Anamorphic vs Spherical Lenses
Anamorphic vs spherical is a question that you might ask yourself or your cinematographer when you begin prep on a commercial or a film you are making. Lens choice is one of the most important decisions creatively you can make in pre-production, and should be solely influenced by the story like pretty much all creative decisions in filmmaking. Do you want a soft lens with lots of falloff to the edges of the frame to emphasize the dreamy surreal nature of the story? Or a more vintage flattering lens to showcase the beauty of a love interest? Or maybe you want a sharp clinical lens to emphasize the cleanliness in a sci-fi world. How shallow of a depth of field are your focal length requirements? Regardless, choosing the right types of lenses is an extremely important decision in cinematography, considering you can’t change that choice in post-production. And part of that decision is, do you want to shoot spherical lenses or anamorphic lenses?
Spherical lenses are the default, when you take a picture on your phone camera you are using a spherical lens. All that means is that all the elements in the glass are circular. But anamorphic lenses came later as a way to add interest and prestige to films shot on those lenses. Anamorphic lenses were originally created in world war 1 in order to help tank commanders see in a wider field of view. But soon the ideas were commandeered for a greater purpose. Filmmaking. Television had recently been introduced to every household in America, and the movie studios were losing viewership at their theaters. In order to compete they created something called “cinemascope” aka widescreen. They wanted to offer something that television couldn’t. The answer was a bigger, wider aspect ratio through the use of an anamorphic image. This eventually led to anamorphic lenses being introduced.
Shooting anamorphic is different from using spherical lenses in that they squeeze the image by a factor of two, usually horizontally, in order to then later de-squeeze that same image using either a technique of shining the image through an anamorphic lens turned sideways on a projector, or these days, in any non linear editing program. The new image took the original 4:3 35mm film strip aspect ratio and turned it into a wide angle 2.66:1 ratio, without affecting image quality. This allowed theaters to project widescreen images that would compete against the television screen which, at the time, was only capable of showcasing 4:3 aspect ratio television.
Anamorphic lenses differed in more than just the ratio of the final image. There were other characteristics that some filmmakers liked, and others didn't. These lenses also introduced an oval-shaped bokeh around the 35mm film, giving it a distinct look. As you can see in the picture below, the out of focus elements resemble an oval instead of a circle like you would see on a spherical lens. This part of the look is one of the most desirable traits of anamorphic lenses and is usually the most telling sign that a film or commercial was shot with anamorphic lenses.
A lot of times this look also is paired with some edge falloff since a lot of anamorphic lenses are their sharpest in the center and as you get to the edge of the frame the focus becomes lessened. This can be a nice creative choice effect because if you put your character in the center of the screen you can isolate them from the background very easily.
The second iconic piece of the anamorphic look would have to be the anamorphic flare. Anamorphic flares are a divisive topic across the board, and if you’ve ever seen any of the new Star Trek films directed by JJ Abrams then you know what I’m talking about. The anamorphic lens flare looks like a line that goes across the screen, it can be blue, or amber, or sometimes any other colors. Some people really like this look (Looking at your JJ Abrams) and other people think it can be distracting to the viewer. A lot of the time large saturated flares are distracting to the audience unless used very sparingly.
Spherical lenses can add different looks to your film as well. There are older, softer, and more vintage lenses like the Cooke Speed Panchros, the Zeiss Super Speeds, and the Zeiss standard speeds. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, you have your really sharp clinical lenses like the Zeiss Master Primes, or for anamorphic you have the Zeiss Master Anamorphics on the sharp end, versus the Lomo square front anamorphic lenses or the Kowa Anamorphics which are much softer.
Some examples in film for Anamorphic vs spherical lenses are there are certain reasons why you’d use one over the other for your own project. Anamorphic lenses are wide and can be used to show vast expanses like in the film Lawrence of Arabia, or as a way to emphasize the strange world of the future like in the film Blade Runner.
Soft spherical lenses on the other hand have been used for projects like Her which was shot on cooke speed Panchros spherical lenses which have a soft and warm look to them. The movie is about love and the connection between the robot and the main character. Because of this, the cinematographer Hoyt Van Hotema chose the Cooke speed Panchros to emphasize the intimacy of the film.
Sharp spherical lenses can also be used and sometimes it comes down to personal preference of the Cinematographer/Director. Roger Deakins almost exclusively uses Zeiss master prime spherical lenses on all of his films including the sequel to Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 because his idea is that the sharper, and more technically perfect lens the better.
Ultimately lens choice is going to be a decision made by the creative team and the same script could be shot on a multitude of different lenses, it’s a personal choice but knowing your tools is important so you have the knowledge to make the decision that feels right for your project.