Creative designer based in Europe who enjoys using cameras on his travels around Italy.
In this article, you'll learn:
- the history of the anamorphic lens
- how mobile anamorphic lenses work
- the pros and cons of 9 mobile anamorphic lenses on the market today
What Does Anamorphic Mean?
In ancient Greece, it was noted by scholars that the seabed would seem to distort through water. The term "anamorphiosis" means "transformation" or "formed again" in Greek.
Using this idea of transforming an image along one axis, the painter Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) drew an image—composed largely of dots and probably using a glass prism—of an eye that can be seen when viewed at an angle. Later, the painter Hans Holbein the Younger did something similar.
Who First Developed This Type of Lens?
During World War I, the French military set up the Section Technique de l’Aéronautique Militaire and selected an elite group of scientists and industrialists to work on projects. One team member was the astronomer, professor and inventor Henri Jacques Chrétien, born in Paris in 1879. An expert on telescopes, lenses, mirrors and (indeed) periscopes, he began creating experimental anamorphic lens cylinders that were used in tank periscopes to increase the occupants' safety and field of view. After the War, he later created his own prototype, l'Hypergonar, and detailed in his notebooks with early tests how these lenses could be used in photography and cinematography.
The technology languished in relative obscurity until 20th Century Fox president Spyros Skouras visited the French inventor, now in his 70s, and purchased the technology. This lens assembly was used from 1953 to 1967, marketed to the cinema audience as CinemaScope. The anamorphic lenses produced strange visual artifacts and unique illumination traits that forced filmmakers to invent an entirely new film language or film grammar.
How Are Anamorphic Lenses Used in Movies?
In 1954, Panavision was set up to loan out the CinemaScope lens system. Coupled with later advances in stereo sound, it was able to grab audience share back from the then-contemporary, smaller, square, black-and-white flickering television screens.
Since anamorphic lenses were basically mirrors and prisms of glass glued together placed in front of clusters of additional lenses elements, they created lots of additional reflected light and distinct distortions known as chromatic aberration. Added coatings on the lenses also allowed lights in frame to flare horizontally and cause white, red or blueish streaks. Audiences enjoyed these visual artifacts: lens flare, barrel distortion, in and out-of-focus “depth of field” and beautiful, swirling, blurred bokeh-filled backgrounds. Cameras slid along on rails used movement to emphasis emotion or an aspect of character. The perspectives generated in frame and the more trapezoidal faces depicted on screen created a more intimate feeling and drew the audience into the film.
Are These Lenses Expensive?
Today, a number of solutions exist at different tiers of cost. At the most costly level, the Panavision lens systems are only available to rent and are serviced and maintained by a team that recalibrate the differing lens sizes, ready for big-budget movies. At the cheaper end of the scale, filmmakers have modified lenses or have even created simple filters to fake the look. However, mobile phone-based anamorphic adapters offer a useful economic solution for the home-hobbyist filmmaker. Arguably, they have become viable filmmaking tools that bring the wide screen to a mass user base.
How Do Mobile Lenses and Drones Work?
A modern smartphone is now millions of times more powerful than the combined computing power of the NASA computers that took man to the moon. As mobile phones have increased in performance, their tiny lenses—designed with a very wide field of view to project onto tiny sensors—have steadily grown more powerful. Modern sensors can now absorb lots of light. Older phones (without lens clusters) still work well when used horizontally with stick-on lenses.
Small lenses attached in front of phones using case mountings can realistically duplicate much of the characteristic blurring or “bokeh” of professional setups. They squeeze and convert the image onto the phone's tiny digital sensor, ready to be unsqueezed later using installed phone software such as FilmicPro.
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Most mobile anamorphic solutions are of similar size, but some have different coatings that flare horizontally when pointed at light. Differing rates of squeeze are available, with some even approximating to true anamorphic cinema proportions once unsqueezed.
Advantages of a Mobile Lens
- Lightweight Gimbals or stabilisation devices are used to hold the phone level while walking or running. In phone-film footage, stabilisation technology is used to create smooth, vibration-free footage and eliminates the need to lay down tracks or use harness-based steadycams that are required for heavier camera rigs.
- Mobile phone USB flash memory storage that clips into the phones charger socket also allows footage to be saved and passed across to a laptop with a fast workflow process. This overcomes some phones' limited memory storage and indeed the need to sync the phone.
- These lenses obviously lack the sophisticated apertures and other hardware you’ll find on interchangeable lenses, but some filmmakers are attaching these lenses that are smaller than a bar of travel soap to taking lenses using adapter rings and mounting them to smaller sensor cameras like the Panasonic Gh5 or Pentax Q or Sony RX0 action cameras. They're using these cameras on board sensor shift stabilisation and more advanced 5-axis stabilisation to create smooth tracking shots. Results vary: Often vignetting is seen, and the intrusion of the lenses edge into the four corners of frame, but some interesting experimental setups are appearing online.
- In addition, older antique glass has also become more desirable, including redundant anamorphic projector lenses that provide added character and shift the emphasis from a look that is digitally sharp to a softer, vintage look with obvious visual character.
9 Mobile Anamorphic Lenses
Here is by no means a complete list of mini, mobile anamorphic lenses:
- Moondog Labs
At just 4.8 ounces, this lens is quite light. Made with Schott Optical glass from Germany and multi-layer coating technology to control the imaging quality, it flares when filming lights. The lens body uses aviation aluminum and is treated to be corrosion resistant.
2. Moondog Labs
These 1.33x stretch anamorphic lenses come with three fitting options, including a 37mm rear thread and aluminum housing.
Some experimental setups using Sony RX0 action cameras and these lenses have had good results—very portable and a cheaper cost than using big old anamorphic projector lens.
A busy marketing team at Moment expertly pushes their new products and new options. Among these is a drone-based anamorphic camera setup called Moment Air, complete with tiny filters that allow Ariel anamorphic footage.
This is quite an expensive option that sits on the boundary between professional lens and mobile phone anamorphic. It's multi-coating and anti-reflective glass with an aluminum body.
The cheapest of the bunch—the demand for these surpasses supply. They have been through a number of subtle model redesigns, but the latest version at time of writing has a distinctive series of recessed ridges on the front of the lens and a 17 mm rear thread. The lens has a tendency to rotate instead of staying put, so a tiny modification involving sticky tape or glue is required to begin horizontal filming.
6. Shenzhen Apexel
Founded in 2003, Shenzhen Apexel Technology has long history of making mobile lenses aimed at selfie accessories. Various mount options are available, including C-mount /M17*0.75, with a little photo case or universal clip. This lens creates blue streaking horizontal lens flares, a visual staple of anamorphic movies.
7. Sirui VD01
This lens has aircraft aluminum housing components, German-manufactured Schott Optical glass lens elements and multilayer anti-reflective coatings, with highlight transmission levels. The lens shoots at a 2.4:1 aspect ratio.
Created by a German company rooted in cinema, special coatings of this lens claim to replicate the cinematic look of professional lens setups.
This boasts 1.33x stretch, multi-coating, aluminum housing and 2.4:1 cinema scale. Like most solutions, it uses a bespoke phone case with the various lenses mounted magnetically.
Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.
— Martin Scorsese
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Rupert R Waters