Before I begin, I want to note that the art of cinematography takes years and sometimes decades to master. This will not make you an expert, but help to understand the basics. I encourage you to research more in depth and ask professionals before deciding on your lens package. This should get you started. Throughout this article, I have provided links to learn more as well.
It should also be mentioned that along with the lens you choose the camera and compatibility is just as important.
- Certain camera types require special mounts for the lenses. Not every lens works with every camera. Usually there are adapters, but unless it is a free camera and lens package, it is a waste to spend money on an adapter when you can just acquire the right type of lens for your camera. (ex. Sony Cameras require an e-mount lens whereas black-magic requires an active ef mount to attach a lens.)
2. The f-stop of a lens will not completely change your camera’s ability to work in lowlight. Certain cameras are better with certain light. Make sure to take this into account.
FIRST STEP: YOUR VISUAL STORY
Before you begin understanding what equipment will be best to shoot your film, you need to understand your story.
Here is a list of some questions to ask yourself to help guide you:
What story are you telling, How are you telling it, and what is the world it takes place in?
- Whose perspective(s) is the story in?
- What perspective do you want the audience to have? Empathetic? Subjective? Objective?…
- What emotions do you want the audience to feel? During and after?
- Look at your shot compositions, progressions and story sequences
- What are the locations and settings of principal photography? (INT/EXT, Day/Night, Weather control…etc)
Equipment Compatibility and Production Value
- What is your budget? How important are lenses in telling your visual story compared to other aspects of production (ie other equipment, location, actors, production design..etc.)
- What camera are you using? What lenses are compatible with it? CHECK THE SENSOR
- What is your frame size(s)? (very rarely are there more than one)
- What does your lighting kit look like? What rigs or accessories do you wish to use/have access to? Does this effect lens specs needed?
Start Learning Lens Specs
To achieve your visuals
Quick Guide: Definitions and Uses
Focal Length of Lens:
Angle of View “AOV” (degrees) How much of the scene can be viewed and can be measured horizontally, vertically or diagonally
Depth of Field (in part): area in focus
Perspective Relative size of objects in frame
Image use Definition
How wide angle or telephoto a lens is — determining the amount of area will you be capturing in the frame: measured in millimeters (mm)
Distance between the center of the lens and its focus
Focal Length and Angle of Field
“What mood and/or emotion am I trying to create?”
(a) understand how different lenses change the relationship between the subject and the background
(b) which lenses produce which feelings and tones.
1. Focal Length:
“The lenses are like the eyes that allow the audience to “see” the story of a movie, everything that goes in the final movie is directly influenced by the lens choice. Different lenses see differently, therefore, the lens can tell the story from a totally different perspective and change the whole experience for the viewers.”
General Focal Classifications
1: Standard 50mm considered closest to the human eye
**The human eye has a focal length of about 22mm and an AOV “cone of visual attention” measuring about 55° wide.**
2: Wide 24mm-40mm you can see everything that is happening in the frame
3. Medium Telephoto aka portrait 85mm-100mm Focus is on subject and the background is blurred
4. Telephoto Lens 135mm and above the higher the focal length, the more isolated the characters will feel
5. Ultra wide lens less than 24mm provides extreme understanding of distance, which extends to more than the human eye is able to see
Source: No Film School
2. Iris: The amount of light allowed into the image
The Len’s Iris Ring controls the aperture, which is the opening that decides the amount of light coming through the image.
for more details click here
Small F-Stop (ex. 2.5) = large, wide aperture size = shallow depth of field
Large F-Stop (ex. f/22) = smaller aperture = deep depth of field
Rule of Thumb for style/look/exposure: This is the “norm”, but like everything in cinematography, it is not true 100% of the time
f/16: Clear Sunny Day
f/11: hazy sun and soft shadows
f/22: Bright Days with Distinct Shadows
f/8: cloudy days with few shadows
f/5.6: Overcast with no shadows
Knowledge to Use: F/stops and DOF
shallow depth of field (F0.95 – F3.5) aka narrow depth of field
Visual Effect: Primary subject stands out form surroundings and creates “beautiful backdrop”: Dreamy quality
Emotional: feeling of isolation between the subject and the world around them because the background is blurrier.
Difficulty: Keeping focus
Dynamic Deep Shots (F4 – F16)
Visual Effect: a lot of detail and all in focus
Common Use: Manual Focus for Massive landscapes or nature with beautiful imagery and details
Difficulty: Too much detail for character driven shots: no separation from surroundings since everything is very focuses.
Careful: Any dust on sensor will show
- Can make us feel “closer” to a subject: like we’re there in the scene with them
- Be used as natural distortion of the subject: scenes depicting drunkenness, madness, and fear
- Withdrawn feeling from the subject because the subject feels further away in the frame: creates an observational perspective. Your audience becomes spectators watching the events unfold.
More neutral lenses 24mm, 30mm, and 50mm
- Maintain natural and objective point of view objective
Keep in Mind Camera’s Distance from the Subject and Foreground Elements can change Audiences Emotional Response based on
ex. An objective, observational shot with an 200mm lens can quickly become a creepy, voyeuristic POV just by simply putting a tree, a door, or a window between the camera and the subject or by capturing the scene from further away.
Source: No Film School
VISUAL STORY TELLING:
Common Uses of Lens Types
Films Covered in this section:
Synopsis: A single father with a troubled past must overcome seemingly unbeatable odds to create a better life for himself and his bi-racial daughter.
Streaming on Filmocracy.com
Lens Change: Can you spot the difference?
The “ATM” Sign in the background gives you the easiest clues about lens changes.
Notice how the camera placement barely moved, yet in picture A the “ATM” sign in the background is smaller, out of focus and looks much further back than picture B.
This tells us the lens was less compressed and therefore the focal length must have increased inside. Most likely both lenses were within the standard kit (between 24mm to 50mm)
Standard 50mm: “Human Eye”
This film is trying to establish an objective prospective. As the viewer, the director did not want audiences taking sides, but rather observing acts and decide opinions based on logic rather than empathy.
2 Wrongs: Streaming at Filmocracy.com
What: Long Lenses in first 5-6 scenes
From Where? Across the street, through people, at a distance
Why? Establish perspective of him in a bigger world being almost invisible
Longer Lens Perspective: “voyeuristic view” of person’s life — audience is fly on wall. The audience will not become too close to a subject, but rather observe and take in world and characters within it.
Sequence Lens Change: Long and distant placement to Wide and subject in foreground
When? When we are alone with protagonist for first time
Perspective: Audience is now alone and intimate with him while he is nursing his wounds
Gaining empathy through personal connection with a more connected lens and subject in shallow focus: establish an intimacy with audiences
IMPACT/EFFECT of Transition: The change in camera provides contrast of him at heart and him amongst many. It allows the audience to have two views of him and both an objective and subjective connection
Wide-Angle Lenses used in Close-Ups
Notice how the subject is in full focus with a blurred background. The detail is all presented on the face. Further, by using the wide angle lenses, there is now a subtle distortion in perspective, which can provoke a level of uneasiness in the audience.
Why use wide angle in a close-up here?
“There are a lot of wide-angle lenses because Kathy Bates is right in your face. It’s right as she’s at the edge of the bed, very close to the captive James Caan, and this choice of how to exaggerate an emotional moment is very important for me.”
So, where a wide-angle lens may mostly play its most useful role in shooting vast rolling landscapes, Pozer says not to fall to the common error of ruling it out as a very strong lens choice for an indoors shot with, for example, in the case of “an aggressive or crazed character who is literally in your face.”
Other Common effective Scene Uses: Drunkenness, madness, fear, drugs, psychological tampering
Synopsis: In a world where the standard method to find a suitable mate is swiping men holding dead fish, a levelheaded woman goes on one final date before quitting and just getting a cat. Genre: Comedy
Distorted Lens use for Comedy
The effect is similar to the one in Misery, but now we are using distortion for “Story World Tone” in a comedy instead of emotionally unstable subject in a thriller.
Each shot had a unique subject and distance from the lens is what established tone and feel and audience connection to the subject.
Synopsis: After losing both her parents, Scarlet discovers she is actually adopted. The search for her biological parents takes her to the underworld of Boston, where she finds her real mother working in a nightclub run by a sinister hitman for the Irish mob.
Notice here how everything seems very natural. You don’t feel like you are getting too much information or too little?
It seems like an ordinary day where everything seems proportionate in size and focal view?
Nothing is jarring or crazy!
This is Standard Lens and the reason it is so plain is to introduce subtly a feeling of slowly being crept up on, but not too intruding…yet…
FURTHER RESEARCH AND FINAL WORDS
Further enhance your knowledge of building your visual with lenses by researching top brands of lenses and seeing the image style each outputs to best portray your overall tone.
There are a lot of comparison guides online as well that can help you better see these subtle differences.
Before you choose a lens for your production, keep in mind that in order to accurately understand how your lens will impact your field of view, you must not only understand how the focal length of the lenses work, but how it works with your camera’s sensor.
Examples as outlined on digital rev
Field of View for 14mm lens:
Full Frame Sensor > APS-C sized sensor
APS-C sized sensor (24mm & 14mm): Field of view drops
Educate yourself more on this before making final decisions.
Another factor in choosing a lens package is looking into your options for lens filters. Adding the right filter can further help your image or make it easier to shoot in more difficult conditions.
More in Depth
PRIME LENS V. ZOOM LENS. Note: You will seldemly find a cinematographer or director who will recommend a zoom lens verses a prime lens.
Learn more about the cameras and lenses used in Oscar winning films. Which looks do you like? Learn how to better achieve your vision!
Learn how directors have gotten creative and shot a feature film with only ONE PRIME lens
Lens Recommendations for various types of cameras