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Did he really use telephoto lenses? A Study of the Focal Lengths Used by Akira Kurosawa

Here’s a video of the lenses used by Akira Kurosawa.

Seriously, what focal lengths did Akira Kurosawa really prefer?

Akira Kurosawa is my favorite director. There’s a lot of missing information on the cinematography of his films, and lots of unsubstantiated hearsay. Most books or google searches has someone quoting he used ‘telephoto’ lenses.

But did he?

It was obvious the writers never bothered to probe further, possibly due to ignorance of cinematographic techniques, lenses and so on. I searched for years but couldn’t find any definitive information on the subject.

So, as a personal exercise, I did the study myself, using Frameforge Studio (Amazon, B&H) to recreate scenes from 9 different movies, about 60+ shots in total. Here are the movies I picked:

  • Seven Samurai
  • Rashomon
  • Yojimbo
  • Kagemusha
  • Sugata Sanshiro
  • High and Low
  • Dreams
  • Red Beard
  • Throne of blood

I would have loved to add more, but it took too much time, and I already had the information I needed with this bunch. After shooting for so many years I don’t really need to check every frame. You sort of develop an eye for it.

My goal was to:

  • Find the family of focal lengths he used (not find the exact numbers – that I didn’t care about).
  • Find the T-stops he typically worked with.

The conditions of the study

Before we go ahead, you need to read about the terms I use in the video and article:

Kurosawa used multiple formats in his career, from Academy to Super35 (1.85:1) to anamorphic (Tohoscope). Every time the format changes, the lens choices will change – to the get the same ‘look’.

Important: I will be presenting the focal length assuming a sensor with an 18mm vertical height.

Tip: You will need to use a crop factor to arrive at the focal length for your camera sensor. To find the equivalent focal length corresponding to the sensor you’re interested in, divide the vertical height by 18, and multiply with the focal length I’ve presented.

Read more about crop factors here.

The lenses used by Akira Kurosawa

Here’s a video of the lenses used by Akira Kurosawa:

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5 replies on “Did he really use telephoto lenses? A Study of the Focal Lengths Used by Akira Kurosawa”

I think you have proved the opposite.  Overall and certainly when he had control (later in his career) he mostly went long. Anything over 35 is long (US)  and Europeans over 42mm but  50 and over definitely. 

Not as nutty long as Angelopoulos but definitely not a normal lens or wide specialist.

What I like (overall – as you point out he evolved) is having flattened depth he then used composition and particularly shadows in a very painterly way. None of that hollywood – chuck in lights till there are no harsh shadows BS. Though he wasn’t above using diffusion (mostly smoke I think).

I’ve got a dozen odd books on K one I remember went largely about cine and several have interviews including regarding cine. I have to clean out a lot of paper books this year so will try and review them before tossing. 

If I remember I’ll shout back then what I find.

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