Curious photographers often ask about that extra gold lens on the front of my camera rig. Although they are not widely known, anamorphic lenses provide many of benefits and characteristics to DSLR cameras that are instantly recognizable as “cinema”.
This article summarizes many conversations I’ve had with curious photographers and filmmakers over the years and explain the anamorphic benefits (and a few drawbacks) of shooting with anamorphic lenses on a DSLR camera.
Quick takeaways: Three Anamorphic Benefits
- Anamorphic lenses capture a wider field of view, offering a larger canvas to paint with versus spherical lenses
- The “technical” imperfections of well-built anamorphic lenses result in a unique and recognizable cinematic character- specially when rack focusing and in barrel distortion
- Anamorphics produce organic cinematic aesthetics that can not be otherwise replicated- bokeh feels like an oil painting, and the additional lens elements coax unique lens flares that can be subtle or stylish. If you want to achieve more flares with your anamorphic, check out our tutorial.
For those interested in the full story, continue below:
The Shape of Cinema: A History of Aspect Ratio
Aspect ratio: the ratio of the width of an image divided by its height.
The story of anamorphic is born in the history of film aspect ratios. From the end of the 1800s up until midcentury, the standard aspect ratio for film was more or less the same format developed by Thomas Edison in 1889. A perforated film (4-perf) with a 25mm x 18.7mm exposure area became the standard for early cinema and silent films. When dividing the width by height, this results in the very common aspect ratio of 4:3 or 1.33:1.
As cinema sound became standard, filmmakers had to reduce the width of the exposure area to fit two audio tracks to the right of the exposure area. The resulting exposure area of 21.94mm x 18.6mm meant a 1.18:1 aspect ratio, which is quite square. Imagine a cinema with such an aspect ratio; it would require an extreme angle of seating to project an image visible by a large audience. Studios and cinemas quickly discovered that wider aspect ratios could simply entertain more people at a time and provide a more immersive canvas for storytelling.
Over time, camera manufacturers and filmmakers developed three solutions. Brought quickly to market, the first solution involved shrinking the height of the capture area on film to keep the aspect ratio the same. This resulted in the standard Academy aperture of 1.375:1. Classic films in this ratio include Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, and It’s a Wonderful Life.
The second solution involved simply cropping or matting the tops and bottoms of the image to create a widescreen look. While this allowed filmmakers to use standard spherical lenses with 35mm film, this method also “wastes” valuable exposure area (or resolution) by throwing away parts of the image. Filmmakers matted images to a 1.85:1 aspect ratio
The anamorphic solution
The third solution didn’t become widely adopted until the cinema industry started facing competition from television in the 1950s. SMPTE standardized the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 for TV. This ratio remained the standard for decades of television production. Eventually, SMPTE then standardized the aspect ratio of High Definition TV as 16:9 around the turn of the century.
Facing competition from television, the cinema industry sought to develop spectacles that would draw more people away from their TV and back to the theaters. In addition to 3D, Hollywood developed several wide screen formats for more immersive cinema: Vista-Vision, Todd AO, and Cinemascope. It would take a special lens to compress a wide image on to a square capture area.
Cinemascope is born
Legendary German optics manufacturer Isco (since bought by Schneider group, now defunct) developed an intuitive solution for filmmakers desiring this more immersive canvas for storytelling. Isco designed this lens to compress the image using a series of concave and convex elements. The anamorphic lens captures a wider image and compresses it on the full height of Super 35 film. Editors edit the film and deliver it to the cinema. The cinema projector then uncompresses the anamorphic image for a wide screen show.
The result of applying a 2x anamorphic lens to the full height of Super 35mm film became what we know as Cinemascope today: 2.35:1. For those checking the math: 21.94mm * 2x anamorphic lens / 18.6mm = an aspect ratio 2.35
The look of cinema: what came to be
During the later half of the 20th century, anamorphic lenses quickly become a required tool in the filmmaker’s toolkit. Hollywood relegated the standard 1.33 Academy Aperture ratio to television (and later, home videos). Filmmakers utilized anamorphic lenses for the next few decades to achieve a true widescreen format on film.
Audiences benefit from a wider field of view and more resolution
The super-wide canvas of cinemascope became a distinctive anamorphic benefit of cinema. Imagine that you are looking to frame a row of people conversing together at a dinner table, none more prominent than the other. Filmmakers can use anamorphic lenses to easily capture all of the subjects. Without anamorphic, cameras must use with a wider spherical lens to achieve the same frame, or pull back.
