December 15, 2015 at 5:45PM

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Psychology of lens size - any good info?

So basicly - does anyone know any resource on how to pick a proper lens? I really struggle with it & I think use of proper lenses is a difference between good & great movies. When to use 50mm lens, when to use 32mm, when to use 80mm etc. I've seen tons of books/videos about framing, storytelling, but they really rarely discuss which exact lens to use.

17 Comments

The absolutely best strategy for knowing how to pick a proper lens is to have a very clear idea what you want each beat in each scene to look like. Not every beat needs to be marked with a camera cut or camera move, but every beat should exist in a logically framed context.

The framing defines what information is visible and what is not, for every layer of the story you are trying to tell. Such information includes: do you see the speaker, or only the listener, or perhaps neither. Do you see what is being spoken about, who or what might be affected by what is being spoken about, etc? Is the location important or tangential? Is the time of day important or not? The weather? The temperature? The time left on a clock?

Once you know what you really want to show, and what you really need to hide, the choice of lens becomes straightforward. But it is very difficult indeed to pick the right lens based on a set of mathematical properties (focal length, depth of field, aperture, etc) without first having a very clear idea what, exactly, you are trying to frame.

If you have the opportunity to practice shooting scenes and then reviewing the footage, you will discover how field of view works for and sometimes against what you are trying to do, and over time you will become as adept at picking the right lens for the job as you might be when selecting the correct knife for slicing up vegetables and fruits.

December 15, 2015 at 8:22PM

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Thanks for the thought provoking post. I'm about to shoot my 3rd short this weekend and a lot of this is weighing on me. We control information behind the camera and behind the lens. I come at film making from a literary back ground and often we speak about character/plot/story perspective as the lens through which we are able to see the story. In fact, you can read a great piece of literature a few times and approach it with a different "lens" and it becomes a whole new story.

Nathan Karimi

December 17, 2015 at 8:56AM

Sorry, I got on my soap box and got excited about stories. I actually just read this yesterday and loved it, and I am just beginning film making myself so a lot of this is theoretical for me...but a great read nonetheless, check it out:

http://noamkroll.com/28mm-lenses-the-secret-ingredient-for-achieving-a-f...

Nathan Karimi

December 17, 2015 at 8:59AM

Andy, how about shoes? Black or brown? High or low? Long or fat? If you've worn shoes, you know what fits you.

If you shot projects, at least 10 of them, you'd know which lenses fit your taste.

So, do get behind a camera and start shooting -- you'll pick up a lot of insight, far more than "how to pick a proper lens".

Good luck!

December 15, 2015 at 8:30PM

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Alex Zakrividoroga
Director
4039

I'm not interested what fits my taste. I'm interested if someone actually checked how audience perceives lenses. What you're saying is of course true, but it's not like you can learn all the stuff only by practice. You can practice for 10 years & sometimes not be aware of how things exactly work. Learning a theory behind it can just save you time & that's why I ask. I want to learn more about perspective, not framing.

Andy Tokarski

December 16, 2015 at 8:05AM

@Andy Tokarski the point of my post is that the psychology of the perspective comes not from the lens, but from the Director's intention (and the DP's successful implementation of that intention). You have cause and effect backward. If the Director has a clear vision of what they want to express--the psychology they want to impose--then the right tool will do it. But just picking up a tool and expecting it to have a psychological effect--that's not how it works.

December 16, 2015 at 8:57AM

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>>>if someone actually checked how audience perceives lenses

I think most of the time the actual lens used doesn't register with the audience, but you can create a "mood" through lighting, lens choice, how the camera is positioned, the background music, etc... that the audience will respond to.

As a DOP you choose a lens that suits the look that you are trying to achieve in each scene, so it's important that you have enough experience to know how each lens effects the image your camera records.

To become more familiar with lenses I would start with the standard: Wide, Normal, Tele lenses and practice with these as much as possible until you have firm grasp of what each lens does.

December 16, 2015 at 11:58AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
29831

Andy, nobody checked how audience perceives lenses. But it is impossible to prove a lack of something.

If you need to wrap your head around focal lens you could start looking at the properties such as distortion and depth of field.

Distortion is easy:

http://www.annenbergdl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Posing-101-with-Li...

Depth of Field is also easy:

http://2.static.img-dpreview.com/files/w/TS560x560?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww....

Tele lenses are better when it comes to portraits. Wide lenses are better for action. Each set can of lenses can do what the other set cant. I am sure you know this already. But it really takes practice to see for yourself the impact of lens choices -- thats when the light bulb is going to go off.

Wide lenses are good for highlighting using size -- other things being equal -- the importance of objects and actions. And this is rather a director's choice based on how he wants to handle an exposure of a set. I.e. Breaking Bad is famous for frequent use of wide angle:

http://images.wikia.com/breakingbad/images/7/70/2x2_Hank_kills_Tuco.png

http://visiondelcine.com.ar/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Breaking-Bad-1x01...

The director just as well could have used a tele lens and achieved the same scene exposure although the composition, cuts, and camera movement would have to be adjusted accordingly. The end result for the viewer would be nearly the same though.

So both types of lenses are like shoes -- one type is black, another one is brown. You'll keep experimenting with them your entire life as long as you keep trying out different outfits. And I maintain that lens selection is a taste preference as this is how a director chooses to expose a scene.

