Canon cine zooms: first shoot with the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP

DoP Ian Murray gets to grips with the Flex Zoom CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP, one of two new full-frame cine zoom lenses.
A close-up of the Canon CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP lens attached to a Canon camera.

The latest EOS C70 firmware update adds support for the Canon CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP and Canon CN-E45-135mm T2.4 L F / FP Flex Zoom cine lenses. These premium full-frame zooms are designed for high-end cinema productions.

From food commercials to short-form brand stories, DoP Ian Murray has more than 20 years of cinematography experience, during which time he's developed a keen understanding of the "magic, realism and energy that light can provide," and how to make this palpable to the viewer.

One recent example of what Ian refers to as the "narrative of light" can be seen in his shoot for a fitness brand. In the inspirational short that resulted, low-key lighting and dreamy reflections serve as a visual metaphor for the story of a world champion kickboxer and her battle to overcome myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) as an elite athlete.

While accustomed to working with Super 35, Ian is one of many DoPs who now prefer full-frame cameras on high-end productions for their increased immersive feel and smooth focus fall-off. He recalls the impact of the full-frame Canon EOS 5D Mark II – the first EOS camera with video recording capabilities – on a low-budget TV industry dominated by film cameras and Super 35. "It had a creaminess to it that everyone really loved. I remember just really taking to that format."

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However, full-frame has traditionally been a sensor format with few available cine lenses, especially fast aperture zooms. Canon's new Flex Zoom Series fills this gap, with two cine lenses that span the popular focal lengths of 20-135mm: the Canon CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP and the Canon CN-E45-135mm T2.4 L F / FP.

We spoke with Ian shortly after his time on set using the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP to shoot the below film, to find out what he made of the lens, how well it paired with the Canon EOS C500 Mark II, and what difference the addition of a bespoke full-frame lens to his kitbag made to his creative process.

Three actors – a Black man, an Asian woman and a white woman – are each seen in profile, all looking to their left.

It's all in the face: pleasing the subconscious

Ian's work often involves filming people, so any lens he uses needs to satisfy his acute eye for skin quality, colour, face shape and sharpness of detail. These are points that the viewer notices subconsciously, making camera and lens colour science of paramount importance to DoPs.

"As humans, we have evolved to identify even the slightest refinements of colour," explains Ian. "That affects how we analyse a lens. We are very interested in how a lens recreates the human face and how those emotional expressions are conveyed to us. Reproduction of skin colour, which was superb in the Canon CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP for a wide range of lighting scenarios, is very important."

A woman sitting at a table is being filmed by a large camera, with her image being shown on two viewscreens above the camera.

Able to process a high level of detail, the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP is future-proofed for 8K productions. "Even with the aperture wide open, the lens performs and looks really sharp to me," says Ian. "And the sharpness doesn't feel like a kind of digital sharp, it feels natural."

A woman sits cross-legged on a padded bench, reading some papers. To the side of her is a large camera filming her at head height.

"You get led by the lens and the equipment you're using and fit the lighting around that," says Ian of his process. "To me, it feels like the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP is naturalistic – the skin tones are rich and cinematic – and I didn't want to make too big a move with lighting, certainly for the environment we were shooting in."

To make the most of the golden light from the sunrise, Ian and his team shot one of the balcony scenes with natural lighting (see second image above). This style choice fed the creative narrative of a lawyer looking through documents, while also avoiding the potential issue of the fill light and polyboards being reflected in the model's glasses. "We just had the sun directly on the model, with quite a dark background. And it looked really cinematic," says Ian.

When filming a human face, DoPs must simultaneously reproduce the softness of the skin and clarity in the eyes. For Ian, a cinematic lens must balance both of these elements: if the skin is too sharp, it is distracting; if the eyes aren't sharp enough, you aren't getting a window to the person's soul. For the naturally lit balcony scene, the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP performed impeccably. "The model's skin just glowed," says Ian.

The impressed DoP was also able to complement action shots with flattering portrait angles. "You'd be surprised how different lenses produce a completely different face shape," he explains. "I was on the 50mm end with the zoom a fair bit, because I wanted to see that portrait effect. The CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP certainly produced a lovely triangulation and an attractive looking face."

A woman stands at a kitchen worktop chopping fruit. She is being filmed by a large camera that is sitting on the worktop in front of her.

The CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP covers Ian's preferred 'immersive' focal lengths, allowing him to both get close and move freely around his subjects. "Anything more than 135mm is just too long for me, and you never need to go wider than 20mm, certainly I never went wider than that on Super 35," he says.

