The Essential Guide to Cinematic Camera Lenses | Artlist (2022)

Capturing cinematic footage requires many things. Great framing of a scene, the right positioning of the human body, the camera’s movements, and an overall sense of what makes a great composition, which can include colors, textures, patterns, etc. One thing that will make any filmmaker’s life easier is a good lens—or several types of camera lenses, for that matter.

Together with a digital camera’s sensors (or a film camera’s film stock), each lens will give the resulting footage a particular look and detail. Whether you’re shooting a narrative film or a YouTube video, experimenting with different types of camera lenses will certainly help in shooting cinematic footage.

The 2 types of camera lenses

In cinematography and photography, there are 2 types of camera lenses—prime and zoom lenses. Most people are familiar with zooms but not primers, so it will be helpful to define the two lenses. But, first, we should introduce the notion of focal length, as it’s integral for understanding prime and zoom lenses.

In camera optics, focal length is a measurement—in millimeters—between a lens’s optical center and the camera’s sensor; or, film plane, when talking about analog film cameras. Film lenses are named after their focal length (more on this in the next section).

A zoom lens, as might have been guessed by now, can have variable focal lengths. In other words, with a zoom lens, camera operators can zoom in and out to create the image they want. On the other hand, a prime lens has a fixed focal length—meaning it cannot zoom in and out. Instead, camera operators must physically move a camera toward a person, object, structure or landscape to capture it in greater detail or move far back to capture things in wide-angle.

There are many schools of thought on what lenses to use, and each filmmaker will have their preferences. Think of the following lenses not as rigid rules for cinematic motion picture-making but as a guide to begin exploring the wondrous world of lenses.

Prime lenses

14-20 mm

Awide-angle prime lens—anywhere from 14 to 20mm or more—is a great tool in a filmmaker or camera operator’s arsenal. The effect it has on scenes is to emphasize a character or object in the foreground from the background scenery. When used to capture an interior or specific exterior location, it will really make the visuals have some pop.

Unlike other types of camera lenses, there is no flattening of foreground and background. The foreground details are emphasized and exaggerated. One thing to note is that a wide-angle lens will distort a person’s face or objects. But, if you want some distorted aesthetics, then a wide-angle prime lens in this range might be for you.

Terry Gilliam, the director behind12 Monkeys,Brazil, and other surrealist classics, is well-known for using the 14mm and shooting Dutch angles with it. The 14mm has even informally been called “The Gilliam”. As you will notice in his films, the 14mm lens, along with his placement and framing of the camera, really gives his actors and scenes a sense of surreal distortion.

In his movies,AmelieandDelicatessen, French directorJean-Pierre Jeunetused an 18mm lens to create the distorted closeups. But, he also used it to capture cityscapes and landscapes. And many other filmmakers have used the 18mm lens for precisely this versatility.

*21-25mm lenses are also great for closeups. Stephen Spielberg, for instance, is known for using a 21mm lens (with 35mm motion picture film)—which, along with his great talent for blocking a scene, allows him to capture actors and other details as they (or the camera) moves through scenes.

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50mm – The “Nifty Fifty”

The Essential Guide to Cinematic Camera Lenses | Artlist (2)

The 50mm is a classic lens that probably every filmmaker should, at some point, think of using. The “Nifty Fifty”, as it is known, is versatile and really great at capturing scenes with 2 actors in them.

It’s been said that the 50mm lens and the 35mm are great for realism, as they approximate how humans see the world. It’s also cheap and light, with somenice out-of-focus bokeh(TK). And because it’s light, the 50mm lens becomes a great option forhandheld cinematography.

Alfred Hitchcock was a big fan of the 50mm, and you can see it in his films. Unlike Gilliam and Jeunet’s films, there is hardly any distortion in Hitchcock’s films—just the details of the scene rendered in a realistic, though still a uniquely cinematic way. Iconic Japanese director Akira Kurosawa also used the 50mm and other types of camera lenses at focal lengths down to 35mm—again, to replicate how the human eye sees things.

75mm – Telephoto lens

Less common is the telephoto or “long” lens in filmmaking. However, Ridley Scott—especially onBlade RunnerandAlien—used the 75mm long lens (and apparently the 50mm lens for certain shots) for cinematic shots. Granted,Blade Runnerhad massive and expensive sets, so there was still a sense of depth despite how telephoto lenses compress foreground, middle ground, and background details.

