ANAMORPHOSE – Shooting Anamorphic On Film

Why & How I Shot an Anamorphic Lens on a Film Camera?

In my everyday life, I’m a director. I write and stage commercials, video clips, and fictions. But photography has always taken a great part in my artistic explorations.

A few years ago, after a pixel overdose, I decided to give up on digital and work with film only. Which brought me to the anamorphic process today is in line with this need for authenticity and craftsmanship.

I’m sharing this experience with you in all modesty: I am neither an optical engineer nor a specialist in the field. Being an experimental project, please don’t hesitate to bring up any inputs or comments you may have!

Just before we start: a little reminder about what anamorphic is and why I wanted to get into this experiment!

Anamorphic? What’s That?

The anamorphic process comes from the cinema. It is a shooting and projection technique that consists of anamorphosing (compressing) the image at the time of shooting, to deanamorphose (expending) it later at the time of projection resulting in a panoramic image.

The goal is not to waste film. Indeed, when the film is shot in a panoramic format, it means putting black stripes at the top and bottom of the image and thus “losing” that part of the film. We cut/reframe so we delete information.

But with anamorphic, we stretch the image in its height to fill the entire sensitive surface. The inverse projection process puts the image’s aspect ratio back into its proper relationship.

This system gave birth to the family of anamorphic lenses, as opposed to conventional spherical lenses. Some directors only use these types of lenses for their movies. This is the case with Bruno Dumont, for example.

But the anamorphic system is not limited to an economy of film surface (or sensor): it is whole aesthetic poetry that comes with it! Because the laws of optical geometry are beautiful and harmonious, the anamorphosis/desanamorphosis system has a direct impact on the texture of our image: oval blurred and flares, image distortion on the edges, feeling from a different perspective.

It is these aesthetic characteristics that made me want to bring this system to film photography. I will try to simply explain my configuration to help those of you who would like to test it. I will share with you my conclusion on the trouble/results obtained at the end of the article but before, here are a few screen captures from movies recorded on anamorphic lenses to give you an idea of the look I’m trying to replicate on still photography.

How I Did It & My Struggles

The anamorphic system operation is based on the combination of “primary objective + anamorphic”. I found an ISCO CINEMASCOPE anamorphic agent with a ratio of x2. This number corresponds to the compression ratio of the image, to speak schematically.

The first difficulty was to find the minimum primary focal length that I could use without the anamorphic lens vignetting the image (see straight away in the image). I did freehand tests, from 17mm to 200mm. First cold shower: the minimum focal length is 125mm!

Then, the biggest piece of cake was to imagine the attachment system… because the anamorphic device has no adapter ring, neither screws nor a way to be hooked somewhere.

For that, I used a lens holding clamp (1). Obviously, the size did not fit perfectly onto the lens so I adjusted by adding material to reduce the inside diameter and improve the grip (Velcro sticker…).

With this, I had a standard thread on which to lean. I used camera assistant techniques to equip my camera “like a movie camera”. I fixed the box to a plate with rods and it is on these rods that I added a pluggable bridge to hold the anamorphic device in front of the primary objective thanks to a fixed element (2) from which I removed the resting part to have access to a screw.

The constraint was to be able to manage the anamorphic device on several axes: horizontal so that it is as close as possible to the primary objective, vertical so that the two optical centers are aligned and finally the axis of rotation because the anamorphosis must be perfectly straight!

The Aspect Ratio Issue

One issue I didn’t foreseen and was confronted with was the anamorphic ratio of the lens and therefore the final ratio of my picture. Having a lens with an x2 ratio compression, the ratio was going to be different depending on the surface I was going to expose.

In 24×36 I found myself with a ratio of 12×36 once desanamorphosed – only the vertical axis undergoes a deformation – a ratio of 1:3, a little extreme for my taste!

So I turned to 6×7. With these initial dimensions, I got to a ratio of 2.33, closer to the Cinemascope panoramic standard. Hence, why I went with a medium format camera. I equipped the structure on my Mamiya RB67 with a 250mm Sekkor (which is equivalent to a 125mm in 24×36).

Okay, What About The Results?

The good news is that it works! Nevertheless, several constraints seriously limit the use of the system.

First of all, inertia. The RB67 is already a tank, so with such an outgrowth at least as heavy, it’s certainly not going anywhere!

Add to that a very long focal length, a double focus (each lens must focus well), a minimum focusing distance of 5 meters and framing with an elongated image and you get an idea of the mess I got myself into! I used the RB67’s double trigger system with a mirror lift for maximum stability. A hose in each hand: click, click, click!

For the tests, I used an Ilford HP5plus: an outdoor roller and an indoor studio roller. I deanamorphosed the photos in Photoshop using the 50% height scale. Here are the results.

Final Thoughts

First, we have to admit that studio rendering is completely… invisible and therefore useless. A reframing or this leads to the same thing. This is related to the lack of depth of a studio environment. Without a reference point or material, the anamorphic rendering disappears in applications. I assume it would be the same with other plain colour backgrounds.

On the other hand, the outdoor shoots are more like I imagined! The sensation of oval blurred is there and the general texture of the image has that little aesthetic characteristic that there is no spherical.

Also, I find that the colour ones are more immersive and create the cinematic atmosphere that I was looking for.

Then, the framing and focusing was a little challenging for me! The image that appears on the ground glass is completely elongated, so you have to get familiar with this to imagine the rendering and framing. Which is not at all obvious!

But the most difficult was without a doubt the focusing! It must be done on both lenses and coincide: the primary and the anamorphic. And that’s where the fun begins😅 Guessing sharpness on a distorted image is very complicated. It is difficult to know when you are perfectly in focus, because you can be spot on the primary lens and off on the anamorphic, or vice versa, and grope like that for a long time… See for yourself on the few examples below:

To conclude, I would say that you have to be a little sick to get into this because the pain is still maximal…Nevertheless, the aesthetic paw seems to me difficult to reproduce by another means, so it is a good reason to be interested in it and to include it in a more accomplished artistic approach.

Because of course, science without conscience is only the ruin of the soul!

Special Thanks To

Stéphane Degnieau
Cassandre Vinson
Claire Ganaye
Le Club photo UPAC Le Chesnay
Didier le collectionneur

My Projects

Instagram: @adrienlhommedieu & @atlasoftheshiningones

Going Further

Enjoying the cinematic look? Check out these Xpan articles!

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2 Replies to “ANAMORPHOSE – Shooting Anamorphic On Film”

  1. Awesome project and great photographs!

    I get what you’re saying about using this in the studio, but I disagree about it being useless. There’s something very touching about your photo with the expanded empty space. It really seems to amplify the lost, lonely look on the model’s face.

    1. Thank you Rob ! I guess what you mean. On a second thought I think you are right but it was so far from what i expected it destabilized me a bit.

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