Full-frame flexibility

When directors and DoPs talk about focal length, what they are really discussing is how they want a person to appear in relation to their environment. Ian cites English cinematographer and two-time Academy Award winner Roger Deakins, who usually shoots at focal lengths of between 35mm and 50mm for a three-dimensional effect – as if the viewer is in conversation with the subject. That realism is somewhat lost when shooting telephoto from greater distances because subjects become compressed.

Creating an immersive feel is a priority for Ian, so he also prefers to shoot closer to his subject and soften the background. Getting those two effects simultaneously is made easier by the full-frame format's wider field of view combined with fast aperture lenses such as the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP that provide a shallow depth of field. "A narrow depth of field around your focus point is probably the most useful tool to direct the viewer's attention," says Ian.

Both the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP and the CN-E45-135mm T2.4 L F / FP boast a class-leading T2.4 maximum aperture across the entire focal range. "In filmmaking with Super 35 cameras and lenses, we typically shoot in big spaces to allow for focus fall-off," says Ian. "However, what I found with the full-frame format and T2.4 lens was that we could work in much tighter spaces. We had one scene where the model was at a kitchen table with only a metre and a half to the wall behind and I'm looking at her but not distracted by the background, because it was soft. There wasn't any scenario where I thought I needed to soften things more with a faster aperture."

A filmmaker stands behind a Canon Cinema EOS camera with a Canon Flex Zoom lens attached.

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In addition to depth of field control, the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP and CN-E45-135mm T2.4 L F / FP feature 11 iris blades that create smooth out-of-focus areas, well suited to the needs of modern productions. "Most of the old cinema lenses have a pronounced 'stop sign' bokeh, but the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP lens feels like it is a mature and modern cinema lens, which makes it perfect for work such as commercials. Behind the actress was a round, smooth bokeh, while the large format's fall-off beautifully isolated her from backgrounds," says Ian.

Cloud cover created a soft, even light for an indoor kitchen scene of the actress slicing fruit (see above). Ian used some fill light to bring out the colour of the fruit, but also wanted an organic feel and nothing too artificially lit, pushing the capabilities of both the Canon EOS C500 Mark II and the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP. "Maybe what was most inspiring about this lens was that it allowed you to be as natural as possible," says Ian. "Normally, I really like stylised and immersive lighting – I try to give something a punchy look. But with this lens it felt very refined and cinematic, like it didn't need a lot. The fruit really popped even indoors and that shot really showed the colours of the lens."

A man with dark hair and glasses stands operating a large camera which is set up on a stand.

The CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP boasts parfocal zoom, so you can zoom into a subject without losing focus. "My favourite shot was the twilight scene, which features a very slow zoom," says Ian (pictured).

A woman in a green silk shirt and black trousers stands behind sliding glass doors at twilight.

"It was almost surreal because you had this woman dead sharp in the middle of shot and it was an inconceivable zoom, a very slow creeping zoom," Ian continues. "You could feel her getting closer to you, but you couldn't quite understand how it was happening. The background remained soft and she stayed sharp."

Dynamic and detailed

As part of the shoot's modern, natural narrative and in order to push the dynamic range of the Canon EOS C500 Mark II and CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP pairing, Ian was keen to use sun flare for one scene. However, the sun had set for the day, meaning he had to improvise, putting parallel beams of light into proprietary reflectors for parallel shadows that replicate naturalistic sun flare, with a reflector directly in shot to look like sunlight coming through a cloud.

"We had the model walking and crossing through the shot," says Ian. "You were looking at the image thinking there was no flare, but then when she crossed through it, you could see the left and right contrast suddenly get deeper. So you could see the flare disappearing. That showed that the lens produces a flare, but a very subtle flare, and it holds a contrast well even in a direct light."

Inside the modernist house with large plate windows, the model then posed under direct lights with the dim twilight sky in the background, creating a layered, painterly feel. "Again, the model's skin held beautifully, even without make-up and no diffusion on the lights. It shows the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP has a classiness to it," says Ian. "With the EOS C500 Mark II, it has excellent resolution, dimensionality, a smooth bokeh and focus fall-off, and creamy skin tones. It's not like your normal modern full-frame lens that's just very clean and completely without character. It has a refinement and richness to it. This is a proper cinema lens."

Looking to the future

Industry trends such as the shift from Super 35 to full-frame for a more immersive cinematic experience, the quest for realistic, flattering skin tones and smooth, soft bokeh, and the continuing growth in demand for content has encouraged videographers and DoPs to explore new kit possibilities that enable them to work faster and smarter and produce ever-more beautiful footage. The latest Flex Zoom lenses – the CN-E20-50mm T2.4 L F / FP and the CN-E-45-135mm T2.4 L F / FP – are an example of the many innovative products Canon is developing that give modern filmmakers the freedom and flexibility to realise their creative vision.

Tim Coleman

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