Exclusive: Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 L IS servo zoom first sample video (pre-production lens)

Canon’s CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 L IS KAS S servo zoom is the most anticipated lens this year for many large sensor news and documentary shooters. It promises a good zoom range combined with servo zoom control, autofocus (with the right camera), a modest f/4 maximum aperture and a more reasonable price tag than most other cine zooms.

The Canon 18-80 T4.4 on the C300 mkII
The Canon 18-80 T4.4 on the C300 mkII

When we first saw the lens at the NAB show earlier this year we weren’t allowed to shoot anything with it. So I was pleasantly surprised this week when Canon called up and asked if I would like to try out a pre-production sample of the lens. Of course I jumped at the chance.

Shooting in the London streets with the 18-80
Shooting in the London streets with the 18-80

I had just a few minutes shooting time so I couldn’t use it on a real story. Instead I attached it to a C300 mkII and went out to shoot a few street scenes. The footage above is straight out of the camera in Canon Log.

The C300 mkII was running beta firmware that makes it work with the lens. I was especially keen to play with the zoom and autofocus capabilities. Being a pre-production sample I’m not going to draw any firm conclusions about image quality at this stage. Things may still change when the lens ships later this year. More scientific testing will have to wait until I get a production sample in my hands. What I can say is that it is already a very useful tool if you want to shoot run-and-gun style. Images seem nice and crisp, distortion was well controlled and the flare resistance seems good too. The lens definitely has that clean Canon look that most users are familiar with. I suspect it will cut well with the other Canon cine lenses.

The autofocus is snappy and the zoom is nice and smooth. Both autofocus response and zoom speed can be tuned by the user to their liking. There is also a flange back adjustment on the rear end of the lens.

Many people have been asking what the manual focus is like on the lens. I can best describe it as a cross between what you might be used to on a Canon EF stills lens, and a true cine lens. It is very positive and the focus throw is just right for run-and-gun shooting, but as you rotate it it does have a slightly stills lens-like feeling. Minimum focus distance is around half a metre.

The servo zoom unit is useful, but one thing I did find frustrating is that not all the grip controls from the C300 mkII are replicated on the lens grip. This means you have to do a merry dance between the grip on the lens and the buttons on the camera’s grip or sides in order to adjust settings. I couldn’t find a way to activate or lock the AF from the lens servo controller and this forced me to use the camera’s grip instead much of the time.

The 18-80 has its own Servo grip but it doesn't have all the controls that the C300 mkII handgrip does
The 18-80 has its own Servo grip but it doesn’t have all the controls that the C300 mkII handgrip does

Using the servo on the C300 mkII did result in my hand and arm being cramped up too near my face when operating. I think to use this lens handheld for any length of time will require a rig that has a lot of counterbalance at the rear, or the servo grip will need to be relocated on the end of an arm – something that is easily done as it has a ARRI style rosette attachment system.

In low light the moderate f/4 aperture does limit you a bit. Anyone who has used the 24-105 f4L EF lens will be familiar with what I’m talking about. You are forced to push the gain way up high, or light your scenes. I think for the lower cost, light weight and smallish size of the 18-80 many users will be prepared to accept this.

The Canon 18-80 looks at home on a Sony FS7
The Canon 18-80 looks at home on a Sony FS7

I also tested the lens out on a Sony FS7 and a7R II using the latest Metabones IV EF to E-mount adapter. Amazingly the zoom servo worked on both cameras. The AF didn’t, but I wouldn’t expect it to work well anyway.

Aperture was correctly displayed and it seemed like the image stabilisation works too. I think the lens is going to be a great match for FS7, FS5 and a7R II cameras – even more so if shooting HD and utilising the centre scan crop mode to get extra reach.

The size and weight of the 18-80 mean that it even works well on a Sony a7R II
The size and weight of the 18-80 mean that it even works well on a Sony a7R II

If the pre-production sample is anything to go by then I think Canon have a winner on their hands. It might not be as long, or as wide as the ideal lens, but then it isn’t the price of a Fujinon Cabrio or Canon’s own CN7. It is a much more usable run-and-gun lens than the average stills zoom and the range is very usable. And for the price there are currently few alternatives.

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