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Why I Shot Most Of The Closeups On My New Short Film On A 28MM Lens

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.

STRAY

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:

STRAY - 28MM CLOSE UP

STRAY - 28MM CLOSEUP

USING 28MM FOR CLOSE UP

Why 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.

About Author

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!

34 Comments

  • Robert
    April 25, 2019 at 8:43 am

    Hi Noam,

    I forgot one more questions to solve my problem. I found this website
    https://wolfcrow.com/the-focal-lengths-and-lenses-used-by-great-directors/
    Again, are all the directors referring to super 35mm crop or film full frame? I know that Tarantino shoots only on film so that should be the full frame ??? Some Spielberg movies were made before 1984 ( year when super 35mm was used in Hollywood productions ) Sorry I am so confused by that. Is it possible that film cameras ( not digital ) also had super 35mm crop at some point?

    Here is my thought. If Tarantino likes 40mm and many others than it would make sens that they refer to full frame but if Spielberg likes 21mm than I think it would be too wide on full frame so in his case maybe he refers to Super 35mm ………wow I mixed so much …….Thanks for great article !

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      May 17, 2019 at 10:13 pm

      Super 35mm crop is what you’re thinking of. That’s really a photography reference (there is no Full Frame in cinema terms), so when filmmakers refer to lenses they use, it’s almost always in reference to a S35mm sensor or frame size.

      Reply
  • Robert
    April 25, 2019 at 8:01 am

    Hi Noam,
    I think I understood the crop mystery very well. I am little bit confused regarding your first article where you mentioned Steven Spielberg and other directors. They used 28mm a lot but was it on super 35mm or full frame “film” camera. Basically which crop they refer to ? I assume it must be S35mm. In that case I don’t need a full frame camera and I can stay with my APS-C . I am also wondering what is better equivalent lens 42mm on full frame Sony A7II or 28mm on Canon t5i APS-C. Is it worth to upgrade?

    Reply
  • jacob
    June 19, 2018 at 8:47 am

    hi, I’ve read these articles but I’m confused. I have an 80d which has a 1.6 crop factor so which focal length should I use considering the crop factor to get the magical focal length

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      July 13, 2018 at 3:15 am

      28mm is perfect for you, since 1.6 is a very similar crop to traditional Super 35mm.

      Reply
  • Tom
    July 8, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    Hi Noam, I found this AE project that imitates the look of the 40mm Panavision Primo Anamorphic lens and I think if it is not exactly your vision of a 40-42mm, it adds to the topic here 🙂

    “I recommend a 28mm or 35mm lens… For APS-C sensors I recommend a 20mm or 24mm lens. For BMCC use 10mm or 12mm.”

    For Micro 4/3 on Lumix would be 14-18mm…

    http://vashivisuals.com/vashimorphic40-free-anamorphic-effects-project/

    Reply
  • Sasha Poberailo
    February 29, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    Totally agree with you! Talking about super-35/crop only. 28mm hasn’t lens distortions like 24mm and wider than 35mm. I had two 28mm lenses but it wasn’t good.. maybe I’ll find some thing from Zuiko or Calr Zeiss

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      March 6, 2016 at 5:50 pm

      Just about any Zeiss 28mm is excellent, at least from my experience!

      Reply
  • Dan Burke
    February 16, 2016 at 10:58 pm

    Hi Noam.
    Love your website!!!
    Did your actors feel intimidated being that you were so close when shooting? At 42mm you must have been inside of 4′, maybe closer sometimes?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      February 18, 2016 at 11:37 pm

      Thanks Dan – I think they were okay with it, but I would imagine it could get intimidating at times! That said, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to have your cast push themselves out of their comfort zone…

      Reply
      • Dan Burke
        February 19, 2016 at 12:15 am

        When I used to shoot ENG on the street I had this annoying habit of getting closer and closer to talent. One eye shut and I’d get like 2 feet from them… my producer would be like, “dude back off”. The framing was just so good.
        For narrative kinda what you want.
        I love you perspective and your posts are awesome!

        Reply
        • Noam Kroll
          February 23, 2016 at 5:40 pm

          Haha that’s awesome! Thanks for the comment Dan. Appreciate it.

          Reply
  • Tom
    January 13, 2016 at 3:11 pm

    Hey Noam,

    great post!
    One thing comes in my mind…

    You decided to shoot with a 28mm on a 35-equivalent 1.78 sensor and framed it in post with a 1:2.39 ratio.
    What mm would you use on a 1.33 sensor with a 2x anamorphic lens, because a 56mm don’t exists in the anamorphic world?

    Best
    Tom

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 18, 2016 at 11:10 pm

      Good question Tom. If you are recording on a 4×3 sensor, I believe you should just be able to use a 28mm Anamorphic lens…

      Reply
  • Alberto Triana
    January 8, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    WOW! Looks great Noam! I’m actually gearing up to shoot my next short film with our URSA. I’ve been wanting to play with a wider lens and after reading this and seeing your awesome images, Imma definitely do some camera tests of my own with my actors! Idk if I’ll afford a CP2 lol
    But yeah I’m going for a very moody intimate film as well.
    Keep up the great work man!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 11, 2016 at 1:28 am

      Thanks so much Alberto – really glad you enjoyed it and best of luck with your film.

      Reply
  • Elmer Lim
    December 19, 2015 at 2:30 am

    Hi Naom! Thanks for sharing about the beauty of the 28mm lens. I just want to clarify things since i’m quite confused..sorry. Currently, i’m using a canon 5ds full frame camera. so what lens focal length should i use in order to get the equivalent of a 28mm lens on the blackmagic ursa camera that you are using? Thanks Naom! Elmer.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      December 21, 2015 at 7:20 pm

      Thank you! On full frame, it would be about a 40mm lens.

