Gear Review – Anamorphic on a Budget – What is Anamorphic ? – Part1

Hello Readers !

Lately I’ve been curious about Anamorphic video shooting. You know the magic of how all those hollywood cinematographers shoot film looking wide and quite different from regular video!

I have always been fascinated by Film and the film look. I have been looking for ways to replicate it without killing my wallet.

The true is… there is no low-cost way to do proper anamorphic as real anamorphic lens run in the tens of thousands. So what about projector lens and low cost alternatives ? There are options out there on Ebay! There is still an investment that needs to be made however but most (thankfully) is in the glass itself!

It’s all in the optics!

The good news is that there are some sub $1000 dollars ways to get started.

In a future article and video I will be showing you my custom rig and setup i use for Anamorphic shooting. I am also in the middle of designing a way to fix a big problem with using projector lenses, single focusing! I’ll report back when I have got something working to my satisfaction! (more on this at a later date).

For now in Part 1, let me continue to describe Anamorphic video shooting for those that like me are relatively new to the subject!

Note: This article assumes you know some basic photography and video concepts already.

What is Anamorphic ?

Quite simply, anamorphic is a specialized optical technique to capture video with more horizontal view in frame using the existing standards for regular video.

If you’ve seen JJ Abrams reboot of the Star Trek Film series, and see those dramatic flares, you’ve already seen a movie shot with anamorphic lenses.

Flares are one of the noticeable effects of using anamorphic lenses which provide a stylized look.

What does this mean ?

For that you have to go back to the old days of film to understand why it exists.

In the old days film makers were looking for ways of capturing more field of view in their shot framing (flares weren’t a big thing at that point yet). They were limited to certain film sizes, namely the 35mm film, super 35mm film or 16mm formats. All of these formats had physical dimensions per film frame that couldn’t be manipulated much and therefore limited the image you could put onto a frame of film. When sound was added to film, this shrank the amount of space available. Some genius developers wanted a way to increase their resolution but not change the film standard itself.

Solution, Enter anamorphic lenses!

Anamorphic Compression example (image from RED Website – all rights reserved)

Basically an Anamorphic lens reshapes the light hitting the by squeezing it horizontally onto standard film stocks. Special Anamorphic lenses are needed when recording or filming the image and then needed on playback or projecting the image. Optically squeezed and then de-squeezed will yield more resolutions and a wider frame without physically making the frame larger on film or changing your whole projection system.

That was then… this is now

The technique is still applicable today. You can imagine a squeezed looking image on your digital camera in the horizontal plane.

With modern digital, this method still applies (not just to the old film) as your camera’s sensor size is now your film frame.

Benefits of using Anamorphic today?

  1. Increased horizontal resolution by using more of the sensor (on specific cameras that allow it) which allows you to crop (depending on the anamorphic lens you use) you’re framing while still getting that 2.39:1 Aspect!
  2. You have the option of using the entire sensor to record your information and in the digital world more information is always better when editing with. your output will look that much better because you can scale down or crop scenes that you were not able to before using an anamorphic lens.
  3. Choice and artistic impression also play a role and your flares look or other light sources can look different too (like the star trek movies).

Downsides of Anamorphic

  1. More Gear – true anamorphic lenses are expensive!
  2. Projector type anamorphic lenses require special hardware (but widely available) to fit onto existing DSLR lenses. (more on this in Part 2 when its finished)
  3. Heavy – lenses can add significant weight depending on the model you buy. These are definitely not run and gun solutions..
  4. Double focus for some projector style lenses (more on this in Part 2)

But Anamorphic on DSLRs ?

But there are different sensor sizes in digital, around 9 (possibly more) how does all this relate to DSLR Video Shooters ?

There are 3 main popular ones however in the DSLR world right now are:

Full Frame – 35mm (The King – All other sensors look up to – this is most like real film size)

Full frame is closest to the same size as real Cinema film. Its what the entire Digital line ups were modeled after. Its the size (4K in todays standards) that is comparable to what you used to watch at the theater on old film projectors. it is the king in terms of what other formats are compared to for field of view and ISO performance (more or less although smaller cameras can match it now through unique optics – more on this in a later article).

35mm Full frame = 36mm x 24mm frame  (3:2 Aspect sensor size)

All the remaining sizes are calculated in terms of Fullframe sizing.

**Crop factors helps calculate your effective field of view (what is in frame and the zoom factor due to sensor size) but has nothing to do with frame aspect ratios. I’ve included it here for reference only to realize the frame size differences between the cameras.

APS-C or crop sensors (next best thing – Super 35mm equivalent)

Crop mode cameras have a smaller sensor size and therefore all calculations are different in terms of field of view and light gathering abilities however only the math is different, they share the same aspect ratios as the full frame kings.

Canon has a 1.6x crop of a full frame which sensor size = 22.30mm x 14.90mm (Canon T6S) (3:2 Aspect full sensor)

Sony has a 1.5x crop which sensor size = 23.50mm x 15.60mm (Sony A6500) ( 3:2 Aspect Full sensor)

Micro Four Thirds (MFT)

Panasonic has a couple different sizes for Video but Stills are all 2X crop factor.

Panasonic GH5 (2X Fullframe equivalent crop for both video and stills) which physically = 17.3mm x 13mm (4:3 Aspect full sensor – GH5)


Lets talk about Aspect ratios for a minute

So an aspect ratio is basically just the word for the math of the ratio between the height versus the width.

As an example above the physical sensor size matters in this calculation however what some people forget is that not all cameras use the full size of the sensor for their video modes.

