If you’ve done much still photography, particularly on celluloid, you will probably have heard of the Sunny 16 Rule. It’s a useful shortcut for correctly exposing bright day exteriors without needing a light meter. Is it of any use in digital cinematography though? Yes, and I’ll explain how.
How the rule Works
Sunny 16 is very simple: if the sun is out, set your aperture to f/16 and your shutter speed denominator to the same as your ISO. For example, at ISO 100 set the shutter to 1/100th of a second. At ISO 400 set the shutter to 1/400th of a second – or 1/500th of a second, if that’s the closest option the camera permits – and so on.
You can use the rule to work out other combinations from there. Say your ISO is 100 but you want the sharper, less motion-blurred look of a 1/400th shutter. That’s two stops slower, so open the aperture from f/16 to f/8. (Check out my exposure series if this is all Dutch to you.)
The Sunny 16 Rule works because the sun outputs a constant amount of light and is a constant distance from the earth – at least constant enough to make no significant difference. The sun’s illuminance at the earth’s surface is about 10,000 foot-candles. The following formula relates illuminance (b) to f-stop (f), shutter speed (s) and ISO (i):
Using Sunny 16 in the case of ISO 100 and a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second, this formula gives us…
… 6,400 foot-candles. Less than 10,000fc, certainly, but remember this is only a rule of thumb – and one designed for film, which isn’t hurt at all by a little over-exposure. The rule probably accounts for the fact that you may want to see into the shadows a bit too. (See my article “How Big a Light Do I Need?” for explanations of illuminance and foot-candles and more on the above formula.)
Anyway, you can see from the equation why the shutter speed denominator and ISO cancel each other out if they’re the same.
Using the rule in cinematography
A few weeks ago when I was on the banks of the River Cam setting up for a scene in Harvey Greenfield is Running Late, my 1st AC Hamish Nichols asked which ND filter I wanted in the matte box. It was 5:30am; the sun had barely risen and certainly wasn’t high enough yet to reach me and my light meter over the trees and buildings on the horizon. But I knew that it would be hitting us by the time we turned over, and that the weather forecast was for a completely cloudless day, indeed the hottest day of the year at that time. So I was able to predict that we’d need the 2.1 ND.
How did I work this out? From the Sunny 16 Rule as follows:
I was shooting with a 1/50th of a second shutter interval (a 172.8° shutter angle at 24fps), so the Rule told me that f/16 (or T16) at ISO 50 would be the right exposure.
I was actually at ISO 800, which is four stops faster than ISO 50. (Doubling 50 four times gives you 800.)
I wanted to shoot at T5.6, which is three stops faster than T16.
That’s a total of seven stops too much light. To find the right optical density of ND filter you multiply that by 0.3, so 0.3 x 7 = 2.1. (More on this in my ND filters post.)
Everything on a film set sucks up time, so the more you know in advance, the more efficient you can be. Little tricks like this mean you don’t have to do a last-minute filter swing and waste five minutes that the director could have used for another take.
If you’re a fan of early Steven Spielberg films, you’ve probably heard of split diopter shots (also spelt “dioptre” in the UK). Brian de Palma used them a lot too, and Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture is absolutely riddled with them.
A split diopter allows half the image to be focused at one distance and half at another. Shallow depth of field is sought after by many filmmakers today, but it wasn’t always so popular. Sometimes a director or DP wanted both characters in a deep two-shot simultaneously in focus, and slow film stock and/or lenses meant that it wasn’t possible to just stop down the iris.
So what is a split diopter (a.k.a. split-field diopter)? It’s a convex lens of a semi-circular shape that can be slotted into your matte box. Light passing through this lens is converged so that it focuses closer, while light passing through the empty half of course goes unaltered to the main lens.
Bog-standard diopters are available too, with no missing half, enabling the entire image to be focused closer than normal. (In stills photography they are sometimes called close-up lenses or macro filters.) These are especially useful with anamorphic and zoom lenses, which tend to have greater close-focus distances than spherical primes. There’s no stop loss, so you don’t have to compensate with more light.
I carried a set of diopters with me on Hamlet and we used them for a couple of shots with the vintage Cooke Cinetal 25-250mm zoom (CF: 5’6″) when I was shooting quite tight and quite close to the talent.