The Essential Guide to Cinematic Camera Lenses | Artlist (3)

If you use a long lens, make sure the scene you’re shooting has a lot of detail. Very, very few people get to shoot on a set like Scott’sBlade Runner. But, with the right camera movements and eye for the right interior and exterior locations, you too can create a cinematic scene with a telephoto lens.

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Pricing

Zoom lens

While it may not appeal to all established filmmakers, a good zoom lens is a great tool to have. There are several reasons why.

24-105mm

First of all, you won’t need to break the bank in buying a half dozen lenses. Instead, you can get a zoom lens like the 24-105mm, which comes standard with, for example, Canon 5D cameras.

The Essential Guide to Cinematic Camera Lenses | Artlist (4)

This zoom also gives you plenty of versatility. If you want a slightly distortedclose-up shot, you can get it by zooming into 24mm. If you want a telephoto effect for certain shots or an entire project, you could zoom out and move the camera around—whether handheld or on a tripod—to get the shots you want.

55-250mm

Not to fixate on Canon, but the company also offers a 55-250mm telephoto lens with a low f-stop with a range of f4 to f5.6. That’s an incredible range of focal lengths for a zoom lens.

The Essential Guide to Cinematic Camera Lenses | Artlist (5)

That said, if you get a zoom lens with this type of range, you’ll need a wide-angle prime lens or two for your cinematic arsenal.

Anamorphic

Almost all types of camera lenses are spherical. But there is a special class of lenses, called anamorphic, that gives filmmakers flexibility with the aspect ratio (width and height of projected footage) of their motion picture images.

Spherical lenses don’t affect the aspect ratios. Anamorphic lenses, however, do. When an anamorphic lens is used, the image is compressed while recording and then stretched out to achieve wide and cinematic aspect ratios in post-production. Directors like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson are fond of using an anamorphic lens, but they can get quite expensive and may not be the right choice for most filmmakers.

Lens speed & other considerations

Another thing to think about is lens speed. If you’re trying to capture cinematic footage for your short film or YouTube video, you will want a lens with a wide aperture that can let a lot of light and detail in.

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A fast lens has a low f-stop number. A really fast lens would be something like a 1.4, but this can get expensive. So, you can also look for f-stops of 1.8 and 2.0.

If you need to, rent some of the lenses mentioned above. Experiment with primes and zooms and with lenses that have a range of low f-stops. With practice, you will find the right cinematic lenses for your project.

F-stop

Basically, F-stop is a measurement of how wide alens apertureis. When an aperture’s blades (the diaphragm) are widened, the F-stop (or F-number goes down), and when the aperture is gradually closed, the number goes up.

This is the best way to understand F-stop. But, if you want the optical definition of F-stop, it’s the ratio of the lens’s focal length to the aperture diameter.

Lens speed

If you’re trying to capture cinematic footage for your short film or YouTube video, you will want a lens with a wide aperture that can let a lot of light and detail in. A lens with a wide aperture is called a “fast lens”.

Fast lenses have low f-stop numbers. A really fast lens would be something like a 1.4, but this can get expensive. So, you can also look for f-stops of 1.8 and 2.0.

If you need to, rent some of the lenses mentioned above. Experiment with primes and zooms and with lenses that have a range of low f-stops. With practice, you will find the right cinematic lenses for your project.

Sensor Size

Another factor that will determine how lenses interact with a camera is its sensor size. In digital cameras, the sensor size is a measurement of the sensor, with 35mm film being the benchmark against which it is compared.

The Essential Guide to Cinematic Camera Lenses | Artlist (7)

By MarcusGR

DSLR camera sensor sizes are either APS-C (Canon uses 22.2 x 14.8 mm, while others are 23.5-23.7 x 15.6 mm) or Full Frame (36 x 24 mm). Full frame is a buzzword these days in digital cinematography, as the 36 x 24mm sensor size comes closest to motion picture 35mm film. In other words, a lot of information can be packed onto that sensor, just as more light can be exposed onto 35mm film versus, say, the much smaller 8mm film format.

