The close up shot is really an art of it’s own, and like any other shot type there are many rules that you can follow (or not follow) that will help you to achieve an optimal look. For the purpose of this article though, I’m not going to be talking about framing, lighting, or aspect ratio, but rather focus on lens choice as it is arguably the most important element in achieving a flattering close up shot. My personal favorite focal length for close ups is 85mm, and I’m certainly not the only one to use this lens as my go-to for CU shots – in fact it’s been a long time favorite for many cinematographers and stills photographers over the years.
Those of you that come from a still photography background (specifically portraits) will know well that the best focal range for portraits/headshots is 85mm – 135mm, because of the beautiful way that these lenses will flatten your subject. To help illustrate this point, let’s think about what doesn’t work in terms of lensing, taking the two extreme sides of the focal length spectrum – ultra wide angle, and telephoto as examples.
If you’re shooting on an ultra wide angle lens (let’s say a fish eye for example), your image is going to be distorted, and facial features will get accentuated in all the wrong ways. Wide angle lenses are not designed to be used for close up shots, and they are most often used for landscapes or wide action shots, which is why you can’t expect them to work well in a situation that they weren’t intended for. Take a look at this shot for an extreme example (granted it’s a cool look, but not what you’ll normally want in a traditional close up shot):
Telephoto lenses on the other hand, do the exact opposite of the wide angle: They compress your image and flatten everything in focus so much that they can also distort the image, just in a different way. Extreme telephoto lenses are ideal for shooting certain types of material (for example product shots, because you’ll often want to flatten out a hero product for various reasons, or nature photography), but when it comes to a close up, it can really work against you. Extremely long lenses will flatten out your talent’s face too much, leaving their facial features looking less than pleasing – so unless that’s what you’re going for stylistically, you generally want to stay away from focal lengths that are too long.
The above examples are obviously at the extreme ends of the spectrum (ultra wide angle and telephoto), but the same principles can be applied to any lens outside of the 85mm – 135mm range. For instance, a 24mm lens may not be considered an ‘extreme wide angle lens’, but it is still quite far from the optimal range you want to be working with and there still will be some unpleasing affects on facial features if you attempt to use it for close up shots.
It’s also important to think about not only what your lens is doing to the subject, but also what it’s doing to the background. If you’re using a 24mm lens as described in the example above, you are going to need to move your camera quite close to your subject to have them framed up for a close up, which means you are going to see a lot more background than if they were framed up using an 85mm lens for instance, since the 24mm will pull in more of the surrounding environment.
The other important consideration is the depth of field. Typically with a close up shot, you’re going to want a more shallow depth of field so that the focus is completely on your subject and the background is thrown out of focus, avoiding unnecessary distractions in the frame. In order to achieve this look, you are going to want a nice long lens so you don’t need to worry about placing your subject really far away from the background. For this reason and the others stated above, long lenses are almost always the way to go for close up shots, unless you have a really unique idea that you are playing with and want to intentionally break the rules.
Here’s a shot from my upcoming short film ‘Model’, shot on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera with an 85mm Rokinon Cine lens:
So why the 85mm over other focal lengths?
At the top of this article I mentioned that typically the 85mm – 135mm range is ideal for close ups/portraits in both video and still photography. While this range is in fact optimal for CU shots, my personal preference has always specifically been the 85mm lens when shooting narrative material. This is for a number of reasons – the biggest one being that I find an 85mm lens to be far more versatile than longer focal lengths such as a 135mm or even a 105mm. Although an 85mm lens is fairly long, it’s not so long that you can’t use it in smaller rooms/spaces, or reframe if you want to go slightly wider – the same can’t always be said about lenses that are more telephoto oriented. I’ve had issues with lenses longer than 85mm in small rooms where the shot was just barely too tight, and I ended up needing to use a 50mm instead which wasn’t ideal for my scene, just because I couldn’t move the camera far back enough in the room. The other thing that’s great about the 85mm focal length is that if you’re like me and you have several different cameras with different sensor sizes, it will work be more useable on your different bodies. For instance, I’ll use my 85mm Lens on my C100 (which has a Super 35mm sized sensor) with great results, and then throw it on my Blackmagic Cinema Camera (with a heavy 2.3x crop factor), and still be able to use it. Sure, the image is going to be different given the variance in sensor size, but the lens is useable on both cameras. If I were to try putting a 135mm lens on my Blackmagic Cinema Camera, it wouldn’t be useable in most indoor situations unless I were shooting extreme close ups or had a very large interior space.
You can get great close ups with lots of different lenses and focal lengths, so don’t feel like you need to stick to any one specific lens (whether it’s an 85mm or otherwise). For me personally, the 85mm is the way to go for 80% of my close up shots, but there is no hard and fast rule about this. There are definitely times when I want something more extreme and I’ll go for a longer lens, or when I want a less flattering/more uncomfortable look and I’ll opt to shoot with a wide lens and bring the camera in close. If you do choose to go for an 85mm lens though, I highly recommend the Rokinon 85mm Cine Lens that is listed above as the quality is fantastic and it is very fast – T1.5, which makes it ideal for getting that nice shallow DOF, even on smaller sensor cameras.
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!