So that’s what the physical object is. But a diopter is also a unit of measurement. A typical set of physical diopters (full or split) contains ½, 1, 2 and 3 strengths. What do those numbers mean?
A diopter is defined as a reciprocal metre, or 1 over the focal length. It’s the same unit used to define prescriptions for glasses. The important thing in cinematography is what effect a diopter of a given strength has on your minimum and maximum focus distances. Apps like pCAM Pro will work these out for you, but let’s do the maths ourselves because it’s my blog and I said so.
The formula for minimum focal distance is
x is the normal minimum focus of the lens (in metres),
x’ is the new minimum focus,
and d is the strength of the diopter.
Let’s take my Cooke Cinetal as an example. The 5’6″ close focus in metres is 1.68, so with a number 1 diopter…
… or with a number 3 diopter…
Diopters can be stacked; simply add the strengths together and then drop that number into the formula, so in the above case we’d have a total of 4 diopters (diopters the units, not diopters the objects!) which would produce a close focus of 0.22m. Keep the strongest diopter closest to the camera when stacking.
You have to be careful that you don’t reduce your maximum focal distance too much and find you can’t hold focus on a character as they move away. Your new maximum focal distance y’ (when the main lens is set to infinity) is
So that would be 1m with a number 1 diopter! Pretty restrictive, huh? A number 3 diopter gives you a maximum focal distance of 0.33m, even worse! I remember having to cheat Ian McKellen (CLANG!!!) a little closer to camera when we did a diopter shot on Hamlet, so that we could pull focus to him from a foreground actor’s hands.
If you bear that caveat in mind, however, a set of diopters is a very useful thing to have with you.
There is a huge range of glass available to filmmakers today – everything from vintage cinema lenses from the 60s to modern stills glass made for DSLRs. How can a DP choose which is right for their production?
The first thing to take into account is the lens mount on your camera. If it is PL mount you will have access to a huge range of cinema lenses, some of them with decades of movie history. Other mounts such as Canon EF also provide plenty of choice, but mainly glass aimed at stills rather than cinematography. Some lenses can be mount-converted, some cameras can switch mounts, and adapters are available too, but it’s important to know upfront which lenses are going to be ruled out by your camera choice and which aren’t.
Spherical or Anamorphic
Anamorphic lenses squeeze the image horizontally, to be unsqueezed in post-production. The results are a wider picture, distinctive oval bokeh (out of focus areas) and often lens flares with horizontal streaks in them. This look is very cinematic, but anamorphic lenses tend to be bigger, heavier, more expensive, need more light than and don’t focus as close as their spherical counterparts, so think carefully before you choose them.
The speed of a lens – i.e. its maximum aperture – is one of its most important characteristics. A fast prime lens might open to T1.4, while a zoom or anamorphic prime might only go to T4. That’s three stops’ difference, equating to eight times more light required by the T4 lens. That can have a big impact on the size and number of lights you need. The ISO you plan to shoot at will also factor into this, of course.
Also consider how deep or shallow a depth of field you want. If you’re after super-blurry backgrounds, only a fast lens will give you those (though shooting on a large-format camera will help). This brings us to…
Bokeh is the appearance of out-of-focus areas in your image. It is most noticeable in small highlights such as fairy lights, which generally turn into big circles when they’re out of focus. Just how big and how smoothly circular depends on the lens and the aperture settings. Some lenses will have more geometric bokeh, octagons for example, which is a result of the shape and number of iris blades within. The bokeh may look rounder when the lens is wide open and more geometric when it is stopped down, or vice versa. It will also have a different shape at the edges of frame. What this comes down to is what look you feel is most aesthetically pleasing or appropriate for your story.
Another aesthetic choice. How much does the lens flare when light shines straight into it? What about when the light is just out of frame? Is there much veiling flare – an overall milkiness to the image? Do you like the colours and shapes of the flare? Do they feel natural or intrusive, and which is most fitting for the tone of your piece?
This is an important factor with the resolutions of cameras ever increasing. Any decent lens will be sharp at T5.6, but the more you open the iris the more you might start to see the image softening, especially when it is wide open (or conversely when it is stopped down to its minimum aperture). Check also the edges of frame, which may be less sharp than the centre, especially on a vintage or anamorphic lens. If you plan to do a lot of central framing then soft edges may not matter, or may even help to draw the viewer’s eye to the subject, but if you plan to put your subjects at the extreme sides of the frame then you should be careful what lenses you select.
A lens is said to breathe when pulling the focus makes the image zoom in or out slightly. It is most noticeable with zoom lenses, some stills lenses and older glass. If you are racking back and forth between the characters in a deep two-shot, lens breathing can become very distracting.
Other things to look out for are diffraction spikes, the star effect that happens around bright light sources, and colour rendition, which can vary slightly from lens to lens. If you expect to be physically close to your subject you should note the minimum focus distance of the lenses, which will be different for each length in the series. Also consider what focal lengths your chosen lens series contains – are there enough different lengths to cover everything you hope to shoot, especially at the shortest and longest ends of the range?
If you’re still not sure where to start, test footage and comparison videos of different lenses can be found online, like this one I made in 2017:
Better still, ask a rental house if you can come in for a day and shoot your own tests.
Inside a lens, amongst the various glass elements, is an ingenious mechanism which we call the iris. Just like your biological iris, it controls the amount of light passing through the pupil to form an image. I’ve written about the iris’s use to control exposure before, and its well-known side effect of controlling depth of field. But here are five things that aren’t so commonly known about irises.
1. f-stops and the entrance pupil
The f-number of a lens is the ratio of the focal length to the diameter of the aperture, but did you know that it isn’t the actual diameter of the aperture that’s used in this calculation? It’s the apparent diameter as viewed through the front of the lens. A lens might have a magnifying front element, causing the aperture to appear larger than its physical size, or a reducing one, causing it to appear smaller. Either way, it’s this apparent aperture – known as the entrance pupil – which is used to find the f-number.
2. No-parallax point
The no-parallax point of a lens is located at its entrance pupil. Sometimes called the nodal point, although that’s technically something different, this is the point around which the camera must pan and tilt if you want to eliminate all parallax. This is important for forced perspective work, for panoramas stitched together from multiple shots, and other types of VFX.
If you need to check your focal distance with a tape measure, many cameras have a handy Phi symbol on the side indicating where the sensor plane is located so that you can measure from that point. But technically you should be measuring to the entrance pupil. The sensor plane marker is just a convenient shortcut because the entrance pupil is in a different place for every lens and changes when the lens is refocused or zoomed. In most cases the depth of field is large enough for the shortcut to give perfectly acceptable results, however.
4. Bokeh shape
The shape of the entrance pupil determines the shape of the image’s bokeh (out of focus areas), most noticeable in small highlights such as background fairy lights. The pupil’s shape is determined both by the number of iris blades and the shape of their edges. The edges are often curved to approximate a circle when the iris is wide open, but form more of a polygon when stopped down. For example, a Cooke S4 produces octagonal bokeh at most aperture settings, indicating eight iris blades. Incidentally, an anamorphic lens has a roughly circular aperture like any other lens, but the entrance pupil (and hence the bokeh) is typically oval because of the anamorphosing effect of the front elements.
5. Diffraction spikes
When the edge of an iris blade is straight or roughly straight, it spreads out the light in a perpendicular direction, creating a diffraction spike. The result is a star pattern around bright lights, typically most visible at high f-stops. Every blade produces a pair of spikes in opposite directions, so the number of points in the star is equal to twice the number of iris blades – as long as that number is odd. If the number of blades is even, diffraction spikes from opposite sides of the iris overlap, so the number of apparent spikes is the same as the number of blades, as in the eight-pointed Cooke diffraction pictured above right.
When DSLR video exploded onto the indie filmmaking scene a decade ago, film festivals were soon awash with shorts with ultra-blurry backgrounds. Now that we have some distance from that first novelty of large-sensor cinematography we can think more intelligently about how depth of field – be it shallow or deep – is best used to help tell our stories.
First, let’s recap the basics. Depth of field is the distance between the nearest and farthest points from camera that are in focus. The smaller the depth of field, the less the subject has to move before they go out of focus, and the blurrier any background and foreground objects appear. On the other hand, a very large depth of field may make everything from the foreground to infinity acceptably sharp.