Crop factor

As mentioned above, DSLR cameras have significantly smaller sensor sizes relative to the reference size of 35mm film. So, when filmmakers started using DSLR cameras with the lenses that had been optimized for 35mm film, they saw that images were being cropped. Another way of thinking about it is that although a DSLR or 35mm film camera can be using the same lenses, getting the same optical information through the circular lens, the DSLR camera will crop out more of the field of view than the 35mm film camera.

To calculate the crop factor relative to 35 mm film, you just multiply the camera’s crop factor with the focal length of the lens. So, for example. If you use a 24 mm lens on a camera with a crop factor of 1.5, you get a total crop factor of 36 mm.

Understanding camera lenses

To recap, there are many types of lenses that would give your video a cinematic look even on a DSLR. The best cinema lenses have are called “fast lens” and they have a wide aperture and low f-stop numbers. To determine what the best cinematic lens is for you, it’s worth renting out different types of camera lenses and experimenting with various apertures.

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FAQs

What lenses are used in cinematography? ›

Common focal lengths for wide-angle lenses include 18mm, 21mm, 24mm, 25mm, and 27mm. Wide-angle lenses provide a wider field of view, allowing the cinematographer to capture more of the surroundings while exaggerating the relative size of an object within the field of view at the same time.

What focal length is most cinematic? ›

And while on paper it may not seem or sound like the most exciting lens choice, keep in mind that the 28mm lens has been a gold standard in shooting motion pictures for over a century, being used to capture some of the most recognizable moments in cinematic history.

Is 50mm lens good for cinematography? ›

50mm – The “Nifty Fifty”

It's been said that the 50mm lens and the 35mm are great for realism, as they approximate how humans see the world. It's also cheap and light, with some nice out-of-focus bokeh (TK). And because it's light, the 50mm lens becomes a great option for handheld cinematography.

What lens does Quentin Tarantino use? ›

The filmmakers decided to shoot anamorphic 2.40:1 and use the same Panavision Primo lenses they had chosen for Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino's affection for wider focal lengths meant the 40mm or 50mm was often on the camera.

What aspect ratio is cinematic? ›

VIDEO STANDARDS

Eventually cinema converged on two leading standards: a normal 1.85:1 widescreen and an anamorphic 2.39:1 widescreen. With television, the formats became 4:3 with standard definition and later 16:9 with high definition, which at 1.78:1 was a close match to 1.85:1 widescreen cinema.

What are the 3 types of lenses? ›

Three basic types of lenses: normal, telephoto and wide angle and their respective lens focal length. The normal lens is a standard lens for everyday use.

Is 50mm lens good for video? ›

One of the most versatile lenses for photography and videography is the 50mm normal lens. Using a 50mm lens for B-roll is one of the more beneficial video tips. It's a good lens for general use and for A-roll, too.

What lens does Steven Spielberg use? ›

Steven Spielberg: 21mm

According to Sudhakaran, “Spielberg reportedly sees the world through 21mm,” which can be traced throughout his vast filmography. The Oscar-award-winning director makes heavy use of his preferred wide-angle lens, letting the characters of his films move throughout their frames.

How many lenses do you need to shoot a movie? ›

You'll want to put together at least a basic three-lens kit by adding a wider lens and a longer telephoto lens to go along with your normal lens. A three-lens kit is a pretty versatile package, and more often than not can get you through an entire shoot.

Is Super 35 better than full frame? ›

The full-frame format has a more shallow depth of field than the Super 35, which creates a nice bokeh. This gives the cinematographer more control over what and who they want to put focus on. The camera also allows the cinematographer to get closer to subjects without sacrificing the background.

Do I need both 35mm and 50mm? ›

There is no winner between these two lenses, as they both have pros and cons. They work differently for each scenario. You can often start with 50mm on a shoot, and then switch to 35mm when you need a wider angle. This is even truer if your position is a little cramped.

Why is 35mm so popular? ›

35mm lenses are amongst the most popular out there, considered to be standard lenses with an ideal focal length that covers multiple applications. They're accessible, easy to use and fun to shoot with which is why many photographers include them in their kit.

Which is best 35mm or 50mm lens? ›

Which prime lens is better 35mm or 50mm? The 35mm lens focal length is more versatile when shooting indoors for its wide field of view and capturing more scenery when traveling than the 50mm lens which is more zoomed-in making it difficult to use indoors but ideal for traditional, headshots and portraits.

