I need to shoot a silent movie on a digital camera. I have a Canon EOS 77D, which has an APS-C sensor (22.3 × 14.9mm).

David Mullen, a cinematographer, said here that early Hollywood silent movies were generally shot with a uniform focal length of 50mm on 35mm film, with the aperture all the way open.

I understand that with a Canon APS-C sensor, you need to multiply a lens's focal length by 1.6 (if the lens is for a full-frame camera) to get its effective focal length. So if I go by David Mullen's advice and try for an effective focal length of 50mm, I need to use a 31mm lens or, for convenience, 30mm.

Would it make sense to invest in a 30mm lens (or so) with a maximum aperture of f/1.4? I was considering this one.

However, what might complicate the question is the fact that I don't always want a standard presentational look like this:

enter image description here

That's from Spite Marriage, 1929. It looks quite low-contrast, and it's in deep focus, and it doesn't glow.

But here's an example of an image I do want, from Pandora's Box, also 1929: enter image description here

There the whites glow and the contrast is much higher, apparently. Is that because of soft focus, or a diffusion filter, or both?

And of course I also need to be able to shoot less flashy images, since not everything needs to glow, like this (also from Pandora's Box): enter image description here

Is there a simple set of things I need to be able to achieve both types of image, for example a 30mm f/1.4 lens and a diffusion filter? If I need to get a special lens for soft focus, that's fine, but the only option I can see is a 135mm one (effective focal length roughly 216mm on my camera), which is really long considering the available space to shoot in.

EDIT AFTER ACCEPTING AN ANSWER: All the answers were useful. I've learned that:

  • A wide aperture will facilitate shooting in less light, but it will also decrease the depth of field, and most shots in silent movies have a deep depth of field (making the wide aperture effect undesirable).
  • The minutiae of focal length and aperture are not as important as makeup and correct lighting setups.
  • The image I used from Spite Marriage was lit from the front, very flat.
  • The glowing image from Pandora's Box used a more directional setup, probably some three-point configuration, to create shadows and high contrast.
  • The glowing Pandora's Box image also used a diffusion filter (modern examples: Pro-Mist, stockings, Vaseline on the lens) to create the glow not present in the Spite Marriage picture.
  • The overall effect of that image can be reproduced with the proper lighting and filter and by adjusting the image in post-production to increase the contrast.
  • The crop factor from a Canon APS-C sensor to 4-perf 35mm film used in the 1920s is close to 1.4, not close to 1.6.
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ What do you want to make: photos or movies? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 29 at 15:28
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Lenses back in the 1920s or that era were by definition much softer than the digitally-engineered sharp lenses of today. They were also not multicoated, and I'd guess they were probably also quite a bit slower than modern lenses. I don't know what you need, but I'd suggest definitely you need to modify a modern lens by adding a diffusion / soft-focus filter - and probably quite a strong one. \$\endgroup\$
    – osullic
    Commented Apr 29 at 15:44
  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ @RomeoNinov The user's end goal is to shoot video, but no question here is specific to shooting video. I almost exclusively shoot stills, and these are all things that I wanted to know at one point or another, for the purpose of shooting stills. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 29 at 18:03
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Of course you'll also need era specific lighting and makeup to round out your solution. I recently saw a tic tok video where an artist mixed up a set of paints to get the something that looked like red lipstick when viewed in B&W, but was a horrendous green when viewed in color. \$\endgroup\$
    – Peter M
    Commented Apr 29 at 18:28
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ The film used at the time may have contributed to the effect(s). It was orthochromatic- relatively insensitive to red and sensitive to blue light. I'm not sure they had discovered antihalation backings at that time, which may have helped the soft halo effect... Kodak High Speed Infrared film did not have a halation backing and as a result produced a soft glow around highlights. \$\endgroup\$
    – BobT
    Commented Apr 29 at 22:40

4 Answers 4


I am so ignorant about the technical details of old cameras, and film formats.

The only thing I can do is analyze images of old films and try to deduct things about them.

  • My first observation is that I have never seen a background so blurry, a DOF so shallow on a silent film that looks like an f1.4 on a 50mm lens. It seems apertures are much smaller.

Here is a screen capture of a search of 50mm f1.4 portraits. I am converting it to grayscale.

enter image description here

Now let me compare it to some scenes of "The Kid" movie. Almost every scene has the background in focus. Even in some scenes that look that were shot from far away using a "long" lens. The only exception is the image in the top right corner. But even that looks like can be achieved with let's say f4.

enter image description here

One reason for this could be that the cinema language has evolved. Using a shallow depth of field is to have more expression, whereas a wider all-in-focus approach would be necessary to capture an overall situation occurring across a scene.

  • My second observation is that you do not need a super-sharp lens.

These two observations, + common sense tell me that you should try shooting some tests with the current gear you have. I am assuming you have a kit lens. Try that one, and try to recreate specific looks, mainly the perspective and the DOF of specific scenes you want to mimic.

We do not know if you are shooting in exteriors or interiors. Probably it will become more important to turn your attention to illumination setups. Hard lights (because they were very hot)

Makeup is important because of the low dynamic range of the old films.

Try some DIY filters on your current gear. Some vaseline, a silk over the lens. see if there is some filter pack to add imperfections or noise in post.

Also in post, you will need to adjust the contrast. High contrast, or lower dynamic range is a really distinct feature of old films. That is why makeup was so important Features of the face were lost, so they needed to increase shadows on the eyes and mouth to rescue the expressions of the actors.

Some noise to simulate film grain will also be a good touch.

Also, keep in mind the aspect ratio.