What this means is that the sensor could be cropped in by software to “make” the frame a different aspect thus not using the full dimensions of the full sensor (which would be the most ideal for light gathering, ISO sensitivity and noise reduction of the final image but i digress…)

So a 4:3 sensor means that it is 4 times as wide and only 3 times as high.

A 3:2 sensor means that it is 3 times as wide and twice and tall.

These are important numbers when determining the max resolutions possible of a camera at a given megapixel count. Also to determine which anamorphic lens you should buy!


For a more detailed look at aspect ratios, wikipedia has a fantastic article:

Let’s talk about Resolutions

When someone says that their Television is 1920 x 1080p they are talking about resolution (pixels) or more specifically a Television 16:9 standard designed for widescreen presentation.

The fact that most camera’s sensors are now are capable of video at this resolution (and a lot higher) means that this resolution is the display size of what you’re capturing. It’s the end of the process not the beginning.

4K also is important now as a display size.

There are two 4K sizes or standards:

  1. UHD 4K – 3820 x 2160p – Standard 4K television size and what all 4K televisions can display in Pixels.
  2. DCI 4K – 4096 x 2160p – The Industry Film Digital Standard – Displaying on Projectors or Cinemas Screens

Now the tricky part.

16:9 is also a standard and a resolution. Most TV users will be familiar with it.

However 16:9 does not conform to 4:3 or 3:2 sensor sizes and was designed specifically for the Television and DVD ages.


The origin of the 4:3 and 3:2 sensor comes from film itself !

4:3 means 4 perforations wide and 3 perforations high on the actual film stock itself.

3:2 is 3 perforations wide and 2 high.

Perforations is the physical size of the projectors holes in the film that allow it to be fed through a projector!


Most modern cameras do not use the whole sensor from top to bottom when recording and only use a cropped portion of the full sensor depending on the layout and aspect of the shooting mode.

**however some newer hacks and modern cameras (like the GH5) do have an anamorphic shooting mode allowing using more of the sensor which means more resolution captured and compressed into display formats. this equals more optical resolution to the viewer.**

The cropping of the sensor happens by the camera internal software to follow the television standard or the user does it in post production for video. (photo typically is not cropped and uses a 3:2 or 4:3 framing of the whole sensor however this is up to the manufacturer and internal software of the camera)

Theaters used these aperture standards because they were implemented long before the digital age.

The reasoning was quite simple, the calculated opening of the projector or film camera in millimeters and the film size equated to a ratio of 2.35:1 or 2.39:1 (more common) or 2.4:1 which are all very close in size and depended on manufacturer of the equipment.

Basically they fiddle around with film sizes having different perforation amounts on them and how much image on the film they could capture before running into problems with projection and came up with SMPTE standards for everyone to follow in cinema.

Thats how we ended up with 4:3 and 3:2 aspects in the first place. different sizes of film.

What about 16:9 televisions ?

If you have ever seen a movie with black bars on the top and bottom during a movie while looking at your 16:9 television screen, you are most likely viewing material in 2.39:1 aspect ratio on a television with a native display size of 16×9 physical size and was most likely shot on an anamorphic lens or edited to fit that television aspect.

So how does this relate to Anamorphic ?

The idea for film is to try to get to the magic 2.39:1 (or 2.4:1) aspect ratio using optics.

Therefore one must calculate how to stretch horizontally the image to achieve this effect using special lenses and cropping only where necessary.

So 3:2 and 4:3 sensors are what we are working with.

In Cinema shooting on 4:3 sensors seems like a better fit due to the math but it is doable on 3:2 sensors with more cropping.

There are different types of anamorphic stretch factors lenses and you must match the appropriate lens to your sensor size otherwise you will get varying results (yes you have to do math) here are some examples:

Isco red Ultra star 2.1 (2X squeeze)

A 1.33x Stretch lens = Commonly used to go from a video shot on 16:9 (1.77:1) size crop or sensor  to the film 2:1 Aspect – not squeezed as much and you don’t get much different with flares and not quite 2.39 film size. 2:1 usually allows better cropping of  1.85:1 Widescreen shots for DVD or Blu-ray.

A 1.5x stretch = Used on a 4:3 (full sensor) sensor Will give you that 2:1 aspect. Used on a 16×9 format (A 3:2 sensor cropped in horizontally) will give you 2.66:1 aspect of which you would need to crop down to 2.39 or 2.4:1 in post.

A 2.0x Stretch lens = On a 4:3 sensor (full sensor mode like the GH5) will give you 2.66:1 – On a 3:2 sensor (full sensor) gives you an impressive 3:1 and in normal 16×9 crop mode (most DSLR cameras in video mode) yields a staggering 3.56:1 ratio !!! Generally too wide to be used for Film but if shot on a 4K camera or scaled for 1080p there is plenty of footage to be able to crop. Framing your shots would be difficult but not impossible.

Bottomline: Depending on your stretch factor, the more horizontal resolution you have to work with

Example 2X anamorphic lens shot at 1920 x 1080p frame size shot at 3.56 aspect on a 16×9 framing yields twice resolution at 3840 pixels wide x 1080 vertical. If your camera allows shooting full sensor widths this vertical and horizontal actual resolution could be larger and then you simple downscale the resolutions to your frame size which normally yields a higher quality image..

So choosing your camera (and its sensor) along with the appropriate Anamorphic lens is important.

In part 2 I delve into the custom anamorphic rig, anamorphic lens and camera set up that I’ve purchased and created that helps me with rack focusing (single focus) and explain why anamorphic is not for the casual filmmaker.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia, and Ebay (from purchase)


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