Choosing a cine-camera and lenses for a cinema DCP film

Choosing an aspect ratio

Cinemas have two standard settings for aspect ratio: Flat 1.85 and Scope 2.39

There are 4 DCI DCP resolutions used on films in cinemas:

4K Scope 2.39:1 4096 1716
4K Flat 1.85:1 3996 2160
2K Scope 2.39:1 2048 858
2K Flat 1.85:1 1998 1080

  • All cinemas have settings for 2K/4K flat and scope. On 2K projectors, the 4K resolution layer is discarded.
  • 2.39 fills the screen in fixed-height cinemas, where Flat and Scope share the same height, and the screen is 2.39:1. This is the most common cinema type.
  • 1.85 fills the screen in fixed-width cinemas where Scope and Flat share the same width, and the screen is 1.85:1.
  • Aspect ratios smaller than close to 1.85, like 1.37 and 2.0 are used inside Flat 1.85.
  • Larger aspect ratios than 2.39, like 2.66, are used inside Scope 2.39.
  • 2.2 has been delivered in 1.85, but Oppenheimer was delivered in both flat and scope. The flat version is intended for fixed-width cinemas and the scope version is intended or fixed-height cinemas. If a fixed-width cinema shows the scope version, the picture will be both letterboxed and pillarboxed.

More info on DCPs

  • A DCP is a digital cinema print and is often made to look like a analog 35 mm print. When a 35 mm print is screened in a movie theatre, the Xenon bulb in the projector decides the white point. The Xenon bulbs have a white point around D60. DCPs can have a colder video D65 white point, but many films are made with the warmer 35 mm print D60 white point. All 35 mm prints had film grain even if they were shot digitally, now some filmmakers add it in post-production to avoid a clinical look. Some also use vintage and detuned lenses to avoid a clinical or made-for-TV video look.
  • DCPs are shown on big screens where compression artifacts are more visible than on a smaller screen. DCPs use high bit depth (12 bit, 2.6 gamma) and high bitrate JPEG2000 compression (250 mbit). Film grain and noise can be left as it is or added without low bit rate artifacts like blocking, banding, and patterns in the noise in the shadows.
  • Bit-rate intensive footage like a plane flying over a forest looks good on high bit-rate DCPs where each frame is compressed individually. (Intra frame compression).
  • DCPs are shown in dark rooms on cinema screens with less light intensity (14 fL) and a lower contrast ratio than on a modern OLED TV. If the light intensity is set too high in the cinema, colors can be too colorful, and what is intended to look black can look grey.
  • DCPs can use Rec.709 or the P3 color space at 14 fL. P3 has a more saturated dark red/orange/violet color than REC709/SRGB).

Recommended cine-camera settings and practices

The Netflix list of approved 4K cameras for original content is a good list of 4K cine-cameras. It also has recommended practices like using a framing chart. The list shows which settings are to be used on each camera for Netflix’s original 4K productions.

When making a film for the cinema, you can use settings other than the ones approved for Netflix for original content. But the Netflix settings like:

  • at least Prores,
  • 10-bit depth
  • and C-LOG or similar

    are also recommended for digital cinema.

High bit rate and high bit depth cameras

A digital cine camera usually:

  • Records in a high bitrate raw format like ArriRaw. or semi-raw formats like BRAW. Or Prores.
  • Records in a LOG format like C-LOG or Blackmagic film
  • Records in 10-bit or 12-bit. or more
  • Records in DCI 2K and/or DCI 4K resolutions
  • Has framing lines for 1.85 Flat and 2.39 Scope

Cine-cameras recording in high-bit rate and high bit depth rate preserve:

  • Dynamic Range.
  • Shadow detail.
  • High-detail scenery like forests and water.

Choosing sensor size and resolution (2K/4K)

Example: ARRI Alexa 35 with 2X anamorphic recording in 4K DCI SCOPE

The new ARRI Alexa 35 has a Super 35 4/3 sensor with 4.6K resolution.

It has selectable “digital film stocks” called Arri Textures like G733 nostalgic that can burn in an organic grainy 35 mm look or the normal ARRI look used in the discontinued ARRI Alexa Mini.

You can record directly in 4K DCI resolution like c-log4 ProRes 4K 2.39:1 Anamorphic 2x 3328×2790 (20.21 x 16.95 mm) desqueezed to Scope 4K DCI 2.39 (4096×1716).

