During World War I, French astronomer Henri Chrétien developed a wide-angle viewer for tank operators, enabling the crew members to see a 180-degree view of the battleground. His invention wasn’t used in the cinema until after the war in 1927 when director Claude Autant-Lara decided to use it for his film, “To Build a Fire.” Sadly, this invention was only picked up again over twenty years later when Twentieth Century-Fox purchased the rights to the Cinemascope Widescreen Aspect Ratio technique.
What is an Anamorphic Lens?
The development of Cinema Anamorphic widescreen was due to a shortcoming in the non-anamorphic spherical widescreen format. With a non-anamorphic lens, the image’s full width fits within the film’s frame, but its height is cropped. Therefore, a massive part of the image is wasted due to the widescreen cropped format, which the projector masked out.
With the development of anamorphic lenses for cinema, this problem was fixed. By deliberately stretching the image across the entire negative, it creates a wider field of view, while retaining sharpness once the projector compressed the image back down again. Once the image was viewable on the big screen, it was clear why filmmakers started to opt for these lenses. Not only did you get a wider field of view, but the optics inside gave anamorphic lenses its characteristic oval bokeh and beautiful streaky horizontal lens flares.
While these lenses gave stunning results, they were heavy and incredibly expensive. Cooke S4 lenses, used in films such as John Wick, Harry Potter, and 12 Years a Slave, would fetch upwards of $20,000. In comparison, Panavision doesn’t appear to be in the lens-selling business at all, but rather only supplies lenses if you purchase their Genesis camera for over $250,000. Alternatively, you can rent their lenses for $4,000 a day.
Anamorphic Lenses on a Budget
That all changed when a company known for their tripods, Sirui, announced the release of its 50mm f/1.8 Anamorphic lens in 2019. Suddenly it allowed young indie and low-budget filmmakers to get that anamorphic look we know and love at a fraction of the cost.
The lens is built with the same aluminum alloy found in an aircraft chassis and features a ten bladed, de-clicked aperture with a long focus throw, reminiscent of high-end cine lenses.
After a long delay due to lockdown regulations, I managed to get my hands on the first shipment to arrive here in South Africa. While the lens’s size may seem unimpressive by some, it produces a 2.4:1 aspect ratio and a whopping 33% increase in the horizontal field of view. So what you get is an APS-C equivalent of a 37.5mm lens.
The wide aperture of f/1.8 enables the user to shoot in low light and show off the beautiful oval bokeh that sets anamorphic lenses apart from your standard kit lens. The manual focus ring’s large throw will ensure you can smoothly fine-tune focus while imagining yourself to be the next Larry Nielsen. All of this for a mere $700. Unfortunately, if you own a Canon or Nikon camera, you’re out of luck. These lenses are made specifically for Micro-four third mounts, Fuji’s X-Mount, and Sony’s E-Mounts. Even if you find an adaptor that would suit your Sony a7 III, you’d still be forced to shoot on APS-C mode to avoid vignetting. And if you were planning on any close-ups, the minimum focusing distance of this lens is 0.85m, meaning you have to be at arm’s length at least before you’d be able to focus.
- Focal Length – 50mm
- Lens Mount – MFT/X-Mount/E-Mount
- Format – Super35/APS-C
- Maximum F-Stop – f/1.8
- Minimum F-Stop – f/16
- Minimum Focus Distance – 33.5″ / 85 cm
- Optical Design – 11 Elements in 8 Groups
- Iris Blades – 10
- Gear MOD & Pitch Focus – 0.8 MOD / 32 Pitch
- Iris – 0.8 MOD / 32 Pitch
- Front Diameter – 69 mm
- Filter Thread – 67 mm
- Focus Rotation – 143.6°
- Horizontal Squeeze (Anamorphic) – 1.33x
- Length – 4.2″ / 106.6 mm
- Weight – 1.23 lb / 560 g
What I Liked About This Lens
- Low price tag of $699, compared to traditional anamorphic lenses.
- Build quality feels great
- Oval bokeh and anamorphic streaks
- Great for low-light and shallow depth-of-field at f/1.8
- Declicked Manual Aperture
- Long focus throw
What I Didn’t Like About This Lens
- A tiny bit of chromatic aberration when shooting at f/1.8
- Not intended for full frame cameras.
- Minimum focusing distance of 0.85m
If you can’t afford to spend $700 on this lens, there are cheaper alternatives. Screw on anamorphic filters proved to be quite popular. Using a lens with a longer focal length at a wide-open aperture gives pleasing results, but some may argue that you’re still adding an extra layer of glass in front of your lens, which could result in a softer image. But for an $80 filter, it’s a good substitute if you’ve got an even smaller budget.
Sirui has opened the doors for all indie directors to create beautiful looking imagery using their new anamorphic lenses available at a fraction of the cost. The same kind of imagery they watched in the cinema growing up while dreaming of becoming filmmakers themselves. It’s a beautifully designed lens that I’m sure Henri Chrétien would’ve approved.
From a lens design primarily used to spot the enemy in tanks, to being utilized in high budget Hollywood films, anamorphic lenses sure have come a long way. And with today’s technology becoming more and more accessible, it makes me wonder what kind of impact this lens will have on the film industry. With Sirui announcing a new 35mm anamorphic lens, available via an Indigogo campaign, will the accessibility of their lenses flood the market and cheapen the anamorphic aesthetic, or will it realize a young filmmaker’s dreams?
Do you use anamorphic lenses? Do you own the Sirui? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.