A Brief History of Anamorphic Lenses in Cinema and How They Can Boost Your Production Value

Anamorphic lenses have been a staple of cinema for the best part of 70 years, and they're still as desirable today as they have always been. But how did they come about, what makes them special, and why do people still use them?

Before I ever picked up a camera, I liked certain films because of how they looked. I didn't put any thought into what exactly about them I liked, in fact, I didn't even really formalize a thought. I can only predict what I would have said, but it would likely have been the "mood" the visuals gave. If pressed further, I imagine I would have said the colors. But looking back, many of my favorite films (in terms of appearance at least) from when I was a child or teenager, were shot using anamorphic lenses. It's only now that I realize how big a part it played in the visuals I was so attracted to. Films like Pulp Fiction and Blade Runner are two that come straight to mind.

It's only since I've begun my transition into more video work that I realize how much the look I wish to aim for in some of my work is tied up with anamorphic. Even in my early photography, I became obsessed with the Brenizer Method. This is where you use a narrow depth of field and create a panorama of a subject, creating great background separation, but with a wider field of view than is usually possible for that shallow depth. If you took a Brenizer Method image and cropped it to a 16:9 ratio, you'd have a number of the key elements anamorphic offers, just without the oval bokeh, crazy flaring, and other imperfections we love.

In this video — which is part of a series — get a brief overview of why anamorphic lenses came to be used, what it is they do, and why using one can improve the production value (or the feel) or your videos.

Rob Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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1 Comment

Interesting post thanks. Showing the different anamorphic characteristics/problems helps to understand the way this technique shows up in so many movies. I think you oversell it a bit and anyone wanting to see what classic old movies look like without anamorphic treatment have plenty to make a comparison. I recommend Once Upon A Time In The West, Barry Lyndon and the Shining. It’s a creative choice.