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Brian Lynn
by Brian Lynn
Aug 6, 2015
All Posts by Brian Lynn

How Does Your Lens Choice Impact Your Project?

Choosing a camera lens for your video production project is a key factor in adding to the depth and emotions in your film. A lens can "set the frame" indicating the meaning and core principals of your film to the audience. 

When framing up a shot, it is important to first determine what you want your audience to see. This is where lens selection plays an integral role. It should be mentioned, however, that rules are meant to be broken, and that one filmmaker’s style may differ from another. As well, while I spend time on specific focal lengths, there are several other lenses in-between. Different filmmakers, for example, will prefer a 24-70mm lens or a 16-35mm. There’s nothing wrong with that. Similarly, and without spending too much time on a potentially exhaustive subject, there are different kinds of lenses, and with different aperture settings. Some shooters prefer the flexibility of zoom lenses, while others’ prefer prime or fixed lenses. But in the interest of a single blog entry, I’ll keep it general and use specific lens lengths to illustrate the difference between them.

Into the Great Wide Open 
Contrary to the perceptual impact of the longer lens, using a wide lens exaggerates depth perception and makes objects appear further apart. This gives the shot a grater horizontal plane of action and depth field. By exaggerating the sense of depth from front to back, the perception of movement is also heightened and space is expanded. This renders distant objects much smaller.

Family shot with wide angle lens

A wide angle lens helps to create the sense of presence, and makes an audience feel included in the scene, rather than passive observers. This allows the subject to move the scene along and encourages opportunities for character development. This lens is used frequently as master and establishing shots, effectively setting the stage upon which the action will commence. 

Fisheye lenses (typically reserved for any lens 14mm or shorter) isn’t only for underwater footage or skate videos, although without that extreme width, where would Jacques Cousteau or Tony Hawk be today really? Using a fisheye lens can, for obvious reasons, accentuates your subject. Whether it’s close to the camera already, or if it’s farther away, all of your vertical and horizontal lines are at risk of being distorted, and your subject is in prime position to look far different from the way it does in reality. But often times that effect has some merit, depending on your subject matter. A fisheye, for example, will exaggerate the size of a building or a city, or something much smaller, such as a pointed finger or coins on a table, not to mention, add a certain aesthetic to your video.

Video production lens
Photo credit: Ines Martinez

Sweet 16mm
A 16mm lens can be the perfect focal length for featuring a particular element in the frame, whilst also keeping it in context with it’s surroundings. Depending how close you are physically to your subject, you may get distorted lines the closer you are. But from a reasonable distance, your subject takes center stage.

Photo credit: Old Lenses Blog

Life in 35mm
A 35mm lens is a very popular choice for Wide Angle lens users. There is an expansiveness that you achieve through a 35mm that you don’t with other lenses of greater length. And while you can achieve beautiful wide angles through a 16mm or 24mm (or comparable) lenses, the 35mm provides a comfortable framing without distortion of straight vertical or horizontal lines. It’s also a versatile lens in that, if need be, it can be used as both a wide and a normal length lens.

Photo credit: Tron Legacy, Disney Pictures - d. Joseph Kosinski, dp. Claudio Miranda

50mm Ways to Leave Your Lover
When you look through a 50mm in a full-frame sensor camera, there appears to be no distortion. The view from the camera lens or through the naked eye form the same distance will have very little difference. Hence, this is one of the most popular lenses when framing up single subjects, for example, in an interview.

Photo credit: carf - https://www.flickr.com/photos/beija-flor/148731910/in/photostream/

The Longer the Barrel, the Tighter the Space
Longer, or telephoto lenses (classified as any lens 100mm or above) have two general purposes: to make far away objects appear closer, and to compress space. This compression adds to the nuance and preception of the film; it can be used to create a claustrophobic feel by making objects in the distance seem closer. Similarly, telephoto lenses have the ability to isolate an object within your frame. This can add a certain intensity and urgency to the action and movement of the scene, as well as helps your subject remain separate from the background.
Take a car chase scene, for example. Using a long lens would make the vehicles seem closer together and therefore enhance the sense of danger in the situation. However, this is an optical illusion created by the compression of the long lens. The vehicles are all a safe distance apart, although the audience perceives differently.

85mm, the Maker of Hollywood Stars
When you think about some of the greatest close-up shots of all time, it’s likely that it’s through an 85mm lens. Many filmmakers consider it the greatest tool to achieve that beautiful flattened look, keeping the subject as the dominant element in the frame. This article doesn’t go too far into depth of field, (we’ll save that for another entry), but a shallow depth of field on an 85mm can achieve incredible things when pointed at something beautiful… or terrifying to look at.

Photo credit: The Shining, Warner Bros., d. Stanley Kubrick, dp. John Alcott

As mentioned earlier, each filmmaker may find that they like certain looks provided by certain, and non-conventional focal lengths. There’s nothing wrong with that. Typically, when I go out to shoot an interview plus b-roll, I will take a series of lenses, including a 35mm for wide and establishing shots, 85mm for interviews and close-ups, and 70-200mm telephoto to capture objects that I cannot get any closer to. But that’s just me.
For more information on lens choice, call One Floor Up Denver to speak with our skilled video production team today.