What lens was Django shot on? ›

The filmmakers decided to shoot anamorphic 2.40:1 and use the same Panavision Primo lenses they had chosen for Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino's affection for wider focal lengths meant the 40mm or 50mm was often on the camera.

What lens was Pulp Fiction shot? ›

The movie Pulp Fiction, released in 1994 and directed by Quentin Tarantino, was shot on film using Panavision Cameras, Panavision Panaflex Platinum Camera and Panavision C Series Anamorphic Lenses, Panavision E Series Anamorphic Lenses, Panavision Lenses with Andrzej Sekula as cinematographer and editing was done on ...

What focal length did Kubrick use? ›

Focal lengths and lenses used by great directors
S. No.DirectorFocal length, Lens
19Stanley Kubrick18mm, Special lenses – Kinoptik 9.8mm, Zeiss 50mm f/0.7, Cine-Pro 24-480mm T9 zoom
20Terry Gilliam14mm (later work), earlier work is wider than 28mm
21Steven Soderbergh18mm (only recent work)
18 more rows
13 Feb 2019

What is image size in cinematography? ›

The common film aspect ratios used in cinemas are 1.85:1 and 2.39:1. Two common videographic aspect ratios are 4:3 (1.3:1), the universal video format of the 20th century, and 16:9 (1.7:1), universal for high-definition television and European digital television.

Why would a filmmaker use 2.35 1 aspect ratio? ›

2.35:1 / 2.39:1 Aspect Ratio

Just about anything will look more cinematic or more 'filmic' when shot in this aspect, considering that originally it was associated with the anamorphic/cinemascope look and we are trained to associate this aesthetic with higher end feature films.

What aspect ratio is 4k? ›

This resolution has an aspect ratio of 16∶9, with 8,294,400 total pixels. It is exactly double the horizontal and vertical resolution of 1080p (1920 × 1080) for a total of 4 times as many pixels, and triple the horizontal and vertical resolution of 720p (1280 × 720) for a total of 9 times as many pixels.

How do I know which lens to use? ›

If you want to fit more into your frame, you might want to look into wide-angle focal lengths: 14mm, 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, and 35mm. On the other hand, if you want to get as close as possible to your subject, go for a telephoto lens with focal lengths that usually range from 50mm to 100mm.

How many lenses should a photographer have? ›

So to end things off, for the up and coming photographer and or videographer, these five lenses, the wide angle, normal, and telephoto prime and the wide angle and telephoto zoom, make the perfect combination to shoot almost anything.

What focal length should I use? ›

As a general rule, choose a long focal length lens, like 70, 135, or 200mm to isolate textures and distant features to create dramatic backgrounds. Wide focal length lenses, like 16, 24, or 35mm thrive when you want the entire scene in focus, like when shooting simple landscapes with long leading lines.

What's more important camera or lens? ›

Camera lenses are more important than the camera they're attached to, at least in most situations. An entry level DSLR with a great lens will take great photos while a $10,000 professional camera with a terrible lens will take terrible pictures.

Is zoom lens good for video? ›

A zoom lens is a great solution for a solo run and gun videographer covering an event for example. The versatility of quick framing and only having to turn the zoom ring in order for the cameraman or videographer to recompose a shot is vital on many video shoots.

What are the five uses of lenses? ›

Uses of the lens
  • The lens is employed in microscopes and magnifying glasses to converge all the incoming light rays to a specific point.
  • The lens is used as a lens system in cameras as they focus light rays for a clear image.
  • Lens has medical purposes as well, like the correction of hyperopia.
  • It is used in a projector.

What is the best aperture for filmmaking? ›

Most cinematographers will use a T2. 8 for filming, although not always. However, it's safe to say that the standard aperture is the f/2.8 or the similar T-stop of 2.8.

What focal length is used in movies? ›

35mm is the go-to focal length for most interviews, standardized by both “commercial” promos and documentaries. This particular width brings in a lot of background pieces, which helps set the tone for corporate videos, testimonials, etc. But a 50mm lens is much closer to what the human eye sees on its own.

