I hope this will become a multipart series (hope I don’t get lazy). Basically shooting anamorphic video on a DSLR can be a hassle. But it is very rewarding. Here are the basics of anamorphic video:
Anamorphic Lenses vs Regular Lenses
Most people who shoot anamorphically on DSLRs use projection lenses. Anamorphic projector lenses were originally used for film projectors but lately DSLR shooters have snagged them up to use for DSLR videos. The good news is that anyone with a Canon, Nikon, Panasonic or GoPro can shoot anamorphic video. Hell, if you have an iPhone you can shoot anamorphic video! All you need is an anamorphic lens.
Anamorphic Aspect Ratio
An anamorphic lens uses internal lens elements that are shaped so that the aspect ratio ends up wider. Lots of people add black bars to the top and bottom of their footage, but this reduces the video’s resolution. By using an anamorphic adapter, you get the same effect (plus other goodies I will discuss later) without affecting the resolution.
When you use an anamorphic lens the image will look squeezed. It looks as if someone took the image by its left and right sides and smushed it together. This is called “squeeze”, and in order to have normal looking footage you need to desqueeze your footage with software (like After Effects, or Adobe Premier). When you offload your footage from your camera into your editing software, you need to stretch the footage horizontally so that your footage will look normal. By stretching it, you are taking the original 16:9 aspect ratio (lets assume you are shooting on a Canon DSLR, the aspect ratio might be different on other cameras) and stretching it beyond 16:9. So your aspect ratio might eventually be stretched by a factor of 1.33, 1.5, or 2 depending on the particular anamorphic lens you are using.
Most Anamorphic Projector Lenses Are 2X
If you have a lens with a 2x squeeze, your final aspect ratio will be 3.56 (we stretch the original 16:9, footage so that the aspect ratio becomes 32:9, which is equivalent to ~3.56). This is very wide; much wider than the standard aspect ratio you fin at theaters. Today, the standard is 2.39:1. To get a 2.39 aspcet ratio, you would need to use a ~1.33x anamorphic attachment. Anamorphic projection lenses that have a 15x or 1.3x squeeze usually cost more than the common 2x lenses.
How to Use an Anamorphic Lens on a DSLR
Getting true anamorphic footage from your DSLR is very simple, just put an anamorphic projection lens in front of your normal lens (taking lens). A common setup would be to attach your favorite 50mm prime to your DSLR, and then mount a 2x anamorphic attachment in front of your 50mm prime. Word of caution: are lots of small problems that may arise, read part 2 for an in depth guide on attaching anamorphic projector lenses to your current DSLR setup.
Anamorphic Focal Length
If you shoot on an anamorphic lens, your footage will be more zoomed out horizontally. So an anamorphic lens essentially decreases the horizontal focal length. As a rough rule of thumb the focal length gets reduced by the squeeze factor of the lens. Lets say I have an anamorphic lens with a 2x squeeze factor, and my taking lens is 50mm. The horizontal focal length of this combination will be 25mm (50mm/2 = 25mm). If my anamorphic lens had a 1.5x squeeze factor and was used with a 50mm lens, the horizontal focal length would be 33.3 (50mm/1.5 = 33.3). Anamorphic lenses do not affect vertical focal lengths (unless you miss-align the lens). Anamorphic projection lenses do not affect aperture or light transmission (well, less light will hit the DSLR sensor because there is more glass in the way).
Simply put the bokeh of your footage will look slightly different. It will look stretched vertically (not horizontally). I believe this is the main reason people shoot anamorphic.
Anamorphic lenses are similar to regular lenses in that they can add a distinct look or character to your image. By using anamorphic lenses, you introduce more glass and it can often result in crazy looking shit. Sometimes stuff shot on cheap anamorphic lenses looks awful and sometimes it looks awesome. Part of the fun of shooting with anamorphic lenses is discovering ways of making your footage look unique.
One thing that distinguishes regular lenses from anamorphic lenses is that regular lenses don’t flare as aggressively as anamorphic lenses. The flares change from lens to lens. If you get a multicoated anamorphic lens it will not flare as aggressively as non multicoated lenses. I like Video Copilot’s Optical Flares plugin and all, but it doesn’t come close to achieving the beauty and character of real lens flares.
This is a unique lens breathing. When you drastically change focus from the background to the foreground (or from foreground to background), the image appears to get a bit squeezed on unsqueezed.
Everything Looks Better in Anamorphic
Basically, if you are a DSLR video enthusiast, shooting anamorphically is one of the great joys in life. Once you start, you won’t want to stop. On top of all the characteristics I have outlined above, anamorphic video gives you a more organic, less digital look. Setting up a system that works well can be cumbersome and expensive. Read my future articles on the subject where I will explain what problems you may run into as well as what specific anamorphic lenses you should buy.