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Tips for Choosing Focal Lengths in Cinema 4D

How to Choose a Focal Length.

In this tutorial, we're going to learn how to choose a focal length. Let's explore:

  • What are the different focal lengths?
  • How to select the right focal length
  • How does focal length help you sell scale and distance
  • How your focal length keeps the movie magic alive

Follow Along for Tips on Choosing Focal Lengths in Cinema 4D

In addition to the video, we've created a custom PDF with these tips so you never have to search for answers. Download the free file below so you can follow along, and for your future reference.

Grab the free PDF on Focal Length and get to creating!

What are the Different Focal Lengths?

It's important that we start with some common terminology, so let's define two things right up front: Focal Length and Angle of View.

The focal length of a camera lens is the distance between the lens and the image sensor when the subject is in focus. You'll usually see this number represented with millimeters, such a 35mm camera lens. For zoom lenses, both the minimum and maximum number will be given, such as 18-55mm.

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The angle of view is how much of the scene is captured by the image sensor. Wide angles capture greater areas, small angles smaller areas. Changing the focal length changes the angle of view. As you experiment with different lenses, you'll find the focal length that captures the right amount for your render.

How to select the right focal length


One of the most important decisions you can make when creating a render is what focal length you’re going to choose. When you’re first starting out, often you don’t know that there’s even an option to try out different lenses, and so you stick with the default. In C4D, that’s a 36mm preset, which is a relatively wide lens.

There’s nothing wrong with that focal length—or any focal length in particular—but knowing what a long, medium, or wide lens will do for your image gives you some powerful choices.

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For instance, here’s what this shot of the flying car in our cyberpunk city looks like with a super wide and close lens.

c4d-render-moodboards-storyboards-4.jpg

Here's what it looks like with a medium lens.

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And finally, with a long lens.

The framing is relatively the same, but the perspective changes greatly. We either compress the space or expand it, bringing the background in close or stretching it far away. These choices dramatically change the composition and feeling of the shot.

In C4D, it’s super easy to change the focal length, just by holding down the 2 key and right clicking and dragging.

How does focal length help you sell scale and distance

Sports graphics tend to favor wide lenses over longer lenses. Though in any project with great cinematography, 3D artists will opt to use a variety of focal lengths and often the contrast between shots on a wide lens and shots on a long lens is what creates that dynamic feel.

c4d-render-moodboards-storyboards-6.jpg

This gets back to composition to some degree, but when considering your focal length and camera angle, there are two schools of thought: One is to start with the environment, the other is to build the set to the camera angle (often this is quicker and easier).

c4d-render-moodboards-storyboards-7.jpg

Starting with an angle tends to produce a nicer composition, because you’re building everything to that one hero angle. The downside is that you can’t explore and bang out a bunch of shots—but if you’re just going for one render, this is often the best way to go.

c4d-render-moodboards-storyboards-8.jpg

Have you ever watched behind the scenes footage of your favorite movie? The camera moves, and suddenly you see that the hero's spaceship is just some plywood and plastic. That's the magic of setting up everything to play toward a particular camera angle.

Take a look at this scene of mine for instance, from some concert visuals I did for Zedd.

Here, if I fly around, you’ll see that none of the buildings are connected to each other, but from the front angle, everything looks correct. It’s like the Hollywood fake walls trick, and if it looks good, it is good, so cheat as much as you can!

Wrap up

Understanding the versatility of focal lengths opens up a world of possibilities for your projects. Don't just stick with the default settings. Experiment, and find out what is going to work best to tell your story.

Want professional guidance on how to render better?

If you're ready to step into the next level of 3D design, we've got a course that's just right for you. Introducing Lights, Camera, Render, an in-depth advanced Cinema 4D course from David Ariew.

This course will teach you all of the invaluable skills that make up the core of cinematography, helping to propel your career to the next level. You’ll not only learn how to create a high-end professional render every time by mastering cinematic concepts, but you’ll be introduced to valuable assets, tools, and best practices that are critical to creating stunning work that will wow your clients!

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Tutorial Full Transcript Below 👇:

David Ariew (00:00): Different focal lengths allow you to change the perception of a shot and take the audience away from our everyday perspective into something far more unique.