Is 35mm good for videography? ›

Lens Recap

So, from top to bottom, I'd say the 35mm is the best for shooting YouTube videos. It's not too close. It's not too wide.

What camera does Martin Scorsese use? ›

The C500 is the first large sensor Canon camera to give maximum image fidelity, so it makes sense that it is the first camera from the company that Scorsese is actually using for one of his films.

What lens does Roger Deakins use? ›

In the video, Deakins mentions using 32mm or 35mm lenses for Standard (or Normal) shots. While Mid Shots (or Mediums) are usually shot in 35mm or 40mm, and close-ups range from 50mm to 65mm or 75mm, depending on how extreme he wants it to be.

What is the 35mm lens good for? ›

The 35mm lens is extremely versatile. The 35mm is a lens that allows you to capture many different types of camera shots and angles. It's wide enough to capture background elements, but close enough to shoot more intimate shots like coverage and portraits.

How do I choose a video lens? ›

How to Choose the Right Lenses for Filmmaking - YouTube

Why is it called Super 35? ›

The term 'Super 35' gets its origins, however, from (you guessed it) 35mm motion picture cameras. Specifically, Super 35 refers to a method of utilizing the space on 35mm film that was usually reserved for the optical audio track to capture a larger image.

What is a disadvantage of a full frame sensor camera? ›

Disadvantages of full frame

Size and weight: The overall size and weight of full-frame cameras is greater than their crop sensor counterparts. Full-frame lenses are also larger and heavier. This may not matter to many photographers, but if you frequently carry gear for long distances, it could be a factor to consider.

How do I choose a cinema camera? ›

8 Things to Look For When Buying a Cinema Camera
  1. Image quality. Shooting on a Sony FS7 for “Finding Hope” ...
  2. Resolution. ...
  3. Dynamic Range. ...
  4. Maximum ISO. ...
  5. Lens Mount. ...
  6. Form Factor. ...
  7. Required Accessories. ...
  8. Codec.
6 Jul 2020

Can you shoot a wedding with a 35mm lens? ›

In conclusion, I love my 35mm lens for its versatility. This focal length accomplishes a lot in a small package, making it a great go-to for wedding photography. If you're just starting out and trying to keep your gear list minimalistic, you can't go wrong with this lens focal length.

How far should a 50mm lens be from a subject? ›

Minimum focus distance is a different matter. For example a 50mm lens may have a minimum distance to the subject of about 14 inches, but you wouldn't want to shoot a portrait shot from that distance. For one thing you would probably only get part of the subject in the frame.

How far should a 35mm lens be from a subject? ›

When shooting horizontally: If you want to fill the frame with your subject's waist up to their head, shoot with a 35mm lens, at 1.2 meters (about 2 arm lengths away, or 4 feet away). If you want a shot of just their face with a 35mm when shooting horizontally, shoot at . 7 meters.

Which is better 24mm or 35mm? ›

While 24mm can, at times, be almost too wide, 35mm is often just the right focal length. It usually provides little to no distortion and lets in even more light than a 24mm lens. While f/1.2 is available, f/1.4 and f/1.8 are quite common maximum apertures in the world of 35mm primes.

Is a 35mm or 85mm better for portraits? ›

An 85mm prime lens has a more narrow-angle of view than the 35mm and 50mm lenses and is known as the best portrait lens because it adds little, if any, facial distortion to your main subject. It also has a large enough focal length to help separate the main subject from the background than the other two lenses.

What lens should every photographer have? ›

85mm f/1.4

The absolute golden staple for serious portrait photographers must be the 85mm f/1.4 lens. Its long focal length, and wide fixed aperture combine to create a portrait like no other. The image quality of pictures taken on this lens is instantly recognizable to those in the know.

What is the most versatile prime lens? ›

And, in our humblest opinion, 35mm is the most versatile focal length of any prime lens because it's perfect for almost every photography genre. From street and event photography to weddings, landscapes, portraits, and travel, a 35mm prime can do almost everything.

What lens is best for headshots? ›

Lenses with focal lengths of at least 50mm are more suitable for headshots and portraits because they are more flattering to human subjects. Popular headshot focal lengths are 85mm, 105mm, or 135mm. A telephoto zoom with a range of 70-20mm is also a favorite with headshot photographers.

