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Anamorphic Lenses Explained: All You Should Know

Anamorphic Lenses Explained: All You Should Know

While shooting a film, a cinematographer will have to make a few choices regarding how they want their shots to look like. Part of that decision will be to decide angles, lighting, color and range of shots. However, even before that, a cinematographer is tasked with choosing the appropriate lens through which to shoot the film. If the cinematographer’s job is to guide the audience’s eye, then the choice of the right lens is crucial to guiding the cinematographer’s eye. Film lenses are a crucial part of filmmaking. Basic categories to consider, like focal length and aperture, can change the entire tone and texture of the story. While there are many types of lenses to choose from, from the 50 mm to the ultrawide, the anamorphic lenses have quickly become a favourite for filmmakers across genres. Let’s take a look at what makes this lens a crucial tool in any cinematographer’s belt.


What Are Anamorphic Lenses: An Introduction

The term “anamorphic” comes from the Greek word anamorphosis, meaning transform or reshape. This is an accurate summation of what it does. The anamorphic lens is used to fit an extremely wide view on the standard film screen without causing distortion. Essentially, an anamorphic lens projects the image upon a camera sensor in such a way that it is stretched in along one axis (length), usually by a factor of two. This is in contrast to their counterpart, the spherical lens, which projects images on the sensor without affecting their aspect ratio. 


When Was It First Used

The anamorphic lens, however, was not originally associated in cinema. It made its first appearance during World War I, when French soldiers would use the aforementioned lenses from inside their tanks to get a much wider view of the enemies and armaments outside. After a similar stint in World War II, it began appearing in the film industry.


What Does An Anamorphic Lens Do?

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By stretching the image’s projection on the sensor along a dimension, anamorphic lenses allow the cinematographer to fit a wider image, while avoiding or minimising distortions. This becomes crucial when one seeks to utilise the entirety of standard 35 mm frames. Thus, 100 percent of the frame area is used in the final image. 

Anamorphic lens also improves image quality by enhancing vertical resolution and keeping the appearance of graininess to a minimum. Often, when filmmakers sought to capture sweeping, wide shots by using regular spherical lenses, the result was that there would be the appearance of grain and a noticeable distortion in the centre.

However, shooting anamorphic allows an incredible aspect ratio of 2:39:1. This creates distortion-free images and allows for a wide view of field. Even during close up shots, it can be used to provide a subtle look at what is going on in the background, while not taking away attention from the actor’s changes in expression. 

Black bars are a recognizable component of anamorphic shooting. Black bars appear when one squeezes in an image with a wide aspect ratio upon a screen with a narrower aspect ratio. As the image has to be stretched to fill side to side, black bars appear on the top and bottom of the screen.


Anamorphic Lens Purpose: How To Get A Cinematic Look

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Anamorphic lens is known for its unique lens flare effects. Essentially, when the light captured by the lens is stretched and projected on the sensor, and then, the screen, it creates a distinctive blue stripe. This ethereal looking axis of light runs along the anamorphic axis as a gentle, blurry blue line of light. While lens flare can be created and captured by pretty much all kinds of lenses, the aforementioned effect is unique to anamorphic lenses.


Spherical And Anamorphic Lenses: Difference

Similarly, light sources in the background are also captured in a distinct way. While regular lenses create the bokeh effect with out of focus light as well, the result is a spherical, ball-like bokeh structure. With anamorphic, the light in the background is transformed into elliptical, blurred images that add a lovely ambiance and mood to the shot. While these light effects can be produced or added in post-production, shooting with anamorphic lens lends a certain cinematic quality to the image output. 


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While spherical and anamorphic lenses technically have the same depth of field, anamorphic lens creates a shallow depth of field in the final image as compared to its counterpart. This is because, in order to achieve the same angle of view with anamorphic as with spherical, the cinematographer has to use a longer focal length. This creates a much more immersive and organic view of the background, while foregrounding the actor subject as the prime focus of the scene. See this video for details.

