Anamorphic vs. spherical: Choose the right lens for the right shot.

Lens flares, wide-screen perspective, and bokeh backgrounds are just some of the effects you can capture with different lens types. Discover creative applications of lenses and how they can work for you.

The output of an anamorphic lens vs. a spherical lens

Lenses are all about output.

Camera lenses are like eyes — no two are the same. Filmmakers pay close attention to the characteristics of different lenses. Each one can capture, distort, and focus in unique ways. Sharpness, bokeh effects, distortion, and other factors can result in completely different images.

 

That’s why the dizzying array of camera lenses available to a new filmmaker can be overwhelming. Which is the right one for your shoot? Where do you even begin? When you’re trying to decide what kind of lens to use for a film, or even a specific shot, you want to start with what you want your final images to look like.

 

A good place to begin is exploring the differences between anamorphic and spherical lenses. The former can add distortion and “painterly” effects to your scenes, while the latter often brings things into sharp focus. But there’s more to the differences than that. Each lens type has a function and a use that can help bring your unique vision to life. 

 

Capture reality with spherical lenses.

Every lens has separate groups of curved glass inside, distorting and bending light. These pieces of glass are called elements. Spherical lenses get their name because their elements are circular.

Person helping another person onto an exposed piece of ice in the water

Realism and clarity

When light passes through these lenses and onto film stock or a digital sensor, the result is an uncompressed and undistorted image. This is the key difference between anamorphic and spherical lenses.

 

Spherical lenses give a cinematographer clarity — unlike anamorphic lenses, what you see is what you’re going to get. The result of shooting with spherical lenses is often a look of realism and groundedness. Spherical lenses produce a sharp, uncompressed 16:9 image that covers the entire screen.

 

“Whatever spherical lens you place onto a camera, that’s exactly what you’re going to see based on your focal length,” says content creator Joshua Martin. Because of this, learning to shoot with spherical lenses can dramatically improve your cinematography skills before you move into the world of anamorphic glass. 

 

Bend space with anamorphic lenses.

Anamorphic lenses share some of the principles of construction with spherical lenses, but these lenses have cylindrical elements at the front, which are more oval than circular. When light passes through these lenses, you get what cinematographers call a squeezed image.

 

This distorted anamorphic image is later de-squeezed in post-production by a video editor, and it allows for different aspect ratios, as well as unique effects.

Top Image: The initial "squeezed" output of an anamorphic lens; Bottom Image: The "de-squeezed" final version of a shot with an anamorphic lens

Aspect ratios and distortion effects      

Anamorphic lenses exaggerate the frame, which often results in a more cinematic experience for the viewer. These lenses produce a 2:1 or 2.4:1 ratio that adds black bars when the film is de-squeezed. “Anamorphic lenses basically cut off the top and bottom of your video, and they add more dimension and pixels to the sides,” says cinematographer Jeff Davis.

 

Close-ups and bokeh effects

While anamorphic lenses are excellent for capturing sweeping vistas and theater-sized aspect ratios, they typically don’t focus well when close to subjects, which is why they’re often used in action films or scenes where there’s plenty of motion or a wide landscape.

       

While they might struggle with capturing close-ups, anamorphic lenses are incredible for light flares and interesting bokeh effects, especially when compared with spherical lenses.

       

When using a lens of either type, think about depth of field and how close your subject is within the context of the camera and the background. “You get a lot more depth with anamorphic lenses, and that can result in your background getting a little blurry, but you’ll get some nice bokeh effects,” says Davis.

 

Getting the right gear.

Cinema gearheads can get into the weeds with equipment recommendations, but if you’re getting started, here’s a gear list for beginners who want to explore both anamorphic and spherical optics with a small budget:

 

  • Mirrorless camera or iPhone
     
  • A diopter, which is a magnifying glass placed in front of a lens to help it focus better (there are anamorphic attachments for this as well)
           
  • Black or white foam core for blocking
     
  • A tripod, rig, or stabilizer of some kind (anamorphic lenses can be heavy, so having something to support them is important)
A camera operator reviews and adjusts the settings on their camera

Once you practice with some of these basics, you can start exploring more professional equipment, like film cameras, matte boxes, microphone setups, and lenses. Cooke and Zeiss both make high-quality anamorphic lenses — and SLR Magic, Sirui, Meike, and DZOFilm are good budget-friendly brands to look into. Often, when using anamorphic lenses, light control is essential, so blockers and diffusers are common tools to help with that.

 

 “Learn the basics. Learn about framing, learn the rule of thirds, and just learn about basic composition and basic lighting,” says Davis. Everything else will follow.

 

Beginner tips and tricks.

Lens exploration doesn’t have to be expensive and time-consuming, especially with some of these tricks.

          

Know your distances.

Anamorphic lenses usually come with many flaws, and that’s to be expected. But they can provide creative opportunities. Experiment and work with these distortions and odd artifacts of each lens to give your scenes some character. An important area to understand is how to calculate squeeze factors.

 

Depending on the type of lens you have, the image might distort by a factor of 1.3, 2, or greater. Learning how to de-squeeze your footage with editing software is critical. Bring your footage into Adobe Premiere Pro and use the Interpret Footage dialog box after a test shoot to see how the video will translate from lens to editing bay.

 

Digital cameras are your friends.

If you can’t afford a cinematic camera, opt for a mirrorless or DSLR camera. Many cinematic cameras are so expensive you need to rent them, and they often require bigger files and powerful editing capabilities. DSLR and mirrorless cameras are more affordable but still film at a high quality. You can often fit these cameras with anamorphic lenses and attachments for greater experimentation.

 

Start basic.

Don’t purchase an entire filmmaking kit all at once. Start with a camera and a single lens. Film with that for a while to get a sense for how it works and feels, then start investing in more lenses, tripods, and other equipment.

Adjusting the aspect ratio of a video using Adobe Premiere Pro

Finally, explore how your footage looks in post-production. Premiere Pro gives filmmakers a full suite of editing tools, so use them to affect your aspect ratio, and you can get a sense for your own style and how a shot will appear once it leaves the camera and starts hitting the screen. 

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