Depth of field is affected by four things: sensor (or film) size, focal length (i.e. lens length), focal distance, and aperture. In the days of tiny Mini-DV sensors, I was often asked by a director to zoom in (increase the focal length) to decrease the depth of field, but sometimes that was counter-productive because it meant moving the camera physically further away, thus increasing the focal distance, thus increasing the depth of field.
It was the large 35mm sensors of DSLRs, compared with the smaller 1/3” or 2/3” chips of traditional video cameras, that made them so popular with filmmakers. Suddenly the shallow depth of field seen in a Super-35 movie could be achieved on a micro-budget. It is worth noting for the purists, however, that a larger sensor technically makes for a deeper depth of field. The shallower depth of field associated with larger sensors is actually a product of the longer lenses required to obtain the same field of view.
Once a camera is selected and filming is underway, aperture is the main tool that DPs tend to use to control depth of field. A small aperture (large f- or T-number) gives a large depth of field; a large aperture (small f- or T-number) gives a narrow depth of field. What all those early DSLR filmmakers, high on bokeh, failed to notice is that aperture is, and always has been, a creative choice. Plenty of directors and DPs throughout the history of cinema have chosen deep focus when they felt it was the best way of telling their particular story.
One of the most famous deep-focus films is 1941’s Citizen Kane, frequently voted the greatest movie ever made. First-time director Orson Welles came from a theatre background, and instructed DP Gregg Toland to keep everything in focus so that the audience could choose what to look at just as they could in a theatre. “What if they don’t look at what they’re supposed to look at?” Welles was apparently asked. “If that happens, I would be a very bad director,” was his reply.
Stanley Kubrick was also fond of crisp backgrounds. The infamous f/0.7 NASA lenses used for the candlelight scenes in Barry Lyndon were a rare and extreme exception borne of low-light necessity. A typical Kubrick shot has a formal, symmetrical composition with a single-point perspective and everything in focus right into the distance. Take the barracks in Full Metal Jacket, for example, where the background soldiers are just as sharp as the foreground ones. Like Welles, Kubrick’s reasons may have lain in a desire to emulate traditional art-forms, in this case paintings, where nothing is ever blurry.
The Indiana Jones trilogy was shot at a surprisingly slow stop by the late, great Douglas Slocombe. “I prefer to work in the aperture range of T14-T14.5 when I am shooting an anamorphic film like Raiders,” he said at the time. “The feeling of depth contributed to the look.” Janusz Kamiński continued that deep-focus look, shooting at T8-T11 when he inherited the franchise for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
At the other end of the aperture scale, the current Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale makes great creative use of a shallow depth of field, creating a private world for the oppressed protagonist which works in tandem with voiceovers to put the viewer inside her head, the only place where she is free.
A director called James Reynolds had a similar idea in mind when I shot his short film, Exile Incessant. He wanted to photograph closed-minded characters with shallow focus, and show the more tolerant characters in deep focus, symbolising their openness and connection with the world. (Unfortunately the tiny lighting budget made deep focus impossible, so we instead achieved the symbolism by varying the harshness of the lighting.)
One production where I did vary the depth of field was Ren: The Girl with the Mark, where I chose f/4 as my standard working stop, but reduced it to as little as f/1.4 when the lead character was bonding with the mysterious spirit inside her. It was the same principle again of separating the subject from the world around her.
Depth of field is a fantastic creative tool, and one which we are lucky to have so much control over with today’s cameras. But it will always be most effective when it’s used expressively, not just aesthetically.
Ever since digital cinematography became the norm, DPs have sought to counter the format’s perfection with characterful vintage lenses. Having just completed a feature film shoot, Hamlet, on Cooke Panchros and a Cooke 10:1 Varotal, I’m over the moon with the beautiful, creamy, organic look they brought to the production. However, I can’t deny that they have some disadvantages over modern glass which you should take into consideration before choosing the vintage approach.
Vintage lenses simply aren’t as sharp as their modern counterparts, particularly at the edges of frame and particularly when the iris is wide open. On Hamlet I deliberately shot with the Panchros wide open to soften the image, rather than adding a diffusion filter like I’ve often done in the past, but that look is not for everyone, and it does make things a little harder for your focus puller. Be sure to test the sharpness and view the results on a large screen before committing.