Because the sensor area is 20.21 x 16.95 mm/26.3 mm image circle, you can use traditional anamorphic lenses like the Atlas Orion anamorphic lenses, which cover a 24.89 mm x 18.66 mm sensor area.

Read more about Choosing sensor size, resolution, and lenses on cine cameras

Choosing a look

Research what lenses and cine-cameras are used on other films

American Cinematographer is a good source on what lenses and cameras are used on current films. The interviews will also have information about other important aspects of cinematography like lighting, choosing an aspect ratio, choosing a look, film stock choice, or 3D LUT choice.

Indiewire does cinematography surveys where they ask cinematographers which cine cameras and lenses they used. There are more factors than lens and camera when finding a look for a film, and some of the DOPs tell how they use different techniques like shooting handheld, lighting for 360, and using detuned lenses to get the look they are looking for.

The Oscar cinematography survey for films released in 2019

The Oscar cinematography survey for films released in 2020

The Oscar cinematography survey for films released in 2021

Sundance 2023 cinematography survey

Large format, Full format, 65 mm

The ARRI ALEXA LF mini cine camera and other large format cameras like the Sony Venice have been popular recently.

Large format lenses with a cleaner modern look, like the Zeiss Supreme, are used in recent films like Titane (dir. Julia Ducournau, DOP Ruben Impens). Modern lenses like the Zeiss Supreme can give more saturated colors and higher contrast than some vintage lenses. Ruben Impens used diffraction filters to avoid a too clinical look.

On Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (dir. Rian Johnson), DOP Steve Yedlin uses the Alexa LF and Zeiss Supreme lenses. Instead of diffraction filters he uses post-production tools that he has created to give the film a non-clinical look. On both Knives Out and Glass Onion, he used tools like

  • a simulation of 35 mm film stock colors
  • a simulation of 35 mm halation
  • a simulation of 35 mm grain
  • a simulation of film gate weave. Yedlin shows in his display prep videos that you can match film and digital cine cameras in a film.

The Best Cinematography winner at the 2020 Oscars was 1917 (dir. Sam Mendes). DOP Roger Deakins used the Arri Alexa LF and the ARRI Signature Prime 40 mm lens.

Deakins likes a clean look without lens breathing and vignetting and says in an interview that the Alexa LF and signature prime lenses are the sharpest and cleanest he has seen.

The Best Cinematography winner at the 2022 Oscars was Dune (dir. Denis Villeneuve). DOP Greig Fraser used ARRI Alexa LF combined with tuned Panavision Ultra Vista Anamorphics and Panavision H series spherical lenses. And scanned film-out by Foto-kem. Fraser also used the ARRI Alexa LF with Ultra Vista anamorphics on S1 of The Mandalorian.


Many films have been made with Super-35 cine-cameras like the Arri Alexa Mini and RED cameras. Organic super-35 lenses like Cooke S4, Leica Summilux, and Zeiss Super Speeds. Rehoused Super Baltars and Canon K35 are also popular.

The ARRI ALEXA 35 can record in 4K with super-35 lenses like the Leica Summilux. And is an alternative to RED cameras for 4K capture with super-35 lenses on Netflix films and shows.
Read more about 4K sensor sizes and lens coverage in this post:
Choosing sensor size, resolution, and lenses on cine cameras

On Another Round (dir. Thomas Vinterberg), DoP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen used the Arri Alexa Mini and Canon K35 lenses. For some scenes, he used close-focus diopters to get a very low depth of field. Diopters are also often used with anamorphic lenses for close-ups.

The winner of Best Cinematography at the 2021 Oscars was Mank. The film uses deep focus techniques similar to that of Citizen Kane. Director David Fincher and DOP Erik Messerschmidt used RED’s HELIUM 8K S35 Monochrome and added a lot effects like film gate weave in post-production. The lenses used were Leica Summilux at high T stops.

35 mm film

Some cinematography Oscar contenders in the last years have been shot on film.

On Licorice Pizza (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson), DoP Paul Thomas Anderson and DP Michael Bauman were inspired by 70s movies like American Graffiti. They shot on 35mm film with Panavision C-series anamorphic lenses, custom-made lenses from Panavision, and some lenses from Paul Thomas Anderson’s collection.

