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Make video look like film: how 35mm lens adapters changed our world

I established CreationVideo in 1993, and as a filmmaker I’ve always sought to achieve high production values, not only to give our clients best value, but also because I’m a perfectionist (I’m told!) and I love what I do.

Of course, there are no higher production values than those achieved in the movies, which are always shot on 35mm film. We all know that budgets for these are enormous, partly because 35mm stock, equipment and technical requirements are so expensive.

So the challenge has always been, how can we achieve the look of film in our productions (thereby setting our clients’ films apart from their competitors), on realistic budgets?

The key factor that differentiates the look of 35mm film from the look of video is the shallow depth of field achieved by its film camera lenses. Depth of field is the distance between the nearest and furthest parts of a subject that can be imaged with acceptably sharp detail at one focus setting of the lens.

So a shot with a shallow depth of field is one where the area that the lens is focused on, is smaller, and the rest of the shot is out of focus.

Watch any movie shot on film and you’ll see this. The effect of shallow depth of field is to concentrate the viewer’s attention on the subject in focus. And, compared to video, it looks gorgeous, because there’s an overall softening. Video is much more ‘hard’ or flat-looking, as much more of the shot is in focus.

This chart, from Letus, compares the depth of field of different cameras (click for bigger):

You can see that consumer cameras have the greatest DOF, and 35mm movie cameras the least. So, how can we achieve this prized shallow DOF with our professional video cameras?

The breakthrough came in 2007, with the arrival of affordable 35mm lens adapters – adapters for using 35mm photographic lenses on DV and HD cameras. These adapters, from manufacturers like Letus, are attached to the camera’s lens, and the 35mm lens goes on their other end. The image from the 35mm lens – with its shallow depth of field characteristics – is projected onto a screen in the adapter, and the camera’s lens is focused onto that screen’s other side, and records the image. For a fuller explanation, see Wikipedia here.

The 35mm photographic lenses are the key to the film look; it’s best use fast prime lenses that compensate for the fact that the adapter causes some light loss to the final image. Fast = having a wide maximum aperture, eg f1.2, f1.4 or f1.8 – allowing more light in. Prime = having a fixed focal length, ie non-zoom.

This video compares a sequence (on the left) filmed without a depth of field adapter, to the same sequence filmed with our Letus Elite 35mm adapter:

Two years later, I am still awestruck when I see the film-like quality of the HD images we are able to create using the 35mm adapter and Nikon lenses with our Sony XDCAM EX1; compared to the images from the high-end DVCAM cameras we were using previously, they have a gorgeous softness, an organic feel to them.

So what are the latest developments for filmmakers seeking the film look? We need look no further than the latest DSLR cameras… HD-DSLRs – but that’s another blog entry.

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