      Reply
      • Ilyas
        February 17, 2016 at 5:16 am

        Hi Noam! I like your work very much! Your last video with 4.6k ursa is amazing! But you wrong in this question! Big URSA sensor smaller than Super 35 film format and in terms of full frame it will looks like 47.8 mm. You can check this on https://www.abelcine.com/fov/

        Reply
        • Noam Kroll
          February 18, 2016 at 11:37 pm

          Thanks for the heads up! Will check into this…

          Reply
  • arun
    November 21, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    This article seems very interesting to me i have a doubt currently i have few Black Magic Pocket Cinema cameras ( no lenses with me currently ) if i want to get exact 28 mm Field of view on a BMPCC which MFT lens suitable for it ? BMPCC’s crop factor is 2.88 & am aware of Metabones Speed booster etc but personally i don’t like to use that type of adapters for it i prefer MFT lens only have checked few online seems a 10mm can help to archive 28mm focal length on my Black Mgic Pocket Cinema cameras.. correct me if am wrong ! after this only i can conform my lens order .

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 24, 2015 at 9:53 pm

      Hi Arun! In Super 35 terms, a 28mm lens is really giving you a full frame equivalent of 42mm. So if you were to use a 14mm lens on your BMPCC, you would be very close.

      Reply
      • Nick
        November 8, 2016 at 5:59 pm

        Hello Noam,your answer confused me…you mean 20(21 better) on a BMPCC.Thats because it has a micro 4/3 sensor,so the full frame equivalent is 2 times the lens focal length.or am i wrong?nice article by the way!!!

        Reply
        • Noam Kroll
          November 12, 2016 at 6:44 am

          Hi Nick! To confirm, the BMPCC actually does not have a M43 sensor. It has a Micro Four Thirds mount, but the sensor size is closer to Super 16mm, which has a more significant crop! Hope this makes sense.

          Reply
  • volker Schmidt
    November 16, 2015 at 7:16 pm

    BTW: here an test of a vintage 45mm lens on the 5dmk2MLraw:
    https://vimeo.com/145036164

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 24, 2015 at 9:49 pm

      Thanks for sharing! Will check it out soon.

      Reply
  • Volker Schmidt
    November 16, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    Hi Noam,

    your stills are nice examples for the use of your 28mm lens!

    But in your writing, you make the same mistake as in your first article about 28mm lenses:
    You named different films as examples for the use of 28mm lenses in your first article.
    So, you assume the S-35 Film format. This corresponds approximately to APS-C Sensor Size.
    Then you recommend the focal length of 14mm as an equivalent for micro four third cameras.
    But this is wrong, because a 14mm lens on a MFT Camera is an equivalent – to an 28mm wide angle lens on a Full format Camera.
    Sorry for my english and excuse the alleged hairsplitting, but this is important to clear up at first:
    Which format you be based?
    In your second article you came to this point at the end with a very wooly formulation
    “on a full frame camera the 28mm would have been too distorted for my taste”.
    On a full format camera the 28mm is a totally different lens!
    The equivalent focal length (from 28mm on S-35) on a full format camera is 45mm.
    For MFT it is ca. a 22,5mm.

    And the mystery of these focal lengths on these cameras is – that they are capture reality like we see it.
    You can make a test and focus something in your viewfinder, then look beside the camera to the object, it´s the same size.
    These lenses are so-called normal lenses.
    28mm for S-35 – and in fact 45mm for full format (instead of the ordinary 50mm).
    Puh, now I feel like a bigmouth, sorry:)!

    But it´s nice, that you came on this topic!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 24, 2015 at 9:48 pm

      Hi Volker! You are correct that on MFT a 14mm is equivalent to a 28mm on Full Frame, not Super 35. That said, I like the look of a 28mm on Super 35mm the best (more like a 42mm full frame equivalent), and I know the terminology can get confusing – for me too! I will need to go back to my previous article and clarify things further at some point soon.

      Reply
  • Jose Prada
    November 13, 2015 at 10:12 pm

    Hi Noam, and congratulations for all your work! Thanks for all the information you share, very helpful -one of my reference sites-. The stills from your film are gorgeous. How did you light for such a pleasant soft light and how do you find the Ursa? -thinking about buying the mini, right now I am with the GH4 and Leicas Summicron from the seventies-. Cheers from Spain!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 24, 2015 at 9:46 pm

      Thank you Jose! Appreciate the kind words. The shots in this article were actually mainly lit with a single LED panel that was diffused. I typically like to work with natural light as much as possible and then work in small lights (like china balls) to create a nice soft key light on the talent. I love the URSA and am sure the URSA mini would be an excellent choice for you!

      Reply
  • Mike
    November 12, 2015 at 9:24 pm

    Since I read your first article about 28mm lenses, I have since been using one A LOT. a Zeiss contax 28mm f2. I’ve also really enjoyed the look of closeups at this focal length. Great article!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      November 24, 2015 at 9:44 pm

      Awesome! So glad to hear and thanks for the note.

      Reply
    • Pablo
      April 5, 2020 at 5:46 pm

      Noam do you think the Zeiss 28mm cp2 ZE vs the classic manual photography 28mm is much better only in terms of image quality or are the same despiste of the cine housing.

      I’m looking to get an used Zeiss 28mm cinemod for my Varicam LT I do own milvus 21mm 2.8, 50mm 1.4 and 85mm 1.4. ( otus 28mm is out of muy budget right now)

      Thanks in advance

      Reply
      • Noam Kroll
        August 5, 2020 at 3:37 pm

        If you don’t need the cinema housing, the 28mm photo lens should give you a very similar look. Not identical to the cinema version, but it will be very close. I’d save the money if you are comfortable shooting on stills glass.

        Reply

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