Zen – Shooting anamorphic in Shanghai with an Iscorama and $20 lens


Find out more about anamorphic shooting in my book, the EOSHD Anamorphic Shooter’s Guide 2nd edition

I was in Shanghai for most of November. Shanghai is a monstrous megapolis of concrete really and not quite what I was expecting. It is FAR rawer than Tokyo or Taipei and a lot of the old cultural relics have been swept away – but it was a very interesting place to visit and to film footage in. Down the road there was the Jade Buddha Temple in Jing’An district which is part tourist destination part temple of worship for the local Chinese, I took a look inside…

Since filming by stealth at the Longshan Temple in Taiwan with the GH1 (where pro video cameras weren’t allowed) I’ve always wanted to capture the beauty of these places with anamorphic cinemascope on a video camera.

This Buddhist temple had a regular daily ceremony involving monks, and fires outside where the public can burn incense and send their wishes to one of the Buddha Gods at the temple, for example there’s one for health, one for wealth and so on.

When pairing an anamorphic widescreen lens with a nice fast prime, you throw the logic book out of the window. What you should look for is the simplest and most primitive optics with the least coating. The Helios 44M is perfect for this. In my opinion what sterile digital HD takes it out the Russians manage to put back in so there is always something of dark age USSR origin lurking in my bag.

Another reason I like the Helios for widescreen anamorphic shooting is that it has a duel aperture ring with one of them de-clicked. Set the aperture to, say, F8 with the clicked ring and you can then smoothly open it up from there to F2 with the de-clicked ring. I found it useful for slight quick adjustments. For $20 it doesn’t exactly have the feel of a Duclos but it is nice to have!!

You can get the Helios 44M 58MM F2 at eBay here

Of course the anamorphic lens itself is not as cheap as the Helios. But 2 years ago I did manage to pick up the Isco CentaVision for £100 in the UK. It is a very rare 2x rebadged Iscorama 42 made for order when most Iscoramas are 1.5x and back then the seller at the time wasn’t aware of its value or that it could be used on DSLRs. There are still deals around like this particularly at places outside of eBay.

GH2 Isco Helios 44M

(Above: Isco + GH2 + Helios 44M)

I am split over whether I like 2.66:1 or the wider more dramatic and extreme 3.55:1 best yet. With 16:9 you get 2.66:1 with a 1.5x lens and 3.55:1 with a 2x. This is shot in 3.55:1 because I wanted the best possible image quality from the hacked GH2 in 16:9 AVCHD mode.

4:3 MJPEG is not quite there quality wise with AVCHD in terms of resolution although it does have high bitrates up in the 100’s. It is 30p though and I wanted 24p for this. For some projects I think the less extreme 2.66:1 works well, for others 3.55:1 can be beautiful. What I do think is for sure is that they both look better than 16:9 and when I look at my 16:9 footage shot at the Jade Buddha Temple versus the anamorphic stuff it really is a no-contest, the 16:9 stuff just feels so much more like video and the anamorphic widescreen (especially when black bars are visible) looks like cinema.

I also find it interesting that although there’s no horizontal flare or much bokeh with these shots, the anamorphic optics still adds something ‘different’ into the mix. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I know when I see it.

Focussing is easiest on an Iscorama

In terms of the raw image quality on display here from this $20 prime and (rather more expensive) Isco anamorphic you can shoot a video like this with a $500 Kowa 2x anamorphic as well, since that has a very similar look to the Isco CentaVision if not actually a bit sharper at fast apertures. But the reason Iscorama lenses are now worth $3000 and the Kowa $500 is all in the patented focussing mechanism. The German engineers at Isco were able to design a system where the prime is set to infinity and you only use the focus ring on the anamorphic. Isco designed this lens to be both for projection and image taking and dual focussing is fine for projectionists but for filmmakers setting up multiple shots this way is just not very practical even if you have a lot of static scenes with fixed focus.

That focus ring on my Isco has an extremely long travel which makes for great precision (but can be tricky to adapt to your follow focus gearing when racking focus during a shot). I decided to stop down to F4 for many of the shots, not because of sharpness but because I wanted a less shallow DOF with more of the architecture and monks in focus. I do love the look of shallow DOF but when it is overused in an unskillful way it becomes cliche ridden and a bit boring, so you should always judge what is best for the shot and not automatically go as wide open as you can, especially with anamorphics which benefit more than other lenses in terms of sharpness from being stopped down.

