What are these so called “anamorphics”? The dictionary states “Optics. having or producing unequal magnifications along two axes perpendicular to each other”. In our case, a lens or adapter that distorts only the image’s horizontal axis. This is called “stretch factor”, which ranges between 1.33x, 1.5x and extreme 2x. That means that the resulting image will be horizontally squeezed and, in order to bring it back to normal proportion, you need to unsqueeze (or stretch) it following these ratios. A different name for stretch would be pixel aspect ratio: a virtual number that defines the width of each single pixel when displayed (instead of the standard 1×1 ratio).
And what’s the point of having something that looks totally weird in camera and then NEEDS to be post-processed so it looks right? Well, anamorphic lenses were “born” for the movies around 1950, when Twentieth Century Fox bought a patent for Henri Chrètien’s (a french scientist) system of bent lenses developed for astronomical research.
Years before, the movie industry had already got to the conclusion that wider images are more appealing to human eyes. There was already a process to achieve such results, called Cinerama, in which movies were shot with three simultaneous cameras and showed in a similar setup with projectors using a curved screen that was way bigger than the current standards. The downside was triplicating the use of celuloid for each single movie during production, and even larger amounts during distribution, which wasn’t being so profitable.
Around the same decade, three different methods of anamorphosis competed in the industry. The first one was based off prisms, developed and used by Panavision, the second was achieved through the use of bent mirrors, Technirama and the third one is our all-time favorite, the subject of this work, bent lenses that compress the captured image, originating the famous – and desired – CinemaScope, 2.4:1 aspect ratio, meaning that for each height measurement, there’s a 2.4x measurement in width.
Celuloid frame and different methods for a widescreen image.
Letterbox on top and anamorphic on the bottom.
In Chrètien’s design, the image compression would be directly related to the glass’ curvature. His anamorphic lenses were made up, roughly by two optical blocks. The front block was responsible for the anamorphosis and the rear block was a regular spherical lens, both put together inside a single lens body. Simpler setups work the same way until today (we’ll get to that) and you have to focus both spherical and anamorphic separately.
From here on, the spherical block will be referred as “taking lens”. It’s an important concept that will be used over and over. Don’t get confused.
Once the image is shot and squeezed onto the film roll – there was no digital intermediate back then! – another anamorphic lens was required when projecting the final motion picture in order to de-stretch the image. These projection lenses are still out there, flooding ebay and every other online market. They’re bulky, colorful and heavy. Another downside is their really far minimum focus distance since the screen and the projection booth is usually somewhere between 9 to 15m apart.
Meanwhile, across the world – the Cold War was going on and the USSR was also a major technological center – LOMO anamorphics were coming out, russian lenses made by their main optical developer, responsible for all camera and movie gear in the country conglomerate. These lenses were made solely for motion pictures and, differently from the american/french design, anamorphic and spherical blocks were split by default, but could be connected through a simple bolt, which made sure focusing on both blocks was identical and solving the issue of having to focus each lens individually. These were pretty strong builds and spread mainly across Asia. As the american standard, LOMOs had a 2x stretch.
At the beginning of the 1960’s, ISCO Optics of Göttingen, german manufacturer hires the man behind LOMO’s designs, deliberately replicating his previous work with LOMO, ISCO releases a series of anamorphic lenses – the Iscoramas, with a stretch of 1.5x – aimed at the “rich amateur photographers” niche. The series consisted of a front anamorphic block attached to a 50mm f/2.8 cheaper taking lens (with Exakta, Minolta, Nikon F or Praktica M42 mounts). Image quality matched the market: sharp from edge to corner.
The Original Iscorama – 1.5x stretch
Almost twenty years later, in the 1980’s, Iscorama’s users found out it was possible to split both parts of the lens and use the anamorphic block paired to other taking lenses. ISCO takes advantage of this practice to release updated versions of their products, getting rid of third-party manufacturers by discarding the 50mm taking lens and selling just the anamorphics. Those were the incredibly famous Iscoramas 36, 42 and 54.
The optical engineer behind these lenses used a design based on variable diopters, in which the taking lens is focused to infinity and all the focusing is done on the Iscorama. By registering this patent, ISCO Optics of Göttingen killed any other manufacturer’s dream of replicating its solution. This caused a drastic loss in terms of similar workarounds until this day, making Iscoramas a unique species.