Breathe is the phenomenon whereby a lens appears to zoom slightly in or out when the focus is pulled. The Cooke Varotal is especially prone to this. As a result, my focus puller Aristide Russo had to be very gentle with his pulls otherwise the breathing was distracting.
Many DPs love lens flares, and beautiful, natural flares were one of the reasons I picked the vintage Cooke glass. But look out for veiling flare – a milkiness and lift in the shadows affecting the whole frame. I noticed this a lot when shooting under the practical fluorescents in Hamlet‘s stage set, especially with handheld shots where the veiling would appear and disappear depending on the camera’s angle to the lights. I decided to embrace it and make it part of the film’s look, but if maintaining high contrast at all times is important to you, lenses without modern coatings may not be the right choice.
Check for dark patches in the corners of your image. The Varotal I used vignetted at certain parts of the zoom range and not at others, so the dark corners would appear and disappear during a zoom. Although not ideal, it isn’t noticeable most of the time. Besides, I figured that most colourists add vignettes to most shots anyway, so I was simply saving them a little time!
Older lenses are, quite naturally, less reliable. Even if they have been rehoused, like our Cooke “Century” Panchros had been in 2000, you may find that the iris and/or focus sticks sometimes. Our 25mm started to play up halfway through our shoot, forcing Aris to use the rosettes to support the matte box, otherwise the motor wasn’t powerful enough to turn the focus ring. This possibility was flagged for me during testing when we had a similar issue with the 50mm. Even if all your lenses seem to be fine during prep, know that a vintage lens could start misbehaving at any time, and your rental house may not have another on the shelf to replace it with.
Don’t expect a set of vintage primes to all have the same maximum aperture or the same external configuration. The iris ring might be buried in the matte box, the matte box might not fit on at all, or it may be impossible to engage both iris and focus motors at the same time.
All this sounds quite negative, but the flares, softness, breathing and vignettes can be absolutely beautiful. Be aware of the downsides of using vintage glass, absolutely, but if they suit your story then embrace the flaws and get ready to be blown away by your dailies.
In case you missed them the first time, I’ll leave you with some highlights from my Hamlet lens tests.
In the first part of this series, I explained the concepts of f-stops and T-stops, and looked at how aperture can be used to control exposure. We saw that changing the aperture causes side effects, most noticeably altering the depth of field.
How can we set the correct exposure without compromising our depth of field? Well, as we’ll see later in this series, we can adjust the shutter angle and/or ISO, but both of those have their own side effects. More commonly a DP will use neutral density (ND) filters to control the amount of light reaching the lens. These filters get their name from the fact that they block all wavelengths of light equally, so they darken the image without affecting the colour.
When to use an ND Filter
Let’s look at an example. Imagine that I want to shoot at T4; this aperture gives a nice depth of field, on the shallow side but not excessively so. My subject is very close to a bright window and my incident light meter is giving me a reading of f/11. (Although I’m aiming for a T-stop rather an f-stop, I can still use the f-number my meter gives me; in fact if my lens were marked in f-stops then my exposure would be slightly off because the meter does not know the transmission efficiency of my lens.) Let’s remind ourselves of the f-stop/T-stop series before we go any further:
1 1.4 2 2.8 4 5.6 8 11 16 22 32
By looking at this series, which can be found printed on any lens barrel or permanently displayed on a light meter’s screen, I can see that f/11 (or T11) is three stops down from f/4 (or T4) – because 11 is three numbers to the right of 4 in the series. To achieve correct exposure at T4 I’ll need to cut three stops of light. I can often be seen on set counting the stops like this on my light meter or on my fingers. It is of course possible to work it out mathematically or with an app, but that’s not usually necessary. You quickly memorise the series of stops with practice.
What Strength of filter to choose
Some ND filters are marked in stops, so I could simply select a 3-stop ND and slide it into my matte box or screw it onto my lens. Other times – the built-in ND filters on the Sony FS7, for example – they’re defined by the fraction of light they let through. So the FS7’s 1/4 ND cuts two stops; the first stop halves the light – as we saw in part of one of this series – and the second stop halves it again, leaving us a quarter of the original amount. The 1/16 setting cuts four stops.
