How To Learn What Lens Type/Focal Length To Use When Shooting Any Scene? - Deakins Answers...

By Arun Fulara. Posted on August 01, 2016

If you haven't already checked out this forum run by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, then we suggest you first do that. And yes, you are welcome.

We keep trawling the forum for the many gems that experienced pros share on it. This question caught our eye, a question most of us who are just beginning to explore the medium, have.

How do you learn what lens type/focal length to use when shooting any given scene?

David Mullen & Deakins chimed in with their views & between the two we got our answer. Deakins is a great believer in tinkering with the camera and learning while playing with it. His answer echoes that thought. Mullen's advice, on the other hand, is more utilitarian. Here's what he has to say;

"Actually it's not a bad thing to learn by starting with just one focal length like the 28mm, it's a bit like starting to learn about lighting with just one 650w fresnel, let's say.  Once you exhaust all the possibilities out of that one tool, it is easier to understand its strengths and weaknesses and know what you'd like to try next.

As far as focal lengths, most of us learn (unless we have a zoom lens) by using a wide, medium, and long lens, or we start out with a 50mm on a full-frame 35mm still camera (equivalent to a 32mm-ish on a movie camera).

You learn the general principles of how these focal lengths stretch or compress perspective, beyond just the issue of field of view.  So it's not so much that you know exactly what a 75mm gives you instead of a 100mm without looking through either, it's that you know that the 75mm, being less long than a 100mm, will have a little less perspective compression (sort of a flattening effect) and that you will have to move in a little closer on the 75mm to get the same sized subject as with the 100mm.

But even today on a professional set, it's not unusual to look at the set-up through one lens and then through another one -- the director and cinematographer might say "let's look at a 40mm" and check it out by putting it on a finder, and then say "maybe a 32mm is better..." And as you shoot day after day on these sets of lenses, your "guesses" become more accurate, you know exactly what the 50mm will probably get you on a face that is, let's say, four feet from the camera.  But a few weeks after wrapping production, perhaps that deep level of knowledge fades a little until you work again -- it's like riding a bicycle, as they say.

So I would say is that to learn, get maybe three focal lengths to play with on a camera, not five or seven -- once you learn what the three lenses can do, it's not hard to figure out what the in between focal lengths would do."

And this is how Deakins responded;

"Why not get a stills camera? Frankly, why have you not already become familiar with lenses through shooting with a stills camera? There is no way you can 'learn' from a book or from a computer program. You have to use your eyes and find out what works, and by that I do mean what works for you rather than for me or any other director or cinematographer."

For more gems by Deakins, check here, here & here.


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