Front view of an anamorphic lens with the internal elements visibly distorted by the cylindrical front element.
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Nic Sadler

Is that a Caldwell Chameleon anamorphic lens at the top of your article Phil? Perhaps a 32mm, maybe a 40mm?

Speaking as a cinematographer, and repeating what I teach my fellows at AFI, the utterance of the phrase of “lens quality” is one that will spark a thousand opinions. As you say, image quality depends on a number of characteristics, including the use of misters and filters, what apertures used and optical trickery,

Where the conversations should always converge is around one important point: does the choice of any tool or technique support the story being told in league with the director. We are not photographers. We use photography, movement and coverage styles to create raw material, which the editor cuts together to realize the directors storytelling vision.

Consequently our choices in equipment and technique have to conform to a certain level of consistency so the audience’s sense of story is not disrupted, unless our intention is to draw focus to a specific narrative point.

I don’t have much time for the faddish repetition of the term “vintage glass”. To me it’s a little lazy. I think it masks something that we need to discuss more openly. Simply put, modern motion picture camera sensors have become so sharp and clean that we are forced to make efforts to reduce the overall image resolution to a point consistent with that we see as being “beautiful” or at least appropriate. The kind of photography employed to shoot the detail of a butterfly wing in a nature documentary, is not the same as the considerations we have in shooting people’s faces in a romantic comedy. They are pretty much the opposite.

The recent resurgence of the use of anamorphic lenses and so called “vintage glass” addresses this desire to bring image resolution down to a point where the images look “filmic”. Yet another vague term. Dramatic storytelling has a fair does of abstraction about it. The conventions of motion picture storytelling, for example the use of out-of-focus backgrounds in closeups to get the audience to focus on the actor, are part of the language filmmakers use to tell stories. Our role as a cinematographer is to take control over the technical aspects of our craft and give the audience an experience which is entirely transparent, and fills them with emotion.

Anamorphic lenses have qualities that the audience digest as part of the whole. While they may not be able to articulate specific technical choices, it is unwise to say that they don’t care. They do. They notice. The visual patina of an image shot with an anamorphic lens will make some feel nostalgic, connecting back to films they have seen before. It is our job to help trigger these responses, in service of the storytelling.

I’m rather agnostic about equipment and technique. Sure I have my prejudices but really, any decent cinematographer given any lens and any camera will use their experience to do their best to use it to help articulate the story. It’s never about the gear in the end. It’s about our desire to tell stories.


Fully agree. We feel fortunate to be able to choose which lenses serve the project best. Amazing modern lenses, and amazing lenses from decades past.

John Martin

The problem with all that shiny new glass is that it costs many, many, many shiny new coins!! One of the main draws of vintage glass, at least for me, is that you can get a really nice (organic, filmic, whatever you want to call it) image for an affordable price.

Would I prefer to be shooting on a set of Arri Master Primes rather than my Zeiss Contax’s… Yes. Do I have $160,000 to spend on a set of those… No, I absolutely do not!

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