Which adapters are best for anamorphic?

In terms of adapters used for the shoot I have the RedStan anamorphic clamp (custom made in the UK). These cost around $100 here. But one important thing here is to find a M42 to Micro Four Thirds adapter which isn’t utterly rubbish. There doesn’t seem to be one with a tripod mount on yet, though there are for the NEX and for other lenses such as EF. So I went to a shop in Shanghai (Xingguang Photo, near Luban Metro stop) where I could actually try some solutions and see what the quality was like before buying. I ended up getting a Canon EF to Micro Four Thirds adapter with tripod mount and another M42 to EOS ring. Now this I found, was loose. It turns out you need to get a screwdriver and bend a piece of metal out from a notch inside the EF adapter to Micro Four Thirds to make for a tighter mounting twist, then the silver M42 ring stays put and doesn’t jangle around. Since I was out in China and couldn’t find a good quality adapter I don’t really recommend the same approach if you can get hold of a better quality adapter but I have found it impossible to find one with a tripod mount, for example the Novoflex M42 to Micro Four Thirds mount adapter is well built and $89, but useless for large heavy lenses and anamorphic.

A note on editing

I am now exclusively using Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5 instead of Final Cut Pro and I have not yet found a way to crop the video to 1920×520 anamorphic when exporting out, oddly the crop feature doesn’t seem to do anything. But I have found that I prefer to have the black bars than the silly looking slim playback window on Vimeo when it is uploaded to there. So the video is actually 1920×1080 in full with borders rather than anamorphic sized.

About Author

British filmmaker and editor of EOSHD, Andrew works in Berlin on his own self funded filmmaking and video projects.


  1. As concerns cropping out the borders to get a full 1920 x 520 file without letterbox you may use Quicktime Pro (which means Quicktime 7) Apple has cut off all the (very) useful features in Quicktime X but you should find Quicktime 7 set up among the “extra” setup (I’m not sure how it’s called in English) on Mac Os installation DVD.
    Otherwise After Effects allows you to export even more fancy formats and resolutions.

    In the end, I wonder if cropped or letterbox video are displayed the same when diplayed on full screen mode on Vimeo

  2. Yep – true. Another reason why I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of cropping it in the end :) It used to be that Vimeo had some kind of bug that played back black border videos very poorly with a very low bitrate, but that is fixed now.

  3. hey guys, i´m new here. i would like to ask what is anamorphic good for? i only readed something about good lens flares. thanks

  4. It is a lot of specific things that add up to a more cinematic feel to images not just the horizontal flare. Different looking bokeh, different geometry to the shot, depth, wideness, aspect ratio and a wider field of view without sacrificing aperture speed.

  5. I love how the feel of the whole piece. The smoke adds a really cool ambiance.
    Idk if ya read my twitter reply to ya… but for the sake of knowledge here’s how i do my anamorphic crop in CS5:
    i. set my sequence to the desired aspect ratio
    ii. When exporting manually type the frame dimensions in the video export options.
    iii. Select “Square Pixels” as your aspect ratio.
    Hope that helps.

  6. Having been to this temple about a year ago, I was excited to watch your video. And while the images you captured are beautiful, the cropping does a disservice to the size of the place and some of the statues, mostly due I think to the Helios’ 116mm equivalent focal length. Great as part of a narrative, but unfortunately not as document of the place. Also I didn’t like your choice of music. I purchased a CD in Shanghai to find the right music for my small “holiday” piece that I think better reflects the grandeur and dual nature of the place.

    But lest I sound too negative, I’m sure for people who do not know the place, your video is a beautiful experience. And if I may say so, immaculate shooting. Love that Soviet glass!

  7. There’s no cropping with an anamorphic lens. The Helios is 58mm even by 35mm standards on the GH2 with the 2x anamorphic because the anamorphic widens the field of view by a factor of 2. By the way this temple isn’t very big… it is tiny. A wide angle option can be useful but I have some shots with the Olympus 12mm wide angle at the same temple and I much prefered the 58mm with anamorphic footage. For wide angle anamorphic the LA7200 has the coverage on wider lenses where the Iscoramas vignette.

