Which lens to use?
The internet is full of advice about which lens is the sharpest or the fastest or the best value for money. Less is said, however, about which focal length to use and when; most people simply adjust the zoom until the shot feels right. A valid approach if time is tight – when isn’t it? But a more thought-through strategy can make the difference between a shooting style that’s pedestrian and one that makes a statement. This is why many top directors adopt a lens policy.
What do I mean by a lens policy? It’s a combination of things. First off, it’s a decision about the glass you’re going to bring with you to the shoot. Few camera crews travel with every length of lens from 8mm to 600mm ready and waiting: we all have to limit ourselves. However, we often limit ourselves based on what we can afford or what we can carry. With a lens policy you limit yourself based on a choice of the right lenses to tell your story.
An example: Ken Loach always uses the same five lenses, the widest of which is a medium length 40mm. Even in the smallest of locations, and Ken Loach films are often set in small interiors, he will never use a wider lens than 40mm. If he wants us to see more of the room, he’ll move the camera around it or cut to another angle. This is his ‘house style’, and this is part of why Ken Loach films look the way they do. It helps create a sense of claustrophobia as well as keeping the focus on faces.
He’s not alone; the work of many directors is recognisable through their choice of lenses. Ken’s love of long lenses is shared by some unlikely companions: Ridley Scott, Michael Mann and Akira Kurosawa. These directors had different reasons for this preference: Ridley Scott likes keeping the glass out of the actors’ faces; he feels that if the camera isn’t in the middle of the set the actors will be less aware of it and give more natural performances. Conversely, Kurosawa liked the compressed, graphic quality of the long lens, using it to echo the compositions of Japanese engravings.
Opposite them, in the wide-lens corner, are Terry Gilliam, Roman Polanski, Wes Anderson, Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles. Wes Anderson is very much a stylist, influence by Kubrick in his preference for combining a standard choice of lens (40mm anamorphic, making it wider than Ken’s lens) with a distinctive set of camera moves, most notably the 90˚ tracking shot, and very formal blocking. Polanski, Gilliam and Welles all recognised the sinister fairground-mirror effect of very wide lenses, and used them to express a distorted subjective reality, when the camera was placed right next to the actor.
But lens policy needn’t be a binary question; no-one’s asking you to decide whether you’re a wide lens director or a long lens director. Sidney Lumet adopted a smart approach in his one-location masterpiece 12 Angry Men where he gradually increased the focal length of the lenses and brought down the camera angle over the course of the movie, in order to create a growing sense of claustrophobia.
Nor do you have to use exactly the same approach from film to film. In Trust Hal Hartley experimented, as others have before, with shooting most of the film on one lens. All but two shots are on a 50mm, generally considered to be the closest to the perspective of the human eye: one shot was shot on a wider lens for practical reasons, and the other on a 300mm telephoto lens – this was the last shot of the film. The impact of that final shot is remarkable. We become so used to seeing the world through the eye of the medium lens that the sudden jump to telephoto really stands out. Hartley changed lens policy on future projects but, for whatever reason, this seemed the right policy for that particular story.
It is important to think long and hard about the nature of the story you’re telling before you decide on your policy. If your film is all set in the great outdoors you might want to allow yourself lenses that will make the most of your location. Conversely, if your story is all set in a confined interior, you’ll need to take a different approach. Or, like Loach, you could decide to work against the grain of your location. This approach creates a more distinctive look, as you won’t be using the obvious lenses for the size of location, but it does mean that you’ll really need to think your shots through.
Whether or not you suit the lens to the location, you should always strive to suit it to the demands of your story. Recently I have been working on a lens policy for a feature project, and I realised that certain scenes where the protagonist is aware of being watched by a shadowy presence were going to require the use of a combination of long and wide or medium lenses, in order to show the protagonist’s increased focus on a distant figure. This means that I couldn’t, for example, shoot the whole film on one lens, or say on a variety of wides.
Personally I think assigning different meanings to different focal lengths is a good approach. In The Legend of the Holy Drinker Ermanno Olmi decided to shoot the flashback sequences all on a long lens, an approach that expresses the distance in time from those events, making them feel part of an unreachable past. You could take the same principle and apply it to other forms of reality, assigning certainly focal lengths to distinguish reality from delusions, or waking from dreaming.
Remember too that there are other variations than focal length in the lens family. Speciality lenses tend to follow fashions: right now a lot of people are interested in vintage glass; before that tilt-shift lenses were all the rage; going further back, squishy lenses were the thing; earlier still, Spielberg got everyone enthused by the look of the uncoated glass he used in Saving Private Ryan… which was to mimic vintage glass. Go even further back and people were using split diopters or were zooming in shot, the latter now quite out-of-fashion. But none of these tools or techniques go away – Slow West used split diopters just last year. All are valid at the right point in the right project.
If nothing else, a strict lens policy will encourage you to innovate. You will be less likely to rely on the shots you always fall back on if you don’t have the lens that makes that shot possible. Rather than zooming in for a close-up, you will find yourself moving the camera closer and possibly finding a more interesting angle, even if you do have to move some furniture to get the camera into position. You will be making more active and engaged decisions on how to shoot the scene.
Your lenses are the eyes through which the audience sees your world. You can work without a policy and no one will walk out of the cinema. If, however, you shoot with a lens policy and do it well, you will lend your film a coherent look which will help persuade your audience that they’re in the hands of a confident and skilled story-teller. They will give themselves all the more willingly to your tale.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2016
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge