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Why Lens Choice Matters In Cinematography - Focal Lengths

Why Lens Choice Matters In Cinematography - Focal Lengths

One thing’s for sure, without a lens to take in the world there would be no cinema. In this article I’ll be going over the basics of lenses, discussing focal lengths and explaining the creative applications of choosing a lens, using examples from popular films to describe how that has a profound impact on how we, as an audience, interpret a story.


There are 3 basic components that every cinema lens must have:

1. A focal length
2. A stop
3. Focus

There are also two kinds of lenses available to choose from, a zoom or a prime lens.

1. A prime lens has a fixed focal length meaning that the image produced by the lens cannot be optically magnified. Primes are typically preferred by cinematographers for their faster apertures and perceived better image characteristics. Some popular contemporary cinema prime lenses include Arri Signature Primes, Cooke S4s, Leica Summilux-Cs, and Panavision Primos.

2. Zooms on the other hand allow the operator to alter the focal length of a lens. This can be done during a shot for a zoom effect or zoom lenses can be shot at fixed focal lengths.

Zooms are often used in situations where the framing needs to be adjusted quickly or to minimize the time taken between changing lenses, such as when shooting cars or action sequences. Popular contemporary cinema zooms include the Angenieux Optimo 24-290, the Fujinon Premista 80-250mm, or the Panavision Primo 19-90 Zoom.

Cinematographers are also able to choose between spherical and anamorphic lenses. but the most prominent characteristic of these two types of lenses is the aspect ratio it gives:
The anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio vs the taller spherical 1.85:1.

Focal Lengths

A focal length is a number that is associated with the optical power of the lens describing how magnified it is. For example, a 16mm lens is considered wide or less magnified and a 100mm lens is considered tight or more magnified. Certain fixed focal lengths have become standard and often appear in many lens sets.

Common wide focal lengths include 18mm, 24mm, and 35mm. A 50mm is usually considered a standard lens ‘equal to the human eye’. Yasujirō Ozu notably shot all his films on a 50mm for its naturalistic ability to render everyday, ordinary experience. Common tight or long focal lengths include 85mm, 100mm, and 135mm.

Wider lenses allow us to see more of the background with a deeper focus. They tend to distort images more, particularly when used close to a subject. Longer lenses compress the background and have more out-of-focus areas or a shallower depth of field. This means that longer focal lengths can be used to effectively isolate subjects in a frame.

Traditionally, cinematographers use wider focal lengths to shoot long shots or wides of a scene, such as a 24mm, and use tighter lenses, such as a 100mm lens, for close-ups. However, the cinematography is a creative occupation so rules are made to be broken.

Creative Applications

Cinematographers such as Emmanuel Lubezki or Christopher Doyle are famous for breaking cinematic conventions by shooting close-ups of actors very close to them with very wide lenses. On the Revenant for instance Lubezki shot most of the film on a 12mm prime lens. “We wanted to make a movie that was immersive and visceral."

By shooting on a wide lens the audience is able to see a lot of the wilderness background and how the character realistically interacts with it. Just as human eyes view the world with a panoramic width where most of our vision is in focus, so are the images that Lubezki creates through his lens choice.

However, immersion is not the only psychological effect which shooting with wide lenses can have. Films such as Fallen Angels, shot by Christopher Doyle, include a bunch of characters living out of the mainstream world of Hong Kong who are all bound by loneliness and detachment.

Shooting most of the film on a 6.5mm fisheye lens gives the movie a hugely distorted look. Faces in close-ups are contorted by the lens and there is always the illusion of lots of space around the characters even if they are in a cramped location. In this film then a wide lens is used to convey the characters as isolated outcasts in a lonely world.

Another film with outcasts in a lonely world is Heaven Knows What shot by Sean Price Williams. However, the creative choice of lenses in this film is vastly different. Instead of using wide lenses, Williams chose to shoot the film with extremely long focal length lenses usually reserved for wildlife photography.

Heaven Knows What is a film with lonely characters totally obsessed and bound to drugs and love. Using long lenses isolates these characters. We are so focused on these individual characters visually that we barely see that the world is continuing on around them. The lens conveys the same ideas of obsession and isolation as the actors and screenplay does.

Another use of long lenses is creating a voyeuristic effect.

The camera becomes objective and omniscient, the eye through which we as the audience see the world. For example in the opening scene of The Conversation, a film about surveillance, the use of a long zoom lens gives a sense that we are spying on the characters from a vantage point.

Comedy is another effect that lenses can have.

Robert Yeoman employs this technique, especially when shooting for director Wes Anderson. His use of wide anamorphic lenses distort the characters in an unrealistic way, like a caricature, and, in the context of a comedy, provide a humorous effect.

Last words

These are just some examples of why the lens that cinematographers choose to shoot on has such profound psychological effects on the viewer. I think that for people interested in the art of cinematography, lens choice, especially the choice of focal lengths, is crucial.

It’s important to be aware of this choice and how it affects your viewing experience. I think if lenses are a way of capturing the world, then which lens you choose says a lot about the kind of world that you’re trying to capture.

Thanks for reading this breakdown of the concept of focal lengths in cinematography. If you have any ideas about future filmmaking concepts you’d like to see explored then please list them in the comments.

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