Lens Focal Length . Filmmaking

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Choosing focal length is probably more intuitive than an exact science. Unfortunately, in the self-taught or indie world of filmmaking, and especially for beginner filmmakers, focal length and their use is not often taught or thought about. Why use a telephoto lens instead of a wide angle? Have you thought about how a 50mm might change the feel of a shot compared to a 24mm? Why? How can it help drive or emphasise your story? 

There is something to be said for physicality. If you want to get a close up of a person with a wider lens, you will have to move close to them. How does that affect the audience? I think it might trickle through, so that they feel closer too. If you shoot close from far away with a telephoto lens, then perhaps you are creating a physical distance that can be felt through the camera, onto the screen and subconsciously felt by by your audience. 

14mm - 35mm - 50mm 

14mm-24mm are definitely wide angle lenses. This means they take in more of what's in front of you. They have a wider field of view. If you shoot a face with one of these it will slightly distort the face. I was taught by people who said that was not 'pretty' or 'flattering' to a person. I now don't believe that. I think a wider lens can sometimes make a talent look quite striking. 

The 35mm lens is closer to what your eye sees and gives a beautiful shape to faces. It makes both medium wide and close up shots feel very cinematic.  Objects appear further apart, movement away or towards the lens is exaggerated which is why I really like this lens for camera movement.

Wide lenses are usually thought of as being used for landscapes and establishing shots, but if you look at Hollywood movies, you'll find they are often used for more than that. 

I like the 50mm but sometimes I think it can feel a little flat. I think this is just a preference thing. And that is something you need to spend time learning about yourself and lenses. Which ones do you like. Don't just read about what they do. Play with them for various shots. Take shots of faces with them. What are you drawn to? How do they change the look and feel of a frame? 

Sigma 24mm 

Rokinon 24mm 

Rokinon 35mm

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85mm - 135mm - 200mm

The telephoto lens used to be my favourite lens. I think that was because it allowed me to follow people. I could trace their movements and expressions through this lens, without intruding too much and find micro-expressions, tiny moments no-one was aware of. 

I like to use these lenses for close ups on objects or details in a scene. They are also great for pushing the background and subject closer together, often to create more drama. 

You might see this lens used when a character has been left in crisis in the street, with people moving all around them. It makes the surrounding people look crowded close in and claustrophobic. It also works for creating a tension if a character is near the edge of a cliff. In real life they may be far away but the lens makes the audience feel just a little uncomfortable for the character. 

I also like using these lenses for over-the-shoulder dialogue scenes. I love the depth they give and they really make the eye focus on the person speaking, blurring the other character out but still keeping them in the mind of the audience. It gives a lovely soft look, which also works for shots where you want to pull focus or just have some object dirtying the frame. 

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Try filming your next short film using a lens with a focal length you don't feel comfortable with.

See what happens...


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