When would you use a 50mm lens? ›

It's one of the most popular lenses on the market, and it can be used for anything from portraits and car photography to landscapes and nighttime shots. The only time you can't use a 50mm lens is when you're so far away from your subject that capturing it requires a telephoto lens.

What is the 35mm lens good for? ›

The 35mm lens is extremely versatile. The 35mm is a lens that allows you to capture many different types of camera shots and angles. It's wide enough to capture background elements, but close enough to shoot more intimate shots like coverage and portraits.

Is Super 35 better than full frame? ›

The full-frame format has a more shallow depth of field than the Super 35, which creates a nice bokeh. This gives the cinematographer more control over what and who they want to put focus on. The camera also allows the cinematographer to get closer to subjects without sacrificing the background.

What focal length are movies shot at? ›

35mm is the go-to focal length for most interviews, standardized by both “commercial” promos and documentaries. This particular width brings in a lot of background pieces, which helps set the tone for corporate videos, testimonials, etc. But a 50mm lens is much closer to what the human eye sees on its own.

What are the 3 types of lenses? ›

Three basic types of lenses: normal, telephoto and wide angle and their respective lens focal length. The normal lens is a standard lens for everyday use.

Do I need both 35mm and 50mm? ›

There is no winner between these two lenses, as they both have pros and cons. They work differently for each scenario. You can often start with 50mm on a shoot, and then switch to 35mm when you need a wider angle. This is even truer if your position is a little cramped.

Why is 35mm so popular? ›

35mm lenses are amongst the most popular out there, considered to be standard lenses with an ideal focal length that covers multiple applications. They're accessible, easy to use and fun to shoot with which is why many photographers include them in their kit.

Which is better 24mm or 35mm? ›

While 24mm can, at times, be almost too wide, 35mm is often just the right focal length. It usually provides little to no distortion and lets in even more light than a 24mm lens. While f/1.2 is available, f/1.4 and f/1.8 are quite common maximum apertures in the world of 35mm primes.

Why is it called Super 35? ›

The term 'Super 35' gets its origins, however, from (you guessed it) 35mm motion picture cameras. Specifically, Super 35 refers to a method of utilizing the space on 35mm film that was usually reserved for the optical audio track to capture a larger image.

What is a disadvantage of a full frame sensor camera? ›

Disadvantages of full frame

Size and weight: The overall size and weight of full-frame cameras is greater than their crop sensor counterparts. Full-frame lenses are also larger and heavier. This may not matter to many photographers, but if you frequently carry gear for long distances, it could be a factor to consider.

How do I choose a cinema camera? ›

8 Things to Look For When Buying a Cinema Camera
  1. Image quality. Shooting on a Sony FS7 for “Finding Hope” ...
  2. Resolution. ...
  3. Dynamic Range. ...
  4. Maximum ISO. ...
  5. Lens Mount. ...
  6. Form Factor. ...
  7. Required Accessories. ...
  8. Codec.
6 Jul 2020

What lens does Steven Spielberg use? ›

Steven Spielberg: 21mm

According to Sudhakaran, “Spielberg reportedly sees the world through 21mm,” which can be traced throughout his vast filmography. The Oscar-award-winning director makes heavy use of his preferred wide-angle lens, letting the characters of his films move throughout their frames.

What aperture are most movies filmed at? ›

Why is This the Standard Film Aperture? The T2. 8 of the f/2.8 represents the standard film aperture that is most widely used by cinematographers. There are several reasons for cinematographers to choose this particular aperture.

How many lenses do you need to shoot a movie? ›

You'll want to put together at least a basic three-lens kit by adding a wider lens and a longer telephoto lens to go along with your normal lens. A three-lens kit is a pretty versatile package, and more often than not can get you through an entire shoot.

How do I know which lens to use? ›

If you want to fit more into your frame, you might want to look into wide-angle focal lengths: 14mm, 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, and 35mm. On the other hand, if you want to get as close as possible to your subject, go for a telephoto lens with focal lengths that usually range from 50mm to 100mm.

How many lenses should a photographer have? ›

So to end things off, for the up and coming photographer and or videographer, these five lenses, the wide angle, normal, and telephoto prime and the wide angle and telephoto zoom, make the perfect combination to shoot almost anything.

Videos

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