Capturing something that has that looks like film inside the camera is much more important than the work you do in post production. Basically if the video footage you recorded does not look cinematic, you have done yourself a great disservice. You can apply all the color grading, grain, or crop bars you want and your footage still won’t look right. If you want to get a film look, the easiest way to do it is to get the right lenses.
Choosing your optics is very important because the characteristics of your lenses will be very apparent in your footage. Focal length, bokeh, low light performance, lens coatings, flaring, and sharpness all add unique character to your footage. These properties are all nice and whatnot, but when it comes to a cinematic look, there is one granddaddy that outclasses them all: anamorphic. Do you shoot your footage through an anamorphic lens? If you do not, then let me tell you something: you are missing out!
Anamorphic projection lens prices have been going through the roof on Ebay. The reason behind this phenomenon is that DSLR shooters figured out that if you place these projection lenses in front of the lens that is attached to your camera you can get anamorphic video. I personally have owned three anamorphic lenses and despite the added frustrations of attaching an anamorphic lens to the end of your regular lens, the processes always ends in rewarding footage.
Anamorphic lenses basically make your aspect ratio wider. If you shoot on a regular lens, say a Canon 50mm, your footage will be 16:9 in the camera. If you added an anamorphic lens that had a 2x squeeze, that footage would turn into 32:9 (3.56 aspect ratio). 3.56 aspect ratio is very wide, and commercial films are not shot at that ratio. If you want a more practical aspect ratio, shoot for something that is around 2.35:1 or 2.39:1, I wouldn’t go much wider than 2.55:1. To get aspect ratios close to these dimensions you would want to use anamorphic lenses that have 1.33x squeeze or a 1.5x squeeze. In my opinion, the 1.3x anamorphic lenses just aren’t “grand” enough. If you go anamorphic, go big; go with a 1.5x squeeze. Or, if you are crazy like me, go with a 2x squeeze (though 2x is not very practical when it results in a 3.56 aspect ratio).
The aspect ratio is not the reason people get anamorphic lenses. After all, you can crop your footage in post (at the expense of resolution, of course), so that it has whatever aspect ratio you want. The reason people shoot anamorphic is because of the lens properties:
- Anamorphic Bokeh: This makes the bokeh, or the blurred out part of the image, look very unique. Anamorphic lenses have a way of stretching the bokeh vertically, making it look more appealing and organic. The effect is particularly noticeable on out of focus lights.
- Anamorphic Lens Flares: lets be honest, Andrew Kramer’s Optical Flares plugin is great tool that is loved and used by many amateur filmmakers. But the flares don’t look as good as real flares. Not even close. If you want real looking anamorphic lens flares, get an anamorphic lens.
The flares, the bokeh, and the stretched aspect ratio is why people spend hundreds of dollars on anamorphic projector lenses. Unfortunately, shooting with anamorphic projection lenses comes with some caveats:
- Lens Distortion: Many lenses have chromatic aberrations, slight barrel distortion, or soft images. The barrel distortion is not a problem because that can always be fixed in post. Chromatic aberration may be fixable depending on how severe it is. Having a soft image is a significant problem because it is not easy to fix.
- Dual Focusing: Okay, I know this may sound bizarre, but here it goes… You have to focus both your anamorphic lens, and your lens that is attached to your camera (the taking lens). This makes focusing a nuisance. Though, with experience you get better at coping with this problem. There are anamorphic lenses that do not need to be focused separately. But they cost a !^%#@ load of money.
- Weight and Attachment: Most of these old projector lenses are heavy, and require 3rd party or DIY attachment solutions. You might need to buy a rail system for your anamorphic rig to be sturdy. For many of these lenses, simply attaching a lens clamp is not enough.
- Vignetting: Unfortunately you cannot use wide angle lenses because the edges will vignette. Depending on the sensor size of your camera and your particular anamorphic lens, you will be limited to using lenses over a certain focal length. If you shoot on a FF DSLR (Canon 5D, 6D, etc…) you will get more vignetting than if you shoot on a crop sensor (T3i, 60D, 7D, etc..). Most anamorphic lenses can handle taking lenses that are over 60mm for crop sensors. So when you get an anamorphic lens, realize that you will most likely be shooting at medium and long focal lengths.
After it’s all said and done, you spend a lot of time and money shooting with anamorphic lenses. It can be a down right pain in the ass. But your footage will look more cinematic than all the generic footage out there. I guarantee it.
