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The Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 Compact Servo Lens One Year In

Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 ready to film an interview. New York, NY. July, 2017.

I have had Canon’s new compact servo lens, the CN-E 18-80mm T4.4, for a year now and thought I’d put down some thoughts. If you follow me on Instagram you’ve seen the lens in a lot of my BTS images, it has basically become my go-to lens for many situations.

I’m not going to go into everything about the lens as one would do in a full review but instead concentrate on what I think I can add to the conversation.

Quick test of the Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 handheld on a Canon C300 Mark II  (YouTube  link):

I have referred to the lens multiple times on this blog: Canon C300 Mark IICelebrating Service at PrincetonFaculty Chairs; Backdrop Extensions, and Why Light? Video Interview Lighting Setup. Cinematographer Matt Porwoll has an excellent look at the lens, part of his Behind the Lens series for Abel Cine and Newsshooter. DP Erik Naso just completed a review of the newer Canon CN-E 70-200mm T4.4 Compact Servo lens for Newsshooter and much of that review’s  comments on the functionality of the 70-200mm lens will apply to the 18-80mm lens. DP Dan Brockett has a review of the 18-80mm lens and a look at both the 18-80mm and 70-200mm over a HDVideoPro.

Recent interview I filmed with the CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 at f/4 and 44mm focal length on the Canon C300 Mark II (YouTube link):

The CN-E 18-80mm has become my go-to lens because of its image quality, its ease of use, and its focal range. I film a lot of interviews, a lot of b-roll for the interviews, and many client b-roll libraries. In the past I would use a mix of Canon L glass zooms: the 16-35mm f/4L IS, the 24-70mm f/2.8L II, the 24-105mm f/4L IS, and the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II. I do own primes as well but more often than not the speed and versatility of zooms wins out on video projects.

The Canon 16-35mm f/4L IS is great especially for its wider end. Not much distortion to it, not much vignetting, and it has video friendly image stabilization. The 24-70 f/2.8L II is super sharp and a stop faster. The 24-105 f/4L IS lens is not my favorite. It has some distortion, it’s not quite wide enough to be all purpose, and it’s really a variable aperture lens – running closer to f/4 – ~f/5.6. It darkens significantly as you zoom in. All of these lenses are above all stills lenses – none of them are parfocal and some are harder to focus or to zoom than others.

Canon CN-E 18-80mm T.4.4 with a Canon C300 Mark II and PadPrompter (teleprompter) kit. New York, NY. September, 2017.

The CN-E 18-80mm in comparison hits a sweet spot with its focal range. As a 4:1 zoom it has a lot of coverage. It does overlap and can replace all of the stills lenses I just mentioned except for the extreme wide (16-17mm on the 16-35mm f/4L IS) and focal lengths greater than 80mm. In practical terms, in a medium sized room in a corporate or academic setting, a room holding as many as 50-60 people, I find that the CN-E 18-80mm works great for wide as well as zooming in to get a medium shot or tighter of a primary participant (speaker, teacher, leader, etc.)

Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4. on a C300 and monopod, filming b-roll. Princeton, NJ. May, 2017.
The Inception shoot. Me filming Jem filming talent filming coffee. Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4. on a C300 Mark II with a monopod for support. Princeton, NJ. March, 2017. Photo by C. Flanegan.

I should note that the CN-E 18-80mm is designed for Super35 cinema cameras. It does not have full-frame 35mm coverage. The 18-80mm range on Super35 is the equivalent of ~24mm-120mm on a full-frame 35mm sensor.

Over the Canon L zooms, the CN-E 18-80mm is parfocal, so it holds focus as you zoom, and it is a true T4.4 (f/4 equivalent). The image does not darken or lighten based on the focal length. It also has image stabilization which is fine-tuned to video. It has three image stabilization (IS) options; A, B, and C. A, “normal”, is a traditional amount of IS when the camera is handheld and track other objects; B, “heavy”, is for when the camera itself is moving a lot in addition to the subject; and C, “tripod”, is a dampened IS for tripod based work. C doesn’t suffer from the drift or sponginess you see when using a camera on sticks and a stills lens’ IS.

Sample video showing grading, grip kit removal, and background extension. Canon CN-E 18-80mm lens on a Canon in C300 Mark II. 4K capture. (YouTube link):

Breathing can be a factor when using some lenses for video. It describes a change in image size within the frame as one racks focus from near to far and vice versa. If you are not racking focus within a shot you won’t see it but should you need to, and if the breathing is bad, it can be disconcerting to the viewer. The CN-E 18-80mm has a bit of breathing at its wide end but it is gone within a few millimeters of 18mm.

