As more and more people create video content for channels such as YouTube and for their personal or business branding, there has been an increasing focus on adapting techniques from more advanced filmmaking forms into smaller scale productions.
The quest to make “cinematic” footage has, in some ways, taken a life of its own, with a number of popular YouTubers focusing on techniques to engage their audience in the same ways that a theatrical experience might do. However, these techniques don’t exactly match the ones used in true cinematic videography, creating a unique “Cinematic Youtube” style which has proven popular.
An anamorphic aspect ratio helps add a cinematic style. It’s pretty easy to create this in virtually any video editing software, but how does that compare to using a true anamorphic lens? And what exactly does “anamorphic” mean?
Let’s look at why anamorphic lenses were originally created, what makes using one different than just changing your video’s aspect ratio, and why you may want to try one out for your own videos.
What Are Anamorphic Lenses?
An anamorphic lens captures extra-wide footage, providing a cinematic feel.
Perhaps the best introduction to anamorphic lenses is a brief look at the early days of cinema and the evolution of aspect ratios. The earliest cinema films were shot on existing 35mm film. Thomas Edison created a set of standards for recording video onto film which established a standardized 4:3 aspect ratio, now known as the aspect ratio used for pre-HD television.
As innovations were made, film stayed more or less somewhere between a 4:3 and a square aspect ratio. As a result, the growth of home television sets copied these aspect ratios, also standardizing at 4:3.
Filmmakers and other film industries wanted to set themselves apart from TV. Originally, a widescreen format created by combining three synchronized projectors (called Cinerama) was created, but the added complexity of having to shoot on three cameras and project with three projectors proved cumbersome and problematic.
As a result, the anamorphic lens was created, allowing both filmmakers and cinema projectors to use a widescreen format from the same standard 35mm film reels they had always been using, just with specialized equipment added.
What Do Anamorphic Lenses Do?
From a technical standpoint, there are two approaches you could take to get widescreen footage onto a roll of 35mm film.
The first approach is to change the portions of the physical film that are exposable. This could be done either by keeping the existing width of the frame but cropping down the height (essentially the same solution provided digitally by video editors today). The second is to turn the entire frame sideways, running the film horizontally instead of vertically.
Anamorphic lenses take a different approach. Instead of changing the area of the film on which the image is exposed, an anamorphic lens distorts the light passing through it, squeezing more horizontal footage into the same space.
Obviously, this approach creates a fair amount of distortion. If you look at a single frame of footage shot on an anamorphic lens, it’s going to look incredibly squished. You are taking a widescreen image (roughly 2.35:1) and squeezing it into a roughly 4:3 (more specifically a 1.375:1) box.
However, if you project that footage through a projector that distorts it the same amount in the opposite direction (that is, stretches it horizontally instead of squeezing it), you end up with a widescreen image that looks normal. Instead of worrying about synchronizing multiple cameras and projectors or modifying your entire system to accommodate a different film approach, all you have to do is use a different lens on your camera and projector.
Over time, different anamorphic lenses have been developed. Traditional anamorphic lenses had a roughly 2X squeeze, meaning you gained roughly twice the horizontal view of a standard lens. As films and digital camera sensors have changed, different squeeze amount lenses have been developed to get the same final aspect ratio from different sensors. Perhaps the most common for digital cameras are 1.33X or 1.5X lenses that stretch the final image by a third or a half instead of double.
Anamorphic lenses were the most simple and streamlined approach to bringing widescreen video to the masses, and created a widescreen format that is still common today.
Characteristics of Anamorphic Lenses
While anamorphic lenses create a final projected image that is not significantly distorted, there are certain visual characteristics of anamorphic lenses worth understanding.
Wide Fields of View
All of the compression of an anamorphic lens happens along the horizontal axis. Vertically, the image remains the same. That means that if you have your subject centered in your image, you’re going to see a lot more of the background on the left and right sides of the frame when shooting with an anamorphic lenses than when shooting with a traditional lens.
This can be advantageous when shooting in tight spaces as you are able to get more of the environment into your shot. Of course, you could always throw a wider angle focal length lens on, but that doesn’t come without some considerations.
Anamorphic lenses allow a relatively unique visual style. If you simply use a wide angle lens, you are likely going to end up with a significant amount of perspective distortion, especially if you are trying to shoot tight shots of your subjects. Anamorphic lenses allow you to have the benefit of a longer lens, while still capturing more of the background.
Narrow Depth of Field
Closely related to the field of view issue, an anamorphic lens can have a significant effect on the depth of field of your video. In a lot of ways, a normal vs. anamorphic lens is similar to a crop vs. full frame sensor in terms of depths of field.
How wide or narrow your depth of field is depends on three factors: the aperture of your lens, the focal length of your lens, and the distance between you and the subject. For practical purposes, we’ll assume that your lenses have the same aperture options, which means that focal length and distance to subject will be the primary factors to consider.
The closer you are to your subject, the narrower your depth of field will be. Conversely, you’ll have a wider depth of field when you are farther away from your subject. Longer focal lengths will give you narrower depths of field, while shorter focal lengths will give you wider depths of field.
Imagine a scenario where you have an actor in a hallway and you want to shoot a closeup of his head and shoulders while still seeing the walls on either side of him. An anamorphic lens could handle this beautifully, giving you the field of view that you want while nicely blurring the background.
Without an anamorphic lens, in order to get the horizontal coverage you want you would have to increase your field of view by either using a shorter focal length or moving farther away from the actor and then cropping in on the resulting footage, recreating the widescreen aspect ratio. Both of these adjustments are going to make your depth of field wider, causing the background to be less pleasingly out of focus.
