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The most famous directors and cinematographers have signature styles that they develop using specific techniques and equipment, including camera lenses and focal lengths.
Some directors even prefer a single focal length so much that they choose to shoot an entire film with a single lens. But is there a “best” lens or focal length for shooting a movie? Are some brands and focal lengths more common than others?
To best try to answer this question, I first reached out to Stray Angel Films, an amazing equipment rental and production services company on Santa Monica Blvd. in Los Angeles, California, with an impressive client list.
Second, I took a look at some famous movies and looked at the focal length they used to shoot the movie.
So, what are the most common lenses used in movies in terms of brand?
According to Stray Angel Film, the highest percentage of big movies and shows today are probably shot on Panavision cinema lenses. Other popular brands include Zeiss, Cooke, Arri or Angenieux.
There are also a few high-end vintage options. For example, the Canon K-35s are popular because they cover full-frame.
So, what is the most common focal lengths for filmmaking?
According to Stray Angel Film, anything between 18ish to 100mm in zooms or primes is considered “normal.” Most average sets probably cover around that. Obviously, what you’re shooting matters, as well as your sensor size.
Okay, so those were the short answers. Now let’s dive into this in more detail and have a look at some famous examples.
Wide-Angle Lenses: 18mm to 35mm
Wide-angle lenses with focal lengths of 35mm or less are common in film.
Common focal lengths for wide-angle lenses include 18mm, 21mm, 24mm, 25mm, and 27mm.
Wide-angle lenses provide a wider field of view, allowing the cinematographer to capture more of the surroundings while exaggerating the relative size of an object within the field of view at the same time.
Also, wide-angle lenses exaggerate the perceived depth of a frame so that subjects seem far apart from each other than they actually are.
Extreme wide-angle lenses with focal lengths below 15mm start to distort the image even to the point of achieving a fish-eye effect, which is seen used creatively from time to time.
For example, establishing shots of landscapes are often shot with wide-angle lenses to give the audience a better view of the environment.
A wide-angle lens may also be used for closeups when the director wants to show more of the subject’s background.
Famous films shot with wide-angle lenses: Citizen Kane by Orson Welles
Welles is known as a master of blocking, which is the process of choreographing actors’ movements in the scene. And he wanted things in the background and middle-ground to be just as important as those in the foreground.
To achieve this look, Welles worked closely with cinematographer Gregg Toland.
Using a 24mm Cook lens with the Vard “Opticoating” system, the Eastman Kodak Super XX film, and bright arc lamps allowed Welles and Toland to shoot scenes even stopped down to f11 or f16 with a great depth-of-field, creating an amazing composition [See sources at the end of the article 1, 2].
Munich by Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg is also fond of the wide-angle lenses in general and has used 21mm lenses for almost every movie he has shot.
A good example is the movie Munich from 2005, where the main prime lens was a 21mm Cooke S4 [see 3].
According to AC Janusz Kaminiski who has worked with Spielberg on numerous projects:
Steven is very specific about the focal length, and we stayed really wide most of the time […] We shot with the 14mm and 16mm and then jumped up to the 75mm or 100mm. We sort of left the middle focal lengths alone.Janusz Kaminiski, in theasc.com (see 3 at the end of the article for link).
As with Orson Welles, Spielberg prefers to pull back from the action to capture more of the characters’ surroundings.
Standard Focal Length Lenses: 40mm and 50mm
A 50mm focal length is considered the closest to the natural field of view on a full-frame sensor.
On a traditional Super 35 cinema camera, a 40mm is probably closer to our natural field of view – and while some even say it’s the 35mm.
Both the 40mm and the 50mm lenses have been widely used on Super 35 throughout cinema.
Famous directors using primarily the 40mm and 50mm lenses
Alfred Hitchcock was fond of the 50mm lens. Hitchcock shot his movies Rope and Psycho entirely on a 50mm lens.
Sir Roger Deakins shot almost all of “1917” on a 40mm Arri Signature Prime, except for two shots that were shot on a 35mm , and a couple of shots for the river scene on a 47mm .
Famous Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, Banshun) also loved the 50mm look, and shot most of his films with this single focal length.
Francis Ford Coppola and his DP Gordon Willis shot most of The Godfather on 40mm. A couple of shots were on a 75mm lens … speaking of which…
Medium Telephoto Lenses: 75mm to 100mm
Medium telephoto lenses are often used for close-ups. Combined with a wide aperture they are also great for blurring out the background e.g. when you want to get the emotional facial expression of your subject in focus.
Within photography, the focal lengths between 75mm to 100mm are often referred to as “portrait lenses.”
The narrow field of view can also be used to create a voyeuristic style as if the audience is eavesdropping on the characters.
Long Telephoto Lenses: 135mm and Longer
Long telephoto lenses, which often start at around 135mm, are great for bringing distant objects close to the screen. Long focal length also compresses the background making it seem closer to your subject.
Long telephoto lenses are also used for things like extreme close-ups.
Famous directors and movies using long telephoto lenses
Probably the most famous lover of the long telephoto lens in cinema is Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who at times used focal lengths up to 1000mm.
His movie Yojimbo was primarily shot on a 100mm lens, while the B-cam had 200mm and longer focal lengths attached. 
Dutch-Swedish DP Hoyte Van Hoytema takes it a step further and uses a 2000mm telephoto lens in the movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to make it seem like a plane lands dangerously close to the two actors .
Anamorphic Lenses In Cinema
While most movies are shot with spherical lenses, some directors and cinematographers prefer the look of anamorphic lenses.
Anamorphic lenses make it possible to capture wide-angle shots. They gained popularity amongst filmmakers as they offered a unique look when television sets gained popularity in households.
Anamorphic lenses capture a wider aspect ration, which is then squeezed onto a narrower film strip or digital sensor. The image then has to be desqueezed again for viewing.
The anamorphic look is characterized by horizontal lens flares, oval bokeh, and an extremly wide field-of-view. Anamorphic lenses allows you to capture your subject without distortion and a lot of the background at the same time.
Often you’ll see some distortion and softness near the edges of an image captured by an anamorphic lens, which can be used creatively to bring even more focus to subject in the center.
Famous directors using anamorphic lenses
Quentin Tarantino frequently uses 40mm and 50mm anamorphic lenses.
According to ASC Robert Richardson, who has worked with Tarantino on different projects such as Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained, Tarantino “doesn’t like the foreground-background separation that a long lens creates.” [see 4].
They also used spherical Panavision E-series primes for Django Unchained, when a lighter camera configuration or focal length was not covered by the Primos anamorphic, they used on set.
Wes Anderson shot The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore mostly on 40mm anamorphic lenses.
Zoom Lenses vs. Prime Lenses
Most filmmakers use prime lenses, as they tend to produce a sharper image while being faster at the same time.
A prime lens has a fixed focal length. As the focal length is not adjustable, the lens has fewer elements, which increases the clarity of the image.
Prime lenses also typically have wider apertures, i.e., having a wider aperture, a.k.a. a lower T-stop (or f-stop). A wider aperture allows more light to reach the sensor.
This improves performance in low-light environments and makes it possible to produce images with less noise in the shadows. Faster lenses also make it possible to shoot with a shallow depth of field.
Due to the fixed focal length, prime lenses are not as versatile as zoom lenses. If you want to use a different focal length, you need to switch lenses.
Zoom lenses provide greater versatility by allowing you to increase or decrease the focal length.
Some filmmakers find zoom lenses more convenient, as they can quickly adjust the angle of view for a wider shot or closeup.
This may be useful for on-location shooting and handheld camera work, such as recording a live event or filming a documentary.
According to camera operator Mitch Dubin, Spielberg hated zoom lenses, although he did manage to use a Cook 25-250mm on Munich (Benjamin B. op cit ).
This article is only scratching the surface of course, but I hope it has shed some light on the most commonly lenses and focal lengths used in cinema.
If you want to start developing your own signature style, start exploring the lenses used by great directors and cinematographers.
And start experimenting with different lenses. Try using different focal lengths for the same shot to compare the differences. Keep experimenting until you find the right lens for creating your signature style.
Luckily you can get budget-friendly cinema lenses today that don’t cost an arm and a leg. However, if you want to play with the big boys and gals, I recommend you start by renting because Hollywood cine lenses don’t come cheap!
- Gottesman, R. (1971): How I Broke The Rules in Citizen Kane, in Focus on Citizen Kane, Englewood Cliffs, 1971.
- Mereghetti, P. (2011): Masters of Cinema: Orson Welles, Phaidon Press).
- Benjamin, B. (2006): https://theasc.com/magazine/feb06/munich/page1.html
- Stasukevich, I (2013): https://theasc.com/ac_magazine/January2013/DjangoUnchained/page1.html
- Deakins, R. (2019): https://www.rogerdeakins.com/camera/focal-length-in-1917/
- ARRI: https://www.arri.com/en/company/arri-news/news-stories/news-stories-2020/the-immersive-camera-movement-of-1917-
- “Remembering Gordon Willis: Interviews with Francis Ford Coppola [et. al.]”. The American Society of Cinematographers, Volume 95, Number 10, October 2014.
About the author:
Jan Sørup is a videographer and photographer from Denmark. He’s the owner of filmdaft.com and of the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.