11 top tips for cinematic photos

First published:
October 15, 2020
February 8, 2024

11 top tips for cinematic photos

First published:
October 15, 2020
February 8, 2024

Cover image by Aj Hayward

The cinematic look has become an increasingly popular and sought-after 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.

Lonely clerk at a hotel car park, Melbourne, Australia.
Frames within frames, like the window here, can be used to great effect when crafting cinematic photos. Image from David Young

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.

A rainy night Manchester, shot in a cinematic style
A wide aperture throws the backdrop out of focus and draws the eye towards the figure. Image from AJ Hayward

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.

Sunset in an English garden with the smoke from the barbecue creating beautiful light rays
Position your subject side-on with a light source behind them so that the light catches the outline of the face. Image from Teresa
A man sweeps the prayer room in the Taj Mahal main mosque before the Friday prayers
Sweeper at the Taj Mahal, beautifully framed by backlighting. Image from Em Campos
Backlit romantic scene of couple holding hands and talking whils having a drink at a bar in London's West End.
A romantic backlit scene at a bar in London's West End. Image from Stefan Ferreira

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.

Japanese woman in bar catching the light.
Place objects in your scene that will help to add to the story, and pose your subjects as if characters in the unfolding drama. Image from Warren Showalter

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.

Japanese guy moodily lit in a nightclub
Try placing your subject in a patch of light and expose for the highlights so that the rest of the scene is plunged into darkness. Image from Warren Showalter
Nepalese kids looking into the camera
A strong range in contrast adds a filmic element to this group portrait. Image from Ira Kerkhove

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.

Woman looking out the window in a streetcar, Hong Kong.
Frame to include out-of-focus foreground elements that draw the eye further into the scene. Image from Peter K.C. Ho
A person walking photographed from ground level
'Surface Level' from alfernec

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.

Man crossing the slushy street during the winter in New York City, USA
Neon-drenched city scenes can look wonderfully cinematic, especially when the lights reflect off rain-soaked concrete. Image from Sven Hartmann

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.

Street scene from a child's eye level
Shooting from below makes your subject look strong, while shooting from above can make them appear weak. 'A Child's View' from David
Cinematic shot of a fireman
Shooting from below makes your subject look strong. Image from Cavan Images
Cinematic shot of a man walking up the stairs
While shooting from above can make your subject look weak. Image from Design Pics

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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.

Author tip:

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.

Screenshot of image cropping in Adobe Photoshop
Try cropping your photo to a 16:9 widescreen ratio, then add a letterbox look in Photoshop

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.

Screenshot of color profiles in Adobe Lightroom
Lightroom’s Profile Browser lets you quickly choose from a range of colour-graded looks

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.

Screenshot showing added lens flare in Adobe Photoshop
Lens flare can add atmosphere to photos, especially when there are lights behind your subject

Video tutorial

Adding a diffuse glow effect can also make photos more cinematic, especially with low light photos. Here's our tutorial on how to create this effect using Lightroom:

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