I’m often asked “what’s your favorite lens?” by fellow filmmakers, both aspiring and professional. A more accurate way to phrase the question would probably be “what’s your favorite focal length?”
It’s an interesting question, and one that I’m sure most directors would have an answer to… At least those that have shot more than a couple of films and have started to develop some creative biases.
Early on in my career, I was all about experimenting lens-wise, and didn’t really pay all that much attention to focal length. I would be just as happy covering a scene on an ultra-wide angle lens as I would on a telephoto, as long as it worked from a technical standpoint. Over the years though, I found myself being drawn toward certain focal lengths far more than others. And while I always make an effort to approach every shot as a blank canvas, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some favorite focal lengths that I tend to rely on more than others.
I would argue that lens choice (and to a larger extent focal length choice), plays just as much into the audience perception of any given film as music does. Much in the same way that music can completely shift the tone and texture of a scene, so can different focal lengths…
A closeup of an actor shot on an 18mm vs. a closeup of the same actor on an 85mm will evoke an entirely different mood. And although that may be a glaringly obvious example, the same comparison could be made between lenses with similar focal lengths – such as a 28mm compared to a 35mm or an 85mm compared to a 100mm. The differences may be more subtle, but the characteristics of each focal length still play into the visual language being used.
After a certain amount of time shooting, most of us unconsciously find ourselves going back to the same lenses/focal lengths over and over again. We often find a “sweet spot” aesthetically speaking, in which certain focal lengths just seem to match our sensibilities as filmmakers perfectly. This of course will vary from filmmaker to filmmaker, since we all have our unique preferences. But whatever the favorite focal length may be, almost all directors have one – whether they’ve recognized it or not.
As I outlined in this previous blog post, the 28mm focal length is known for having some special characteristics and as such has been a go-to choice for many directors over the years. While I love 28mm glass too, and often opt to shoot at 28mm over it’s neighbors (24mm or 35mm for instance), there is a different focal length that is my true favorite. The one that I would pick if I were to have to choose one focal length to shoot everything on for an entire project or even for the rest of my career: The 50mm.
I almost exclusively shoot narrative material on cameras with Super 35mm sensors, so as I elaborate on my points below, please know everything is said in relation to standard cinema cameras with Super 35mm sensors. Not Full Frame. Not Micro Four Thirds. Super 35.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s consider what makes the 50mm focal length so special…
For starters, being as 50mm lenses are considered one of the “normal” focal lengths (along with 35mm), they produce a field of view similar to that of the human eye. For me, this is huge as much of my narrative work is built around characters, settings, and emotional tones that are best captured in a realistic way. Unlike wider or longer lenses that will produce more stylized images in some regards, the 50mm is about as grounded in reality as it gets.
Not to mention, I am a big fan of cinema-vérité, and the 50mm focal length compliments that shooting style quite well…
50mm lenses are just short enough that they can be operated smoothly handheld (it gets much harder at 85mm or above), but are still long enough that they can produce absolutely gorgeous closeups – not dissimilar from the results you might expect from an 85mm lens.
With regards to FOV (Field of View), a 35mm lens would likely be considered a more versatile lens, since of course it can capture a slightly wider FOV when compared to a 50mm… In other words, it will squeak in a bit more environment into your wide/establishing shots, or interior scenes in tight locations.
This is all well and good, but personally I am more than happy to trade off the ability to go slightly wider on a 35mm lens for the extra control over shallow depth of field that a 50mm lens can offer. For instance, a 50mm lens is often the perfect choice for covering 2-shots as it will separate the talent from the background just enough, without completely losing perspective of the environment.
So while some filmmakers may believe that the sightly longer focal length of a 50mm lens will limit framing choices more-so than a 35mm lens, I actually very much welcome that minor limitation. As I’ve stated countless times on this blog, I believe whole heartedly that more limitations equal better art. Whether you are limiting how many locations to write into your script, how long each scene can be in the edit, or in this case how wide your shots can get based on lens choice, limitations force you to think outside the box.
On my feature film Shadows On The Road, we used two zoom lenses (the Sigma Cinema 18-35mm and Sigma Cinema 50-100mm) to capture every scene. We did this as a means to move more quickly as we were shooting almost entirely guerrilla-style, but in retrospect we probably could have shot almost the entire film on a 50mm lens, and still have come out on top.
As I work my way through the post-production on the feature, I can’t help but notice that almost every one of my favorite shots from the film were captured on the 50-100mm zoom lens, set at 50mm. This can somewhat be credited to the mysterious aesthetic X-Factor that 50mm lenses have for me… But it can equally be attributed to the fact that a 50mm lens was often a tiny bit too long for our setups in certain locations – especially when we were shooting inside a van or in a small motel room with limited space.
But it’s precisely because of this creative limitation that we were forced to come up with more unique framing choices or angles, which ultimately resulted in some of my favorite shots from the feature. In the end, I felt like we got the best of both worlds when shooting at 50mm: The special aesthetic characteristics of a 50mm lens (including a little less DOF), and some helpful limitations along the way.
Below is the teaser trailer for Shadows On The Road. Many of the shots used in this teaser below were captured at 50mm (on the Sigma 50-100mm Cinema Zoom), including the final shot, which is one of my favorites from the entire production.
But back to the glass…
Up until this point, much of what I’ve been speaking to has been purely subjective. But even from a more objective/technical level, 50mm lenses have some advantages that can’t be ignored…
For one, 50mm lenses almost always deliver the highest image quality and least distortion of any other lens in a given lineup. In other words, if you were to test every single focal length in the same line (let’s say Rokinon’s Cinema lenses for instance), you will almost always find that the 50mm lens will deliver the best optical results. This is attributed to the fact that they are normal focal length lenses (which are of course less prone to distortion), and also because they can be easier to manufacture, which may result in less technical issues during production.
Even many cheap 50mm lenses will outperform other focal lengths that come from much more expensive lineups. I’ve seen some sub-$500 50mm lenses beat out far more expensive 28mm or 24mm cinema lenses in certain respects, which illustrates just how reliably good 50mm lenses look across the board.
For instance the famous “Nifty 50” Canon lens can be had for only $110, and while it certainly lacks the build quality a proper cinema lens, it can deliver results that are on par with lenses that cost many times it’s price.
50mm lenses are also known to be extremely fast. This is why even lower-cost 50mm DSLR lenses often boast an F1.4 or even an F1.2 maximum aperture. Not to mention, if you dig a little deeper you can find some even more impressive glass, such as this 50mm from SLR Magic that has maximum aperture of F0.95.
Thankfully none of us will ever have to pick a single lens to shoot everything on, but it’s still kind of fun to imagine what you’d choose if you had to. For me, the image quality, unique characteristics, shallow depth of field/low light ability, and overall versatility make 50mm my favorite of all focal lengths… And maybe one day for fun I’ll even shoot an entire film on a 50mm, just to see what would happen.
How about you? Are 50mm lenses your go-to as well? Or is there another focal length that you prefer? Let me know in the comments.
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