Lens test I filmed in early 2017 after getting the CN-E 18-80mm lens (YouTube link):

The video above looks at lens breathing for the CN-E 18-80mm versus the 16-35mm f/4L IS, the 24-70mm f/2.8L II, and the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lenses at 18mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm, and 80mm. You’ll see that the stills lenses show a lot of breathing. You’ll also be able to ascertain other characteristics of the CN-E 18-80mm lens versus the stills lenses.

The CN-E 18-80mm lens runs a bit warmer than Canon’s L glass making it a match for Canon’s CN-E Cinema EOS family of lenses. If you are using both L glass and CN-E glass on the same project it’s nothing that cannot be corrected in post. In addition, in my experience the CN-E 18-80mm glass has a bit more micro or local-contrast to it than L glass, objects within the frame are better delineated.

Frame grab. B-roll. U.S. Capitol Building. Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 on a Canon C300. February, 2017.

One optical characteristic of the CN-E 18-80mm at 18mm, as can be seen in the test of it versus the 16-35mm f/4L IS, is that it has a bit of barrel distortion. That distortion clears very quickly as you zoom in but it is something to be aware of if you are filming in situation where you need an 18mm rectilinear image.

Frame grab. Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 at 18mm. Barrel distortion is visible along the top of the frame. NY, NY. April, 2017.
Frame grab. Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 at ~70mm. NY, NY. April, 2017.

Late last year I spent three days on a corporate project, being a fly on the wall for a meeting of about sixty people as they heard from speakers, broke into groups, and made presentations of their own. For that, my camera position was fixed on sticks, but the reach of the CN-E 18-80mm was more than enough to get individual participants and wide shots of the room. On a certain level it’s hard to convey unless you use the lens on your own but in that type of situation the CN-E 18-80mm’s ease of use was truly amazing. I rigged the camera so that I could move the fluid head with my right hand while using the lens’ servo grip with my left hand to zoom in and out. I also used the C300 Mark II’s Dual-Pixel AF Face Tracking to hold focus. It all worked seamlessly. The client needed a video which would see little editing and this definitely upped the production value. I could zoom to the speakers and back out, finessing the zoom speed with the servo grip, all the while holding focus even if a speaker was moving about the room.

Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 on a Canon C300 Mark II. The lens’ servo grip is mounted on rails via an Arri rosette on camera left. Philadelphia, PA. December, 2017.

Had I been using a 24-105mm f/4L IS lens my exposure would have changed as I zoomed and I would have had to do zoom manually, something that is never that smooth with a stills lens. Had I been using a manual cinema zoom lens as a one-man band it would have been impossible to move the camera fluidly, rack the zoom, and hold focus.

Criticisms – Real and Imagined

But it’s a T4.4…. it is. That’s an f/4 equivalent and it is what it is. If you need faster then the CN-E 18-80mm lens isn’t the lens you are looking for. The tradeoff with the CN-E is to size, weight, and cost. You can have faster but it will be bigger, heavier, and cost a lot more. Five times as much for a Canon T2.9 17-120mm Cine-Servo zoom lens, eight times as much for an all manual CN-E 14.5-60mm T2.6 zoom lens. The weight of each of those lenses is about three times as much, and five times as much as a CN-E 18-80mm respectively.

Newer options are out there for cinema zooms – some a bit faster like the Zeiss 21-100mm lens but that lens is all manual and has a variable T stop, T2.9-3.9. It also costs twice as much and it weighs almost twice as much. It’s a great lens but its really a different type of lens. The Angenieux EZ-1 30-90mm S35 Cinema Lens is similar. It is a fixed T2.0, not quite the same focal length, costs twice as much, and it’s fully manual.

Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4. Newtown Square, PA. July, 2017.

But it has no hard stops… A traditional cinema lens is manual focus, like the two I just mentioned, and it has hard stops. This means you cannot go beyond the beginning or the end points of the focus throw. This makes it possible to set your own focus points and execute repeatable focus racks. An AF lens in comparison needs freer movement to focus efficiently and because of that it can spin indefinitely. The CN-E 18-80mm lens is a hybrid of Canon’s stills line, the L series, and its cinema line, the CN-E series. It takes elements from each.

From the cinema line it orients its lens markings, settings, and readings on the side of the lens barrel, like a cinema lens, and unlike a stills lens which keeps that information on top. The CN-E 18-80mm lens has built in gears for zoom, focus, and aperture, again like a cinema lens. And it has a manual, de-clicked, aperture ring for smooth aperture changes. In a fully hybrid feature the lens’ aperture can be controlled manually or electronically in auto mode via a Canon cinema camera’s control dials.

