Focal Lengths and Lenses used by Great Directors


Hi my name is Sareesh Sudhakaran and you might
want to kick back and grab a drink because in this video we’ll look at the focal lengths
preferred and used by 19 great directors. Now just because a director prefers or likes
a particular focal length doesn’t mean he or she won’t change it when the situation
calls for it. Also, directors might change their preferences as their careers progress. All you need to know is that lenses and focal
lengths help tell stories. Some directors like to use just one focal length for an entire
movie. Other directors mix all kinds of focal lengths within a single scene because that’s
their idea of storytelling. In this video we’ll start with directors
who prefer wide angle lenses and then work our way up. The last two directors on our
list are special, and you’ll know why when we get there. Let’s start with the greatest of the greats
– Orson Welles. Orson Welles shot much of Citizen Kane with a 25mm lens, which isn’t
that wide to begin with. But that’s what he used to get his deep focus and majestic
blocking over long takes. He took this skill to its highest with A Touch
of Evil, most of which was shot on an 18mm lens, where he used it to great effect to
widen spaces and distort faces – mostly his own. Next up we have Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who is
also a huge fan of extreme wide angle lenses and camera movement in the tradition of Sergio
Leone. He is most happy with an 18mm and 25mm lens. He used the latter for most of Delicatessen. On Alien Resurrection, he went even wider,
as wide as 14mm, to make the sets more imposing. We’ll end with Roman Polanski, who shot
most of Rosemary’s Baby on a 25mm lens. He also used the anamorphic format a lot,
most notable being the 40mm lens on Chinatown. Before I continue with more wide angle lenses
let’s talk about a couple of directors who prefer wide fields of view in the anamorphic
format, one of the most popular today being Wes Anderson, who prefers a 40mm lens. He also uses a 27mm lens like he did in the
Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel. In the anamorphic format, you get the wide
angle of view but the compression of the actual focal length. In other words, a 40mm looks
like a 40mm but is as wide as a 24mm or thereabouts. To know more about the effects of medium format
and anamorphic systems check out the article I wrote on the subject, which I’ll link
to. The other supremely popular director who uses
anamorphic today is Quentin Tarantino, and even though he uses all kinds of focal lengths
he prefers the wider ones like the 40 or 50mm lens. To continue with the spherical format, next
up is Steven Spielberg, who reportedly sees the world in 21mm. He uses wide angle pretty much like Orson
Welles, and it can be argued his blocking technique is probably the best the world has
ever seen. He only tries other focal lengths if the 21mm doesn’t work. Another director who prefers the 21mm lens
is Tim Burton. He tends to stay in the 21 to 50mm range, and occasionally uses long
lenses for variety. Martin Scorsese prefers wides as well, mostly
the 25mm lens, or even wider. Though he, too, makes exceptions, like he did for the King
of Comedy, where he almost exclusively used the 32mm lens – or for Raging Bull, where
he used telephoto lenses for some shots to separate them psychologically from other similar
moments. We finish with the Coen brothers, who love
the 27mm lens. They generally stick to between 25mm and 40mm, and also use the 32mm lens
with Roger Deakins. David Cronenberg sticks to one lens per movie,
like he did for eXistenz, where he shot the entire movie on a 27mm lens. Another David prefers the 27mm lens as well,
and goes by the name of Fincher – though he often also uses mid range and even telephoto
lenses to mix things up. It’s not uncommon for some great directors
to prefer a single focal length over others. But it’s not easy at all to practice it
with the constraints imposed by production. If you want to know more about how to choose
focal lengths, I’ve written an extensive article that I’ll link to. Francis Ford Coppola stuck to a 40mm lens
for most of the Godfather, though one can argue it was more due to the influence of
