Lens Selection: Maximize Your Aesthetic by Knowing Your Lenses

Pictured above: Phil composes a shot, auditioning his lens on a director’s viewfinder. Photo by Jon Rivera.

Lens Selection

Maximize Your Aesthetic by Knowing Your Lenses


By Phillip Van

Lens selection is a gray zone between direction and cinematography. Understanding lenses and valuing the effect that lens selection has on the final aesthetic and tone of a film can benefit a director immensely. Mapping out your lens choices before going into production is as elemental as good shotlists or storyboards. Knowing and feeling what you are seeing before it is in front of you will help you deal better with inevitable changes and variations on set, allowing you to plot these against the backdrop of the work and previsualization you have done, and immediately either get inspired or know that something isn’t working.

Lenses should be chosen based on the story and your aesthetic approach to it. In the past, 35mm lenses were the real-estate of feature films and nice budgets, but with 35mm adapters out now for prosumer DV cameras, even beginning filmmakers can now know what lenses can do for their projects and the differences between them.

Lens Options and Favorites

There are many different lens sets available for either 2/3” Hi-Def, super- 16mm, and spherical and/or anamorphic 35mm formats: Zeiss’ newly released Master Primes, DigiPrimes and DigiZooms, or standards such as their Ultra Primes and Super Speeds, Panavision Primos, Cooke S4s, and Cooke and Angenieux zooms, among many others.

If you have a predisposition for graphic lines and details and are looking for sharp, crisp and exacting glass, you can choose between either Panavision Primos or Zeiss Ultra Primes as options. However, there are no right or wrong answers, and it is all based on the tone and style of the film and the format you choose to shoot on. For some, Zeiss Master and Ultra Primes may work wonderfully on film, but may feel too sharp on other mediums, such as the Arri D-20, Dalsa Origin or Genesis. Depending on your taste, these 35mm HD hybrid cameras may be better accommodated by a set of Cooke S4’s, which have a slightly warmer color calibration and a softer, more ‘rendered’ feel. The proper adjectives to describe subjective lens characteristics beyond their technical qualifications are a topic of some debate amongst cinematographers. The best solution is to test the lenses for yourself in order to gain a better understanding of each sets’ trademark characteristics with respect to the other options available.

You can always supplement your lens choices with a filter kit consisting of Tiffen Black Promists or Schneider Black Frosts, for example, but choosing lenses that suit the project and format before relying on filtration will allow you to play the filters less and stay ‘cleaner’ and more organic to your format.

Long Lenses: A Preference and ‘Cheat’

Some directors and cinematographers love shooting on long lenses. Part of the inherent beauty of long lenses is their shallow depth-of-field. They can make 35mm feel like an even larger photographic format. But almost everything ultimately depends on your framing, lighting and subject matter.

You can frame something on a long lens so that it feels absolutely distancing, like a telephoto lens on a spy camera. On the other hand, you can “cheat” the long lens for the shallow depth of field associated with a larger format size, if you frame or light intimately enough to offset the “spy cam” feel.

Along these same lines, using long lenses on super-16mm can sometimes help “cheat” the format for something closer to 35mm. With the reduced format size of super- 16mm, the approximate super-16mm lens equivalent of say, a 50mm lens on 35mm film, would be a 25mm lens. It would yield a very similar image and frame, only you would get a substantially increased depth- of-field at the same f-stop because your format is smaller. By throwing on a 50mm or 85mm lens instead, for example, then backing the camera off until you achieve a similar frame, you can find a shallow depth-of-field that comes closer to what you would be able to achieve on 35mm film. Again, when or why you should do this is always context dependant, and some shots may suffer for it, but others can gain a tremendous amount.

35mm Lenses for a Digital Realm

The shallow depth-of-field gained from 35mm lenses and long lens choices has another great application when it comes to shooting digitally. The mini-35 adapter for DV prosumer cameras and the Pro- 35mm adapter for the Panasonic Varicam and Sony F-900, among others, allow 35mm optics to be applied to a much lower-resolution digital format. The CCD chips on DV cameras and ENG styled HD cameras are small comparative to 35mm. They yield a high depth-of-field, which in part contributes to the common claim that these formats appear “flat” with comparison to film.

Like the digital 24P movement in DV and HD, adding the depth of field of film lenses is another way to “cheat” the look of film inexpensively. At the root of this aesthetic cheat, however, these adapters are helping the digital medium in a very particular way.

When shooting in low light situations, with gain on or with high levels of certain colors in the frame (in Panasonics’ case: reds) artifacting, blocking and digital compression become more evident. But these are always factors on digital mediums whether heavy enough to be apparent to the naked eye or not. These issues become pronounced in two cases: when a digital format is projected or when any form of rotoscoping, compositing or significant color correction work needs to be done to digital images.

By narrowing the depth of field and allowing a significant portion of the image to be thrown dramatically out of focus, 35mm lenses clean up and reduce much of the digital compression and “blockiness” that occurs on any digital format. As a result, the use of adapted 35mm lenses helps a digital image in such a way that it doesn’t just look more like 35mm, but ultimately screens cleaner and is easier to work with in a compositing or Da Vinci suite, should effects or corrections be required.

Methods of Shooting: The Sacred Frame

A good rule of thumb is to try to never feel as though your camera placement and lens choices are inevitable or have to be compromised because of a certain location or limited space. Even in a tiny New York City apartment, there are inherent ways to buy yourself more real estate. Consider a nudge of a couch or chair, or the use of a doorway or hallway, as a small adjustment may add immensely to the flexibility of your lens selection and the cinematic integrity of your frame.

