For those of you who regularly follow this blog, it is very important to me to achieve a cinematic look when I take digital photos, and I write about that a lot. My last article "How to make videos look like films" Many basic techniques have been described that, when implemented, can dramatically help improve your digital cinematography and make it more film-like. But something that I didn't go into in this article was the selection of lenses – especially wide angle vs. Tele.
Probably one of the biggest misunderstandings in achieving a cinematic look is that long telephoto lenses and shallow depth of field are a necessary part of the equation. Since the 5D was introduced and the razor's shallow depth of field was easy to reach, almost every low-budget indie film has taken many flat DOF shots with long lenses to make its film more "cinematic". The irony, however, is that since so many filmmakers have been crazy about the ultra-slim DOF look and used it to death in the past 5 years, it has now become one of the greatest giveaways that a film is on a DSLR and probably on one very small budget was filmed. Unfortunately, shooting with wider lenses (and for some even normal lenses like the 35mm lens) has become a lost art. This is really a shame because one of the most used lenses in the history of cinema and therefore one of the keys to unlocking a cinematic look in digital recordings is the 28mm wide-angle lens.
Before we look at the seemingly magical 28mm focal length, it's important to understand why shooting a long lens / shallow DOF may be farthest from the film throughout your film.
Every 35 mm film camera can achieve a wafer-thin DOF under almost all circumstances. But how many large-scale blockbuster or independent films can you remember where every second shot was on the verge of becoming blurry, like so many micro-budget films? Every film is different and each DP has its own way of working, but generally most of the major films are shot most of the time between f4 and f8. Shooting with this type of aperture enables optimal lens performance and smoother focus pull, and is far from wide-open shooting with a full-frame DSLR at 1.4. Sure, for insert shots, extreme close-ups, low light, and other special shots, there are many cases where wide-open shots may be required or the right choice – but not for most of the film.
What is the correct focal length for the rest of the film? Where's the sweet spot? Ultimately, it's up to you as a filmmaker, but for many filmmakers, the 28mm lens is the secret ingredient. In fact, Spielberg, Scorsese, Orson Wells, Malick, and many other A-list directors have identified the 28mm lens as one of their most used and, in some cases, a favorite. And while it may not appear or sound like the most exciting lens selection on paper, keep in mind that the 28mm lens has been a gold standard for filming for over a century and has been used to add some of the most famous moments in film to record history. And if you're really trying to emulate the look of movies, the 28mm lens is a focal length that you absolutely cannot ignore.
When we go to the cinema, we want to have an experience that mimics reality in many ways, but is also fantastic and surreal. This is where a lens like the 28mm comes in. It's just outside the middle. Just a little wider than our normal field of vision, but not too far to distract. It differs enough from a "normal" focal length like the 50 mm so that we unconsciously feel like in a new world, but it is also close enough to the property that we are not lost through noticeable distortions that we would experience a more extreme lens choice, like a 12mm. Conversely, shooting with a medium telephoto lens (like a 65mm lens) would also be outside the center of our normal field of view, but could never work as universally as the 28mm lens. If you had to shoot an entire movie with a single lens, it would be much easier to use 28mm than 65mm unless you are doing something really specific. The 28mm allows wides, close-ups, landscape shots and more while maintaining a unique and original look. In some cases, you paint the 65 mm in a corner, which makes it difficult to take pictures, masters or medium widths. A normal focal length like 35mm or 50mm seems to be the more natural choice as this field of view comes closest to human vision, but the 28mm ability to add a bit of surrealism to the image is exactly what we want.
One final thought I'm going to leave you with is that shooting with a wide angle lens is a great way to make sure you don't get lazy as a DP or director. If you have a poorly lit scene or a shitty place, it's pretty easy to just clap a long lens and eradicate the ugliness. Blur the background and get a pretty decent picture. However, this is not always the answer and mostly the easy way out so as not to get the best possible results. You can't cheat yourself from every shot, and especially shouldn't try to shoot a long lens for convenience if your scene doesn't require it. When shooting with wider lenses, you need to consider your lighting, composition, and production design much more carefully. And that's a very good thing for many independent filmmakers who often save in these areas. Personally, I would prefer to take a picture with a wide lens and a deep DOF, which has a beautiful art direction and lots of details, than a flat DOF picture with long lenses, in which the surroundings are essentially lost in the bokeh.
The bottom line is there are no shortcuts to achieve a cinematic look. Following practices that have been used and implemented in films since the beginning of cinema is the only way to achieve the look you want. One of these practices is to use the 28mm lens. And yes, that could mean setting up more lights, carefully blocking your scene, and spending time with art direction so you can shoot on your wider lens and still take a nice picture, but once you've invested extra time and effort, I must be glad that you did it.
Keep in mind that these lenses to emulate this magical 28mm field of view are best suited for cameras with a super 35mm sensor or APS-C in DSLR form. A 28 mm lens of a full-frame camera offers a much larger focal length than in the examples above, and conversely, cameras with a larger crop (e.g. MFT cameras) display a much longer focal length.
A 28mm lens on a super 35mm sensor is really the sweet spot. So if you are working with a full-frame camera or a sensor with a substantial cut, you should look for lenses that give a value of 28 mm considering the cut factor.
Here is a rough guide on what focal lengths you would like to search for with several common sensors:
Full screen – 40 mm
Super 35mm – 28 mm
Micro four thirds – 20 mm
Super 16mm – 14 mm
Below are three lenses that I recommend with a focal length of 28 mm.
# 1 – SIGMA 28MM F1.8 – $ 449 at B&H
The perfect choice for shooters who need a faster 28mm lens for shooting in low light.
# 2 – ZEISS 28MM F2.0 – $ 1283 at B&H
An excellent and beautifully sharp Zeiss lens that is well built and worth the higher price for those looking for a longer term solution.
# 3 – NIKON NIKKOR 28MM F2.8 hand lens – $ 539 at B&H
Ideal for Nikon shooters or all DP who like Nikon glass. This lens offers full manual control in a sturdy housing and produces beautiful images.
UPDATE: If you're looking for more film tools, be sure to check out my 6 brand new Cinematic LUT packages, all carefully designed to give you an organic, cinematic look while keeping the time after production to a minimum Minimum. Click here to find out more!
Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!