Some lenses like the Isco Micro anamorphic lens perform well with full frame cameras. This is where you can really see the benefits of an extra wide frame. Check out the way subjects are framed in the video below:
In addition, some DSLR camera sensors offer a 4:3 capture mode to use the full horizontal pixels of resolution. As mentioned before, 4:3 with a 2x anamorphic lens desqueezes to 2.66:1, very close to Cinemascope. Cameras such as the GH4 and GH5, Blackmagic Ursa Mini, and more allow filmmakers to closely replicate the classic look of the physical 4-perf 35mm film size. Instead of wasting capture area, operators use anamorphic lenses to achieve a wide field of view by using the entire sensor.
Anamorphic Benefits: Barrel Distortion
Anamorphic lenses also provide distortion at their widest edges. They create a unique barrel look that allows the director to stack subjects in a frame. Standard spherical lenses do not offer this effect.
Anamorphic Benefits: Compressed Bokeh
Because of the new compressed anamorphic aperture, anamorphic lenses offer a unique form of compression in the bokeh, or out-of-focus areas of the image. This results in a pleasing distortion in low-contrast areas, much like an oil painting. For high contrast areas such as distant lights against a night sky, bokeh is prominently oval. Oval bokeh is an instantly recognizable characteristic of cinema. This is especially apparent in close-focus or macro anamorphic shots.
Anamorphic Benefits: Flaring
If you’re interested in reading more about flaring, we’ve written a detailed article on the subject here. But to summarize, anamorphic lens elements reflect more light inside the optics. This coaxes sharp streaks and soft organic blooms when overloaded with light. Different lenses and coatings change the look of the flare in addition to the paired prime lens and offer filmmakers another tool to influence an image.
Filmmakers of the earlier years considered flares an undesired, unprofessional characteristic. Eventually, modern filmmakers brought flares in vogue with sci-fi and thriller movies. Sometimes filmmakers (J.J. Abrams) used anamorphic flares to extreme or even infamous effect.
Anamorphic Benefits: Rack Focusing
While all of the effects above can be achieved by a dual focus lens setup, anamorphic rack focusing can only be achieved by rarer single focus anamorphic lenses. (Fortunately, many dual focus setups can be converted into single focus)
Rack focusing anamorphic results in a very unique “pulling” or of the image. The anamorphic lens stretches out of focus areas vertically. Anamorphics create a unique, organic ‘breathing’ effect that isn’t intuitively obvious but yet another aesthetic of the coveted cinema look.
Disadvantages of Anamorphic
These cinematic touches come with some caveats. Even the best quality anamorphic lenses may add minor artifacts to the image, most notably fringing and chromatic aberration. Fortunately, the premium quality Isco anamorphic lenses as well as the higher end of the Kowa line of lenses minimize this effect, and even with cheaper brand anamorphics, chromatic fringing is relatively easy to remove in post-production.
Anamorphic lenses also decrease the overall sharpness of the setup. Although this may be an advantage to some who dislike the “video plastic” look of many modern cameras, it is a factor to keep in mind. Isco anamorphic lenses do not decrease sharpness, as Isco rated these lenses to work with fast cinema primes.
Finally, due to their wide field of view, anamorphic lenses make it more challenging to achieve a close-up of an actor, building intimacy with the audience. When the setting of the film or a location is unique or is a character in itself, a wide scope can work very well. As the world moved to 16:9 and filmmakers matte to 2.35:1, it no longer provides that special look. Consider using wider ratios such as 2.66:1 (4:3 2x anamorphic) or 3.55:1 (16:9 2x anamorphic) when the narrative calls for it.
More anamorphic stuff
If you’re looking to test out exactly what lenses will work for your DSLRs, head on over to our anamorphic lens calculator to test. Simply select your sensor size, your aspect ratio, and you are informed and ready to shoot! Our anamorphic lens comparison chart allows you to determine the size and weight of the anamorphic lenses in our store.
If you are interested adding anamorphic flares to your toolbox, please visit our anamorphic lens store for demos and examples. We have spent several years collecting anamorphic lenses to weed through the junk, making needed modifications, and assembling ready-to-shoot packages.
If you are interested in learning more on working with anamorphic lenses and DSLR, please check out our anamorphic tutorial blog for more anamorphic tips and tutorials!