Best Production Lenses: Pros And Cons Of The Wide-Angle Lens In Video Production
What are the best production lenses? The wide-angle lens is one of the most cinematic storytelling tools you can have in your arsenal. The exact definition is variable, but these are generally considered a lens with a wider (shorter) focal length than 35mm. Favored by many cinematographers and Emmy award-winning production companies, this tool is an effective way to get close to a subject while keeping them rooted in the environment around them. Great for talking head pieces like interviews and testimonials, the wide-angle lens serves corporate and commercial video as effectively as it does narrative movies. Architectural photography also leans heavily on the wide-angle lens. However, there are limits to this tool. It does not lend itself well to Bokeh and it tends to warp objects and spaces depending on where they are in the frame. Here is a comprehensive overview of what you need to know about wide-angle lenses.
The focal length of best production lenses determines its field of view and it’s magnification. While the human eye is between 20mm and 35mm, our central focused field-of-view is closer to 50mm. Wide-angle lenses can get as wide as 8mm for a bizarre, nearly 180º view.
At longer focal lengths, depth is greatly compressed. The background appears closer and larger than it actually is. the exact opposite is true for wide-angle lenses. The shorter the focal length, (the wider the lens) the more exaggerated the depth of the image becomes. The lens enhances things like parallax and motion when shooting video with a wide-angle.
Human Faces and Object Placement in the Frame
Problems occur with exaggerated depth when they appear unnatural or unrealistic. On a 16mm, a subject standing center frame 8-10 feet away will look pretty much normal to the untrained eye. However, the edges of the frame will bow radially (a subtle fisheye effect). This becomes more noticeable if there are straight lines near the edge of the frame. There can also be blurring and reduction in quality on the outer edges of the frame.
If a subject is closer to the frame than the depth of their face will become exaggerated. Their nose will be larger and noticeably closer than their ears. The fisheye effect becomes noticeable when this extreme wide focal length is at close range. This is unflattering and unfavorable to your talent or any potential subject. However, it has its place as a surreal effect that can be applied in certain situations.
Depth of Field
When choosing the best production lenses both aperture and focal length influence the depth of field. The longer the lens the more shallow the depth of field will be. This applies to all aperture settings. F/5.6 will appear much shallower on an 85mm than on a 32mm lens. Wide-angle lenses are valuable in that regard for having ‘deep focus’. Not the same deep focus as the double exposure technique (see the previous link) but a good way to place multiple subjects or points of focus huge distances from each other while keeping both relatively sharp. It is not good for having a beautifully blurred out background that draws in focus to the subject. Remember that wide-angle lenses are most effective at keeping the subject grounded in the environment within the frame.
Faster lenses (wider apertures like f/1.4 or f/1.0) also lead to a shallower depth of field. Many wide-angle lenses that are reasonably priced are ‘slow lenses’. An 18mm kit lens may have an f-stop of f/5.6 as its fastest aperture setting. Even a very nice 12-16mm wide-angle may only go down to f/2.8. This makes it difficult to get a shallow depth of field with a wide-angle lens even with a very deep background. You can completely forget about achieving Bokeh backgrounds with these lenses.
The positive flipside being you don’t have to worry about follow focus to keep with your subject. This is the process of a videographer or 1st assistant cameraman changing the focus on the lens to keep the subject sharp as they move upstage or downstage. With wide-angle, the talent has a wide range to freely move without worrying about technical problems for the shooter. This is why wide-angle lenses work well as master and establishing shot lenses. You can easily go through all the actions with very little attention to the camera.
It is wide enough that it can be difficult to keep studio lights and production equipment out of the frame in smaller spaces, though. Wide-angles are designed for grand, open spaces so give them that when you use them. Tighter spaces show warping and fisheye more readily and don’t usually provide enough light for the slower lenses.
If you take anything away from this piece, it’s that you need a wide-angle lens in your arsenal. Make sure you work with a video production company that employs enough tools to flesh out your vision and show the best side of your product. Long lenses and short ones are both needed to produce a powerful commercial piece.