Anamorphic Lens: Everything You Need to Know

Anamorphic lenses capture an extremely wide view without distorting faces, even with extreme closeups. The lenses can help create ultra-wide rectangular aspect rations, oval broken (out of focus area of the images), and long horizontal lens flares. There are two types of lens that films use: spherical and anamorphic. A spherical lens is more common and projects unaltered circular images to the sensor. An anamorphic lens projects oval-shaped images to the sensor by using optical elements to fit more horizontal data to the scene. The captured image is then stretched horizontally in post-production or when projects to appear as intended.

The Birth of Widescreen and the History and Motivation for Anamorphic Lens

The development of widescreen in the early 1950s aimed to make movies more exciting. Film studios hoped its new perspective would encourage people to return to the cinema rather than staying indoors watching television.

Traditional widescreen masked the top and bottom of the 35 mm film. This cropped footage wastes a part of each frame. When the smaller frames were projected onto screens, they had poor resolution and appeared grainy.

Anamorphic lenses used the entire 35 mm frame. The horizontal axis was compressed by a factor of two so the images could occupy the frame’s full height. Careful processing ensured the footage appeared normally, without compression, for audiences.

Why Anamorphic?

Anamorphic lenses help cinematographers capture wider images on movie film than traditional camera lenses. They also don’t create the close-up distortion typical wide-angle lenses do. The center of the frame stays true while the edges of the frame have a dreamy, soft finish. The quality remains whether capturing a large landscape or zooming in on someone’s face, so long as you’re within the minimum focusing distance.

When they hit the market, footage captured with anamorphic lenses had much greater vertical resolution and appeared less grainy. However, the advent of the Super 35 spherical lens reduced the gap between the two kinds of lenses.

Wider Field-of-View

With an anamorphic lens, cinematographers traditionally capture 2.39:1 aspect ratio footage. This is a much wider field-of-view than the Academy standard film aspect ratio of 1.375:1. Unlike some other lenses, it captures this footage without overlaying
black bars or cropping.

Magnification Factor + Serious Width

The aspect ratio complements the anamorphic lens ‘s 1.33x magnification. This magnification doesn’t distort the footage, but it does increase the depth of field. This effect makes footage in the foreground seem like it’s bursting off the screen, away from the background. This illusion seems to make footage come to life, bringing you into the action.

Capture More of the Scene From the Same Spot

Adding an anamorphic lens to a drone or cell phone lets modern cinematographers capture more of any scene without moving. This ability helps cinematographers save time and money.

Oval Bokeh

An anamorphic lens has uniquely shaped elements that create an unusual oval bokeh, instead of the round one created by most lenses. The small oval balls are subtle but striking enough to enhance footage.

See the World Cinematically (The Anamorphic Look)

All these elements combine to create more dramatic, cinematic-looking footage through an anamorphic lens. Some cinematographers prize certain benefits, like the wider field-of-view and deeper magnification. However, most say it’s the way all these advantages work together that make anamorphic lenses really special.

Other Considerations for Working with Anamorphic Lenses

While these are the main advantages of using an anamorphic lens, some other considerations may sway your choice. Here are some additional points worth considering.

  • Anamorphic lenses create blue-colored horizontal or vertical lens flare.
  • Anamorphic lenses are larger and heavier, which can make them cumbersome on active shoots.
  • Anamorphic lenses often have slow maximum apertures, so you can only use them in well-lit settings.
  • Anamorphic lenses are more complex and expensive.
  • Image quality from anamorphic lenses often isn’t as sharp as spherical lenses as they have more glass elements.
  • There is less choice between anamorphic lenses.
  • In most cases, you will work with horizontally compressed footage. This can make framing and composing shots difficult. Some advanced cameras have decompression functions that combat this.
  • Anamorphic lenses often distort vertical lines.

Anamorphic and Digital Cinematography

Digital cameras usually have a higher aspect ratio than those using 35 mm film. A digital camera with a spherical lens captures wide enough footage for many cinematographers, with negligible cropping. In fact, horizontal resolution can be reduced with an anamorphic lens as the aspect ratio is too high. Cinematographers should experiment with different lenses to determine which works best for their needs.

Anamorphic is Not Necessarily 2.40

Traditional anamorphic lenses have a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which is commonly rounded up to 2.40. That aspect ratio was initially chosen to fit perfectly in 35 mm film. However, with the rise of digital filmmaking, this traditional aspect ratio has become less important. Today digital anamorphic images can have a variety of different ratios. Playing with aspect ratios can make anamorphic footage more exciting.

Rear Versus Front Anamorphs

Anamorphic lenses can have the anamorph, the element that compresses the image, in the rear or front of the lens’ spherical part. Front anamorphs are more common, but rear anamorphs are also well distributed.

Changing the position of the anamorph changes the image slightly. The bokeh on lenses with rear anamorphs is more rectangular. A rear anamorph also reduces the maximum aperture.

Why the Black Bars?

While anamorphic lenses do not overlay footage with black bars, black bars may still show when footage is projected onto screens with narrower aspect ratios. These bars simply fill the portion of the screen unused by the film. The total footage captured is not compromised in any way.

What’s Up With the Horizontal Flares?

The uniquely shaped elements of anamorphic lenses create horizontal flares when they catch light sources, such as the sun or headlights. These flares can create visual interest on the screen when used correctly.

Is Shooting Anamorphic Right For You?

Anamorphic lenses do not suit everyday filmmaking. However, they can give film projects a unique look that increases production values and aesthetic appeal.

How to Start Shooting Anamorphic

As shooting with an anamorphic lens is so different, preparation will take you far. Take the following steps before using an anamorphic lens on your film project:

  • Spend time shopping for lenses. Understand that anamorphic lenses are more expensive, but try not to spend too much money until you’re sure this type of lens is for you.
  • Become familiar with anamorphic kits and how they’ll work with your camera.
  • View online tutorials about using anamorphic lenses.

Shooting Anamorphic on a Smartphone

Shooting anamorphic on a smartphone is a good way to experiment with this lens type without spending a lot of money. Anamorphic smartphone lenses twist to lock in place on compatible smartphone cases. They are appropriate for capturing video and still photograph footage. Smartphone users must get closer to their subjects than people with video cameras, especially to make bokeh or control the depth of field.

Workflow and Image Quality

Third-party apps help people shooting anamorphic on smartphones work more efficiently. These apps remove the compression so users can see what they’re working with more easily. Apps included with cameras typically require processing. Removing the compression is a simple process, but it can be time-consuming when working with many images. Image quality varies depending on the smartphone’s camera and the anamorphic lens. Using your smartphone in a well-lit area will always boost image quality.

Anamorphic lenses don’t work for all projects. However, becoming comfortable with them can take your cinematography skills to the next level.

You can learn more about film and how you can improve your skills by applying to the Nashville Film Institute here.