However, most commonly, ND filters are labelled in optical density. A popular range of ND filters amongst professional cinematographers are those made by Tiffen, and a typical set might be labelled as follows:
.3 .6 .9 1.2
That’s the optical density, a property defined as the natural logarithm of the ratio of the quantity of light entering the filter to the quantity of light exiting it on the other side. A .3 ND reduces the light by half because 10 raised to the power of -0.3 is about 0.5, and reducing light by half, as we’ve previously established, means dropping one stop.
If that maths is a bit much for you, don’t worry. All you really need to do is multiply the number of stops you want to cut by 0.3 to find the filter you need. So, going back to my example with the bright window, to get from T11 to T4, i.e. to cut three stops, I’ll pick the .9 ND.
It’s far from intuitive at first, but once you get your head around it, and memorise the f-stops, it’s not too difficult. Trust me!
Here are a couple more examples:
Light meter reads f/8 and you want to shoot at T5.6. That’s a one stop difference. (5.6 and 8 are right next to each other in the stop series, as you’ll see if you scroll back to the top.) 1 x 0.3 = 0.3 so you should use the .3 ND.
Light meter reads f/22 and you want to shoot at T2.8. That’s a six stop difference (scroll back up and count them), and 6 x 0.3 = 1.8, so you need a 1.8 ND filter. If you don’t have one, you need to stack two NDs in your matte box that add up to 1.8, e.g. a 1.2 and a .6.
Variations on a Theme
Variable ND filters are also available. These consist of two polarising filters which can be rotated against each other to progressively lighten or darken the image. They’re great for shooting guerilla-style with a small crew. You can set your iris where you want it for depth of field, then expose the image by eye simply by turning the filter. On the down side, they’re hard to use with a light meter because there is often little correspondence between the markings on the filter and stops. They can also have a subtle adverse effect on skin tones, draining a person’s apparent vitality, as some of the light which reflects off human skin is polarised.
Another issue to look out for with ND filters is infra-red (IR). Some filters cut only the visible wavelengths of light, allowing IR to pass through. Some digital sensors will interpret this IR as visible red, resulting in an image with a red colour cast which can be hard to grade out because different materials will be affected to different degrees. Special IR ND filters are available to eliminate this problem.
These caveats aside, ND filters are the best way to adjust exposure (downwards at least) without affecting the image in any other way.
In the next part of this series I’ll look at shutter angles, what they mean, how they affect exposure and what the side effects are.
Learn how to use ND filters practically with my Cinematic Lighting online couse. Enter voucher code INSTA90 for an amazing 90% off.
Lately, having run out of interesting series, I’ve found myself watching a lot of nineties blockbusters: Outbreak, Twister, Dante’s Peak, Backdraft, Daylight. Whilst eighties movies were the background to my childhood, and will always have a place in my heart, it was the cinema of the nineties that I was immersed in as I began my own amateur filmmaking. So, looking back on those movies now, while certain clichés stand out like sore thumbs, they still feel to me like solid examples of how to make a summer crowd-pleaser.
Let’s get those clichés out of the way first. The lead character always has a failed marriage. There’s usually an opening scene in which they witness the death of a spouse or close relative, before the legend “X years later” fades up. The dog will be saved, but the crotchety elderly character will die nobly. Buildings instantly explode towards camera when touched by lava, hurricanes, floods or fires. A stubborn senior authority figure will refuse to listen to the disgraced lead character who will ultimately be proven correct, to no-one’s surprise.
There’s an intensity to nineties action scenes, born of the largely practical approach to creating them. The decade was punctuated by historic advances in digital effects: the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2 (1991), digital dinosaurs in Jurassic Park(1993), motion-captured passengers aboard the miniature Titanic (1997), Bullet Time in The Matrix (1999). Yet these techniques remained expensive and time-consuming, and could not match traditional methods of creating explosions, floods, fire or debris. The result was that the characters in jeopardy were generally surrounded by real set-pieces and practical effects, a far more nerve-wracking experience for the viewer than today, when we can tell that our heroes are merely imagining their peril on a green-screen stage.
