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How to Make Advanced Cinematic Shots With a Short Lens

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This post is part of a series called Cinematic Shot Choices.
How to Make Cinematic Shots with a Medium Lens
How to Make Advanced Shots With a Long Lens

The short lens isn't just for shooting wide-angles, but for controlling how your video conveys the scale of a scene. Use the short lens to increase speed, change perspective and affect motion. From distorted close-ups to rapid moves, this lesson covers the advanced techniques for shooting expert footage with the short lens.

Short, Medium and Long Lenses

Short lenses have a shorter focal length than medium or long lenses. The short lens is often known as a wide lens because you can get a wide angle of view. I avoid the term wide because it leads people to just use the short lens for wide shots of landscapes. 

The line between the three types of lenses isn’t clearly defined. A 24mm lens is shorter on a Canon 7D than a Black Magic cinema camera. It’s a different result again with a RED EPIC. The best way to get a feel for the differences between lenses, is to get out and use them.

The Short Lens Close Up

For close ups we often use a long lens. It isolates the face and it flatters the features but you can use a short lens. This is something that Peter Jackson often does because it distorts the face so it creates a creepy and eerie nightmare feeling. 

It's not at all flattering to the actors so you don't want to do this at times when you're trying to make someone look attractive and you also have to be aware that the short lens, because it has a wide angle of view, will reveal more of the background. 

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A short lens closeup has a nightmarish look.

A short lens closeup is also quite intense for the actor because you have to get very close to their face. It might look like you’re about 30 centimetres away from the actor in the shot but in fact you’ll need to be about three or four centimetres away from their face. 

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Going a little higher can be more flattering.

The distortion it causes will often make the actor’s nose appear much larger than it really is. That's partly why it's so unflattering. One way to compensate for this is to raise the camera slightly. You still get that same distortion and nightmarish feeling but it can just be a little more flattering on the actor's features.

Exaggerating Motion

In the basic short lens tutorial we looked at how the short lens exaggerates motion towards the camera. You can really take advantage of this by having the actor move towards the camera at the same time that the camera moves towards the actor. 

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The actor starts small in the frame.

In the shot in the accompanying video, the actor takes two steps towards the camera and the camera moves two steps towards her. The result is an enormous change: she goes from being tiny in the frame to almost filling the frame in a very short time. This is really useful at moments of great drama when somebody sees something unexpected. 

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And a short moment later she fills it.

A variation on the shot is to begin out of focus and then as you push in you reach the focus point that you set previously. That actually works better at night when somebody is emerging from a dark space. 

Exaggerating Speed

In the basic lesson we looked at how speed can be exaggerated. When somebody runs towards the camera they appear to be going much faster. A more advanced version of this technique involves framing the actor differently and having the camera lower than it appears to be. 

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The camera pans hard to the right as the actor runs past.

In the shot in the video, the camera looks as though it’s on the same level as the actor but in fact the camera is down at ground level. She's framed on the right of frame and as she runs towards the camera, the camera remains absolutely stationary until she gets quite close. Then it's as though her movement drags the camera around. It pans hard to the right. Because the camera is so low it has to pivot around to follow her and that massively increases the feeling of speed. 

As the shot ends, the camera moves around and frames her on the left. That way she's moved from the right to the left of frame. That again enhances this feeling of speed. 

Abstract Shots

The short lens can also be used for semi-abstract moments, where you look up at the sky and the camera circles around. This is often used when someone is lost or confused in a film. In the first version of the shot in the video, the branches in the very center of the frame stay exactly where they are. It is the camera simply rotating. 

Short lenses are great for abstract shots.

A variation on this is to have the camera swing along slightly as well as turning. This creates a slightly less nightmarish feeling. 

To achieve the first effect, you simply turn the camera. It can be handheld or on a tripod. For the second, move the camera a short distance from side to side so as rotates. The difference between these two short lens effects is very subtle and it's often worth filming both versions and seeing which you need when it comes to the edit. 

Circle a Stationary Actor

The short lens is also a great way to move around an actor who stationary. Let’s imagine you’ve a shot where the actor sees something in the distance. You want to show her reaction. Rather than just moving the camera to the other side and showing her reaction, you can spin around her. In the shot in the video, that’s exactly what I do.

This is a very simple camera move that can be achieved hand-held. You don’t need a Steadi-Cam although it can help to use stabilisation software in post-production.

Introduce Elements of Surprise

The short lens is a great way to introduce elements of surprise. 

You can open with a shot that looks as though you’re just looking at a street or a landscape, and then the actor appears from behind the camera. A great variation on this is to actually have objects or people pass over the camera. In the shot in the video, we start with what appears to be just a landscape shot and then the two actors holding hands move right over the top of the camera. 

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The two actors move directly over the camera.

It’s a really powerful way to introduce people to a scene. 

Wrapping Up

So remember, the short lens isn't just for shooting wide angles. It's for creating distortion and working with motion to create the advanced effects I’ve covered in this lesson. Use the short lens right and it can really enhance your filmmaking.

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