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Use an Anamorphic Lens to Recreate the Hollywood Look
A great way of making a photo look like a frame from a movie is with a cinema lens – in particular, an anamorphic.
Anamorphic lenses are specialist optics engineered differently to photographic lenses. As a result, they render the image in a very different way. In this chapter, you’ll find out how anamorphic lenses change the look, how to set up and use one on your camera, and how to process the results.
It’s worth mentioning that working with anamorphic lenses isn’t easy. They’re complex to use and imperfect, but many see that as their charm. So, stick with it and the results will be worth it. In fact, the journey itself is a great one to take, because there’s so much to learn about optics along the way.
While you can buy genuine anamorphic lenses and use mount converters to fit them on your camera, they are expensive and rare, with budget versions starting at around $8000. That was a little out of my budget, but I wanted to push myself and figure out a way of making it work on my GFX100S. So, here’s how I did it – along with some background on why anamorphics are so special.
The history of anamorphic lenses
These are designed to give a wider than normal aspect. They were developed during World War One for military use, but made their way into Hollywood in the 1950s, just as studios were looking for a way to compete with television and bring audiences back to the cinema.
The wider aspect of these lenses led to some of the most iconic cinematography of all time. The format was exciting and gave creators a new visual tool. Just think of the CinemaScope movies of the era, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or The Bridge on the River Kwai, which relied on anamorphics made by companies like Panavision.
As a mark of its cinematic appeal, the wider format was finally adopted by home videos in the 1980s. Previously, filmslike 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Fistful of Dollars were only available in a ‘pan and scan’ format to fit a TV’s squarer 4:3 ratio, which removed much of their grandeur. But new ‘letterbox’ versions showed the original aspect ratio. Of course, to marry the two formats, they had to use black bars at the top and bottom of the frame. And although the modern standard of 16:9 TVs allows 2.35:1-aspect movies to be shown more easily, you still get empty space.
That idea of cropping is important, because it can relate to a camera’s sensor, too. Yes, you can crop a 3:2 or 4:3 format sensor to a wider image, and most cameras offer aspect ratios of 16:9 – or even 65:24, as on the GFX System – but you’re always losing pixels that way, even if you start with a huge resolution. If you want to use the full resolution, it’s time to go anamorphic.
How anamorphic lenses make images look different
The differences in anamorphic lenses go way beyond aspect ratio. How these optics render light is considerably different to a regular lens. Most photographic lenses use spherical elements, and therefore don’t distort an image in a way that changes its width. But anamorphic lenses use cylindrical elements, compressing the information horizontally. Some anamorphics might compress at 1.33x; others 2x, or more. This compression effectively establishes a wider field of view and affects the shape of bokeh and flare.
Photo 2022 © Chris Knight | Anamorphic
Photo 2022 © Chris Knight | Spherical
So, rather than cropping the image at the top and bottom, as letterboxing would do, anamorphic lenses give you more image at the sides. In fact, a 2x anamorphic lens effectively doubles the field of view compared to a spherical lens of the same focal length. For example, a 120mm anamorphic delivers about double the field of view of a regular lens, equating to a 60mm. Crucially, you’re still getting the depth-of-field and compression of a much longer lens. It makes for a truly unique view.
As for the differences in lens flare and bokeh, these are easy to spot. Again, due to the shape of their elements, anamorphics have flair in distinctive long streaks; on spherical lenses, it’s usually softer and more rounded. Similarly, anamorphics produce oval instead of circular bokeh, which is always noticeable in images with light sources in the background. Sure, there are methods of faking this, but they all have drawbacks compared to the pure anamorphic path.
The kit you need
As mentioned, we aren’t using a true anamorphic lens here. Instead, we’re going with an anamorphic projector lens. These are normally used to correct the ratio of anamorphic footage when it’s shown in a theater or at home. They’re designed to ‘de-squeeze’ anamorphic footage, but we’ll use them to do the opposite. The anamorphic I’m using – a Sankor 16C – is relatively small and inexpensive, and you can pick one up for a few hundred dollars or less.
The anamorphic lens needs to be mounted on a ‘taking lens’, which controls the primary focus and aperture settings. I used a GF110mm F2 lens for several reasons. First, longer focal lengths help to avoid physical vignetting from the anamorphic lens – wider lenses will show more. There will still be some with the 110mm focal length, but it’s manageable. Second, the F2 aperture means we get more light, which is important because mounting the anamorphic robs us of about a stop. The F2 aperture also gives me the shallow depth-of-field I want, while showing the distinctive oval bokeh.