One thing I was looking out for during these movie meanders down memory lane was lens selection. A few weeks back, a director friend had asked me to suggest examples of films that preferred long lenses. He had mentioned that such lenses were more in vogue in the nineties, which I’d never thought about before.
As soon as I started to consider it, I realised how right my friend was. And how much that long-lens look had influenced me. When I started out making films, I was working with the tiny sensors of Mini-DV cameras. I would often try to make my shots look more cinematic by shooting on the long end of the zoom. This was partly to reduce the depth of field, but also because I instinctively felt that the compressed perspective was more in keeping with what I saw at the cinema.
I remember being surprised by something that James Cameron said in his commentary on the Aliens DVD:
I went to school on Ridley [Scott]’s style of photography, which was actually quite a bit different from mine, because he used a lot of long lenses, much more so than I was used to working with.
I had assumed that Cameron used long lenses too, because I felt his films looked incredibly cinematic, and because I was so sure that cinematic meant telephoto. I’ve discussed in the past what I think people tend to mean by the term “cinematic”, and there’s hardly a definitive answer, but I’m now sure that lens length has little to do with it.
And yet… are those nineties films influencing me still? I have to confess, I struggle with short lenses to this day. I find it hard to make wide-angle shots look as good. On Above the Clouds, to take just one example, I frequently found that I preferred the wide shots on a 32mm than a 24mm. Director Leon Chambers agreed; perhaps those same films influenced him?
A deleted scene from Ren: The Girl with the Mark ends with some great close-ups shot on my old Sigma 105mm still lens, complete with the slight wobble of wind buffeting the camera, which to my mind only adds to the cinematic look! On a more recent project, War of the Worlds: The Attack, I definitely got a kick from scenes where we shot the heroes walking towards us down the middle of the street on a 135mm.
Apart from the nice bokeh, what does a long lens do for an image? I’ve already mentioned that it compresses perspective, and because this is such a different look to human vision, it arguably provides a pleasing unreality. You could describe it as doing for the image spatially what the flicker of 24fps (versus high frame rates) does for it temporally. Perhaps I shy away from short lenses because they look too much like real life, they’re too unforgiving, like many people find 48fps to be.
The compression applies to people’s faces too. Dustin Hoffman is not known for his small nose, yet it appears positively petite in the close-up below from Outbreak. While this look flatters many actors, others benefit from the rounding of their features caused by a shorter lens.
Perhaps the chief reason to be cautious of long lenses is that they necessitate placing the camera further from the action, and the viewer will sense this, if only on a subconscious level. A long lens, if misused, can rob a scene of intimacy, and if overused could even cause the viewer to disengage with the characters and story.
I’ll leave you with some examples of long-lens shots from the nineties classics I mentioned at the start of this post. Make no mistake, these films employed shorter lenses too, but it certainly looks to me like they used longer lenses on average than contemporary movies.
Each month I get a digital copy of American Cinematographer to my inbox, filled with illuminating (pun intended) articles about the lighting and lensing of the latest theatrical releases. As a rule of thumb, I only read the articles if I’ve seen the films. Trouble is, I don’t go to the cinema much any more… even before Coronavirus put a stop to all that anyway.
Why? TV is better, simple as that. Better writing, better cinematography, better value for money. (Note: I include streaming services like Netflix and Amazon under the umbrella of “TV” here.) But whereas I can turn to AC to discover the why and how of the cinematography of a movie, there is no equivalent for long-form content. I would love to see a magazine dedicated to the beautiful cinematography of streaming shows, but until then I’ll try to plug the gap myself.
I’d like to start with a look at the increasing use of anamorphic lenses for the small screen. Let’s look at a few examples and try to discover what anamorphic imaging adds to a project.
Lenses with an anamorphic element squeeze the image horizontally, allowing a wider field of view to be captured. The images are restored to their correct proportions in postproduction, but depth of field, bokeh (out of focus areas), barrel distortion and lens flare all retain different characteristics to those obtained with traditional spherical lenses.
The Cinematic look
The venerable Doctor Who, which started off shooting on 405-line black-and-white videotape more than half a century ago, has employed Arri Alexas and Cooke Anamorphic/i glass since the introduction of Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor. “[Director Jamie Childs] suggested we shoot on anamorphic lenses to give it a more filmic look,” says DP Denis Crossan. “You get really nice background falloff and out of focus ellipses on light sources.”
