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Cinematography : Distinguising Between Different Types of Lenses by Christopher Binder

Christopher Binder

Distinguising Between Different Types of Lenses

Can anybody explain (or send a link) the differences between the different types of camera lenses cinematographers use? Like how you can tell the difference between a Hasselblad and a Hawk or Spherical lens? What results would each produce for you visually?

Ken Koh

Hi Chris. r u looking for general info? Can u be more specific? Because there's a few variables to what result each would produce. (sensor type or film, debayer or process, aperture). Spherical lens alone are so many and varied, each with unique coatings and elements, I don't know of anyone who's tested them all and complied into a single study. I would also be interested if someone actually did that.

Jake Pasley

That's not exactly the question asked? & most Cine Lens ARE Spherical? I will get real technical Christopher if you ask me to, but basically the 2 main motion picture lens used by Dps are spherical and anamorphic. There's a never ending debate from real DPs about which is better. Anamorphic uses full frame of the negative and do get more negative space, or sensor space, therefore more quality. But spherical lens are mostly sharper. So in terms of which gives the best visual quality? It's subjective, depends on which DP you ask.

Jake Pasley

I'm afraid you don't know what you're talking about. In terms of filmmaking, we in the industry refer to most cine lens as spherical, save anamorphic or speciality lens. Christopher I suggest you contact other DPs in this forum.

Andrew Sobkovich

By definition Spherical lenses are lenses in which all refracting surfaces are spherical. Anamorphic lenses are compound lenses that compress the image in one direction, for motion pictures we squeeze the image horizontally using the optics of the anamorphic lens. Many current lenses are aspherical lenses where some of the part of some lens elements are not spherical or cylindrical in order to reduce artifacts like spherical aberration. Anamorphics allowed an Academy film frame to record a wider aspect ratio while using the available surface area of the sensitive medium, film originally. For electronic cameras native sensors are usually with 1.78 or 1.33. If you wish to extract a 1.85 image you crop, or do not use, part of the sensor. Loss of active photo sites on the sensor is much more serious when looking at a 2.39 widescreen deliverable where just of 25% of the sensor is not used, with a subsequent loss in image quality. Using anamorphic lenses allows the full use of ll of the available photo sites on the sensor. A sensor could be configured in 2.39:1 but would have a limited appeal as it would only be useful for releases in that format. Anamorphics allow us to use existing light sensitive medium image ratios to make images in a ratio we wish to use artistically. You should not be able to easily see the effects of anamorphic lenses since the reason we use them is to get the maximum amount of information onto the maximum surface area of the sensor or film stock not to draw attention to ourselves. However there are a some distinctive visual cues the easiest of which is flare. Anamorphics can have a very distinctive flare often seen as a blue horizontal line. Flare that is often replicated, well sort of, with software.

Jake Pasley

Anamorphic lens uses the height of a 4-perf 35mm neg without cropping and so you get more negative area and resolution. Spherical lenses are usually sharper than anamorphic lenses, especially at wide apertures. There's an ongoing debate as to which is sharper. But anamorphic films definitely did look sharper compared to films shot on super 35 on the same stock. where there's lots of light, you can stop down an anamorphic lens, the image is more detailed, but shooting in low-light situations at wider apertures, the distortions show up and spherical lens often looks much sharper. With the use of digital intermediates and scanning the Super-35 neg, you could digitally output a squeezed image back to film without an optical printer, and the grain advantage of anamorphic was less apparent. With digital projection now in theaters, and digital cameras becoming the norm you don't get any grain advantage with anamorphic lens. Anamorphic lenses are usually bigger and heavier than spherical lenses, and are often either a bit slower in speed, or even if they are faster, look better if stopped down. They flare more and when you rack focus, the amount of stretching between the foreground and background will change, causing a visible breathing during the focus racking.

Ken Koh

I don't foresee myself shooting anamorphic on a low budget anytime soon. They're heavier and slower in speed, even faster anamorphic only look sharper when stopped down. Unless I'm going for the lens flare and artifact, which I can add in post anyway. I can shoot a 2:40 film on super 35mm just as well. Nothing against anamorphic, not picking a side but I can get all the quality I want from spherical photography. It's the talent of the DP that's most important to me as a film producer and not so much the format.

Andrew Sobkovich

Anamorphic lenses allow the maximum use of existing sensors. On a 4:3 sensor camera using a 2:1 anamorphic lens the used image occupies 90% of the sensor area for a 2:39:1 image. On the same 4:3 sensor without using anamorphic lenses would only use 56% of the sensor. This is a significant increase in image quality that results from a larger portion of the sensor or film stock, resulting in a sharp looking image. Anamorphic pictures go through the same process as any non-squeezed picture. Given the exact same process there is no difference in the build up of grain because of printing between anamorphic and spherical. There are no shortcuts in the number of steps needed so there is no advantage in grain structure. The grain structure is different in a picture that goes through a traditional motion picture duping and printing process, than a picture that goes from film to a digital intermediate and then either to digital release of printed back to film. This difference is because of the number of different printing steps. The difference in the grain in anamorphic films is because the grain from all of the various steps is it’s natural shape until it s projected when it is widened by the squeeze factor of the anamorphic lenses used.