IMHO, do not get lost in limiting yourself for example using only one fixed focal length. I am assuming you do not have the luxury of building a stage. There are so many parameters to mimic, that no one will notice if you used 30mm or 35, if the light, the contrast, the makeup, is not right.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The advice about filters, not going too sharp and not fussing too much about focal length makes sense, thanks. I'm kind of having trouble understanding your first bullet point, though. 'I have never seen a bokeh so deep, a DOF so shallow on a silent film that looks like an f1.4 on a 50mm lens. Apertures are much smaller.' As in: the soft-focus 'Pandora's Box' image looks like it was shot with an aperture narrower than f/1.4? Do you have an impression of how that image was captured? \$\endgroup\$
    – user477203
    Commented May 1 at 14:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ I edited the answer complementing my first observation. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rafael
    Commented May 1 at 14:44

While lenses were on average softer in the era of silent movies than they are now, they are not soft enough to produce the effects you want, at least not the average ones. Anastigmats were readily available by the 20s and many if not virtually all cinematographers were using those designs if not "better". Look on Flickr for any picture shot with a Cooke Triplet or a Tessar - I can't say if these were typical for cinema lenses in that day, but the designs were decades old by the 20s and in mass production.

As for focal length, bear in mind that even "35mm" cinema negatives are not always the same size as 35mm still negatives. In your link, David Mullen says these were frequently shot on 4-perf. This is half of an 8-perf 24x36mm negative and half of a modern "full frame" sensor. If what he says about focal lengths is true, you'll need to match the perspective/focal length of those lenses on 4-perf instead of full frame.

For diffusion, many movies were shot using nets. I don't know the evolution exactly, but this started by stretching stockings over lenses to create a pattern that diffracted and softened the image. Stockings are not "perfect" distracting materials, and in addition to the softening of the image and the small puffy "glow" around highlights, will usually create halations and lower the contrast of the image. I cannot find any information confirming it, but Pandora's Box sure looks like a net to me.

Modern brown through white nets will give a similar effect to stockings, although more controllable, and not as strong. Black nets will resist halating and lowering contrast.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for all this detail! I didn't consider your point about the size of the film negative before. So if 4-perf 35mm film is 24.89x18.67mm, that means the area is 464.7 sq. mm, while my APS-C sensor has an area of 332.27 sq. mm, so the focal length multiplier I should use is actually 1.4, not 1.6? \$\endgroup\$
    – user477203
    Commented Apr 29 at 16:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user477203 That sounds about right. This is really getting out of my wheelhouse, but, are you going to shoot in 4:3 like old school 4 perf, or something wider? Crop factor might suggest that two lenses give equivalent perspective, but it could feel very different depending on how you compose. But uh, I'll let someone who actually shoots movies advise on that... I just do stills! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 29 at 16:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Definitely 4:3, yes. In fact I'm also going to composite new footage with footage from digital copies of silent films, so I need a really good match. Of course that's a whole other question. \$\endgroup\$
    – user477203
    Commented Apr 29 at 21:53

Vaseline on the filter is one of the techniques used for this. They all involve putting something in front of the lens to disturb the image.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I was told elsewhere that it involves halation as well. Something like a Pro-Mist, Glimmerglass or Cinebloom filter is apparently the way to go. There seem to be a lot of techniques. \$\endgroup\$
    – user477203
    Commented Apr 29 at 17:52
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @user477203 See Tiffen's "Triangle of Diffusion" chart. Remember that these filters are designed for taking the "edge" off modern digital media, but what you are going for is a pretty extreme version of that. I think you don't need extra halation necessarily, it's resolution reduction (soft focus effect) you want, and maybe contrast reduction too. \$\endgroup\$
    – osullic
    Commented Apr 29 at 19:58

I think you can get a lot of the style just by using the correct lighting and a diffusion filter like tiffen's pro mist filters or similar by other companies.

See this example:

Example of Hollywood Glamour

This was done with a Tamron 28-75mm f2.8 lens (more a budget lens actually) and a pro mist filter. Lighting was done by strobes with standard reflectors for main lights. One light in the back with a snoot was used for background halo.

You could also tone the image a bit yellowish to give the feeling of old film stock.

Contrast was a bit lowered in post to support the softness, that the harsh light usually creates. Having the flare of the light in the background in the image also reduced excess contrast.

So to sum up:

  1. Use modifiers that produce harsh light: standard reflectors, snoots, if you have fresnel modifiers. A lot of the images use pretty bright rim lights, like the second image you showed.
  2. Support the harshness by selecting contrasting clothing. Also the clothing style helps to sell the illusion
  3. Use contrasting makeup to support
  4. Use a mist filter to take off the edge off the lens, lowering overall contrasts a bit and introduce light blooming. You may experiment with diy filters like nylon hose fabric over the lens.
  5. The lens itself is probably less important than lighting and the filter. You will reduce sharpness anyway, you will not use super shallow depth of field - so that whatever you have.
  6. Tweaking contrast further in post will help. However that heavily depends on what you source looks like. You should have enough contrast in the image due to harsh light, that you might be lowering it a bit further. Also a very slight yellow tint will help selling the illusion of older images. However, do not overdo this.
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Yes. 1. The user should focus on lighting. 2. Using a zoom lens is perfectly fine. 3. You do not need a f1.4. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rafael
    Commented Apr 30 at 16:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ OK great! I will rush out and get some Tiffen filters -- that seems to be a common thread here. My zoom lens is 18-135mm with maximum aperture f/3.5 at 18mm and narrower for longer focal lengths, so I wonder if that would be limiting even though aperture might not be the most important consideration. I'll do some tests once I have the 30mm f/1.4. \$\endgroup\$
    – user477203
    Commented May 1 at 14:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ User477203, The point is that you do not need to buy another lens. Do you have lights? Probably money can be invested more wisely on a couple of LED lights. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rafael
    Commented May 1 at 15:59

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.