Gordon Willis, whose cinematography we have seen already. On Apocalypse Now, they used
all kinds of lenses, considering the nature of the production. Alfred Hitchcock preferred the 50mm lens.
The great master of suspense strongly preferred a natural field of view, and strived to make
his actors look good. In the latter half of his career, when he was churning out his great
masterpieces, he preferred to use a 50mm lens, and had the luxury of having sets built for
him to match its field of view. By the way, if you don’t know about crop
factors now might be a good time to read the article I’ll link to. The directors mentioned
in this video have shot in various formats like Academy, Super 35, Anamorphic and so
on. To find the equivalent focal length to the system you’re using, read my article
on the 35mm equivalent, which I’ll link to as well. Let’s end the discussion on the 50mm lens
with two directors who stuck to it for entire movies. Robert Bresson being one big name,
and the other being Yasujiro Ozu – who went to great lengths to create sets to accommodate
the 50mm lens and its compressed frame. Unlike a Welles or Spielberg, Ozu hardly ever moved
the camera. There’s a lot of confusion about which focal
length resembles the human eye. Is it a 35mm or 50mm lens, or is it a 50mm lens in the
anamorphic format? It’s not an easy question to answer, and you’ll know why when you
read the article I’ve written on what the focal length of the human eye is. Finally we move on to long lenses. Ridley
Scott is one modern director who prefers long lenses. He began his career shooting anamorphic
and stuck to lenses 75mm and above. He also preferred zoom lenses. Later on he gave up
the anamorphic format and has since then shot spherical and cropped for widescreen, like
with the Gladiator. Probably the most popular director people
incorrectly think of having shot with long lenses is Akira Kurosawa. I have already made
an extensive video and article on the focal lengths he used, so I’ll just briefly mention
he preferred wide to mid-range lenses, from about 35 to 50mm, and only occasionally used
telephoto lenses as a sort of extreme compression – like with Red Beard and Dreams. Now we come to the last two names on the list.
The first is Sidney Lumet. As far as I know, Sidney is the first director to extensively
document his use of focal lengths as a story telling tool in his book Making Movies. He
used all kinds of focal lengths from wide to telephoto, but with a studied technique. He changed focal lengths in different parts
of the movie to separate them visually, carefully designing the look to convey particular emotions.
Just to be clear, many directors before Sidney have done the same thing, so in that respect
he’s not a pioneer. If you don’t have a particular preference of focal length but
just want to learn how to use all kinds of lenses for suggestive power, you need to study
his work. The last director we’re going to look at
not only changed lenses and focal lengths for storytelling, but even went to great lengths
to have custom lenses designed for him. Stanley Kubrick famously used a custom-modified 50mm
f/0.7 lens designed originally for NASA – for low light shots on Barry Lyndon. He also had
a wide-angle adapter made for it to get it to about 37.5mm. He also used extreme wides, like the Kinoptik
9.8mm lens for scenes in the Clockwork Orange and The Shining. His signature technique was
his long zoom from close up to wide shot, for which he had a custom made Cine-Pro 24-480mm
T9 zoom lens. Stanley Kubrick actually owned most of his equipment, and even carried it
in a custom van to the set. On the whole though, he preferred wide angle lenses, mostly the
18mm. There you have it. 19 directors and their
favorite focal lengths. If there’s a director I’ve missed whose lens choices you know
for certain, please let me know. I’ll add them to the current list so anybody can find
it for research purposes. If and when I find more information I’ll
certainly add more names and focal lengths to the article that links to this video, so
be sure to check it out. If you like this video and want to see more, please subscribe.
There are lots more on the way. Bye now.