  8. “When pairing an anamorphic widescreen lens with a nice fast prime, you throw the logic book out of the window. What you should look for is the simplest and most primitive optics with the least coating. The Helios 44M is perfect for this.”

    Unfortunately I have no experience shooting with anamorphic lenses, could you elaborate a bit more on this please. What would be the problem with nice glass?

    The only thing I can think of is that better lens coating produces less flare whereas the use of anamorphic lenses is famous for producing extraordinary flares… but that’s not the case here.

    Your video for the most part is dead crisp! I didn’t expect such a performance from Helios 44M especially when combined with anamorphic glass that is supposed to take away some crispness.
    By the way this is one of your best videos.

  9. Andrew,

    Nice work as I always find you do. I was in that same temple almost three years ago. It struck me how important Buddhism still is to a small (but hopefully growing) segment of the Chinese population.

    On my trip I was shooting on a HVX200 at that time. I hadn’t made the jump to DSLR shooting yet. So by way of HVX200 to GH2 anamorphic comparison (32.5 – 423mm vs 58mm in 35mm equivalent) for those that were interested in seeing how “wide” the anamorphic is, here is my “vacation” video from the same temple. I was on a bus tour, so had to run through and didn’t have time for a tripod or slider. Sorry for the non stabilized shots :)



  10. Yeah, I really start to see that difference, even though it’s hard to really pinpoint. But there definitely is a difference in geometry and depth which just ‘feels’ instantly cinematic. The un-cropped widescreen and horizontal flares are really just icing on the cake, to me the real cinematic quality is in that different ‘look & feel’, flares or not.

  11. Hey Andrew!
    I bought your Anamorphic Shooters Guide on google checkout on friday, and haven’t gotten and info on where to download it! I cant wait to get reading, how do I get it?

    thanks for any info,

  12. Anamorphics do something to the light entering the lens that most lenses are not really designed to work with. Luckily, anamorphics are designed to do this in a way that does work with most lenses, but a more complicated modern lens has more elements, is doing many optical corrections. The anamorphic messes with all of these, so throw them out the window. An older good condition lens will be far simpler in optical design, with fewer corrective elements for the anamorphic to “mess with”. Anamorphics do a lot of junk, pulling more light from wider. The one that comes to mind as most potentially problematic is the curving of the FOV. Im no rocket scientist, but I would suspect that complex elements like asphericals and others might not be too happy with that.

  13. Some lovely compositions there, really pretty images, how amazing it all looks in such a wide ratio. It’s odd the effect that anamorphic has, hard to pin down but it’s kind of otherworldly…

    What on earth bitrate is this, it’s so detailed!? :0 The more GH2 footage I see with the newer hack the more I wanna switch from the EOS when time/money allows me to buy and learn a new body

  14. Hi Andrew, I’m a bit curious about your anamorphic workflow as I can’t really see the supposed advantage to it. This is not a criticism more a lack of understanding on my part, but if I understand correctly, the workflow you have used has resulted in the equivalent of cropping the top and bottom of your frame and shooting with a wider lens?

    Look at it like this, anamorphic is designed as a form of optical compression, fitting more (width) information into an existing space, then it is optically decompressed at the other end (in the case of of film through an anamorphic lens on the projector – in digital by the software seeing pixels as ‘non-square’). Theoretically this should give extra (compressed) resolution along the horizontal axis while maintaining resolution in the vertical axis? But in your example you have lost half of your vertical resolution (540 down from 1080) and kept the same standard horizontal resolution (1920). How is this of any advantage to actually just cropping your frame?

    You also mentioned that you can use faster lenses in your comments, but you stopped down to F4 anyway. I’m sorry I don’t really understand where you are coming from with this, I did really enjoy your film though and yes I get the look of a nice widescreen aspect, so this question is more about the use of anamorphic not aspect.

  15. Anamorphic lenses give a certain look that is more cinematic, that comes from the desqueezing process. I assume he has lost vertical resolution because Vimeo isn’t going to support anything wider than 1920 anyhow.

  16. Andrew, I love the 44M, I’ve used it with a Sankor 16D. For others, I am very happy with my “Big_is M42 adapter”. Was cheap, well made and came with extra screws and micro allen wrench so you could adjust the mount to have your focus markers on top. Mine didn’t need adjustment. Very tight fit, no slop.