Many consider the anamorphic look with horizontal flares, oval bokeh, and organic focus fall-off very cinematic. The Panavision C-series has lots of character and flare.

Super-16 mm film

On Spencer (dir: Pablo Larraín), DoP Claire Mathon used s16 mm film with Leitz Summilux and Zeiss Ultra 16 lenses. Large film grain and large depth of field are part of the super-16 mm look.

Modern or vintage lenses

The Zeiss Technical papers on field depth and MFT explain some of the science behind lens design:

  • The aberrations in some vintage lenses can make them easier to pull focus on than modern lenses.
  • Vintage lenses often have more character wide-open or near wide-open. When stopped down, chromatic aberration goes away.
  • MFT charts do not predict nice bokeh. A lens can have perfect sharpness but lack nice focus fall off.
  • A lens used on APS-C at F.2 has around the same depth of field as F 2.8 on full frame. This will vary with the sensor used.
  • Large sensors and high resolution increase the details that are captured. This also helps softer lenses since both sensor size/resolution and lens performance determine how much detail is captured.

Modern lenses

The ARRI signature primes are modern lenses that have consistent T-stops and matching characteristics across the set. They create a smooth and pleasing transition from sharp to out-of-focus areas and maintain high sharpness even at wide-open apertures. They use the ARRI LPL mount, which is a new design that has a larger diameter and a shorter flange focal distance than the traditional PL mount. This allows the lenses to be closer to the sensor and have a wider opening, which makes it easier to design them as telecentric lenses. Telecentric lenses have a rear element that is almost the same size as the sensor, which means that the light rays hit the sensor and the optical low-pass filter at more perpendicular angles. This reduces the risk of aberrations, such as blurring, on the edges of the image.

Vintage lenses

Vintage photographic lenses from the 60, 70, and 80s and older cinema lenses are often used as an alternative to modern cine lenses. They can add an organic look when used wide open or near wide open. When they are rehoused they normally get circular irises, standard modern cinema lens front sizes like 95 and 110 mm with no telescoping, higher degree of focus rotation, focus and iris gears in standard modern cinema lens positions that can handle motorized follow-focus systems.

Zero optic rehouses Baltars, Canon FD, Canon K35, Canon Rangefinder, Leica, Nikon AI/AI-S, and Olympus OM lenses. They have nice descriptions of the different brands.

TLS rehouses many of the same lenses as Zero Optik. But also does Cooke Speed Panchros, Contax Zeiss, Mamiya 645, and Kowa Cine Prominar sphericals.

Old fast glass in LA rents out many sets with rehoused sets from Zero optic and TLS, such as the Kowa Cine Prominar set and have good descriptions and video samples of the different lens sets.

Some modern lenses have a more vintage look. When making Hawk Vintage 1.33x large format lenses, Vantage studied the coatings and elements of ‘70 lenses and designed modern lenses with a 70’ look.

ARRI Rental recently rehoused the Moviecam prime lenses. Originally rehoused in the 80s with 70s Olympus and Canon donor lenses, these lenses are ARRI rental’s alternative to ARRI DNA and Canon K35 on full frame. ARRI Rental says the Moviecam lenses have controlled beautiful organic flares and a characterful but consistent look. The lenses are multi-coated, but in the 70s, lenses only had a few layers of coating, which resulted in beautiful flares. Modern lenses usually have around 7 layers of coating to suppress flares and increase contrast.

Vintage donor glass from photography lenses is popular because they cover the sensor on full-frame cine cameras. ARRI Rental decided to bring back the Moviecam lenses because they think they work better on full frame than on super-35. Here are some possible reasons:

  • A 40 mm lens on a full-frame cine camera has about the same field of view as a 28 mm on Super-35 cine camera. Vintage normal and medium telephoto still photography lenses (40, 50, 60, 85) are easier to use on full-frame and can have nicer focus fall-off than the still photography wide-angle lenses.
  • On a large sensor, more of the image circle of the lenses is used, and aberrations like vignetting, field curvature, and barrel distortion are more visible than on smaller super-35 sensors. If you want vintage aberrations like vignetting, full-frame is a better choice.
  • The shallow depth of field on the 60 mm is more pronounced on full-frame. But on the super-35 cameras pulling focus will be easier at T.1.5.

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