David Ariew (00:16): Hey, what's up, I'm David Ariew and I'm a 3d motion designer and educator, and I'm going to help you make your renders better. In this video, you'll learn how to experiment with various focal lengths until you find the one that's right for your composition compress or expand the space within your scene and get familiar with the various properties that come with each unique focal length and change the perception of speed of the camera, depending on your lens choice. If you want more ideas to improve your renders, make sure to grab our PDF of 10 tips in the description. Now let's get started. One of the most important decisions you can make when creating a render is what focal length you're going to choose when you're first starting out often, you don't even know that there's an option to try out different lenses as it were.

David Ariew (00:52): And so you stick with the default lens and see 4d. That's a 36 millimeter preset, which is a relatively wide lens. There's nothing wrong with that focal length or any focal length in particular. But knowing what along medium or wide lens will do for your image gives you some powerful choices. For instance, here's what the shot of the flying car in our cyber punk city looks like with a super wide and close lens. And here's what it looks like with a medium lens of about 50 millimeters. This is much closer to what the human eye sees by default. Finally, here's what it looks like with a much longer lens at about 150 millimeters. The framing is relatively the same in all of these meaning the car is about the same size in the shot, but the perspective changes so greatly and we either compress the space or expand it, bringing the background in close or stretching it far away.

David Ariew (01:34): Here's another example of a shot from my down on the render farm project. This is the same scene using a wide lens and then a medium, and then a long lens. These choices dramatically changed the composition and the feeling of the shot here in C 4d. It's super easy to change the focal length just by holding down the two key and right clicking and dragging check out the crazy perspective distortion we get. When we zoom out to a super wide focal length here in 3d motion, design sports graphics tend to opt for that much wider lens feel versus title sequences, which often opt for a longer lens feel though in any project with great cinematography, 3d artists will opt to use a variety of focal links. And often the contrast between shots on a wide lens and shots on a long lens is what creates that dynamic feel with people's faces or characters in 3d.

David Ariew (02:23): We also have to be aware of how different lenses can distort proportions. A widened close lens is typically unflattering because it stretches out the proportions of the face though, for certain films like the Revenant. It's a unique look that's carried across the whole film. Long lenses are awesome for tracking shots, meaning shots that are moving horizontally against the subject. And they enhance the parallax by compressing all the space between the camera and the subject long lenses are also great for shots that pivot because the parallax worlds around the subject, I've used a lot of long lens orbits like these in my work, we're also used to seeing long lenses from aerial views because helicopters typically need to stay a certain safe distance. So they use extremely long lenses to get the shots they need. And this feels very expensive to us though. Nowadays with drones, we're able to get crazy aerial views that skim buildings and subjects with a wide lens.

David Ariew (03:09): So that perception may be changing finally animating from a wide lens to a long lens or vice versa is a trick that can really bring some life to shots. As long as it's not overused, this is called a Dolly zoom or Contra zoom or a Zali. And it can also be used subtly like here in this logo resolve, I did back in 2014 where I used it just before the camera settles to give the animation a bit of a boost, because if you remember wider lenses have a feeling of moving faster. When the camera is moving on, the Z-axis with camera animation, wide lenses are great for skimming along objects because as we get wider, the perception of speed gets much greater, especially when moving in this axis, just think about why GoPros are so popular because they enhance the feeling of speed with that near fish islands.

David Ariew (03:51): This is another example that illustrates the point. So well, as we punch into longer and longer focal links, the speed of forward movement feels like it slows as does the train to the left. Then finally, when we zoom out to the widest focal length, suddenly we feel like we're racing forward for final note. This gets back to composition to some degree, but when considering your focal length and camera angle, there are two schools of thought. The first one is to just start with building and fully fleshing out the environment like here with my cyber punk city, where I can pretty much fly around and shoot from almost any direction and get something cool. It's kind of like building and fully fleshing out the set and then exploring it like a DP or approaching it as a documentary filmmaker would the second school of thought though, is to just build a set to your camera angle.

David Ariew (04:35): And often this is quicker and easier and produces a nicer composition because you're building everything to that one hero angle. The downside here though, is that you can't explore and bang out a bunch of shots or renders, but if you're going for just one render, and this is often the best way to go take a look at this scene of mine, for instance, for some concert visuals I did for Zed here. If I fly around, you'll see that none of the buildings are connected to each other, but from the front angle, everything looks correct. It's like the Hollywood fake walls trick. And if it looks good, it is good. So cheat as much as you can, basically by keeping these tips in mind, you'll be well on your way to consistently creating awesome renders. If you want to learn more ways to improve your renders, make sure to subscribe to this channel and hit the bell icon. So you'll be notified when we drop the next tip.