Anamorphic lens: What is it and why you should use it

Anamorphic lenses are an asset in any filmmaker’s toolbox. As a creator, you’re faced with tough choices when it comes to your masterpiece. However, when asking yourself ‘How do I make this story look great on the screen?’ that’s where an anamorphic lens is pretty badass.

The anamorphic lens is a filmmaker favourite, mainly because of the look it brings to a shot. Check this guide out before considering your next lens hire or camera hire!

In this article you’ll find out about:

  • What is an anamorphic lens?
  • When was it first used?
  • How does the lens affect the shoot?
  • The difference between an Anamorphic and Spherical lens
  • Why should you try anamorphic optics?
  • 6 Tips when shooting with an Anamorphic lens.

What is an anamorphic lens?

An anamorphic lens is a pretty unique camera lens. Let’s find out exactly what we mean by ‘unique’.

An anamorphic lens changes the dimensions of an image in one axis; this means you’re taking a wider field of view and squeezing that same image onto a narrower sensor.

Simply put, an anamorphic lens compresses an image horizontally, usually by a factor of two.

It’s important to note that the images captured through your anamorphic lens need to be stretched in post-production or when projected. Failing to do this will quickly turn your magic carriage into a rotten pumpkin!

When was it first used?

I hope you like war stories – because this lens is part of one! The anamorphic lens was first used on French battlefields, during the First World War. The lens provided soldiers in tanks with a wider look outside of tanks – quite clever actually (sorry, Germany).

Thankfully, we no longer have tanks filling the streets (thank god – I would not be an inspirational war hero). The anamorphic lens has found itself another purpose – in the filmmaking industry. ‘Revolutionising the shot’ just as it did 100 years ago – that’s pretty impressive.

Hey, if French soldiers trusted this lens, maybe we should too!

Anamorphic vs Spherical: What Are The Differences?

Spherical lenses have less glass for light to pass through and simpler mechanics. They tend to produce sharper images with minimal distortion across the entire picture.

The anamorphic lens, however, is often identified by its reduced sharpness, increased distortion, and falloff – this is where the closer we get to the edges of the image, the more distortion and softness we get. It also produces far more dramatic lens flares; this is because of the extra glass inside the body.

Frame Size and Aspect Ratio

Fair warning, I’m going to have to use some jargon in the following explanation – continue at your own risk.

For anamorphic footage, the frame size will typically be either 720×576 for PAL or 720×480 for NTSC. To convert these into widescreen 16:9 non-anamorphic square pixel formats, you need to stretch them horizontally. With an anamorphic lens, the aspect ratio can often be more than doubles.

Anamorphic widescreen was a response to a shortcoming in the flat, spherical widescreen format. With a non-anamorphic lens, the picture is recorded such that its entire width fits within the film’s frame, but not its full height.

Fewer Options and More Expensive

I’ve spent some time now on describing the wonders of the anamorphic lens (let’s be honest, you a little impressed, right?). However, this wouldn’t be a useful guide if I didn’t outline some of its pitfalls.

Anamorphic lenses are more expensive; this is due to their rather complex construction. Also, with anamorphic lenses, you’re likely to have fewer options to choose from, most are built in 40, 50, 75 and 100mm focal length. In contrast, spherical lenses have more focal lengths to choose between.

Spherical lenses tend to be faster, resulting in a lower t-stop such as T1.3. to T2 – allowing more light. Anamorphic lenses usually have a stop between T2.8 and T4, which lets less light through.

Final Product

Alright, we’ve gone through the two lens’ type technical differences – now lets dive into what you can expect from each! As a filmmaker, It’s nice to know all that technical stuff, but what you need to know is how the final product is affected.

Anamorphic footage has a softer, more cinematographic and artsy feel. The bokeh and lights are cubic or oval. Anamorphic flares are stretched horizontally and will give your footage that aesthetic look. With the anamorphic lens, you capture a wider frame, so keep in mind that it can make a set more expensive.

What does the lens do?

After the Second World War, yes – the lens made a comeback World War Two, the anamorphic lens left the army and joined the toolbox of filmmakers. It found its new home in Hollywood – ‘The Land of Dreams’, or is it ‘The Land of Broken Dreams’.

Anyway, the film industry quickly recognised the potential of anamorphic lenses, especially the ability to capture wide-angle shots to combat the rise in popularity of the televisions – which were at the time finding themselves in many American households.

Shots from this lens created an exciting widescreen effect which could not be replicated in the home, forcing Americans to go to the cinema. Plot twist, then streaming services like Netflix and HBO came, making every living room a cinema. But that’s another story. Where was I?

Widescreen was pulled off by using lenses that capture a wider aspect ratio and squeezing the image onto a narrow film strip.  This is known as CinemaScope, a filmmaking process in which a motion picture is projected on a screen, with the width of the image approximately two and a half times its height.

Shoot a wide field of view

Cinematographers worldwide love anamorphic lenses, and for good reasons! They help achieve that epic cinematic look. Yes, I said epic! Many films you love are shot in this format. Ever seen Pulp Fiction?

The lenses provide an incredible aspect ratio. You can capture 2.39:1 aspect ratio footage using your regular camera.

This gives a wide field of view that is distortion-free in the centre. Even with close-ups, the distortion will be minimal. Towards the edges, however, it’s a different story. In short, it has a very shallow depth of field in the centre of the shot.

The compression means you can capture much wider shots from the same spot – ensuring you don’t miss Travolta and Thurman bust out their dance moves.

Widescreen & Black Bars

Anamorphic lens footage is also recognised for its cinematic black bars. This is what happens when you attempt to squeeze a wide aspect ratio onto a screen that has a narrower one. This is because the screen has to fill the shot side to side – It’s unavoidable!

Don’t fuss – this is what gives your film that cinematic look we all know and love.

Anamorphic Lens Flares & Oval Bokeh

Each lens will produce a different lens flare.

This is what happens when the lens and sensor capture light. This also applies to anamorphic lenses, which will give you a much more distinct lens flare.

Anamorphic creates a horizontally stretched lens flare. It’s a look and feel that you simply can’t get from any other lens. The flare effect pops whenever light hits the lens. Didn’t I tell you the anamorphic lens is unique? Now you know why!

Aside from horizontal lens flares, you’ll get oval bokeh. Bokeh is the way the lens captures out-of-focus lights in the background. A traditional lens would produce a ball-like bokeh rather than oval.

Shoot with anamorphic lenses: Tips & Considerations

Why use anamorphic lenses?

When it comes to deciding whether to use an anamorphic lens, it is very much down to you and your personal taste and preferences.

As Roger Deakins once said: ‘It’s not about the type or brand of your lens, it is about what it does for your story’. Clever words Sir Deakin!

If you think your next creation needs a sense of warmth and closeness to it, then the anamorphic lens might be the ideal choice.

Try it for yourself

An anamorphic lens is a unique lens. My advice – just try it out. I can tell you about how awesome it is till I’m blue in the face. Ultimately, it all depends on your preferences and the kind of mood you want to convey.

I’ll leave you with this: the anamorphic lens looks fantastic on screen and gives a nostalgic look. Experimenting with it might even make you a better filmmaker. It introduces different framing and allows greater detail in each image.

Which lens to choose?

It’s difficult picking the right lens to match your style, especially with the endlessly available cameras and lens combinations.

We’ve put together this guide to help take your cinematography to the next level.

Three things to consider when choosing an anamorphic lens:

  1. Size and weight of the anamorphic
  2. Single or dual focus
  3. Your DSLR and prime lenses

What is a decent size and weight for an anamorphic lens?

Large format lenses

The full-size range is a great option for the budget-conscious filmmaker. Especially if you shoot with a locked-down tripod, this means models like Isco & Schneider.

These are the large format lenses. Early models of these are approximately 1.3kg in weight and around 25cm in length.

If you want an alternative, take a look at the replicas. Japanese Kollomorgen or American Bell & Howell are also great options.

Medium format lenses

Are you looking for a lighter rig? Prehaps, you’re recreating the chase scene from Casino Royale? (basically every scene!). Then medium format lenses like Isco Micro and Kowa B&H would be perfect for you.

These lenses combine the build quality of large format lenses with the sharpness of smaller packages.

Isco Micro is only 0.45 kg in weight and great value for most DSLR shooters.

Small format lenses

Small format lenses like Baby Hypogonar and Baby Isco provide an anamorphic effect in the smallest possible package.

Typically, these lenses have a diameter no wider than 52mm. So, you will need a prime taking lens with a smaller front diameter to avoid light transmission loss.

Just, remember that small format lenses might not stand up to professional standards.

Single or Dual Focus Anamorphic?

Most anamorphic lenses are focused by both the prime taking lens and the anamorphic lens.

Dual focusing is not very difficult, but there are filmmakers who prefer single focus, especially when working with narrative shoots.