While most viewers will not be able to identify these visual characteristics specifically, they will certainly be aware of a more cinematic feel to the show overall. This is because we associate anamorphic images – even if we do not consciously know them as such – with the biggest of Hollywood blockbusters, everything from Die Hard to Star Trek Beyond.
It’s not just the BBC who are embracing anamorphic. DP Ollie Downey contrasted spherical glass with vintage anamorphics to deliberate effect in “The Commuter”, an episode of the Channel 4/Amazon sci-fi anthology series Electric Dreams.
The story revolves around Ed (Timothy Spall) whose mundane but difficult life turns upside down when he discovers Macon Heights, a town that seems to exist in an alternate reality. “Tim Spall’s character is torn between his real life and the fantastical world of Macon Heights,” Downey explains on his Instagram feed. “We shot Crystal Express Anamorphics for his regular life, and Zeiss Super Speed Mk IIs for Macon Heights.”
The anamorphic process was invented as a way to get a bigger image from the same area of 35mm negative, but in today’s world of ultra-high-resolution digital sensors there is no technical need for anamorphics, only an aesthetic one. In fact, they can actually complicate the process, as Downey notes: “We had to shoot 8K on the Red to be able to punch in to our Crystal Express to extract 16:9 and still deliver 4K to Amazon.”
Evoking a period
Back at the BBC, last year’s John le Carré adaptation The Little Drummer Girl uses anamorphic imaging to cement its late 1970s setting. The mini-series revolves around Charmian, an actress who is recruited by Israeli intelligence via the mysterious agent Becker. The truth is distorted throughout, just as the wide anamorphic lenses distort every straight line into a curve.
Reviewing the show for The Independent, Ed Cumming notes that director Park Chan-wook “does not aim to be invisible but to remind you constantly that what you are seeing is a creation. Take the scene at a beachside taverna in Greece, where Charmian and Becker start talking properly to each other. The camera stays still, the focus snaps between him and her.” Such focus pulls are more noticeable in anamorphic because the subject stretches vertically as it defocuses.
The Little Drummer Girl is slavish in its recreation of the period, in camera style as well as production design. Zooms are used frequently, their two-dimensional motion intricately choreographed with the actors who step in and out of multiple planes in the image. Such shots were common in the 70s, but have since fallen very much out of fashion. When once they would have passed unnoticed, a standard part of film grammar, they now draw attention.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a Netflix Original, also draws attention with its optics. Charting the trials and tribulations of a teenaged witch, the show uses different makes of lenses to differentiate two worlds, just like “The Commuter”.
According to DP David Lazenberg’s website, he mixed modern Panavision G series anamorphics with “Ultragolds”. Information on the latter is hard to find, but they may be related to the Isco Ultra Star adapters which some micro-budget filmmakers have adopted as a cheap way of shooting anamorphic.
The clean, sharp G series glass is used to portray Sabrina’s ordinary life as a small-town teenager, while the Ultragolds appear to be used for any scenes involving witchcraft and magic. Such scenes display extreme blur and distortion at the edges of the frame, making characters squeeze and stretch as the camera pans over them.
Unlike the anamorphic characteristics of Doctor Who or “The Commuter”, which are subtle, adding to the stories on a subconscious level, the distortion in Sabrina is extreme enough to be widely noticed by its audience. “Numerous posts on Reddit speak highly of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s content and cinematography,” reports Andy Walker, editor of memeburn.com, “but a majority have a collective disdain for the unfocused effect.”
“I hate that blurry s*** on the side of the screen in Sabrina,” is the more blunt appraisal of Twitter user @titanstowerr. Personally I find the effect daring and beautiful, but it certainly distracted me just as it has distracted others, which forces me to wonder if it takes away more from the story than it adds.
And that’s what it all comes down to in the end: are the technical characteristics of the lens facilitating or enhancing the storytelling? DPs today, in both cinema and long-form series, have tremendous freedom to use glass to enhance the viewers’ experience. Yes, that freedom will sometimes result in experiments that alienate some viewers, but overall it can only be a good thing for the expressiveness of the art form.