Anamorphic – What Does It Look Like and How Does It Work?

Anamorphic format is the cinematographic technique of shooting a widescreen picture on standard (usually 35mm) film. To achieve the traditional ‘look’, cinematographers use a specially-designed anamorphic lens.

This format was first used back in the 1950s as a way of both using as much of the physical film as possible and to differentiate the cinema experience from the growing TV market.

Since then, it has been responsible for creating some of the most iconic films ever made such as Star Wars, Apocalypse Now and Conan.

Although the anamorphic format has seen a dip in popularity over the years, the trend for bigger televisions and use of the 2.39:1 aspect ratio has seen a renewed interest in this classic format.

So, let’s learn more about the anamorphic format, discover how anamorphic lenses work and understand both the advantages and limitations so you can decide if anamorphic might work for your project.

What’s the big deal about anamorphic?

Anamorphic adds a different quality to an image or film that you just can’t find anywhere else, nor recreate after shooting has taken place.

You get much clearer lines and excellent separation. Faces are rendered differently. You’ll create extra space within the image itself. You get that classic lens flare look. There’s a certain natural 3D effect that appears and the image itself becomes more visually appealing.

Of course, you could add these optical effects in afterwards, during the editing process. But by using an anamorphic lens, it’s genuine, authentic and real.

Are there limitations to using anamorphic?

Of course, not everyone will be a fan of the natural ‘side-effects’ of using an anamorphic lens compared to a standard spherical lens.

For example, they’re soft, they tend to vignette, they can distort the image in unexpected ways if you’re not used to using them and they do create lens flare, which many people aren’t keen on.

But these features aren’t necessarily a problem and can actually add to the overall classic ‘cinematographic’ look of the picture.

It also keeps you on your toes when it comes to growing your skills and encourages you to learn brand new photography skills and techniques.

For example, you need to take care of how you compose the frame with an anamorphic lens because they’re not as forgiving as other lenses. You also need to rethink the way you frame people, keep important elements at the centre of the frame and adjust your mindset accordingly.

How does an anamorphic lens work?

An anamorphic lens, such as those we offer for hire, is created from two elements: a normal spherical lens and an anamorphic attachment. The attachment is the bit that works its anamorphic magic. The spherical lens used will be slightly bigger than would be normally used – it must produce an image that is the full height of the frame but twice its width.

The spherical lens does the focusing whilst the anamorphic lens distorts the optical field as required. It does this by squeezing it horizontally whilst leaving the vertical untouched.

Of course, the image that is created is very distorted vertically and would look very strange when projected, so another lens is used in the cinema to restore the picture back to look ‘normal’ again.

These days, we can use either a traditional style anamorphic lens like we’ve mentioned above which can be slightly on the expensive side.

Alternatively, you can opt for a more-affordable anamorphic adaptor which offer different compression ratios and aesthetic properties to suit your shooting needs.

So, should you give an anamorphic lens a try? Most definitely. But it’s not a format that’s suitable for everyday filmmaking so wait for the right project to come along and have fun.