By Tyler Ham Pong, Film Columnist
Despite being an art form, there’s a lot of tech that goes into the moving images you see in film. For example, choosing the right type of camera can determine the difference between 1080p and 4K resolution, slow motion with the frame rate, and even the ability to find light in near-darkness with high ISOs. But today I want to talk about the camera’s most important attachment – its lens. Lenses are a cinematographer’s secret weapon in creating the world that the audience sees. You don’t need a bunch of lenses to be a good cinematographer, but variety can help create a complex film language, and add production value. A cinematographer once told me to invest in the fastest and most expensive glass (showbiz lingo for lenses) because it will last you longer than the camera. Which is true. When I turn in my Sony a7ii for a camera with better specs, I’ll keep my lenses because they’ve become a part of my storytelling process. So, I’m going to break down my favorite lenses and tell you why and how I use them.
Picture 1: This photograph of actress Jamie Miller was taken with my Zeiss FE 1.8/55mm lens.
Picture 2: This still frame is taken from my work on music video “17” was also taken with my Zeiss FE 1.8/55mm lens.
Above are samples from my Zeiss FE 1.8/55mm lens made specifically for Sony cameras. Since it’s made for Sony, it’s very compatible with my camera and can take advantage of all its automatic features, including facial recognition and autofocus. I bought it for headshots because it’s super sharp and perfect for portraits. It’s called a ‘prime’ lens because it has a single focus length, meaning it can’t zoom. Therefore, I must physically move to reframe my subject. In gaining quality and sharpness with a prime lens, I lose the flexibility of a telephoto lens. Nevertheless, it’s my most expensive piece of glass and worth every penny. It’s most effective in capturing subjects just a few feet away. Not the type of lens you’d typically use for wide shots.
Picture 3: This is a photograph to demonstrate how the Rokinon T3.1/14mm Wide Angel Cine Lens can create different planes of storytelling in one photo.
Picture 4: I used my Rokinon T3.1/14mm Wide Angle Cine Lens to create depth and empty space in this hotel room, making the subject appear isolated and small. This still frame is taken from my work on singer Martin Del Carpio’s music video “17.”
So, let’s move onto the bigger picture! Pun intended. The Rokinon T3.1/14mm Wide Angle Cine Lens is one of my favorite lenses by far. It’s also a prime lens, so it’s a fixed focal length which is standard for a wide angle fisheye lens. And with glass that looks like a bubble, it sees everything. It is manual, which means minimal automatic features. But it’s an easy lens to wean yourself off auto and take the plunge into manual mode. Personally, I love the form it allows a room to take, and I use it to create depth and space. It’s very effective in making a small place look spacious, and I’ve used this lens to effectively create negative space around a subject to appear isolated or alone. This lens can be haunting in that regard. On the flipside, this lens can create a lot of depth if you focus on a subject in the foreground, while allowing action to happen in the background. This creates two planes of storytelling in a single frame. Other cinematographers immediately fall in love with this lens when I let them use it. But it’s mine, so get your own!
Picture 5: This is a photograph of actress Hannah Kat Jones (Austin & Ally) taken with the Rokinon T3.1/100mm Macro Cine Lens. While being great for macro photography, it’s equally effective with crisp portraits.
Picture 6: I often use my Rokinon T3.1/100mm Macro Cine Lens to achieve detail on a subject’s face. Pictured below is a still from my work on music video “Psycho In Me” by singer Kaitlyn Rosati.
Now that we’ve seen the big picture, let’s take a closer look. The Rokinon T3.1/100mm Macro Cine Lens is a manual lens with a fixed focal length. It’s from the same manufacturer as my previously explained lens; and not to sound like I’m specifically endorsing this company, but they’re a great source for quality glass at reasonable prices. At great price comes great responsibility. Rokinon makes these lenses relatively affordable because they’re manual and involve more work for the user. That’s the trade-off. Nevertheless, this lens gives me the ability to see detail in a subject that is physically close to the lens. That’s why it’s called ‘macro.’ It’s like a magnifying glass, minus the distortion. I can place my lens almost an inch away from a subject and still be in focus, perfect for adding detail and cutaways to any scene. If you want a small coin to fill the entire frame, this is your lens. It’s also great for portraits.
There you have it! My trade secrets. Although these aren’t the only lenses in my arsenal, they’re the ones I wanted to write about because of the success I’ve had with them. They’ve each contributed in either creating my vision, or inspiring one. And that’s the type of synchronicity that all filmmakers should have with their glass.
If you’d like to see my lenses in action, check out my recent work for singer Martin Del Carpio’s music video “17.” In this music video, I utilized the 14mm, 55mm and 100mm. Can you tell which is which? Good luck!
Tyler Ham Pong started performing at a young age, first appearing onstage as Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice at the National Arts Centre in Canada. In addition to training at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, his New York City achievements have included producing Moony Mercury (theatre), producing the award-winning Two Days ’til Dawn (theatre), and producing the short film Sawaru, winning him a Best Actor Award at the AAIFF. Currently he’s based in Los Angeles, and you can follow him @tylerhampong or go to http://www.tylerhampong.com and www.killthepigproductions.com.