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Spherical vs. Anamorphic Lenses

Cooke S8i FF 50mm 3qtr side feature image
By: The Cooke Team  |   4 min read

The first choice a DP selecting lenses for their production must make is between spherical and anamorphic. Anamorphic cinematography comes with certain aesthetic properties which many find appealing, but they won’t be right for every project. Moreover, spherical lenses tend to have practical advantages over their anamorphic equivalents, so the creative and technical properties of both formats should be carefully considered.

Anamorphic cinematography, first dabbled with in the 1920s, was popularised by Twentieth Century Fox in the fifties as CinemaScope. Television was growing in popularity and Hollywood studios were inventing a plethora of gimmicks to encourage audiences back into cinemas. Fox’s idea was to immerse viewers in an image far wider than they were used to, but without the expensive modifications to existing 35mm projectors which some rival formats required. They developed a system of anamorphic lenses containing elements which compressed the image horizontally by a factor of two. By simply placing a corresponding anamorphosing lens onto the projector, the image was unsqueezed to an aspect ratio of 2.55:1, or later 2.39:1.


Since those early days of CinemaScope, anamorphic cinematography has become associated with the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. Its optical features – streak flares, oval bokeh and cylindrical perspective – have been seared into our collective consciousness, indelibly associated with high production values. The oval bokeh of anamorphic conjures images of Manhattan or LA streets, the distant lights elliptically blurred, in thrillers and action movies of the 1980s. The streaking horizontal flares are closely associated with the sci-fi genre, peaking with J.J. Abrams’ infamous use of them in Star Trek (2009). The cylindrical perspective – horizontal lines rendered as curves on shorter focal lengths – is part of Wes Anderson’s signature look.

The rise of digital cinematography has left DPs seeking glass that adds these sorts of quirks and character to the clean images, so anamorphic lenses have seen a resurgence of popularity in the last decade. Anamorphic glass today comes in various squeeze factors including 1.3x, and the 1.8x used by Cooke’s own Anamorphic/i FF series, as well as the traditional 2x.


Ironically for a technique originally aimed at tempting people away from their TV sets, anamorphics have been increasingly used on the small screen in recent years. Take Doctor Who, which switched to Cooke Anamorphic/i glass in 2018, the John le Carré adaptation The Little Drummer Girl (Cooke Xtal Express), or series 5 of Peaky Blinders (Cooke Anamorphic/i). Even when these shows are presented in a 16:9 aspect ratio, cinematographers are choosing anamorphic for its unique artefacts.


These artefacts, and the layer of stylised unreality they add to an image, are not right for every project though. The circular bokeh and more organic flares of spherical lenses can seem more natural and perhaps give a production a greater sense of realism and immediacy. Our eyes are spherical lenses, after all.


Anamorphic lenses stretch or squash planes of the image as the focus is pulled, an effect that can be distracting from certain types of story. They are more likely to exhibit softness and distortion at the edges of frame. Anamorphics also tend to be slower and have a greater close-focus distance than their spherical equivalents, requiring more light and either careful blocking and/or the use of dioptres. These two factors can make them slower to work with on set. Being more complex lenses, they are generally heavier and more expensive, all of which explains why historically they have been the domain of bigger-budget movies. That, of course, is one of the reasons that the anamorphic look is desirable; subconsciously viewers still associate it with blockbusters. But for a filmmaker wanting to move rapidly between set-ups, or to execute fast, dynamic shots with lighter grip equipment, spherical lenses may be a better choice.


When choosing between the two formats it is also worth considering the kind of framing your production calls for. Although neither format is rigidly tied to one specific aspect ratio in the digital age, anamorphic is still most closely associated with 2.39:1. This ratio is great for landscapes, ensembles and compositions that make bold use of negative space. On the other hand, the taller ratios provided by the spherical format make it easier to show off the architecture of locations, reveal more body language and make it easier to frame people of different heights together – e.g. a two-shot of an adult and a child.


Great cinema and television has been produced, and continues to be produced, in both the spherical and anamorphic formats. We are fortunate as cinematographers today to have so much choice from which to pick the best lenses for our productions.