December 16, 2015 at 6:16PM

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Alex Zakrividoroga
Director
4039

I don't know much about cinematography, being a beginner but this is what I learned. When I think about what lens should I use for a determinate scene I think about the emotion I want to convey, let's say my character feels isolated from a conversation I can change from a normal lens to a wider one so that it gives me more perceived separation.
Another thing I read somewhere is the use of extreme long telephoto lenses in a running scene where the character would run but it would look like he didn't move at all because of the compression the lens gives, that makes the scene feel hopeless for the character.

December 17, 2015 at 5:40AM

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Alessio Hong
Director, Vfx Artist
13

>>>Distortion is easy

Yes and No. What the example you linked to actually shows is the distortion caused by shooting too close to your subject, and it has NOTHING to do with the lens chosen. If you shot with the 24mm lens at the SAME distance that you shot with the 85mm or 200mm you would have NO distortion in the face. ( you would have to crop the 24mm image down a lot to get a head-shot out of it, but there would be no difference in the distortion between the 24mm and the 200mm if shot at the SAME distance )

>>>Depth of Field is also easy

Again this is a Yes and No situation. You can match the depth of field between a wide-angle and a short telephoto if you adjust the aperture of each lens correctly. For example if you shot with the wide-angle at f/1.4 you might have to shoot with your short telephoto at f/32.0, but it's possible to get the DOF to match between these lenses.

December 17, 2015 at 11:10AM, Edited December 17, 11:10AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
29831

Fascinating, thanks. In your example of wide-angle at f/1.4 and short telephoto at f/32.0, presumably the light requirements would change, so additional lighting would have to be used ?

Saied M.

December 19, 2015 at 7:59AM

Technically the depth of field would be the same for a given aperture if you frame your subject the same way. Wide angle lenses give the illusion of more depth of field because so much more of the background is included in the frame, whereas a long lens will magnify the background and the blur. I personally find it much easier to pull focus on a long lens than a short one.

Timothy John Foster

December 20, 2015 at 10:58AM

>>>In your example of wide-angle at f/1.4 and short telephoto at f/32.0, presumably the light requirements would change, so additional lighting would have to be used ?

My example was more theoretical than practical, because the lighting difference would be absolutely huge between f/1.4 and f/32.0. ( 8 F-stops of light ) So if you used 100 watts of light at f/1.4, you would need to use 25,600 watts of light at f/32.0

December 19, 2015 at 11:45PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
29831

This might sound weird but watch the movie "Tree of Life" and also watch some Michael Bay movies like Transformers. Tree of Life is filmed almost completely with a wide angle lens and looks incredible. Transformers also has a pretty sweet look to it (even if the story is lacking) but has a lot of longer lenses. Very different styles but maybe you can get a better feel for it just by paying attention to how the spacial compression is used in the films.

December 22, 2015 at 3:01AM

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Jeremiah Kuehne
Filmmaker
819

Transformers? No, thank you. That movie & director are a perfect example of how not to make movies. Every, literally every frame in his movies look the same no matter what emotion there are. He is the opposite to what I want to learn - using psychology of lenses. In his movies there is zero reasoning behind framing & lenses, it just needs to look effective. Hate this guy, it's one of those cases where I wish the artist (if u even say he is the artist) to retire.

Andy Tokarski

December 22, 2015 at 4:42AM

That's a hilarious response. Emmanuel Lubezki (DP for Tree of Life, Birdman, etc) uses almost exclusively wide angle lenses. All of his shots are gorgeous but, as it relates to lens choice, they're all very similar. Michael Bay films on the other hand do TONS with mixing up lenses and you can learn a lot from them. Don't be so pretentious to think you're above Michael Bay just because he's a popular guy to hate. Check out this video and you might see what I mean: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2THVvshvq0Q.

Jeremiah Kuehne

December 22, 2015 at 1:49PM, Edited December 22, 1:49PM

While it’s true the focal length affects DOF but so does focus distance. The closer your focus distance the less DOF you have; the farther your focus distance, the deeper the focus. No matter what combination of the three factors that effect DOF (Focal Length, Aperture, and Focus Distance), you cannot change the physiological impact of where in space you place the camera in relation to the subject.

In terms of picking a proper focal length, I feel it really comes down to the perspective you want you audience to have: participatory vs. observational ((http://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/various-focal-lengths-for-images/).

Using wider lenses (apart from wide establishing shots) means getting physically to closer to the subject, which in turn let's the audience “feel” like they’re part of the action, “their in the conversation”; without completely losing sense of environment.

Longer focal length lenses often means that you’re physically farther away from your subject, which can make audience feel more like observers.

* Remember, the lens IS the audience. * Do some tests, frame up a close-up using different focal lengths, you’ll find that the only way to keep a similar framing is by moving the camera. Then compare the images. See if your feel the closeness of the camera?

Where things really get exciting is when you start factoring in larger formats (Vista Vision/65mm), which give you a wider field of view but allow you to get closer with longer focal lengths (less DOF). Think REVENANT!

June 30, 2016 at 5:59PM, Edited June 30, 6:08PM

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John Dimalanta
Freelance Photographer/Cinematographer
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