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Why using an ultra wide angle lens

I have recently bought a new camera to make videos while traveling and to document my life. I was at the begining, planning to get some zoom lenses, very convenient for changing focal length quickly for documentary work and vloging.

Unfortunately at this time neither the Sony 24-70mm 2.8 GM 2 nor the 16-35mm PZ were release yet. So I had to opt for fast prime lenses instead. Which have always been my first choice as a photographer.

Wide angle shot in The Tree of Life Directed by Terrence Malick
Director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki

Choosing a set of prime lenses was also a seductive idea for making corporate and cinema like videos. Prime lenses are cheaper and usually have faster aperture and better image quality than zooms. They can achieve more “impressive” images in my opinion. Prime lenses are also light weight which is more ideal for gimbal work.

For digital photography, I used to have 3 Nikon prime lenses : a wide angle 24mm, a standard 50mm and a short telephoto 85mm all ranging between f/1.8 and f/1.4.

From my experience, photography and video lenses needs are very different both in terms of focal lenght and aperture. Video tends to need more wide angles especially without a set and a fourth wall setup.

So 16-35mm zooms or equivalent tend to be the first choice for content creator. Super fast lenses are not necessary these days, since high ISO are so clean now.

Arri Signature Prime Lenses costing over 27000 dollars each

You might need to have a lot of blur but even Arri Signature Prime Lenses are “only” T1.8 accross the board and those lenses are very expensive and have materials that take value quicker than gold. So ultra fast lenses have really become effect lenses.

Choosing a system

Sony Cinema FX Line : FX9 FX6 and FX3

I think today it’s not even debatable anymore, Sony have the best mirrorless system when it comes to full frame video and stills. It’s very hard to beat the Sony A7S III and FX3 when it comes to features, ergonomics, image quality and weight and this is coming from a Canon and Leica fanboy.

They have a cinema line using native FE Lenses and even have a fully professionnal cinema camera the Sony Venice 2.

Sony Lenses are also the best in my opinion for hybrid shooting. If you compare Canon, Nikon and Sony lenses in the same focal length and aperture Sony will always outperform its competition almost in every categories.

Bokeh of ARRI Signature Prime 58mm at f/2.8

The bokeh of Sony lenses are the closest to the Arri Signature Primes that went for ultra smooth. Its almost like the bokeh you would get in video games or from 3D VFX Artist, compared to a bokeh coming out of a lens. A very modern look making you forget that you are actually looking through glass.

Notice how the bokeh just fall into ultra smoothness, so smooth that your eyes have nothing to hold on too.

Most of these Sony lenses are very well controlled or even corrected when it comes to breathing compared to Canon. The A7IV even have a breathing correction integrated to its body. Perhaps the only other company making great lenses is Leica with their alliance with Panasonic. But these lenses are made for manual focus since their body are still using contrast detection.

Chromatic aberation, lens distortion and flaring are not longer an issue with newer Sony Lenses. Sony had a partnership with Zeiss for years so they learned from the best.

Choosing a set of lenses

Since I started photography, I’ve always chosen native lenses. Even if some lenses like Sigma were better in paper than say Nikon, for me native lenses will always perform the best when it comes to compatibility, especially now with the amount of software corrections.

Since videos needs wider lenses, I opted for 3 lenses :

  • An extreme wide angle : Sony FE 14mm 1.8 GM
  • A standard angle : Sony FE 35mm 1.8
  • A short telephoto : Sony FE 85mm 1.8

All these lenses are light weight, have great autofocus but also silent and linear focus response perfect for repeatable manual focus. Perfect for gimbal work and operating in solo.

Sony FE 35mm 1.8 (280g)

Sony FE 35mm 1.8

The 35mm 1.8 was an easy choice, even though 50mm is my favorite focal length of all time with it’s natural perspective. I find 50mm to be not wide enough for video work, a bit over focused on subjects for a standard.

35mm is very similar but wider and have a tiny bit of distortion but these days with correction it is almost unoticeable. For interior shots this focal length is so much more polyvalent. I find 35mm to look more natural than the 24mm.

This lens is very expensive for a 35mm 1.8 which are usually a budget friendly option. But this lens have an amazing advantage when it comes to video, even over the top of the range 35mm 1.4 GM. It exhibit no focus breathing whatsoever and is very light weight.

It is the favorite lens of youtubers such as Brandon Li or MABO.

Sony FE 85mm 1.8 (371g)

Sony FE 85mm 1.8

The 85mm 1.8 is on all systems one of the best bang for the buck, in other words price versus performance. 85mm tends to be naturally sharp and produce a lot of compressed bokeh.

Perhaps its only downside is the minimum focusing distance, it is very hard to get macro shot of an eye for example with these type of lenses.

The lens also exhibit a good amount of focus breathing which can be very distracting while changing the focus from far to a near subject.

Stills of Dune 2021 Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Director of Photography Greig Fraser

This focal lens usually is used for close up and can produce very beautiful images. Dune Shot By Greig Fraser was mostly shot on telephoto lenses on Large Format which makes the actors looks amazing while the depth of field is extremly thin. Oddly enough the film still give a sense of scale to the world and armys even with a short telephoto. The anamorphic nature of Panavision Ultra Vista lenses probably helped a lot.

Sony FE 14mm 1.8 GM (460g)

Sony FE 14mm 1.8 GM

This lens is the one I have spent most time deciding. I knew I needed a lens wider than 24mm, I’ve used 24mm in the past for video and while outside it seems to be wide enough, inside a house it always feels too tight.

If the advantage of a 24mm is that while beeing wide it still feels fairly natural in its perspective, this focal lenght is not interesting for real estate and a bit boring unless shot at 1.4. It is very similar to 35mm but with more distortion.