Ken Koh

I don't use 4:3 sensors but 16x9. I love both grain in film stocks and the look of it, but I also love the image the Alexa produces, it's not exactly the same as film but pleasing to my eyes none the less. I would love the budget one day to shoot full anamorphic and on filmstock if there's any left. I won't produce a film where the director has 1 take 5:1 shooting ratio, doing 5 pages a day, it's tough. Most films shot this way usually suck. I want to buy at least 200,000' of 35mm doing a page a day. There are lab cost, production design, budget and lighting considerations too. But for now at my level of production which is small, it's digital epic or alexa. My next 3 movies are all alexa and cooke lens. Sorry Christopher I digress too much here. So in terms of quality, if money and lighting is no object then yes shoot anamorphic. I would love to shoot kodak vision 3-5203 for an entire film, using panavision primo primes (my personal all time best lens). you'll get a richer image, much more detail and finer grain although other DPs may disagree. But really cinematography is an art, like I said before it comes down to the DP's talent, knowing where to put the light, painting, and creating your frame.

Andrew Sobkovich

The simple reason companies are now making cameras with 4:3 sensors is quite obviously to take advantage of existing anamorphic lenses. For cameras with a 16:9 sensor a few companies have produced anamorphic lenses with a 1.3X squeeze ratio. More of these are coming to the market soon. The lessened anamorphic squeeze ratio does lessen the difference to shooting with spherical lenses. However so far the wonderful blue line flare has remained intact.

Jake Pasley

It'll always be anamorphic if I had the choice. Because anamorphic 'sees' a wider field of view horizontally, you retain the shallow DOF of the lens. And you do get better image quality. Working in the commercials and music video world many of the directors are happy with S35mm imply because they have the option of reframing in the post. You wouldn't gain anything much by shooting anamorphic if your final deliver is standard tv. Another important consideration is on smaller indie budgeted productions, often they are not prepare to deal with the complexities and cost in adding SFX to a squeezed image.

Andrew Sobkovich

One more combo that I neglected to mention, using a 4:3 lens and a 1.3X anamorphic lens results in a 1.73:1 ratio. A slight trim and it is 16x9 with anamorphic characteristics for television. For a given frame width, an anamorphic will use a longer focal length lens, thus there will be a lessening of depth of field which will be offset by availability of much faster spherical lenses which balance out the comparison for depth of field.

Ken Koh

Agreed. Like I said, if money was no object I'll shoot film in anamorphic. Mostly of budget and practicle reasons I'll be in the S35mm world. Budget is a big consideration in anamorphic, on one indie production I know of they were shooting in a small conference room in anamorphic with group of characters interacting. They ran into all sorts of focus problems and finally ending up having to use so many diopters (my suggestion) to get all the actors in focus. It's not ideal looks bad. I told the producer he should have thought about all this beforehand with the production designer and DP, plan it out, find a bigger space or create a studio set and fly walls, with overhead grid lighting. They were low budget, shot on location, minimal gear with anamorphic format, and thought they can get the big movie look just because of that? Well the 'DP' didn't seem to know much at all. And I'm sorry to say the end result looked terrible, I could have done better with my 5D. So knowledge, skill, artistry of the DP is king for cinematography not gear. There are so many variables to consider here. I think all this is good info to factor in the - "which is the best lens/format' debate for filmmakers.

Maria Pretorius

What lenses is essential for any short film

Andrew Sobkovich

The essential lens is the one you have. You do not need more than one lens to shoot. It is actually a very good learning exercise to shoot a project with only 1 prime lens. You can think or wide angle, normal or standard, and telephoto as being general ranges of lenses. For your first project use only one lens. For the second project use only one, but a different one than in your first project. Then for the third, obviously you only use your last choice :-) This exercise will quickly help you understand the perspective differences that are key to choosing between these lenses.

Michael Borlace

Andrew has a point. While no one would probably shoot films with only one lens, it would be a great way to learn about lenses. Similarily, Robert Rodriguez in his 10 minute cooking school says that to learn cooking you start with only one recipe. You make that recipe until it is perfect and then move on to something else. Or, when I was shooting photography with film, you would use only one type of film until you understood it's characteristics and could predict how it would work under any condition. Then you move on to another film.

Ricardo Jacques Gale'

The film, " The Lat Picture Show ", was shot with a 24mm lens. Yes, The whole film.

Ricardo Jacques Gale'

It's not the hammer, it's the Carpenter...

Rick Shorrock

Here is a great lens comparison by Shane Hurbut, ASC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5febma4_OE He has lots of this type of information at his site, www.hurlbutvisuals.com

Royce Allen Dudley

Lenses are like guitars. Each can play any tune but will have general characteristics - acoustic vs electric, and subtle nuances that are brand and model specific- even down to the era it was made or where it was made. You can hear or feel the difference... but it also has so much to do with who is playing. Mark Knopfler has a distinct audio signature- so does Peter Frampton- and when Frampton plays BLACK HOLE SUN, it is clearly a Soundgarden tune, yet unmistakably Frampton... how much is the song, the guitar, the artist ? Same with lenses - how much is the subject or scene, the lens, the cinematographer ?

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