The cinematic look has become an increasingly popular trend in photography, but what does it mean for a photo to be classed as such? In essence, a cinematic photo has a strong sense of mood, place and story, as if it were a still taken straight from one of your favourite Scorsese films. Cinematography and photography share so many of the same themes and techniques, so as photographers we can draw upon the visual language of film to craft cinematic photos.
Little details that hint at a story, an emotion or mood can help to draw the viewer in. It’s also about giving our images a certain look, whether that be through composition, lighting, camera settings or tonal tweaks. These tips will help you to craft your own cinematic shots...
1.) Use the scenery
Filmic photos often have a strong sense of place and context. One way to achieve this is to make use of the scenery.
Use the objects and shapes around the subject to add details to the shot. For instance, if your subject is in a field, frame to include the grass in the foreground. If they are in a small room, shoot through the window to show how they’re hemmed in. Find creative ways to include the scenery in your composition and look for dynamic angles to shoot from.
2.) Wide and shallow
One of the key techniques you see again and again in cinematic shots is subject separation. This means lighting or shooting your subject in such a way that they stand out from their surroundings.
One fairly simple way to do this is to shoot with a wide aperture, so that the depth of field is very shallow and the background is blurred. A prime lens with a wide max aperture like a 50mm f/1.4 is ideal. As well as using a wide aperture, you can also make your subject stand out from the backdrop by moving them further away from it, and by using longer focal lengths.
3.) Try backlighting
Backlighting is used all the time in cinematography. It means placing a light source - whether it be the sun, or a lamp, or a reflector - behind the subject in order to light the edges of their figure.
In a superhero film it could be a bold, hard light to emphasise the chiselled physique. In a period drama it might be a soft, gentle backlight that subtly separates the subject from the backdrop. One simple way to get the backlit look is to place your subject’s back to the sun, then shoot into the light. Use a flash, reflector or a nearby surface like a white wall to bounce light into the shadow side of the subject.
4.) Hint at a story
Crafting a cinematic photo is about creating an atmosphere, and one way to do this is to tell a story. Subtle touches of narrative can help to create a mood.
With the right subject all it might take is an intriguing expression - perhaps a pensive gaze off-camera, a single teardrop in the eye, or a hopeful glance to the heavens. Props can help too. Something as simple as a mug can transform the mood - all of a sudden the person is not simply posing for a photo but instead having a quiet moment of contemplation.
5.) Go bold with contrast
Cinematic images will often have a bold shift in contrast, with some parts of the scene in deep shadow and others in bright light.
One way to achieve this is to shoot from dark to light, or light to dark. This could mean placing your subject in the shade of a tree and shooting into a backdrop that is in bright sunlight, so that the backdrop is blown out, or alternatively finding a room with a small pool of window light to illuminate your subject, while the rest of the room is plunged into deep shadows. Start looking for high-contrast spots like this and you’ll find they are everywhere.
6.) Think foreground, midground and background
Scenes that have a sense of depth to them can look very cinematic.
For instance, framing to include out-of-focus foreground details can help to draw the eye into the image and enhance that sense of depth. Similarly, shooting through scenery like an open window or foliage can also create depth. Start to think of scenes in terms of foreground, midground and background, then look for ways to separate and distinguish them from one another.
7.) Watch the weather
The weather has always been used by cinematographers to help to convey atmosphere and emotion.
Rain can evoke feelings of sadness and melancholy, while bold sunshine lends scenes a happy feel. Of course, the weather can also create striking visuals - think the night-time reflections of neon lights on rain-soaked roads, or the last rays of sunset darting down a street, or a mysterious forest shrouded in mist. Shooting in different weather conditions will help to give your photos a cinematic sense of place and atmosphere.
8.) Consider camera height
Camera height can have an impact on the way your subject is perceived. Great directors past and present have used this technique in films to help portray their characters in a certain way, and the same theory applies to still images.
For instance, a camera angle that looks upwards on the subject from below makes them seem powerful and strong, while an angle that looks down on them can make them appear vulnerable or fragile. Shooting at eye level instead can help to create empathy with the subject. This can be used to great effect especially when photographing children, as it places the viewer on the same level.
9.) Go widescreen
If you want to get the look of a film then why not crop your photo to a cinematic aspect ratio?
Most photographic cameras operate on a 3:2 ratio, but widescreen films are usually shown in a 16:9 format. Cropping to another ratio is simple enough. In Lightroom, grab the Crop tool then go to the Aspect Ratio dropdown in the options to the right and choose 16:9.
If you want to go one step further, you can add black bars at the top and bottom of the image to give it a filmic ‘letterbox’ look. Open into Photoshop (from Lightroom, you can right-click and ‘Edit in Photoshop’), then go to Image > Canvas Size. Set Height: 30 Percent (%), check Relative and set Canvas extension colour: Black then hit OK.
10.) Cinematic color grading
Color grading can give your images a cinematic look, especially if you can add subtle colour tints to the highlights and shadows.
The easiest way to do this in Lightroom is by using the Profiles Panel, which lets you try out different colour treatments. Experiment with the Artistic, Modern and Vintage profile sets for a variety of different looks, then fine-tune the strength of the treatment with the Amount slider.
For custom colour shifts, try making creative white balance adjustments. Films will often be tinted towards blue and cyan to give them a cool feel, and you can get a similar result by shifting the Temperature slider to the left to cool the colour temperature. You could also use Lightroom’s Split Toning panel or experiment with the colour channels in the Tone Curve tool to add creative colour casts.
11.) Create lens flare
It might be an optical flaw that some photographers go to great pains to avoid, but lens flare can be a fantastic way to give your photos a filmic feel.
What you lose in detail and sharpness is made up for in mood and atmosphere. Shooting into the sun is a good way to catch lens flare in-camera (some photographers take this even further by intentionally shining lights or directing mirrors into the lens). You can also create realistic lens flare in post-production. The Lens Flare filter in Photoshop (Filter/ Other/ Lens Flare) offers several flare effects to choose from, or you could paint your own with the Brush tool set to Linear Light mode.
Cover image from Aj Hayward