This article will run though all you need to know to start shooting with an anamorphic lens. The word itself comes from Greek, meaning ‘formed again’.
If you’re a fan of JJ Abrams (who isn’t), you’ve seen that every one of his films includes a serious amount of lens flare.
Super 8 has 825 instances. And Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) boast 721 and 826 flares.
These flares give a surreal, sometimes futuristic, feel to an image or scene.
The how is down to one thing: Anamorphic lenses. Read on to find out more.
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What Is an Anamorphic Lens
When it comes to the lenses used for still or moving pictures, there are two different types. These are Spherical and Anamorphic.
Spherical lenses project images onto the sensor without affecting their aspect ratio.
Anamorphic lenses project a compressed version of the image (along its longest dimension). This is usually by a factor of two.
Because of this compression, the images need stretching to be displayed in the correct way. This happens either in post-production or at the projector itself.
Why Use an Anamorphic Lens?
Anamorphic lenses were designed to photograph or film a very wide format. A very popular anamorphic lens in the 20th century was the CinemaScope lens, used from 1953 to 1997 to shoot widescreen format movies.
This anamorphic format image would use the entire film area of standard 35 mm frames. Otherwise, wide format imagery would have left the top and bottom of the frame unused.
The reason movie makers switched to widescreen format was because of the appearance of TVs in every household. To get people back in movie theaters, the film industry replaced the 35mm aspect ratio with a widescreen image.
This wasn’t only about not wasting space or resolution, or staying competitive. It actually improved the image quality too. It enhanced vertical resolution and reduced the appearance of grain.
Here’s an example. If you use a spherical lens to capture a 2.40:1 image on 35mm film, you can only utilise 50% of the frame area. With anamorphic, 100% of the frame area is used for the final image.
On top of high-quality, resolution and the reducing of grain, there are other reasons one might use this type of lens. Lens flare, bokeh and depth of field are three of the biggest reasons people choose to work with them. This includes JJ Abrams.
As digital sensors became more and more popular, anamorphic lenses fell out of favour. This is because digital sensors have a wider aspect ratio than 35mm film.
Coupling an anamorphic lens with a digital sensor can result in a too wide image.
The anamorphic lens flare is one of their most noticeable characteristics. All lenses are open to light flaring, but anamorphic do it bigger and better. This is down to the number of elements in the lens.
The more lens elements, the higher the possibility of the light bouncing around inside. A single focus anamorphic lens has as much as six lens elements inside, allowing the light to flare. On top of this, the stretch factor enhances the flare effect.
If you’re shooting anamorphic images, you’ll need to stretch them out when decompressed. All those internal reflections between lens elements barrel together to form balls of light.
Any spherical or circular flare now becomes a sharp horizontal line. This is parallel to the anamorphic axis.
The Bokeh or out-of-focus backgrounds also get an additional treatment. They will appear elongated rather than circular.
This is unless the camera lens has an ovular iris with a specific design.
Depth of Field
The depth of field is also affected. Anamorphic and spherical lenses have the same depth of field. But you have to use a longer focal length with anamorphic in order to achieve the same angle of view.
At the same magnification, anamorphic lenses produce a shallower depth of field.
With film, this difference could be as pronounced as going from a 2X to a 1X crop factor.
Things to Consider Before Buying an Anamorphic Lens
The cost of an anamorphic lens will always be more expensive than spherical lenses. Many anamorphic lenses are ordinary spherical lenses. But they have additional glass elements that compress the output.
They are less common as there is less demand. This means they’re made in small batches or by eager DIY enthusiasts.
Type of Anamorphic Adapters
You can either opt for an anamorphic lens, which is very very expensive or go for an adapter. These are only very expensive.
The adapter means you need to use another lens with it. This other spherical lens is sometimes referred to as a ‘taking’ lens.
There are two different kinds of anamorphic adapters, front-mounted and back-mounted. Most of the characteristics we attribute to anamorphic lenses are from front-mounted lenses.
These are the lenses that fit onto the spherical lens of your choice.