Arri Signature Prime lenses compared

The inconvenient of the 14mm is its perspective distortion which is the nature of ultra wide lenses which can be perceived as unatural. The spherical front element in ultra wide usually protrude especially the ones with fast aperture. So no filter thread and no variable nd filter can be mounted in front without special accessories.

Sony 20mm 1.8 G was also an option. Having a 67mm front size filter meant that I could use one 67mm to 82mm step up ring the same as my 85mm to put a variable ND filter. Unfortunately if 20mm is a perfect focal length for most wide angle shots, it is still a bit tight for real estate videos.

The only real alternative was a zoom lens including 16-35mm or prime lens between 14mm and 18mm. I honestly feel like 18mm looks the best as it is the perfect balance between natural field of view and wide angle of view.

So the new FE 16-35mm PZ is the only other native alternative and I am still debating to this day. This lens is light, have an amazingly useful range, almost focus breathing free and have a power zoom that creates new possibilities (vertigo effect). Perhaps the only downside is its f/4 constant aperture which still looks amazing with a 3d pop but doesn’t gather enough light at night even in the second native in Slog 3 of ISO 12,800.

Of course there are the 16-35mm 2.8 GM or 12-24mm 2.8 GM but those lenses are way to big, heavy and pricy to be practical.

The 14mm 1.8 GM is very expensive but extremely compelling for real estate. The goal of real estate video is to present as much field of view as possible to comprehend the space and also thanks to perspective distortion makes the interior more spacious than it really is.

It’s a very fast and sharp lens even at 1.8, so less need to use the second native ISO 12,800 all that much and in some situations can even have shallow depth of field.

This is how 14mm at f/1.8 looks on a full frame camera

As you can see the lens doesn’t show much barrel distortion, meaning unlike a fish eye, the lens doesn’t curves straight lines. This lens is rectilinear meaning that lines stay straight even on the edges. It basically exagerate spaces, which can look odd, especially when they don’t move at the same speed during a video.

The lens is a bit wide for vloging behind the camera but there is always the possibility of using a super 35mm crop effectively giving a 21mm equivalent.

Why chosing an ultra-wide angle lens ?

Ultra-wide angle lenses shows strong perspective distortion meaning that object in the foreground and edges tends to appear bigger than what they really are and object far apear even farther.

If our own human vision also have this perspective distortion, for example when watching your phone in front of your face it looks bigger than say a TV, the distortion is not as pronounced as an ultra wide.

Fish Eye used in 2001 A Space Odyssey Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth and Jonh Alcott

In cinema this focal lenght is perfect for transcribing the scale of an environnement. Stanley Kubrick used a lof of wide angle lenses notably a Kinoptik 9.8mm on Super 35mm, around 14-15mm equivalent on full frame.

Screencap from The Revenant Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki

The most notable movie entirely shot on wide angle is probably The Revenant which is one of the most immersive movie in wilderness. Partly shot on 65mm (Arri Alexa 65) and Super 35mm digital (Arri Alexa XT). They used wide lens of 12mm full frame equivalent and above.

Understanding human field of vision

Chart of human field of vision and camera focal length

If 50mm is the most natural focal lens (on full frame) when it comes to mimicking human perspective, I believe it only account less than the 60° field of vision which is the part we can see in 3 dimensions.

The focal length 35mm seems to be closer with 63.4° of diagonal field of view. Perhaps the 50mm sits perfectly between our field of vision and what we can actually perceive in focus at 46.8°. That’s why 35mm and 50mm have always been an eternal debate for many photographer as a standard lens.

Our field of view meaning the total amount we can perceive is 130° for each eye making a total of 180° for both eyes horizontally and 135° vertically.

The 14mm 1.8 GM is reported to have a 114° field of view diagonally, which correspond a bit less than the 120° of peripheral field of view humans have. The rest is either blind to our left o right eye. 12mm is actually closer with 122°.

Conclusion

As you can understand, Cinema is usually trying to mimic human vision, more precisely one of the field of our vision to make it more relatable to the human experience.

But this is only part of the equation. Having a VR set with a 180° of fixed view and a 360° total field of view is not desirable for movies, since a movie have much more impact if composition and framing is carefully crafted to control what you can and cannot see. Your experience unlike a game is framed and emotions guided.

For example close up and camera movements are supposed to be motivated for the story. A close up is signaling the audience that something important is happening and you should pay attention to it. Using a telephoto lens for normal dialog will make you feel far away, almost spying on the characters with binoculars, where as an over shoulder shot with a standard will make you feel present in the scene.

Sense of scale given to the landscape with a 14mm Arri Master Prime
Blade Runner 2049 Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Director of photography Roger Deakins

Ultra wide angles are supposed to give an important scale to the environement, bring isolation or remove power to a character in his surrounding. It can magnify the space in small interiors which is handy for real location outside a studio. It is also good for fitting everything in one frame.

Fallen Angels Directed by Wong kar-Wai
Director of photography Christopher Doyle

Let’s be honest, Ultra wide angles also looks impressive and cool, they are perfect for giving a sense of distances in a scene even if perspective distortion can make it feel unatural at times which can be intended to mimic the vision of a character under drugs or to give a sense of comedy to a character with distorted faces.

But with enough control over framing and composition, these lenses are the best to mimic our peripheral vision and give us that experience of discovering a massive place with our own two eyes.

In my opinion this type of lens is a must have for any cinematographer and any video producer trying to give a sense of scale to a place. To make videos about interesting interior design of hotels, restaurants, attraction park, etc.

As when it comes to which focal length is best as a wide or ultra wide angle, in my opinion 18mm looks about a perfect middle ground between wide field of view and distortion for cinema. Whereas 14mm is perfect middle ground for real estate and architecture.

What do you think?

Written by dudeoi

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