One of the reasons thinking about lens selection early on is critical is it can help set the tone and pace of your workflow. Think of your ideal frame and lens choice and make these the things that don’t change. Everything around you, all physical and architectural elements can be altered to suit the needs of your frame. You don’t necessarily need a huge design crew or a Hollywood-sized budget to begin thinking this way. Even on no budget, you can find ways to bend the world to suit your vision.

You may ultimately decide that a living room set is too small. You’re in a space with a full crew and actors, and you have to create what you’ve seen in your head with limited options. If you truly hold your framing and lens choices sacred, you may come up with something that inevitably works better than you originally thought. For example, a crew member searching for a bathroom opens a door to a back hallway you had no idea existed. Soon you’re shooting down the hallway, through two doorways, into a kitchen, where your scene suddenly has a new intimacy because the actors no longer feel inundated by the crew. When problems arise, there are ways around every obstacle. Sometimes, good lens selection requires you to literally think outside of the box. Rather than hinder filmmaking, extreme limitations often make your choices more succinct and improve the integrity of your vision.

Lone State: Lens Selection Applied

I love going from very tight to very wide compositions. I used the concept recently on a public service announcement that I directed for Metlife and Strang Cancer Prevention Center through NYU. The idea came from my affinity for Spaghetti Westerns. Director Sergio Leone and DP Tonino Delli Colli played with contrasting extreme close-ups and wide angled shots all the time. They are two of the most inherently dynamic types of shots: going right from the intensity of a human face in close-up to a massive landscape, in which that human is suddenly small or alone.

The PSA is called Lone State, and is about an obese boy named Jon who is socially isolated throughout the day at school and tries to speak to his parents at night about his condition, but can’t break through.

The whole commercial is composed of only four shots, each a subtle reveal, which begins in a close-up on Jon’s face, then dollies back 40 feet, becoming a wide shot of him in his environment. As the shot widens we begin to see where he is, in a cafeteria at a table by himself, in the school gym on a matte in the corner, finally at home with his family at dinner. The shots are designed to aesthetically depict a growing feeling of isolation. They begin in the character’s personal space, and slowly reveal the world around him and his lack of connection to other people.

We shot the commercial on a Panavision G2 camera using a Panavised Cooke Zoom 20-100mm lens. Lens selection was critical. Our initial intention was to shoot the whole commercial on a 40mm Primo Prime. But adding a slight zoom-in against the feeling of dollying out gave the move a new dynamic. It was a far subtler version of the Hitchcock Vertigo concept, where you zoom in the opposite direction of the dolly to make the space around the character feel like it’s either receding away or rushing up on him. This didn’t pronounce itself with that sort of intensity, but just gave everything a little extra edge. The zoom was also a practical choice, helping us start tighter than the prime would allow, hide speed changes in the dolly and smooth out the move a bit more.

In terms of wide lenses, I particularly love a 16mm prime for 35mm photography. The 20mm end of the Cooke zoom came close and rang true enough to work for our project. On the long end of the lens, we only ventured about as far as the 85mm mark, which was more than enough to suit our needs. The zoom breathed moderately while focusing, but in combination with the dolly and zoom move taking place during the shot, the breathing of the lens became negligible. The lens had a slightly softer, warmer feel, which my DP Rob Hauer and I, combined with soft, wrapping light from large HMI sources backed away from the action and diffused through grid cloth. The actors were lit with a very subtle 2:1 short- side key-to-fill ratio.

The aesthetic plan was to crush the blacks and heavily increasing the contrast ratio during a supervised color correction in post. This look was an integral part of the tone and feel of the commercial. In a case like this, hard light can become extremely problematic, because when you ride up contrast in post, whites clip and blacks crush too quickly. Shooting against the desired look by choosing a warmer lens and lighting softly helped provide the best possible foundational groundwork for adding dynamic contrast in the post workflow.

The Bigger Picture

Ultimately as filmmakers we operate in a highly technical medium and require a good understanding of all the elements at play. Prepare using everything available to you and take big steps to plan ahead. This can make pre-production complicated, but the more you labor at this stage, the more you will be mentally available to your actors and crew when you step on set, and the more you can be appreciative of unexpected gifts in performance or lighting that come your way while shooting. Gather everything you can from your lens choices, lighting choices, your pre-production process and the technology available to you so that when you go into production, you can take every bit of it with you.

Lens Selection: Maximize Your Aesthetic by Knowing Your Lenses

Phillip Van is an award-winning writer/director. His work combines an uncanny and idiosyncratic tone with dynamic visual storytelling. Even when venturing into non-fiction, he seeks out the surreal in the everyday, aiming to make spots that are distinct and memorable across genre, platform and client boundary lines.

He was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” appeared in Shoot Magazine’s New Directors Showcase and his projects have been featured by the New York Times, Rolling Stone, MTV, Pitchfork, AdAge’s “Best Ads,” Short of the Week and Vimeo’s Staff Picks. His commercial work has won D&AD, One Show and Addy awards.

While in graduate film at NYU, he garnered a Student Academy Award and his narrative short films went on to receive accolades at festivals including Berlin, Sundance and Telluride. Phillip is Vietnamese and Greek. He grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii and Portland, Oregon and he currently lives in Los Angeles.

On the literary front, he’s one half of the writing duo Goodwin & Van. He and his writing partner Chris Goodwin penned the screenplay To The Extreme, which was featured on the 2018 Hit List, Young & Hungry List and The Black List, the annual rundown of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays. It’s currently in development through No Trace Camping (Room) and Ramona Films (The Disaster Artist), with Dave Franco attached to star.