100 Replies to “Focal Lengths and Lenses used by Great Directors”

  1. I use my 50mm Minolta MD mount Lens for video a lot on my Canon 5D mark III. The adapter causes a little bit of an artificial zoom. But it stays pretty much to it's 50mm Look. The older lens gives a softer focus than todays sharper coated lenses. I've also shot using my 80-200 mm Minolta mounted zoom lens as well. I'd love to try them out on a 4 and 6K camera system that uses the EF Mount. Just to see how they look at that high of resolution

  2. If I have APS-C sized sensor on DSLR and want to do cinematic shooting, is 35mm prime lens will be good for that?

  3. Good info. Interesting about Kubrick's custom 20X zoom, but you talk about it while showing a dolly out, not a zoom shot. You can see the relative positioning between objects on the side changing, indicating the camera is moving. Not to say that there isn't some change of focal length happening at the same time, but it wouldn't be much.

  4. This isn't quite a camera lens, but I do know that in The Incredibles Brad Byrd decided that the film would start off with long lenses when the story was still domestic, and that it would switch to wide angles once the adventure started because it was more three-dimensional.

    Also, personally, if I was a director, I would use 10mm quite a bit. I would go lower if movie screens were build to accommodate for a panoramic field of view.

  5. When I think of wide angle lens, I immediately think of Michael Mann and his extremely realistic style. It gives his movies a documentary style that I like very much because he often have to keep his camera close to his characters.
    But he also masters the long focal like anybody else in Heat, where everything seems shot at a long distance, like if we were spying on the characters with a big zoom camera. Very interesting way to tell stories with focal lengths.

  6. You talk about focal lengths but not about the medium. Some directors you mention shoot in 70mm, making the field of view of a 40mm lens very wide. If you could add that information to the video I think it could be a lot more interesting.

  7. Why have I never seen this channel before? Been watching stuff like this for a while and it never showed up. maybe region based? Well, I am glad to have found it now.

  8. Wes Anderson goes wider than 40mm. Much of his anamorphic work is between 24mm-35mm, which is how he gets that curving "cinerama" effect.

  9. Another fantastic tutorial – thank you – excellent
    you need to get a good script and have at it 
    sorry i cannot accomodate.

  10. Could you please add the lens choices in Satyajit ray movies.. like the apu trilogy… Also could you please explain what you mean by spherical process or calculation which you mentioned while saying about Jean Pierre Junetes Delicatessen

  11. Hey Sareesh, awesome video as always!!
    I'm a guitarist and I want to make youtube videos. Just wanna know what kind of lenses are best for an indoor guitar video shoot.
    Reference video- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2RBJwHyiQk

  12. Can you tell us what focal length are preferred by such greats as James Nguyen, Tommy Wiseau and Uwe Boll, please.

  13. I don't understand this. How can one talk about and compare focal lenses without saying what they're shooting on (35mm film, Super 35, 70mm… etc)? Doesn't that change all?

  14. It would be good to introduce what film size/sensor size they used as well, due to the same lens with different size of film or sensor would still have different filed of view, therefore it would lead to misunderstanding to the audience. Also, many directors/cinematographers have had specially designed lenses ultra-wide-angle with very little distortion or extreme large aperture.

  15. You talk about Kubrick’s trademark use of zoom lenses while showing an obvious dolly shot from A Clockwork Orange (instead of any spectacularly crafted zoom shot from Barry Lyndon, for example). You should take more time to carefully choose the right shots for the narration, which is nonetheless interesting. Then you’d have a truly fascinating video.

  16. If you could talk in terms of 'Angle of View' or 'Field of view', it could be more precise. Talking in terms of focal length in mm does not explain anything about field of view, which is the business end. Since popular sizes for film ranges from 16mm to 70mm and digital sensors from micro 43 to full frame a same lens, say for example 35mm will produce different 'Filed of view' on different format. Its nice and informative video, but I am not able to correlate the information to get similar look.

  17. Great video ! Could you please tell me what would be the the equivalent of 21mm lens if you were using MFT lenses?

  18. Great video! I've seen it about the 10th time so far. Now and then I find it again on youtube every couple months and watch it again. Now that I have studied focal lengths, also from other channels and masterclasses on the internet and having used some of them, I have a better understanding in order to evaluate this video even more.

    What confused me at the very beginning, when watching this for the very first time, now I can say that sometimes when a certain focal length is mentioned a shot with a different focal length is shown. This is understandable, since it is easier to find out which director preferably used which lense, but harder to find in which exact shot which director shot which exact lense, but maybe it would help to blend in the focal lenghts on the top hand of the corresponding shots. Just an idea! 😉

    And then also then switching between crop factors during the video can get a little confusing, but nevertheless a very nice video and very inspirational to find out more about focal lenghts.

