For those of you that follow this blog regularly, you know that achieving a filmic look when shooting digitally is very important to me and something I often write about. My recent article ‘How To Make Video Look Like Film’ outlined a lot of basic techniques that when implemented can drastically help to improve your digital cinematography and truly make it more film like. But something that I didn’t delve into in detail in that article was lensing choices – specifically wide angle vs. telephoto.
Probably one of the biggest misconceptions about achieving a filmic look, is that long telephoto lenses and shallow depth of field are a necessary part of the equation. Since the 5D was introduced and razor shallow depth of field became easily achievable, just about every low budget indie film went down the path of shooting a lot of long lens shallow DOF shots in an attempt to make their film ‘more cinematic’. The irony though, is that since so many filmmakers went crazy for the ultra-shallow DOF look and used it to death over the past 5 years, it’s now become one of the biggest giveaways that a film was made on a DSLR and probably on a very low budget. Unfortunately, shooting on wider lenses (and for some even normal lenses like the 35mm) has become a lost art. This is really a shame because one of the most used lenses in the history of cinema and therefore one of the keys to unlocking a cinematic look when shooting digitally is the 28mm wide angle lens.
Before we discuss the seemingly magical 28mm focal length, it’s important to recognize why shooting long lens/shallow DOF throughout your film can be the furthest thing from cinematic.
Any 35mm film camera is capable of getting razor thin DOF in just about any circumstance. But how many blockbuster or large-scale independent films can you remember where every other shot was teetering on the brink of being out of focus as so many micro-budget films are? Every film is different and every DP has their own way of working, but in general most substantial films are shot between f4 – f8 the majority of the time. Shooting at that kind of aperture allows for optimal lens performance and smoother focus pulling and is a very far cry from shooting wide open at 1.4 on a full frame DSLR. Sure, for insert shots, extreme closeups, low light, and other specialty shots, there are many cases shooting wide open may be necessary or the right choice – but not for the majority of the film.
So what is the right focal length for the rest of the film? Where is the sweet spot? Ultimately that is up to you as the filmmaker, but for many filmmakers the 28mm lens is the secret ingredient. In fact Spielberg, Scorsese, Orson Wells, Malick, and many other A-list directors are have cited the 28mm lens as one of their most frequently used and in some cases a favorite. And while on paper it may not seem or sound like the most exciting lens choice, keep in mind that the 28mm lens has been a gold standard in shooting motion pictures for over a century, being used to capture some of the most recognizable moments in cinematic history. And if you are truly attempting to emulate the look of motion pictures, than the 28mm lens is a focal length that you absolutely can not ignore.
When we go to the movies we want to have an experience that emulates reality in many ways, but also is fantastical and surrealistic. That’s where a lens like the 28mm comes into play. It’s just off center. Just barely wider than our regular field of vision, but not too wide that it becomes distracting. It’s different enough from a ‘normal’ focal length like the 50mm that it let’s us subconsciously feel like we’re in a new world, but it’s also close enough to realty that we aren’t lost by any noticeable distortion that we would experience from a more extreme lens choice, like a 12mm. Conversely, shooting on a medium telephoto lens (like a 65mm), would also would be just off center from our normal field of vision, but it could never work as universally as the 28mm lens. If you had to shoot an entire film on a single lens, it would be a lot easier to use a 28mm than a 65mm, unless you’re doing something really specific. The 28mm would allow for wides, closeups, landscape shots and more, all while maintaining a unique and original look. The 65mm would paint you into a corner in some cases, making establishing shots, masters, or medium-wides quite difficult. That said a normal focal length like a 35mm or 50mm may seem to be the more natural choice as that field of view is closest to human vision, but the 28mm’s ability to add that slight bit of surrealism to the picture is exactly what we want.
A final thought that I’ll leave you with is that shooting on a wide lens is a great way to make sure you don’t get lazy as a DP or Director. If you have a poorly lit scene or a crappy location, it’s pretty easy to just slap on a long lens, frame out all the ugliness. make the background blur out and get a pretty decent image. But that’s not always the answer and more often than not it’s the easy way out and won’t yield the best possible results. You can’t cheat your way out of every shot and you especially shouldn’t attempt to shoot long lens out of convenience if your scene doesn’t call for it. By shooting with wider lenses you are forced to take into consideration your lighting, composition, and production design much more thoroughly. And this is a very good thing for a lot of independent filmmakers who often skimp out in these areas. Personally, I would prefer to capture a shot with a wide lens and deep DOF that has beautiful art direction to it and loads of detail, than a long lensed shallow DOF shot where the environment is essentially lost in the bokeh.
The bottom line is there are no shortcuts in achieving a filmic look. Following practices that have been used and implemented on films since the early days of cinema is the only way to truly achieve the look you’re after, and one of those practices is making use out of the 28mm lens. And yes that’s might mean setting up more lights, carefully blocking your scene, and spending time on the art direction so that you can shoot on your wider lens and still capture a beautiful image, but once you put in the extra time and effort, you’ll be happy you did.
Keep in mind that in order to emulate that magical 28mm field of view, these lenses are best suited for camera with a Super 35mm sensor, or APS-C in DSLR terms. A 28mm lens on a full frame camera will offer a noticeably wider focal length than in the examples above, and conversely on cameras with larger crops (such as MFT cameras) they will translate to a much longer focal length.
A 28mm lens on a Super 35mm sensor is really the sweet spot, so if you are working with a full frame camera or a sensor with a substantial crop, you will want to look for lenses that will deliver a 28mm while taking into account the crop factor.
Here is a rough guide for which focal lengths you might want to look for on several popular sensors:
Full Frame – 40mm
Super 35mm – 28mm
Micro Four Thirds – 20mm
Super 16mm – 14mm
Below are three lenses that I recommend in the 28mm focal length.
The perfect choice for shooters in need of a faster 28mm lens for low light shooting.
An excellent and beautifully sharp Zeiss lens that is well built and worth the larger price tag for those looking for a longer term solution.
Ideal for Nikon shooters, or any DP who is partial to Nikon glass. This lens gives full manual control in a rugged body, while producing gorgeous images.
UPDATE: For those of you looking for some more cinematic tools, be sure to check out my 6 brand new Cinematic LUT packs, all of which have been carefully designed to help you achieve an organic, filmic look while keeping post-production time to a minimum. Click here to learn more!
Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!