Most Common Lenses And Focal Lengths Used in Movies

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The most famous directors and cinematographers develop signature styles using specific techniques and equipment, including camera lenses and focal lengths.

Some directors even prefer a single focal length so much that they shoot an entire film with it. 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 answer this question, I first contacted 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 looked at some famous movies and the focal length they used to shoot the movie.

Check out the FilmDaft guide to the best affordable cine lenses here.

So, what are the most common lenses used in movies regarding brand?

According to Stray Angel Film, most big movies, and shows, today are probably shot on Panavision cinema lenses. Other popular brands include Zeiss, Cooke, Arri, and 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 are the most common focal lengths for filmmaking?

According to Stray Angel Film, anything between 18ish and 100mm in zooms or primes is considered “normal.” Most average sets probably cover around that. Obviously, what you’re shooting matters, as does your sensor size.

Okay, so those were the short answers. Now let’s dive into this in more detail and look at some famous examples.

If you own a camera with an RF mount, you might also find this complete guide to RF-cinema lenses useful.

Wide-Angle Lenses: 18mm to 35mm

wide angle cine lens

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.

Also, wide-angle lenses exaggerate the perceived depth of a frame so that subjects seem farther apart from each other than they 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 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 close-ups when the director wants to show more of the subject’s background.

Famous films shot with wide-angle lenses: Citizen Kane by Orson Welles

20160204015510Citizen Kane Filming Low Angle
Orson Welles with cinematographer Gregg Toland on the set of Citizen Kane 1941. Credit: RKO Radio Pictures, still photographer Alexander Kahle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Citizen Kane by Orson Welles is the most famous example of deep focus achieved through wide-angle lenses.

Welles is a master of blocking and choreographing actors’ movements in a scene. 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, 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 articles 1, 2].

Munich by Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg is also fond of wide-angle lenses in general and has used 21mm lenses for almost every movie he has shot.

A good example is the 2005 movie Munich, in which the main prime lens was a 21mm Cooke S4 [see 3].

According to AC Janusz Kaminski 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).

Like Orson Welles, Spielberg prefers to pull back from the action to capture more of the characters’ surroundings.

Standard Focal Length Lenses: 40mm and 50mm

50mm standard cine lens 1

A 50mm focal length is considered the closest to a full-frame sensor’s natural field of view.

On a traditional Super 35 cinema camera, a 40mm is probably closer to our natural field of view—and some even say it’s the 35mm.

The 40mm and the 50mm lenses have been widely used on Super 35 throughout cinema.

Famous directors using the 40mm and 50mm lenses primarily

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 on a 35mm [5] and a couple of shots for the river scene on a 47mm [6].

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 [7]… speaking of which…

Medium Telephoto Lenses: 75mm to 100mm

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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, focal lengths between 75mm and 100mm are often called “portrait lenses.”

The narrow field of view can also 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. Their long focal length also compresses the background, making it seem closer to the subject.

Long telephoto lenses are also used for things like extreme close-ups.

Famous directors and movies using long telephoto lenses

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is the most famous lover of the long telephoto lens in cinema, who sometimes 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. [8]

Dutch-Swedish DP Hoyte Van Hoytema takes it 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 [9].

Anamorphic Lenses In Cinema

While most movies are shot with spherical lenses, some directors and cinematographers prefer the look of anamorphic lenses.

Anamorphic lenses allow for wide-angle shots. They gained popularity among filmmakers as they offered a unique look when television sets gained popularity in households.

Anamorphic lenses capture a wider aspect ratio, which is then squeezed onto a narrower film strip or digital sensor. The image then has to be de-squeezed again for viewing.

The anamorphic look is characterized by horizontal lens flares, oval bokeh, and an extremely wide field of view. Anamorphic lenses allow you to simultaneously capture your subject without distortion and a lot of the background.

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 the 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 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 mostly shot The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore 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, increasing the image’s clarity.

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 producing images with less noise in the shadows possible. 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 increasing or decreasing 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 [3]).

Conclusion

Of course, this article only scratches the surface, but I hope it has shed some light on the most common lenses and focal lengths used in cinema.

If you want to develop your signature style, explore the lenses great directors and cinematographers use.

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.

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 renting because Hollywood cine lenses don’t come cheap!


Sources:

  1. Gottesman, R. (1971): How I Broke The Rules in Citizen Kane, in Focus on Citizen Kane, Englewood Cliffs, 1971.
  2. Mereghetti, P. (2011): Masters of Cinema: Orson Welles, Phaidon Press).
  3. Benjamin, B. (2006): https://theasc.com/magazine/feb06/munich/page1.html
  4. Stasukevich, I (2013): https://theasc.com/ac_magazine/January2013/DjangoUnchained/page1.html
  5. Deakins, R. (2019): https://www.rogerdeakins.com/camera/focal-length-in-1917/
  6. ARRI: https://www.arri.com/en/company/arri-news/news-stories/news-stories-2020/the-immersive-camera-movement-of-1917-
  7. “Remembering Gordon Willis: Interviews with Francis Ford Coppola [et. al.]”. The American Society of Cinematographers, Volume 95, Number 10, October 2014.
  8. https://hotshot-japan.com/en/column/14-kimuradaisaku01-en01/
  9. https://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/hoyte-van-hoytema-cinematography-style-tips/

Author

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  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and 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.

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2 thoughts on “Most Common Lenses And Focal Lengths Used in Movies”

  1. The thing that can be so misleading is the format being used. A 40mm “looks” quite different on Super35 vs a larger than full frame Arri, for example.

    Reply

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