Back- or rear-mounted anamorphic lenses fit between the camera body and the spherical lens. This gives you less of the usual attributes, while still utilising more film area as its primary goal.
Bokeh, flare and vignetting will appear similar to spherical lenses. The depth of field will still become shallower.
Rear-mounted anamorphic lenses also reduce the maximum available aperture. They are much less common with wide wide-angles. This is because they increase the effective focal length.
A speed-booster adapter is a perfect example of a back-mounted adapter. The speed booster increases the maximum aperture. It also increases MTF (Modulation transfer function) systems and makes the lens wider.
Most of us know what to expect when we use our different lenses. When you reach for your 85mm prime, you know what it will give you from experience. That’s why you go for that and not the 50mm.
Same goes for all visual media. That is usually shown to us in an aspect ratio of 16:9 full-frame. It is recognizable as we encounter it almost every day.
Anamorphic is different. An anamorphic lens isn’t just a 50mm lens. It’s got the vertical perspective of a 50mm lens, but is twice as wide (25mm). Of course, the technical details are more scientific than that.
You’re getting elements of the original angle lens (the 50mm). And elements of that wide-angle look (the 25mm). This is a lens that has the character of both a medium/telephoto lens and a wide-angle lens.
Change in Aspect Ratio
DSLR cameras have an aspect ratio of a 4:3 capture mode. This allows you to use the full range of horizontal pixel resolution.
As mentioned before, 4:3 with a 2x anamorphic lens, after decompression gives you 2.66:1.
Finding the Focus
Understanding dual focus and single focus anamorphic lenses are important. they will help you plan a foothold into this photographic niche.
The vast majority of anamorphic lenses are dual focus lenses. This means that you need to find the focus on both the taking prime lens and the anamorphic lens.
There are some fine dual focus anamorphic lenses. The Isco Micro- small is tack sharp, has a high build quality, and very adaptable to almost any DSLR camera. But single focus unlocks the power of the lens. This allows you to work quicker, rack focus, and even macro focus anamorphic.
You can learn how to dual focus. At the root, it is basic muscle memory. This method is easy to use for run-and-gun shoots. Yet, it doesn’t allow for easy rack focusing between two subjects.
For all those newbies, rack focusing is being able to transition a focus from one subject to another.
Dual and Single Focus
Most dual focus anamorphic lenses can turn into single focus anamorphic lenses. This happens via two methods – the Rangefinder, and the Dual Follow Focus.
- Rangefinder -A rangefinder is a set of two precisely-powered achromatic diopters. These allow you to focus only with the rangefinder. By adding a rangefinder to your front-mounted anamorphic lens, any dual focus lens becomes a single focus anamorphic setup.
- Dual Follow Focus – This is a more mechanical approach. It involves a calibrated dual follow focus. Instead of optically modifying the focus chain, a dual follow focus system is as the name implies – one follow focus controls two lenses.
Anamorphic lenses also provide distortion at their widest edges. As they are super wide, this effect is wider than what you would find with spherical wide angle lenses. This unique barrel look allows for subject stacking. It’s much easier than the alternative lenses.
In a negative light, barrel distortion causes fringing, discolouration and/or vignetting. This happens around the circumference of the lens.
How to fake the Anamorphic Look
If you’re into the anamorphic look, then you can get oval bokeh. You can do this by putting an oval filter on the end of a lens, or better still replacing the diaphragm with an oval.
You can buy old Russian lenses with this modification on eBay.
Finally, you can also recreate the flares by using fishing line. Tape it across the front of your lens, and point towards the light. This is an inexpensive process.
The light will hit the wire and light it up more than anywhere else in the scene. This gives you that inexpensive cinematic look.
Where to Buy Them
There are many places you can get anamorphic lenses from. Some are manufacturers, giving you new models or even custom building them for you.
If you can afford it that is, try companies such as Atlas Lens Co., B&H and Anamorphic Store.
There are anamorphic lenses on eBay, which as you know by now, will be second hand. These will be cheaper, and there are many lenses to choose from.
Just be sure you know what you’re getting into first before getting something from here. Also, Amazon has a few too.