Riding the Dana Dolly. Creating a b-roll library. Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 and a C300 Mark II. New Caney, TX. March, 2017.

The CN-E 18-80mm’s autofocus though is on the stills side of the fence for the most part. It is AF or manual and it has no hard stops. Not good for a film set but it has amazing auto-focus and it can take full advantage of the Canon Cinema line’s dual-pixel AF, tracking, and face-tracking features. This is great for one-man band situations as I described above. It does bow to the cinema line in that its manual focus sits somewhere between a stills lens with AF and a manual lens. It has a longer focus throw than an AF lens but not as long as a cinema lens. This makes the CN-E 18-80mm lens easier focus manually than almost all stills AF lenses.

Canon should include the servo grip with the lens, the ZSG-C10. Yes, they should and they currently are but that’s a promotion which has been running since late last fall, was reinstated for this winter, and the future of it is unknown. The lens does come with a built-in servo controller which can be run from two buttons on the lens or via a Canon Cinema Camera’s joystick. That’s helpful but it’s not the entire story. Operating the lens that way you can set the speed of the zoom in the camera menu but you cannot ramp it in or out or change it on the fly. The accessory servo grip has a zoom rocker like an ENG lens. You can fully control the speed and finesse it as needed from the grip. The grip also adds a record button and a push-AF button (I wish it also had a joystick and aperture dial to better replicate the camera’s side grip.) And as important, the servo grip also has an Arri style rosette mount so you can place it pretty much anywhere (but see below).

Trying out a shoulder rig (yes, an EVF would be better!) The CN-E 18-80mm’s servo grip, the ZSG-C10, is mounted to the left. The camera’s grip is to the right. Towson, MD. July, 2017.

The servo grip’s cable is poorly designed. It is. It has a plug which sticks straight out from the lens in effect shortening its length and possibly opening the cable or lens to damage if you set the camera down in the wrong way. The latter will depend upon how you kit your camera. If your camera has a base plate and rails it may not be an issue.

The grip, cable, and lens catch-22. If you want to use the grip off of the lens or avoid the servo grip’s power plug sticking out you’ll need Zacuto’s right-angle adapter. It’s a $360 6″ cable extender with a right-angle plug. It works and it’s pretty much a necessity if you want to use the servo grip off of the lens. That’s one catch. A second catch is a lens support. Canon is of the opinion that if you are not using the servo grip attached to the rosette on the lens (part of the servo grip kit) then you do not need a lens support. But what if you want to use a lens support? Well, it is pretty much impossible to use a generic lens support because the lens’ built-in servo motor gets in the way. So, you need Canon’s OEM lens support post and as of last winter Canon does not sell it on its own. Canon’s lens support post is only sold as part of the servo grip kit. If you want lens support then you have to get the servo grip. It’s not an issue if Canon continues to include a free servo grip with each lens but Canon really should include the lens support post with the lens purchase, not as an item only available in the servo grip kit.

Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 lens on a Canon C300 Mark II. Zacuto Right Angle Adapter Cable in use to extend the reach of the lens’ servo grip unit. Philadelphia, PA. December, 2017.
Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 lens on the Canon C300 Mark II. Visible beneath the lens is Canon’s OEM lens support post. With it you can use a generic rod based lens support. Princeton, NJ. March, 2017.

Zacuto does make a lens support for the CN-E 18-80mm. That’s great but it has its own catch-22. 1. It does not come with the needed screws to attach it. For that you need Canon’s servo grip accessory kit. So, if you hoped to use it as a lens support without buying the servo grip you are out of luck. 2. It is a fixed length so there is no way to adjust it to fit your rails. It will work with Zacuto’s base plate and rails but may not work with other suppliers’ base plates and rails.

The criticisms aside I really love this lens. The image is beautiful and the lens adds functionality and production value over stills lenses. It’s not a true cinema lens but it excels for the one-man band shooter. Paired with a Canon Cinema Camera you can get footage that would be very hard to replicate with a stills lens or an all manual cinema zoom lens.

DC rooftop interview setup. CN-E 18-80mm T.4.4 lens on the A camera on the right. Washington, DC. February, 2017.
Congresspersons’ office, interview setup. Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 lens on a C300 in the foreground. Washington, DC. February, 2017.

I’m going to end with links to two videos by Canon Technical Advisor Brent Ramsey. I was fortunate to work on the studio portions of these videos.  Brent’s CN-E 18-80mm sample footage gives a great sense of the lens’ image quality, focus racking, and skin tone rendering. His 1:1 comparison between the 18-80mm lens and Canon’s 24-105mm f/4L IS lens highlights the differences in image quality between the two lenses.