All these effects together can create a grand-looking final product that has a refined sense of aestheticism. In fact, more and more movies have emulated the look and feel of anamorphic films, and there remain several genres that best exploit the benefits of this format of shooting. 

Epic narratives that make use of lush, natural locations, or films that seek to create a completely immersive experience will find themselves compatible with this form of shooting.


Anamorphic Lens Examples

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In this image from The King (2019, cin: Adam Arkapaw), one can clearly see the oval bokeh associated with shooting anamorphic. This lovely little detail adds texture to an otherwise banal low-lit shot, and creates ambience. 


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Consider this still from Star Trek Into Darkness (2013, cin: Dan Mindel), which is a lovely example of visual effects in service of the story. The trademark blue flare of the lens complements the cool color palette of the sci-fi saga, and adds a sense of ephemerality to the narrative. It also hints towards the futuristic nature of the story, while drawing attention to the action happening in the background. 

Most cinephiles will not be surprised to learn that Quentin Tarantino’s iconic Pulp Fiction (1994, Andrzej Sekula) used the anamorphic lens for plenty of reasons. The instantly recognizable dance scene between Mia and Vincent is one such instance. While the two primary subjects are firmly foregrounded, the wide aspect ratio allows the diversity and the character of the background milieu to be shown as well. 


Things To Consider Before Using Anamorphic Lenses

Anamorphic Lens Price: Anamorphic lenses are usually regular lenses with the addition of various glass elements that alternately widen and compress the output. This means that anamorphic lenses will usually be more expensive than spherical lenses, and more cumbersome. If one has just only begun to work in cinematography, working with anamorphic can often feel overwhelming.

There are also less options to choose from in anamorphic lens as compared to spherical ones. Most of them are built with a focal length of 40, 50, 75, or 100 mm.

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When it comes to shooting scenes with less light, anamorphic lenses can be pretty limiting as well. They have a stop between T2.8 and T4, which captures a reduced amount of light. 

Shooting in anamorphic fashion also requires quite a bit of work and attention in post-production, as they will need to be stretched or adjusted to fit various screens accordingly. While this is an eventual part of the process no matter which kind of equipment you are working with, cinematographers in their early days may find this especially challenging.



How To Use Anamorphic Lens On An iPhone

Considering the rise of non-traditional methods of filmmaking and viewing cinema, techniques are no longer limited to conventional equipment. Nowadays, one can just as easily make a film on an iPhone. This is especially useful in the case of video blogs, travel videos and experimental filmmaking.

There are many lenses available that are specially designed to be mounted over the camera of an iPhone, such as the Kase Anamorphic lens, or the Moment Anamorphic lens. These can be attached to the back-facing camera and the footage will be stretched accordingly.

However, since the lens would squeeze the image to make it wider, one will need to de-squeeze the image later using editing applications. Manual adjustment of the lens will be necessary to achieve the necessary alignment of the iconic horizontal bars that the anamorphic lens provides. 

One highly recommended program is the Filmic Pro, which offers two options for anamorphic lens adapter, as well as a de-squeeze option for the resulting footage. You can edit as well as shoot your footage on the app, provided you are comfortable with using apps in conjunction with an iPhone’s camera. 

Similarly, if you don’t mind a slightly longer post-production process, apps like Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro are also available to desqueeze the footage and make whatever changes you may want to implement. The best thing about using anamorphic lens with an iPhone is its adaptability, as you can use it to create beautiful cinematic footage. Taking pictures with and without the lens will also help you compare it with the recorded footage and mark what things need to be changed accordingly.



As always, the choice of equipment should not be for its own sake, but should strive to function in the service of the story. If you feel that the anamorphic lens is useful in creating an immersive experience for the viewers, no doubt the film will massively benefit from its distinct ambience. In the age of primarily digital storytelling, anamorphic shooting is the bridge between modern innovations in film technology and traditional storytelling methods. It is the perfect example of an industry classic that has stood the test of time.


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