Filmmaking Lesson: How and Why to Use Lenses in Your Indie Films

Camera lenses have a significant impact not only on the look of your film or video but also on the mood you’re trying to establish. If you choose to use your camera’s 1 default lens you’ll undoubtedly be forced to compromise your visual story.

This is because lenses help establish depth, positioning and object priority to name only a few of the more obvious changes.

If you currently have a video camera you may be thinking to yourself that this blog post is pointless because only more professional cameras have access to lens attachments. However, this simply isn’t the case anymore. You can read this post about 35mm depth of field attachments. Now even the most basic video cameras have the ability to use and change lenses.

Let’s continue. There are many types of lenses that you could use in your films, documentaries, shorts and music videos. However, for the sake of simplicity we’re going to outline 3 of the most common. If you add these three lenses to your filmmaker’s toolkit you’ll have newfound visual flexibility when you’re composing your scenes.

The three lenses we recommend are:

1: A “regular lens”: This is a 50mm still camera lens
2: A moderate wide angle lens: 24-35mm still camera lens
3: A moderate zoom lens: 80-200mm still camera lens

As a general rule of thumb, lenses going below 50mm starts to become wide angle. Extreme wide angle lenses would be 17mm or 14mm. The smaller the number, the more exaggerated the wide angle lenses. 14mm would actually be considered a fisheye lens. Lenses going above 50mm would be considered telephoto lenses. The larger the number to more powerful the telephoto capabilities are. For instance a 100mm is less exaggerated than a 500mm lens.

There are other lenses such as extreme wide angle lenses or extreme telephoto zoom lenses, but if you’re just starting to build your lens kit then these lenses are not as practical for everyday shooting. In the future you may want to experiment with them, but for now they are not necessary.

One other thing to take into consideration is the “speed” of the lens. If you’re using a depth of field adapter for your video camera then you’ll already be experiencing a loss of light since the light will need to travel through more layers of glass. When you attach a lens onto your adapter, the light needs to travel through even more glass and a smaller lens opening. Therefore you run the risk of underexposure if you don’t set your exposure manually. It may also make low light shooting conditions more challenging. To overcome this you should look for “fast” lenses. These are the lenses that have a small number as their widest possible aperture opening. For example, if you look on the ring of a lens you may see the following sequence of numbers.

1.8, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16

or

4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32

The smaller the range of numbers at, the wider the possible opening of the aperture. In less technical terms, the lower the number the lens starts at, the wider the lens is opened and therefore more light can come through.

In the examples above the lens that starts with 1.8 is “faster” than the lens that starts at 4.  If you are buying lenses from Ebay the seller may post their lens with the following classification.

50mm f/1.8

This means it’s a 50mm (regular angle) fast lens with an aperture opening of 1.8 (wide). Although it’s counter intuitive, the smaller the f number, the larger the opening.

So how do all of these details affect your video footage? For starters, different lenses communicate depth, distance and space much differently. A wide angle lens exaggerates depth and the distance between objects and includes more of the surrounding environment. Zoom lenses on the other hand make objects appear closer together than they really are and these lenses exclude more of the surrounding environment. 50mm normal lenses are meant to communicate to the viewer images that reflect roughly the way the human eye sees.

Let’s look at practical examples of how these differences affect your footage.

Example: Wide Angle Lens (24mm  f/2.8)

wide angle lens

Example: Normal Lens (50mm f/1.4)

50mm lens

Example: Telephoto Lens (85-200mm f/4)

telephoto lens

Notice the differences between the 3 images. A tripod was set up and the positioning and the camera settings remained the same for all three images. Nothing changed other than the lens used. Notice the difference between the amount of landscape shown in each image. The wide angle lens includes the most information both vertically and horizontally and the zoom lens includes the least amount of information both vertically and horizontally.

It’s also important to notice that the zoom lens squeezes the objects in the image closer together. Notice the mountains look closer to the buildings than in the wide angle shot. This is important to know because if your shooting dialogue scenes you may want to make your characters seem either further apart or closer to one another depending on the mood you’re trying to establish. Wide angle lenses make your characters seem distant and cold, while zoom lenses make your characters seem close and welcoming. It’s not uncommon to shoot your over the shoulder (OTS) shots using telephoto lenses.
Wide angle lenses become useful when you’re shooting in small spaces. They allow you to show more of the environment which is something normal lenses don’t allow you to do.

You’ll need to choose your lenses based on the specific location and the mood you’re trying to set. However, as you can see from the visual examples above, lenses make a dramatic difference on your image. Older lenses can be picked up for reasonable prices off Craigslist or Ebay. The lenses use in the examples above cost a total of $175 for the three of them. Search around for good deals. You’ll be happy you did!

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