Pure single focus anamorphic lenses

A few anamorphic lenses, including Isco Rama 36, 54, can be focused by setting your taking lens to infinity and focusing only with the anamorphic. This solution is the easiest to shoot with.

Dual focus anamorphic

Some dual focus systems use one follow focus to calibrate both anamorphic and taking lenses. Brands to keep an eye on here are Rectilux and Rapido.

These don’t affect the quality of your anamorphic lenses with the extra optics. However, they can be difficult to calibrate, especially when changing lenses in the field.

Will your camera and lenses work together?

Well, here’s the kicker, not every anamorphic lens works with every prime lens and DSLR camera.

Generally, you should use a 2x anamorphic lens with an 85mm prime lens on full-frame.  A 50mm lens on APS-C/Super 35, and 43mm lenses on Micro 4/3.

Some lenses, such as the Isco Micro Anamorphic Lens, can perform well with a full-frame camera and provide a wide anamorphic view.

Remember, that with a 2x anamorphic lens, you are doubling your field of view. So, an 85mm lens with an anamorphic attachment will look like a 42.5 mm canvas to paint your image on.

Simply put, divide your prime lens by 2 to get your anamorphic equivalent.

6 Tips For Shooting Anamorphic

1. Flare

Everyone loves that awesome flare that anamorphic lenses create. It makes the image look iconic and cinematic.

If you need a drastic flare, shoot directly into the light. For softer flare, you shoot from the side or have the light positioned towards the edges of the image.

Take care as flares can be distracting and take attention away from the actual picture. Consider your personal preferences and what you, as a filmmaker, are shooting. Just keep in mind, that overdoing the flares can be very distracting.

2. Transition your lens flares

Make the lens flare appear or hide it behind an object and then make it appear again. This gives a more organic and authentic look and feel.

3. Proper Alignment and Distortion

Always check the alignment to prevent an image from being distorted.

When using an anamorphic lens, pay extra attention to the edges of the frame. So that when you pan the camera left and right, you can place subjects in certain parts of the frame.

Anamorphic lenses force you to frame what is important in the centre of the frame. Panning the camera creates distortion, so the image is not nearly as clean, sharp or precise on the edges as in the centre.

4. Anamorphic Focus Fall-Off

Aside from distortion, you have to consider the focus and how sharp and accurate the lenses are.

When you shoot something that is important, be careful. Don’t suddenly focus on the edge of the frame. The subject will not be as sharp as it would have been in the centre of the frame.

Working with changing focus with an anamorphic lens is much stronger and faster which might be a little too distracting for some people.

5. Lens breathing

When you rack focus on the anamorphic lens, you can notice that it ‘breathes’. In other words, the subject in front of the lens morphs and is slightly transformed.

As an example, when you try to rack focus into the background, you’ll notice how the person’s body and face changes.

So, when shooting with anamorphic, you might not want to have as strong a rack or as fast of a focus rack, because it can be a little distracting.

6. The right angle and stabilisation

You don’t want the image to be unnatural or to shoot when the sun is at its highest – it is easier when the sun is lower, and the lens is set up to capture footage with awesome flares.

It is even more important to get smooth footage with an anamorphic lens – but you might have to use a gimbal.

These tips can help you when choosing whether to use anamorphic for your next piece. Remember, like most things in life; practice makes perfect. So, allow yourself room for learning and improving your skills as you get to know each other.

Anamorphic Format

Anamorphic format is the art of shooting a widescreen picture on standard 35 mm. This style is so popular that small anamorphic lenses have been produced for mobile phones for as little as $150. I’ll just repeat that: lenses for less than $150 – that’s like finding a Picasso at your local flea market.

De-squeeze!

The anamorphic lens is mostly used for cinematography but can be used for photography, as long as it gets desqueezed – just as with video.

How to de-squeeze an image in Premiere?

  1. Select your clip in the timeline to de-squeeze.
    2. Click on “Modify”
    3. Select “Interpret Footage”
    4. Under “Frame Rate”, you’ll see a section to input “Conform To”. Select HD Anamorphic value.

Hop over to MOMENT for more tips, where you can find out how to desqueeze your anamorphic footage in multiple programs with a few simple steps.

Interested in trying out anamorphic lenses? Rent it now on Wedio (Available in Denmark, Berlin, Amsterdam, and London)

About the Author

Daniel Sand is a Co-founder & CEO of camera sharing platform Wedio, and he’s on a mission to keep great stories alive. He is a data-driven and curious digital marketing nerd with a soft spot for great video storytelling. You can follow Daniel on LinkedIN. This article was also published here and shared with permission.



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