The 28mm lens has long been one of my favorites. In fact this is now the second article that I’m writing about this seemingly magical focal length, which can deliver so much character and dimension under the right circumstances. With that said, I don’t always find myself using a 28mm lens for close ups, since after all it is a wide angle lens and is often better suited for establishing shots or masters. Typically I will stay in the 50mm – 85mm range for portrait style shots, depending on the look I’m after… On my latest film project though, I decided to utilize a 28mm lens not only for our wides/coverage shots, but for many of our closeups too. Here’s why:
Traditional portrait-style lenses (such as an 85mm for instance) inherently capture some of the most beautiful looking closeup shots. This of course is because longer lenses have a tendency to compress the image, so if you’re focusing on an actor’s face, their features will be complimented by a long lens. In a way, it can make people look better on camera and as with any other longer focal length, it can help to separate them from the background by offering an easily achievable shallow depth of field.
This is all well and good, but there are undeniably times that you need to deviate from the standard long lens choice for closeups and look for other options. I find the 28mm lens to be the perfect alternative when you’re seeking out a more impactful and intense closeup look.
Right now I’m wrapping up a short film titled “Stray”, which was shot over the course of two days last week. As some of you know, I’ve been working on developing a feature for some time now and as part of the development process I’ve been shooting some shorts and spec content. Not too long ago, I put together a little mood film for my screenplay titled “Ivy”, and most recently my focus has been on this newer initiative, Stray.
This film has a very unsettling tone to it. It follows a young couple that decides to adopt a lost girl, which ultimately leads them to a strange realization about who the child really is. I won’t give away too much more (you can watch the short when it’s done in the next week or two), but it’s important to understand the tone to know why I shot the film the way that I did – including my usage of the 28mm lens.
Before I go on about why I chose the 28mm lens, here are a few very lightly graded shots from the film which were shot at 28mm:
Longer lenses by nature create a very pleasing and forgiving image, which in many cases can lead the viewer to feel more comfortable from a psychological standpoint. The 28mm lens on the other hand, does the very opposite. It is slightly distorted, which makes the viewer feel less settled, and calls for you to move in very close to the actors with the camera, which is helpful for a number of reasons.
First off, shooting on a wide lens with the camera so close to your actors faces will mean that you are capturing more of your background in the shot. Showing the surrounding environment can create a less grounded look, which can work beautifully for certain moods and genres.
But even on a performance level, there is an intimacy that comes along with shooting on a wide lens that you just don’t get on other focal lengths. When you’re shooting actors that close up there is a level of intensity and power to their performances that will come through, that might otherwise get lost when you’re shooting from 20 feet away on a long lens. You are literally closer to the action, and your actors can feel that. It’s fascinating to see how much a performance can change simply by where you choose to place your camera in relationship to the talent.
That said, as great of a job as the 28mm focal length does in creating an unnerving type of look (for closeups), it isn’t so drastically wide that the effect becomes noticeable or distracting. It’s very subtle.
If I were to have shot our closeups on a 21mm lens or an 18mm lens for that matter, things would have started looking strange very quickly. The distorted look of the lens would no longer be something that the audience unconsciously feels, but rather it would be something they are consciously aware of. There is a very fine line when shooting on wide lenses (especially for closeups), between subtle and obvious distortion. There is a time and a place for the more extreme looks too of course… But in the vast majority of shooting scenarios, I wouldn’t go wider than 28mm for a closeup. It seems to be a real sweetspot that offers just enough of the wide angle look that you can sense it as a viewer, but not so much that it pulls the viewer out of the scene.
It’s worth pointing out that this entire film was shot on my Blackmagic URSA camera with Zeiss CP.2 lenses. The URSA has a Super 35mm sized sensor, which is why the 28mm lens works so well on it. Had I been shooting on a full frame camera the 28mm would have been too distorted for my taste, which is why it’s always critical to take into consideration your crop factor when choosing any lens – especially wide angle.
That’s about it for now! Check back soon for updates on this film project as things come to a close over the coming weeks.