The Moondog Labs Anamorphic Lens is hands down one of the best smartphone lenses you can buy. I explored Cape Town’s stunning peninsula to test it out.
Cape Town in the summer is one of the best places on earth to find yourself. I couldn’t have hoped for a more beautiful location, or better weather to shoot with the Moondog Labs anamorphic lens for the first time. I captured hands down some of my best visuals ever from my iPhone 7 Plus with this lens over the few days I was there. It has been a core part of my rig ever since.
Not All Smartphone Lenses Are Created Equal
I’ve always been a bit of a minimalist and have stayed away from using external lenses entirely when shooting stills or video with my iPhone. To be honest, my experiences with many add-on lenses have been disappointing. At best they haven’t given me anything that I couldn’t manage better without, and at worst they have turned out to be cheap gimmicks with terrible optical performance.
There are so many companies out there right now that have recognised the opportunity to sell smartphone photographic accessories to budget conscious enthusiasts, and seem to have no actual interest or regard for photography. They just want your money. Please don’t give it to them.
Save your money, spend more on something you will absolutely love. The Moondog Labs anamorphic lens is an investment that will pay off every time you shoot. I recommend picking up the filter holder and ND filters while you’re at it. If you’re a bit confused about ND filters for iPhone video, I’ve covered the basics in my article Everything You Need To Know About ND Filters For iPhone Video.
The Magic of Anamorphic ‘CinemaScope’
The widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio we’ve all come to associate with the big screen cinematic experience actually started in the 1950’s. CinemaScope is a name still associated with this aspect ratio, and the use of anamorphic lenses in general. The actual CinemaScope format was made obsolete from the late 60’s, replaced by improved anamorphic optics developed by Panavision.
An anamorphic lens will optically squeeze a high aspect wide frame horizontally to fit a narrower recording format. In the case of the Moondog Labs anamorphic lens, this is a ratio of 1.33x, squeezing 2.39:1 width frame down to the standard 16:9 HD / UHD for a 16:9 image sensor without losing any vertical resolution.
For playback and editing however, you will need to “desqueeze” the video, stretching the image horizontally by 1.33x to a final aspect ratio of 2.39:1. When playing back this material on a 16:9 screen it will be letterboxed with black bars top and bottom.
How To Shoot With The Moondog Labs Anamorphic Lens
You can shoot anything you want with the anamorphic lens, but there are some types of composition that are well suited to such a wide frame.
The 2.39:1 aspect ratio provides a very cinematic canvas for any filmmaker to work with. It’s a beautiful ratio to compose an image, and you will find your wide establishing shots can really breathe, becoming that much more dramatic and impactful.
This is a great way to capture and frame large panoramic vistas, and is well suited to using perspective and leading lines to guide your viewers attention through your frame.
Even medium and close up shots will take on a new look allowing you to explore new ways of composing a scene.
The most important thing when framing is to feel for balance. This is a difficult thing to define in terms of a set of visual rules to follow. For me it really is a feeling, when perspective, leading lines, blocks of color and contrasting elements come together in just the right way to create a memorable image.
I believe this intuitive sense of visual balance comes only with time and practise. Like a muscle, you have to work it consistently. The constant awareness of technicalities will fade and be replaced will a fully developed new sense. You will begin to see and feel images.
One of the most powerful visual techniques you can use when you have the luxury of such a wide format is negative space. You don’t always have to fill the frame. You can fill most of the frame with nothing at all, or just the horizon.
Of course, a single shot is rarely isolated, more often it is part of a sequence, which is part of a scene that builds to some kind of a climax or turning point. You can build suspense by deliberately holding back information from your audience, isolating your character’s emotion, action or reaction before revealing the full context.
When you have so much width in the frame, you can place your subject far to one side filling the rest of the frame with empty space or a panoramic vista.
A moving shot could begin with a lot of negative space but reveal more of the scene as the camera moves. There are many creative ways to use a wide frame to move a story forward in a dynamic way with a high visual impact you might not achieve in a narrower aspect ratio.
One thing you should watch out for is how you frame your horizon. Aligning it exactly 50% between top and bottom of your frame will ensure it remains straight. This is mostly a concern in scenes where you can see the horizon over a large portion of the frame. If it is placed higher or lower in the frame it will curve noticeably. Also make sure your camera is perfectly horizontal or your horizon will not be straight even if centred.
If the horizon is broken by buildings or various other objects then this vertical alignment is not so critical.
- Practise, practise, practise. See what works and what doesn’t.
- Remember your fundamental photographic principles of image composition.
- Keep your horizon level and centred.
- Watch and study some CinemaScope classics. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is one of my favourites.
Moondog Labs have various filter mount adaptors providing a 52mm thread for any 52mm diameter filters. I am using a set of Moondog Labs filters comprising a ND4, ND8, and ND16 that provide 2, 3 and 4 stops of exposure reduction. I stack the ND8 and ND16 together to give a total of 7 stops reduction. This allows a 1/48th sec exposure at 24fps during bright sunlit conditions.
For more on ND filters, see my article, Everything You Need To Know About ND Filters For iPhone Video.
Moondog Labs Anamorphic Lens FAQ
Moondog Labs supply a few different versions of the lens. They are all effectively the same lens, but differ in how they mount to the phone.
If you will be using a RhinoShield Case with a 12.5mm lens mount, then your choice will be the 12.5mm version.
If you are using a third party rig that provides a 37mm lens mount, you will need to go for the 37mm thread version.
The bayonet mount version works with cases that have a bayonet lens mount (such as SIRUI, RhinoShield, and Moment).
If you are not planning to use a case or rig at all, then you need to choose the correct direct clamp-on version for your phone. Clamp-on lenses are available for the iPhone 5/5S and iPhone SE, iPhone 6/6S, iPhone 6+/6S+, iPhone 7, iPhone 7+, iPhone 8, and iPhone 8+.
The Moondog Labs anamorphic lens works perfectly with both cameras.
If you are using the lens version that mounts directly onto the phone, you can simply loosen the clamp on the back of the lens and slide the lens over either camera. Once it is aligned correctly you tighten the clamp and the lens will stay in place.
If you are using a rig or a case, you need to check how to change the position of the lens mount.
The RhinoShield Case for iPhone 7+/8+ and iPhone X, XS, XS Max and XR have 12.5mm threaded mounting positions for the lens to mount over either camera.
The Helium Core requires the 37mm mount to be rotated 180 degrees by removing two screws, changing the mount position and then screwing it back in place.
There are other cases and rig systems, so it’s best to check if I haven’t mentioned it here.
I have been using the ND filters available from Moondog Labs with great success. The filter adapter allows you to use any 52mm diameter filters, or larger by using a step up ring. I have written an article that may help you choosing ND filters here.
The Moondog Labs anamorphic adapter is my favourite lens. It creates such an expansive, immersive canvas to compose any image. The optical performance is excellent and I can easily use any 52mm filter simply by clamping on the filter adapter. Of course, being able to create those anamorphic flares is a big factor, especially at night.
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