Finally, I used a variable diopter – a Rapido FVD-16B – mounting it to the front of the anamorphic. This isn’t vital, but makes focusing easier, more on which below. And recently, I’ve also added a “jacket” to the anamorphic lens (made by Rapido as well), allowing for a cleaner and sturdier setup.
Photo 2022 © Chris Knight | Follow focus rig
Photo 2022 © Chris Knight | External monitor
While that’s the basic setup for anamorphic format, some accessories can help further. I added an external monitor, like an Atomos Ninja or Sumo, and a follow focus rig, which attaches to the diopter. The former helps me review the image easily, because it de-squeezes it live – which the camera’s monitor understandably doesn’t – letting you see how the final frame will look. I am also tethered, using a Sumo as my “second screen” to de-squeeze in real time.
The follow focus system simply makes for a much smoother and accurate experience, and mounting the anamorphic setup on a rig reduces the strain on mount and lenses, too.
How it’s all put together
When joining optics that weren’t designed to fit together, we need a variety of stepping rings and clamps. These are used to adjust a lens’s front filter size, so it’ll fit with larger or smaller sizes. In the illustration below, you’ll see how I connected the parts of the setup and the rings and clamps, along with a little more info on the optical components. Of course, if you use a different anamorphic, diopter, or taking lens, you’ll require different accessories, too. Click on the buttons below to understand what each part does.
1. The taking lens is a FUJINON GF110mm F2. This has a front filter thread of 77mm, to which a step-down ring is added.
2. A step-down ring is added to the taking lens. In this case, we need a 77mm to 58mm version, which helps join to the 58mm thread on the lens clamp.
3. A 58mm lens clamp screws into the stepping ring and attaches to the anamorphic lens. The clamp end needs to be mounted as straight as possible, with even spacing all around. It’s tightened with a tool and shouldn’t move at all when creating. Once mounted, apply some gaffer tape to prevent light leaks.
4. This is a Sankor 16C anamorphic projector lens. Its rear element is small, compared to the front element of the 110mm, hence the need for the step-down ring and clamp.
5. This diopter clamp is made by Rapido and comes as a set with the diopter. This one’s made to be a perfect fit with the Sankor 16C, but other versions are available.
6. This Rapido FVD-16B sits at the front of the setup and controls all focusing. You can get smaller variable diopters, but this model had greater resolving power to make the most of the GFX100S’s big sensor.
Getting ready to work
Once all the pieces are in place, you need to align the anamorphic lens and calibrate the focus. Tackling the latter first, both the anamorphic and taking lenses should be focused to just about infinity using their manual rings. You can then use the focus on the variable diopter to do everything. If you’ve gone for a smaller setup without a variable diopter, then both lenses must be focused to the same distance. If you, or the subject, moves, you’ll need to refocus both. This can be a painful process. That’s why the diopter helps immensely.
Anamorphic lenses also have a correct way up, and this is important in making sure the effect is horizontal. Correctly aligned, compression will fall evenly on the sides of the frame. To align the anamorphic lens, set the camera and lens on a tripod and aim it at an object with vertical lines, like a doorway. Simply turn the anamorphic lens until the lines are straight up and down. That’s it, now we’re ready to create!
Post-production for anamorphic stills
Afterwards, photos need to be ‘de-squeezed’ in Photoshop – or a similar image-editing platform that allows you to change the dimensions of the image. With the photo open, go to Image > Image Size and unlock the constraints by clicking on the chain-link icon. Next to the Width and Height boxes, choose Percent as the measurement.
Now key in 200% for Width, or 50% for Height and click OK. Which you choose depends on how large you want the resulting image to be – the latter route giving smaller file sizes and quicker processing.
Photo 2022 © Chris Knight | Out of camera squeezed image
Photo 2022 © Chris Knight | Resizing the image
Photo 2022 © Chris Knight | De-squeezed result
Put it all together
When you’ve got to grips with setting up your anamorphic lens, you’ll find it adds an incredibly cinematic look to even simple scenes. But remember that, as we saw in the previous chapter, there’s plenty more you can do to increase the movie-style look. Add cinematic lighting, color and other effects, as I’ve done in the example images, and it’ll all come together.
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