Great blog like I said, be good to read some DSLR Video business/ freelance advice posts.

    Loving your work


    • Brandon Li

      Hi John, thanks for reading! This shoot was all handheld. Slow motion hides a lot of the camera shake. It was purely improvised, but I edited it with the goal of creating a cohesive “story” – basically intercutting actions that mirrored each other. Rising, falling, etc. Regarding pay, this particular short was just for fun and unpaid, but I usually charge per day or per project. I feel like I can be more creative if I’m not worried about counting hours. Here is an amazing blog post about the subject of pay:

  5. Yannick

    Could you tell me why I should get the Sony NEX-5A or the Sony RX100? Both seem grreat and very compact.

  6. mike

    it’s insane what you can do with the NEX line up and a low cost lens. nice job. please keep up the hints and you’re thoughts on the NEX cameras. THANKS

    • Brandon Li

      Thanks for reading! I’m actually doing more intensive projects with these cameras lately, just haven’t had time to blog about them all. Will post more tips soon.

  7. Carlo

    Hi Brandon,

    Top work as usual, and thanks for all the intel and background – much appreciated.

    I recently bought a Sony RX100, and while I love it for both stills and video, I have been intrigued by the results folks have been getting with the 5n and the myriad of lenses than can be used on this camera. I have 2 questions for you:

    01.) Do you need an adaptor for the Konica lens?

    02.) Have you ever felt you needed the EVF for the 5n?

    Thanks again and keep up the good work!

    • Brandon Li

      Thanks Carlo! For the Konica lens, you do need an adapter. Just search Konica AR to NEX adapter. An EVF would certainly be convenient on the 5n; I do sometimes come away with shots that appeared sharp on the LCD but were a little soft on a larger monitor. Definitely a useful addition.

      • Carlo

        Copy that, thanks Brandon!
        Have recently fallen down the rabbit hole in terms of what initial lens to get for the 5n, trying to decide between the Konica 50mm 1.4 (which looks like a great, cheap as chips lens) or the take the metabones FF route and add Canon and Nikon glass (your Love the Smell of Metabones was excellent). I suppose it comes down to budget and investment in the end, but any thoughts from a pro would be appreciated!

        • Brandon Li

          Stick with Nikon (or Nikon-mount) lenses when going manual. They are cheap, plentiful and adapt to almost any other mount. Konica AR doesn’t adapt to Canon EF, so it won’t work with Speed Booster or any Canon camera you buy down the line. I just got a $120 Nikon 50mm f.1.4 AIS off Ebay and it’s amazing. Lower contrast than the Canon, but that’s actually a good thing for video. Check out my latest blog post and video ( to see a sample of lowlight footage.

          • Carlo

            Solid info Brandon. Thanks!

  8. James

    Nice for a creative exercise, but for serious filmmaking, shooting in any light and refusing to shoot with more than one focal length would be foolish. Good cinematography isn’t about convenience. Maybe for documentary shooting, but for movies, it’s about getting the most visually satisfying image possible. Shoot with as many lights as you can afford, and shoot with a wide range of focal lengths, depending on the emotion you want to convey.

    • Brandon Li

      While I agree that in a studio or otherwise controlled environment your sentiment is correct, I generally shoot documentary footage alone in unpredictable environments. I just spent a weekend filming the Ultra music festival in Miami, and on a whim I decided to climb a tree for a shot. Had I been carrying lights, a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens or a bag of primes, I doubt I would have been willing to get the shot I envisioned. For this type of situation I was glad to be equipped with a single fast prime.

  9. Leon

    Great video with some really nice slow-motion shots. Congrats! Would it be possible to know the name of the music composer and the title of the song that was used in this video ? Thanks

    • Brandon Li

      I actually don’t know where I got the music..sorry. Glad you enjoyed it!

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