40mm lenses have an incredibly rich history in cinema, and have been used (almost) exclusively by a handful of filmmakers.
Much like the sought after 28mm focal length, there is an intangible quality that 40mm lenses offer – although for entirely different reasons.
28mm lenses are a little wider than the natural perspective of our eyesight, which adds a layer of stylization that can work wonders. They skew reality just enough to transport you into another world by slightly manipulating your perception.
40mm lenses however, do the very opposite. They create the most realistic perspective – one that is nearly identical to human eyesight. The 35mm focal length is often thought of as the most “normal” lens. But according to many DPs (who I agree with), 40mm is in fact the closest to our vision. At least when paired with a Super 35mm camera.
You don’t always want to exactly re-create reality of course, but when you do the 40mm is often your best bet. The ultimate case in point is the late Gordon Willis.
For those who need to brush up on some film history: Gordon Willis was an Oscar winning cinematographer known for his work on countless feature films, including All The President’s Men and The Godfather trilogy, which is just the tip of the iceberg.
His aesthetic was incredibly distinct, but not because he over-stylized his shots. He was known for putting the story at the forefront of the audience experience, and finding ways to make the camera get out of the way.
He very often relied on what was later called the “Gordy Forty” – a single 40mm lens that would capture an entire movie.
By shooting everything on a single lens (and choosing the most natural focal length), the viewer never felt manipulated. Every shot felt life-like and truthful, rarely drawing attention away from the scene.
It’s the type of impact that an audience feels, even if they are not conscious of it.
Gordon certainly wasn’t the only DP to embrace the 40mm focal length though. It’s been used extensively (and in some cases exclusively) on a number of notable films throughout the decades.
Movies Shot Entirely On 40mm Lenses
Thousands of movies have used 40mm lenses for individual shots or scenes, but there are a handful of films shot entirely at a 40mm focal length.
Below are 6 examples of films shot at least 95% using a single 40mm lens. There are almost certainly other films that could have been included too, but most are not as well documented as the following 6:
- Royal Tenenbaums
- Son of Saul
- The Godfather
Despite their exclusive use of 40mm lenses though, these movies all have distinctly different looks. Differences in lens type (anamorphic / spherical) and capture format (large format / super 35) completely change the effect that any lens produces.
Several films on this list – like 1917, shot on Alexa Large Format – definitely veer off from the classic 40mm look that Gordon Willis and others were after. To me, that’s where the true magic of 40mm lives, and where it shines.
But the versatility of 40mm is undeniable. It’s middle of the road in the best way possible, making it useable (even to capture an entire feature film) on practically any format or aspect ratio. That’s in part why it’s been used as the sole lens on such a variety of project types.
If you’re an owner/operator, it’s a great focal length to own. Especially if you own multiple cameras with different capture formats.
Pair it with Super 35mm for the most natural look, large format for a wide angle, or Super 16 for a telephoto.
Right now I am shooting a feature film entirely using one lens as well. But I am using a 50mm focal length. You can read more about the project here.
Anamorphic Vs. Spherical
It’s worth noting the difference in field of view between an anamorphic 40mm lens and a spherical 40mm lens. This is one of the major factors that differentiates the look of the films above.
Like any other anamorphic lens, a 40mm anamorphic will produce a wider image than its spherical counterpart. De-squeezing from anamorphic creates many other distinctions too – from bokeh appearance to field of view. As a whole, anamorphic lenses create more stylization than spherical, with some exceptions.
The list of movies above includes films shot on both anamorphic and spherical 40mm. This is why you will see a distinct visual difference between a movie like Chinatown or The Royal Tenenbaums (Anamorphic) and The Godfather or 1917 (Spherical).
Both type of lenses can of course produce beautiful visuals, but the aesthetics will be noticeably different. Not to mention the impact on your aspect ratio.
For DPs like Gordon Willis who wanted the most natural look, a 40mm spherical was the way to go.
40mm Glass On Super 35
Many 40mm lenses can be paired with a variety of film gauges or sensor sizes – from Super 16mm to Full Frame. But to get the most “honest” look, I recommend pairing your 40mm lens with a Super 35 recording format. Again, this is the sweet spot.
Most classic movies shot with spherical 40mm lenses (like The Godfather) were captured on 35mm motion picture film. This is how Gordon Willis shot his movies, and surely what he considered to be the most natural pairing.
On a full frame sensor, a 40mm lens will look more like a 28mm would on Super 35. It creates a totally different look. On a Micro Four Thirds sensor, a 40mm lens will look more like an 80mm telephoto.
As mentioned above, this makes 40mm lenses super versatile, which is good. But you certainly need to take into account crop factor (or lack thereof), if you are seeking the classic 40mm natural aesthetic.
You can try to emulate the 40mm motion picture look by pairing a 60mm lens on your full frame camera, or by shooting with a 20mm lens on a Micro Four Thirds camera. Both will give you an “equivalent” 40mm field of view. But the results will never be exactly the same.
If you really want to capture the most classic 40mm look, pair the lens with a camera that records in Super 35. Or if you have a camera that can crop into a smaller area of your sensor to emulate the Super 35 field of view, that works too.
What are your thoughts on the 40mm focal length? Leave a comment below!