Here are some anamorphic lenses that I recommend:
- Iscorama 54
- Iscorama 42
- Iscorama 36
- Panasonic AG-LA7200
- Century Optics 1.33x
- Delft Vistascope (8mm, 16mm)
All of the anamorphic lenses listed above allow you to shoot without having to double focus. The Iscos are the most expensive of the bunch because people love them. They are sharp and easy to use. The Panasonic is another crowd favorite. It is pretty sharp and easy to use once it is set up. The Schneider Century Optics lens is the most practical lens of the bunch. It is very small, and not that sharp. So if you go for this lens, make sure to stop down the aperture. The Delft is a bizarre looking contraption. I believe it uses a mirror to reflect the image (as opposed to the refraction of normal lenses). I have seen videos shot on Delfts, and the image quality isn’t that great. I would only buy a Delft if the price was under $75.
- Lomo Square Front
- Lomo Round Front
Don’t buy the Lomos unless you know what you are doing. These are very large lenses, that will require a lot of additional money to get a working rig. For square fronts, if you get the OCT-18 versions they will not work with Canon mounts, so if you shoot on a Canon, go with the OCT-19 versions. Anyway, in my opinion the look of the stuff shot on Lomos beats the pants off of the Iscos. The bokeh and the flares are truly cinematic.
Other Anamorphic Lenses:
The lenses listed below are usually fairly cheap (sub $100 if you are lucky, up to $600) because they all require dual focusing (you have to focus the anamorphic lens as well as the taking lens). The Kowas and Sankors are the most popular.
- Kowa Prominar
- Kowa (Bell and Howell version)
- Hypergonar (HiFi, S.T.O.P, etc…)
- Bell and Howell
- Panavision (Superama)
For the most part, theses are the projection lenses that you should be looking at. Typically the newer models will have better lens coatings, which can be a good or bad thing depending on what you are after. When you are looking at a lens to buy, make sure that it is free of fungus and that the lens elements are not damaged. Many of theses anamorphic lenses are very old and are in rough condition. Also, make sure that the lens you are buying is not obscenely large. There are many projection lenses out there that are not practical because of their size. The best thing to do before you buy a lens is to research it on EOSHD and Vimeo. EOSHD is a great site that is full of anamorphic junkies. Vimeo is a great source for watching anamorphic test videos. If you google the model you are looking to buy and you don’t get any search results relating to video use, chances are it’s a bad choice. The best deals on anamorphic lenses are found away from Ebay. If you don’t like relying on luck or being patient, start scanning Ebay for anamorphic lenses. Occasionally you will find reasonably priced lenses there. You may be tempted to buy the cheapest anamorphic lens you can find, but I wouldn’t recommend it. What good is a lens if it sucks optically, or is completely unpractical for use with a DSLR?
I like prime lenses. Generally at any given price range, they are sharper than zoom lenses and can shoot at lower focal ratios. Because we shoot video at 24 frames per second at ~1/50 second shutter speed, having a faster f-ratio is a nice bonus, particularly if you shoot indoors or at night. Here are some nice primes:
- Samyang (Rokinon, Bower, etc…) 14mm f2.8
- Samyang 24mm f1.4
- Sigma 35mm f1.4
- Samyang 35mm f1.4
- Canon 50mm f1.4
- Canon 100mm f2.8 Macro
- Canon 135mm f2
Note: I don’t care about auto focus because for video we shoot manual. Secondly, this list is for the budget inclined. The popular Canon 50mm 1.8 is not recommended for video work because the focusing wheel sucks (its very small). If all you have is $100, get the Canon 50mm 1.8. Its sharp and awesome. But ideally you should save up your money and get a Canon 50mm 1.4 simply because of the focusing wheel. The 50mm 1.4 also has better bokeh.
Samyang has several lenses that I did not list here. Samyang make lenses with the name Rokinon, Bower, Pro Optic, and Bell + Howell. The Samyang lenses are very popular amongst video shooters because the optics are very sharp and very fast. The build quality is okay and the prices are very enticing. You get a bizarre barrel distortion on the 14mm 2.8 which is easily corrected in post. The Samyang lenses are manual, so they are perfect for video work. If you are into taking still photos, the Samyangs can be a bit daunting because it takes a bit of experience to shoot stills with full manual controls. If you want beautiful bokeh, get the Canon 135mm f2. It is a great low light lens, with beautiful bokeh. A standard choice for portraits.
- Tokina 11-16
- Sigma 10-20
- Canon 28-70 f2.8 (not the 24-70!)
- Canon 70-200 f2.8
Again, theses are “budget” oriented lenses.
Shooting with vintage lenses is quite common when it comes to video. After all, you don’t need fancy luxuries like auto focus or USM. A great thing about older lenses is that they are not coated as well as modern lenses. This means that you have more stray light penetrating the sensor resulting in a more organic, lower contrast look. This is particularly nice if you are into lens flares. I highly recommend getting some older lenses. You get a unique look, the lenses will have a solid build quality, and you can usually find lenses that are cheaply priced.
- Zeiss Jena
Unfortunately, I wrote about another 1,000 words, but for some reason it was not saved. I’ll make sure to rewrite when I get a chance. This page is a work in progress. More to come!