One of the more characteristic features of footage shot on anamorphic lenses is an oval shape in the bokeh. The physics behind why this happens is relatively complex, but the end result is readily apparent when you see it. Instead of the bokeh being round like one typically expects, it is stretched vertically. This effect is one of the features that draws people to use an anamorphic lens.
One thing to note is that the amount of stretch in the bokeh is not going to be the same between all anamorphic lenses. Anamorphic lenses with less horizontal distortion (such as 1.33X and 1.5X lenses) will also have less distortion in the bokeh. Additionally, the effect will be far more pronounced when the anamorphic elements are at the front of the lens and almost non-existent when the anamorphic elements are behind the lens.
Linear Lens Flare
While every lens will have some degree of lens flare, many modern spherical lenses are designed to eliminate as much lens flare as possible. Because of the nature of their optical elements, anamorphic lenses generally have strong, distinctive lens flares that appear as horizontal lines. Like the vertical oval bokeh, this lens flare has become a key part of the anamorphic “look” that people strive for.
Added Complexity and Other Tradeoffs When Using Anamorphic Lenses
As with all things, deciding to use an anamorphic lens is not all benefits. There are considerations in addition to the stylistic choices that you have to make. A lot of the tradeoffs with anamorphic lenses revolve around various forms of added complexity.
In addition to anamorphic lenses, there are anamorphic adapters or converters that you can attach to either the front or back of your existing lens. That could mean a larger, heavier, and more cumbersome setup than using a standard lens alone. The other issue with adapters is that, since they are a separate piece from the lens, you must take extra care when setting up for a shoot to ensure that the squeezed direction of the lens correctly aligns with the horizontal axis of your sensor or else you’re going to get unwanted and unpleasant distortion.
Also, since adapters are separate from the lens, certain models require you to focus independently from pulling focus on the lens, which severely limits the type of shot you can get. Basically, anything other than a locked-off tripod shot is impossible with the adapter option.
Any time you add more layers of glass to a lens, you’re going to lose at least a tiny bit of image quality, and anamorphic lenses are no exception. Your shots are likely to be softer and less crisp than when shot normally. Of course, this can and often is incorporated as a stylistic element.
Because of the nature of the lens squeezing the image horizontally, you are going to have to take steps to de-squeeze the image when it comes time to edit, process, and assemble your film. Fortunately with digital video editors this is a fairly simple task, but it’s still an extra step in the process.
While anamorphic lenses were originally developed to fit widescreen footage on the 4:3 area of 35mm film, most digital camera sensors are already 16:9 widescreen when shooting video. Using a full 2x lens is going to give you a final image that is likely far wider than you want. You can use a less extreme 1.33X or 1.5X lens, but many of the characteristics that give anamorphic lenses their distinctive look will be lost. Alternatively you can use a 2X lens and crop the final footage, but you’ll lose resolution.
Finally, because anamorphic lenses are a fairly small, niche market (outside of high budget film studios), high quality anamorphic lenses tend to be relatively expensive. There are budget anamorphic lenses being introduced to capture the small video content creator, but there’s always going to be a price-to-quality tradeoff.
When Should You Use an Anamorphic Lens?
Historically, anamorphic lenses have been used almost entirely by cinema filmmakers. But is there room in your kit for an anamorphic lens?
While there are ways to simulate or approximate the results of anamorphic lenses, you can’t get an exact match with another lens. For example, anamorphic lenses can create a distinctive shot where the subject looks like it was shot with a long lens but the background seems wide angle. Without an anamorphic lens, you have to make a choice between those looks. Do you use a wide angle lens, matching the background but risking perspective distortion in the subject? Or do you back up and use a longer lens, compressing the background? The characteristic lens flares can be digitally faked in editing, but that opens up a likelihood of an unsatisfying result that just, well, feels fake. And the oval bokeh is largely impossible to fake in editing.
With more options for lower-cost anamorphic lenses, as well as the option to rent lenses, there is more availability for video content creators who are looking for a cinematic style to experiment with and potentially add an anamorphic lens to their kit.
Tips for Using an Anamorphic Lens
If you are interested in using an anamorphic lens, we have a few tips for you.
Aside from the squeezing/de-squeezing process of an anamorphic lens, the process of using one is going to be largely the same as a standard lens, but the results are going to be different. Sometimes the differences will be big, sometimes they will be subtle. But you won’t have a good feel for it until you get some experience using an anamorphic lens.
If you want to experiment with an anamorphic lens without committing to spending the money to buy one, consider renting one. Lenses like the Sirui 50mm f/1.3 Anamorphic 1.33x Micro Four Thirds Lens or the Letus35 AnamorphX Adapter are designed to turn your 16:9 video footage into 2.35:1 widescreen format, allowing you to dip your toe into anamorphic filmmaking.
Take Advantage of Anamorphic Characteristics
As we discussed, there are a number of characteristics that are part of shooting anamorphic. When deciding if you want to use an anamorphic lens, think about if the shot will benefit from those characteristics.
Are you shooting a wide environmental shot with a deep depth of field? You might be able to capture that better with a standard wide angle lens. Are you shooting a close up in a tight space and want to see more of the background? That is a better candidate for using an anamorphic lens.
Be Careful With Lighting
The anamorphic lens flare is one of the reasons people choose to use an anamorphic lens, but be careful when creating it. In addition to the horizontal line flare, anamorphic lenses are often prone to larger, more intense flares around the light source. It can be easy to end up with an overwhelming amount of flair that ruins your shot.
Anamorphic lenses are a key part of cinema history and can create a look that is impossible to get from other lenses. While anamorphic lenses are still quite niche, they are becoming more accessible. If you want to add a new tool to your filmmaking arsenal, anamorphic lenses might be what you are looking for.