    Andrew, the 44M has a great look with adapter or alone. But at 58mm its a bit long. Have you tried any other lenses (wider lenses) with a similar look?

    I think the problem with modern lenses, say the new 12mm primes, or even my much loved 20mm is the look is very contrasty, and almost too sharp for dramatic filming. But these german designed lenses via Russia are the best.

    I kind of love describing to people GH-2 (CHINA), 44M Helios (RUSSIA/GERMANY) Sankor 16D (JAPAN) United nations of photography:-)

  17. This is only 44Mbit :) It can go to 176Mbit AVCHD Intra-frame and I haven’t even optimised it with any of Driftwoods patches yet, I wanted all out reliability and after 44Mbit the gains (I think) are smaller…

    The GH2 is definitely king of codecs and image resolution at the moment on DSLRs by a BIG margin.

  18. Thanks. I just find it easier to edit on a normal timeline, 1920×1080 AVCHD 24p sequence (can you set custom aspect ratio like non-standard 3.55:1 for native AVCHD? Not sure.) and do a 50% vertical squeeze on each clip which doesn’t affect playback in real-time on a decent machine. Then export as 1080p with black bars.

  19. Yeah it’s a lot bigger difference than I thought. I usually think I can tell when things aren’t I-frame, but I’m probably tricking myself, this looks sharp as lemon torte! So are the higher bitrate unreliable? Does that mean crashes or recording stops?

  20. When unstretched the picture would be full height but much greater width, here it’s scaled down to fit in a 1920 * 1080 box for Vimeo. The original would have been much larger that 1920..

    Some benefits over shooting with standard lenses and cropping are: long focal lengths show a wider picture so you don’t need to find very wide lenses, nice ‘waterfall’ bokeh, nice flares if you want them.

    Stopping down anyway was an artistic choice by the looks of it, to keep more monks in focus! Ideally you set aperture to get the DOF you want, and if you’re forced to open it because of low light, so be it. A strange perception has popped up since the advent of DSLR: that it’s best to be as wide open and shallow as you can all the time, just because you can, even putting ND filters on to keep things insanely shallow in good light. But a film made of all shallow focus is as boring as any dish with one flavour ;)

    For reference I’ve been shooting some product video recently, closed to f8 or tighter most of the time to keep things in focus. I have to mix in more than the fair share of shallow DOF shots though, because the subject is not visually stimulating. With lovely architecture and detailed scenes it’s quite nice to have so much in focus I think, deep focus is underated…

  21. Not at all! I’ve been using the high nitrate GOP1 (read: INTRA) hack settings with absolutely no reliability issues whatsoever. It burns through card space like a mother (12 minutes on a 16GB), it runs only on highest quality class 10 cards, and the files do not span after the 4 minute file limit mark, unless you use a lower bitrate. But it is Sooooo worth it. Killer image.

  22. Stunning camerawork. So CineaScope-like…

    Really impressive movie-making. I take it the GH1/2 are the real stuff to use with the anamorphic. I have a Sankor 16F (which I can’t part), and a Canon 50mm lens, and hope to get my sights on Helios. Do you think the Helios is idea (since they are cheap) for digital movie making with dslr cameras like the Panasonic GH2 or Sony Nex 5?

    I’m new here.

    Thanks and Happy Holidays

  23. This is fantastic. Thank you for letting us see, and more importantly, experience something we wouldn’t have been able to without your work. Excellent storytelling, and a spot-on song choice. Cheers

  24. That is what I was asking – whether the original was ‘wider’ than 1920 square pixels (obviously there are still only 1920 pixels they are just represented as non-square). I was of the impression however that Vimeo supported up to 4k resolutions which is why I was curious as to whether Andrew was actually working that way or essentially losing half the total resolution available?

    Also I am aware of the current trends of shooting wide open ALL the time and the poor effects that has on filmmaking – I personally loath it. It was more that it was listed as a benefit of using anamorphic lenses yet wasn’t utilized (once again talking only about this particular video). Presumably the wider angle effect of using an anamorphic lens would cause an increase in death of field anyway? And yes I prefer the way this is shot in terms of DoF compared to shooting everything wide open.

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