What we’ve seen so far: based on the need of creating wider-looking images and avoiding redesigning and making every single motion picture camera currently in use, scientists develop anamorphic lenses that attach on top of regular spherical lenses and compress their images. Russians aren’t far behind and develop their own kind of lenses. Germans steal the russians’ formula and improve it, releasing the Iscoramas, which hold single focus patent.
Following these events, japanese companies start making their own anamorphic elements (Kowa and Sankor), with a 2x stretch, and even Henri Chrètien through Societe Technique Optique de Precision puts out some lenses for cameras and projectors, the Hypergonars S.T.O.P.
Market keeps evolving and, while some of these lenses were pretty good with 8mm and 16mm film, with the change from film to video, and later, to all-digital formats, amateur anamorphics are less and less useful and end up forgotten at the bottom of “used gear” boxes. Videocamera’s lenses aren’t interchangeable and still photographers were never too fond of the squeezed images. Around 2008 almost all these anamorphic gems could be grabbed off eBay for less than US$200.
The last additions to the anamorphics list came out after mini-DV cameras became popular. These are focus-through adapters and their name comes from the fact that they don’t have a focus ring, just a simple screw for proper alignment – so the stretch is applied on the correct axis. Focusing is done on the taking lens, attached to the camera.
At the top of its game, Panasonic’s DVX100 – the camera that brought the power back to the indie moviemaker – got its own anamorphic adapter, the Panasonic AG-LA7200, with much greater size and quality than this generic-branded competitors.
These adapters goal, however, isn’t to achieve CinemaScope aspect ratio. Most mini-DV cameras, and even the DVX100, shot with 4:3 aspect ratio, as any default TV at the time. These adapters came out to allow older cameras to shoot in the new and widescreen 16:9 “modern” proportion, much like what happened in the the movie industry: it’s cheaper to buy an adapter than a new camera. Unfortunately these weren’t a big hit because they were already pretty expensive and not many people were willing to pay extra for them. Were also forgotten and discontinued.
We’re finally at 2009 and all these lenses can be found on eBay for laughably low prices. Canon 5D Mk II came out the previous year and it was revolutionizing digital video’s world. Then, a curious dude (or gal) like you and I decided to check if these old, weird and (at the moment) pretty cheap lenses could work with DSLR’s video capabilities.
I can only imagine his/hers surprise when the thing worked and, not only that, the resulting image was amazingly wide and unique. Results were posted online and some more people got curious. Among these it’s easy to name Andrew Reid – responsible for EOSHD and author of some of the books used during my research -, Edwin Lee – famous for being a pioneer in anamorphics and DSLRs – and Alan Doyle, also known as Redstan – a great source of knowledge about motion picture anamorphic lenses.
Shortly after processing the boost in width, the new anamorphic users realized a couple other features inherent to those lenses and adapters that were pretty hard to achieve if not using them, which had a lot to do with the images’ cinematic feel. The first of these features was the different bokeh, out of focus highlights, which remained oval even after proper unsqueezing. With regular spherical lenses, bokeh has always more of a circle shape.
Another unique feature that quickly drove anamorphics up in popularity not only among the indie productions but also on big budget feature films was the anamorphic lens flare. Lens flares aren’t always bad, specially if used while developing a unique look. Anamorphic flares are long, streaked and (usually) blue. They’re totally different from spherical flares and have a lot of personality. Using J.J. Abrams as a reference (easy one, I know), anamorphic flares are a constant through his work and we can easily spot his signature over a couple brief seconds.
From these various tests, reviews and experiments published over YouTube, Vimeo, EOSHD and other online forums, many others got interested in the game and so began the rush for anamorphic glass worldwide. In less then a year, Iscoramas that went for US$200 now reached US$4000 on eBay auctions. Many other lenses were also sold for crazy-high prices.
Following this raise in value, many anamorphic owners decided to sell their beat up old lenses, increasing the availability and lowering overall sales prices. Now, a couple years after the initial outbreak, an Iscorama goes for about US$2500 on auctions and a little more in direct sales.
LOMOs’ prices are widely apart since many of the already have cinema mounts and quality standards, so can easily go over US$4000, but it’s important to keep in mind that these were never cheap in the first place and we’re brought into the DSLR world through the use of adapters. I won’t risk writing about focus-through adapters and projection lenses because their prices don’t seem to follow such strict rules.
Over the last months the anamorphic community and enthusiasts rejoiced with announcements of brand new lens designs and releases to come soon. Among them we have SLR Magic – Hong Kong based – and Letus35 – in the US. Both promise a 1.33x stretch and focus-through adapters with custom controls for situations such as close up shots. Price ranges between US$800 and US$1300.