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Is the choice of lens more instinctual than technical?


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I'm still learning about lenses and I had read about cinematographers who say that lenses is really all about the story. They don't give a definite answer all the time.

 

Lenses are certainly technical. But do you think it's more instinctual?

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You use different lenses for the story based on how the lens works, more or less. It's part technical, part instinctual. Look at how a wide lens makes a scene look versus a longer lens covering the same space. It will change spatial relationships. Also it affects depth of field.

 

Once you understand the technical aspects of lenses and lens-sensor/film relationship, then the "all about the story" answer will make more sense.

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Technical. That's the answer you're looking for. There is a instinctual part, but the majority of it is technical.

 

It's a loaded question. Everything that is recorded, comes in through the lens. Which is what they mean when they say "it's all about the lens."

 

For my example, I'll use an Arri 16 S/B. Standard film school fare for decades.

You have to shoot indoors in a room lit by a large bay window. Your light meter reads f11. You decide to go with a 25mm lens. Which one do you choose? Zeiss? Cooke? Schneider? Zeiss Zoom at 25mm? Angenieux Zoom an 25mm? SOM zoom at 25mm?

 

If you only have one choice, the decision is already made. You use what you've got. If you have more than one choice, it can be confusing.

 

Lets say you have a Zeiss and a Cooke. Both lenses are equally sharp. Some will say the Zeiss is more clinical than the Cooke, and the Cooke is warmer. But it really all comes down to the technical side of it. The colors will be a little different from one lens to another, due to differences in design and basic physics.

 

You'll need to plan it out based on what the shot requires, the physical and technical constraints, and the overriding look of the film you're (or more likely the director) are going for.

 

Budget can be a concern. Not everyone can have a Zeiss 50mm f0.7 lens and a Mitchell customized to work together.

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I would say lens choice (at least in terms of focus length) is a purely technical decision, but one that's motivated by instinctual feelings as to how a particular shot should be composed. The decisions on composition are what drives the lens choice.

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Budget can be a concern. Not everyone can have a Zeiss 50mm f0.7 lens and a Mitchell customized to work together.

Actually you can. P+S rent Kubrick's modified 50 and the rest of the set he used. Not the BNC with the machined-out shutter though.

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Actually you can. P+S rent Kubrick's modified 50 and the rest of the set he used. Not the BNC with the machined-out shutter though.

 

I heard about that. They rent it with a digital camera modified to the lens. Hate to imagine what it costs.

 

But the point was that Kubrick only got the lens in the first place because he was Kubrick (and possibly as "services rendered" for NASA). It would have been/still be beyond the realm of possibility for normal people.

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From what I gather there were 10 made, Zeiss held onto 1, NASA bought 6 for the Apollo programme and Kubrick got the remaining lenses. Kubrick's source doesn't seem to be isn't mentioned, but it may possibly be not from NASA, You'd need to be have the right connections to be aware of theses specialist lenses and have the funding to put the Mitchell/lens package together. It's high end film stuff, so you'd need to be playing that game with an obsessive personality.

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A bit more of the background to the lens beyond the A.C. article. http://bravnicar.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/the-light-giant-lens-that-made-history.html

 

Plus a detailed article in Italian on the design and history http://www.marcocavina.com/omaggio_a_kubrick.htm

Edited by Brian Drysdale
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  • 1 month later...

I second everything said above. Just want to add, It’s also fine to put a lens on a camera and think 'yes'.. That’s looks right, or 'no' let’s try something else. Though, sometimes you need a wide lens because of a tight space, or a long lens because you’re across the street or something. So circumstance dictates. It’s of course some combination of instinctual and technical. It’s also a question that could warrant an essay. I remember reading somewhere about a director (Kurosawa) using very long lenses in a situation. He said that he thought the cameras scare the actors so putting them far away is better. Robert Rodrigues used a wide lens on his first film because it is less shaky, more DOF and just easy to use run and gun. Sometimes these practical decisions are interpreted into artistic style by the audience later.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I agree with Jay's point and I can add they sometime external factor lead the choise: an old camera op. friend of mine, who worked on some Sergio Leone movie, told me that his famous extremes close up's were made first time because that scene was the last of the production and at that moment set designer were already gone. So necessity was to

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...hide the background or possibly have it out of focus.

 

I also remember Rodrigo Prieto said he specialized on long distance shot using tele with handheld because his experience in documentary in which being far from the subject was mandatory, as in Jay's Kurosawa example. At that time he only owned a 16mm camera and 2 tele lens....

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It depends on how much you want to stylize the image by using extreme focal lengths -- and whether you want to stylize the image depends on your take on the story -- but if you aren't trying to make strong statements by using extreme focal lengths, then often when working in the middle range, the choices are partly driven by how much you want to see versus how much you want to isolate the subject, and practical space issues. Of course, how much compression or expansion the lens creates in terms of the space and action is also a factor, and how it affects camera movements -- some camera moves are hard to do smoothly on long lenses and look odd because you don't see the relative perspective shift between foreground and background as clearly as you do on shorter focal lengths. A dolly into a close-up, for example, looks very different when done on a 27mm versus a 100mm.

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