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In-Camera or in Post: How to Get the Same Effects as Expensive Lenses

In this article, we take a look at three common effects and whether the post-production version lives up to the in-camera effect.

One of the oldest questions in digital cinematography is “in-camera or in post?” Do stylistic choices like lens type, filters, and lens shake work better if you use them with the camera on set, or can you produce the same effect in the comfort of your post-production home — without compromising the original negative?

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. In-camera effects are generally cheaper, and you can control their details on the day of shooting — with the director present for sign-off. Post-production effects take longer, but you get finer control, and if they’re too over the top, you can dial them down — or dial them up if you need to. Like any post effect, they cost more. However, they can cost a lot more if you’re trying to apply the effect — like anamorphic lens style — to an entire film.

Let’s start with the easiest: lens filters. DPs who think modern digital cameras and lenses produce an image that is too sharp and clinical, and lacks the chemical imperfections of film, use pieces of glass or plastic that screw onto the lens or slide into the matte box. Tiffen’s Black Pro-Mist softens images in a very filmic way — especially skin imperfections — and blooms the highlights. It comes in different strengths, as well as screw-on and drop-in formats.

In-Camera or in Post: How to Get the Same Effects as Expensive Lenses - No Filter
In-Camera or in Post: How to Get the Same Effects as Expensive Lenses - Tiffen Black Pro-Mist 1/8In-Camera or in Post: How to Get the Same Effects as Expensive Lenses - Pro Mist Effect Added in Post

We found that the mid-tone detail slider in DaVinci Resolve did a very similar job to Black Pro-Mist — as well as turning down contrast. The best result was adding the lightest kind of Black Pro-Mist 1/8 on the lens, then using Resolve to increase the effect. That way you’re not locked into an extreme look.

The next challenge was camera shake. A small amount of camera shake finds its way into most handheld shots, and it is pretty standard. A violent and dramatic camera shaking effect, like those used in fight scenes or earthquakes, is hard to control and not healthy for the camera (over a long period, it can shake parts loose from the rig). There is even a device called the “image shaker” that mounts on the 15mm rails in front of the camera, shaking the image without shaking the delicate insides of the camera.

With some motion blur, we found it pretty easy to add camera shake in post by using free templates on the internet and mapping the footage to them. Be aware that you’ll need to shoot at a higher resolution than your delivery resolution, so you have room to move the frame around and not see black around the outside of your frame.

The last and most difficult in-camera effect we tried in post was anamorphic lenses. Many DPs are obsessed with anamorphic, but few movie-goers know or care which lens shape a filmmaker uses. That said, they can probably work on a conscious level to associate the film with other movies — both classic and contemporary — shot anamorphic.

The three main visual qualities of anamorphic are vignetting, edge distortion, and an oval horizontal lens flare.

In-Camera or in Post: How to Get the Same Effects as Expensive Lenses - Atlas 40 mm Anamorphic

In-Camera or in Post: How to Get the Same Effects as Expensive Lenses - Cooke 18 mm

In-Camera or in Post: How to Get the Same Effects as Expensive Lenses - Cooke 18 mm

You can add the first two of these in After Effects with another great template, this time from RocketStock. You need to map the lens flares to the flares in your shot, which can be fine for a couple of shots, but it could be a huge headache for an entire feature film.

These experiments concluded that it’s smart to test the effect you’re thinking about before you dive headlong into in-camera or post effects, to see where the best medium is: control vs. time. Then, at least you’ll know what you’re getting into.


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