    Thanks again, Matze

  19. Hi. Thanks for making very informative videos. But when you say for example Spielberg prefers 21mm do you mean 21 in full frame or 21*1.5 which is 31.5mm on super35 format?

  20. Hi. Thanks for making very informative videos. But when you say for example Spielberg prefers 21mm do you mean 21 in full frame or 21*1.5 which is 31.5mm on super35 format?

  21. Great video! Anyway i got one stupid question : in anamorphic format, when it gets higher, the lens gets wider?? (example wes anderson and roman polanski. Starts from 1.57) Sorry not a photographer here

  22. I'm not being funny or anything, but you need to get your pronunciation right. It's hard to tell when you're saying 40 or 14 most of the times you say it. And particularly in this video that's a big issue

  23. loving your videos man, thank you for the hardwork. I personally love Guy Ritchey if you could make one about him that would be awesome.

  24. This video helps a lot. However, would you mind to make an essay about the lenses being used by Jan De Bont, Tony Scott, and Steven Sorderbergh? They seem to prefer longer lenses and let the tripod's head loose.

  25. Hi sareesh…i have gone through your vedio…i want to know why cristopher nolan is very obsessed with 85mm lens using in his most of the movies….if u could please let me know.

  26. It would have been immensely useful if you mentioned, per director or film or lens, what format was used, and what the full frame equivalent is, because just the lens without the format is useless information. It wasn't very helpful saying at the end that different formats were used, as we don't know what they were.

  27. personal preferences aside, tonino delli colli in the hands of sergio leone produced an extraordinary style, face to face (no pun intended) with all the greats you've mentioned here. and of course, there are many, many others. leone was a 25mm man or his more popularly used f3.8 25-250 zoom.

  28. Are the focal lengths in the 35mm standard (FullFrame). Or are they just a mix of the different cameras these directors and DOPs have used. (Mostly Super35 I suppose)

  29. Thanks a lot for that Video !!!!!! One question…. are all the focal lengths you mentioned, the approximate equivalent to a Full Frame Sensor?

  30. You should (and should now, in the text box) have made it absolutely clear that you are talking about the Barnack still frame equivalents of the focal lengths.
    Otherwise it gets very confusing.
    Most directors and cinematographers will talk focal lengths in terms of what it actually says on the lens. For example a 35mm cine lens is roughly equivalent to a 50mm still lens for an SLR or rangefinder.

  31. When Spielberg shoots spherical, generally he stays in the 20 thru 29mm range, the 21mm being his favorite, but will go wider on occasion, and then jumping straight to the 85mm or 100mm for additional coverage. He tends leave the middle focal lengths alone for the most part.

    When he shoots anamorphic; he tends to stay within the 35-50mm range, while using longer lenses for additional coverage or close-ups.

    David Fincher loves the 27mm and the 40mm lenses. He very rarely shoots close-ups, but when he does, he uses a 75mm or something approximate there-of. And he loves to shoot with lens wide open or close to it (at around a f/2.8 or f/2, sometimes lower) to maintain a very shallow DOF.

    Early on in his career, Christopher Nolan used the anamorphic format almost exclusively up until he started using the IMAX format for the The Dark Knight. When shooting anamorphic, Nolan loves the 75mm. I believe Wally Pfister said he used a 75mm for basically all of Memento and Insomnia. It wasn't until Batman Begins that he started using a wider array of focal lengths.

    As for Ridley Scott; he actually does use wide lenses; he uses them sparingly for some wide shots, and shots where spactial room is an issue. But he likes compression in his composition, so he likes to put a longer lens on and back up, and frame his scenes that way. If he doesn't have the room, or if not a lot is in the frame…then he'll go wide.

    His late brother, Tony Scott, actually seem to use longer lenses more often than he did, it seems.

  32. What is the equivalent to these with a APS-C sensor? Do we just divide everything by 1.6? Spielberg's 21 would be roughly a 13mm??

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *