Anamorphic Lens: What Is It & Why You Should Use It

Gear Jul 07, 2020


Anamorphic lenses are a crucial tool in the toolbox for all filmmakers. When creating your masterpiece, there are many things to take into consideration. Questions like ‘What kind of story to tell?’ and ‘How do I make this story look good on the screen?’

Here is where anamorphic lenses come into the picture. An anamorphic lens is a favourite for many filmmakers for the unique look it brings. If you are considering a lens hire, read our guide first.

In this article you’ll find out:

  • What is an anamorphic lens?
  • What does the lens do to the shot
  • Why you should try anamorphic optics
  • Tips for your first shoot with the lens
Anamorphic lens from SIRUI

What is an anamorphic lens?

Shooting anamorphic is capturing a wider aspect ratio on a narrower image sensor.

In other words, anamorphic lenses compress the image along the longer dimension. Usually by a factor of 2.

The images need stretching after in post-production or at the projector. Otherwise, the magic will disappear and will not display properly.

What does the lens do?

Anamorphic is a technique first used in the 1950s when television got very popular.

Filmmakers wanted to bring the audience back to the cinema. They did this by offering widescreen and more epic looking films.

Widescreen was pulled off by using lenses that capture a wider aspect ratio. Then squeezing the image onto a narrow film strip.

Check out some comparison shots here:

Shoot a wide field of view

Cinematographers worldwide love anamorphic lenses. They help achieve that epic cinematic look. Many films you love are shot in this format.

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

This gives a wide field of view that is still very distortion-free in the centre. Even when shooting very close close-ups, the distortion will be minimal. Towards the edges, the story is a bit different. 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.  

Horizontal lens flares anamorphic lens
Showcasing the beautiful horizontal lens flares

Widescreen & Black Bars

The anamorphic lens footage is also known 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

Not only is it unavoidable - it will definitely give your film that cinematic cool look that we all know and love.

Anamorphic Lens Flares & Oval Bokeh

For each lens, you’ll get a different lens flare. It’s what happens when the lens and sensor capture lights. And for anamorphic, you get a very distinct lens flare.

Anamorphic gives a horizontally stretched lens flare. It’s a look and feel that you can’t get from any other lens. It’s a lens flare that almost pops out of the screen whenever light hits the lens.

Besides the 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 give a more ball-like bokeh.

Oval bokehs in the night

Shoot with anamorphic lenses: Tips & Considerations

Why use anamorphic lenses?

It is completely up to you and your personal tastes and preferences.

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

It is completely your choice how you want to tell your story. Choosing anamorphic is like choosing which focal length you want to shoot with.

Shooting with the anamorphic lens allows a sense of closeness you might not get from a conventional focal length.

In some ways, it allows an actor to give their full performance while still feeling ‘warm’ on screen.

Try it for yourself

Still, you shouldn’t limit yourself in your choices. Don’t listen to other voices saying you have to do something because it looks good. Instead, consider what it actually does for your personal frame.

Many say anamorphic looks amazing on the screen and gives a nostalgic look. Also, it might make you a better filmmaker. It introduces your frame to new action and allows more detail in each image.

Which lens to choose?

Choosing among the number of options can be overwhelming. It’s difficult to pick the right lens for your kit and style due to the endless combinations of cameras and lenses.

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

You have to consider 3 things 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?

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 copies. Japanese Kollomorgen or American Bell & Howell are great options.

Medium format lenses

Looking for a lighter rig? Into more run-and-gun filming? Then the medium format lenses like Isco Micro and Kowa B&H would be perfect for you.

The 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 is a great balance of value for most DSLR shooters.

Small format lenses

Small format lenses like Baby Hypogonar and Baby Isco give anamorphic quality 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.

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 extra optics. But they can be difficult to calibrate, especially when changing lenses in the field.

Will your camera and lenses work together?

Not every anamorphic lens works with every prime lens and DSLR camera.

Generally, you would like to 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, 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.

In simpler words, divide your prime lens by 2 to get your anamorphic equivalent.

4 Tips For Shooting Anamorphic

1. Flare

Everyone loves that flare that the anamorphic lens gives.

It makes the image look beautiful, iconic and cinematic. It is that horizontal blue flare that goes across the frame when it’s hit by a strong light source.

Be careful, though. 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. Distortion

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

Anamorphic lenses force you to frame what is important in the centre of the frame. When you pan the camera, distortion happens. So the image is not nearly as clean, sharp or precise on the edges as in the centre.

3. Anamorphic Focus Fall-Off

Besides distortion, you have to remember the focus and how sharp and accurate the lenses are.

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

4. 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.

These tips can help you when choosing whether to use anamorphic for your next piece. Remember, there is always room for learning and improving your skills.

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