Over the last couple of posts, we’ve looked at the qualities of bokeh, and some examples of cinematic photography in New York; although one of the most obvious hallmarks of the cinematic style is an abundance of very out of focus zones, in reality there’s a lot more subtlety to it. Since this is one of my most frequently used and well-developed styles, I felt that perhaps a little intellectual exercise was in order.
As we’ve previously discussed, in this article, style is a both a very important thing to be consciously aware of, and perhaps the most difficult of all of the photographic techniques to develop simply because it’s so difficult to nail down precisely. Style can influence subject, location, technical qualities, light, postprocessing…the list is endless; basically, anywhere a photographer has to make a conscious creative choice, stylistic decisions are in play. Being able to identify exactly what hallmarks a particular style is the first step in being able to replicate it, which is in turn the beginning of a photographer’s own creative evolution into finding their own style – and being able to consistently execute it.
Personally, I enjoy the shooting in the cinematic style because of the emotional charge and intensity of the moment you can convey; the richness of color and texture, and the overall feeling of drama. The other styles I shoot in – a more formal and natural ‘fine art’ style, and a rich B&W – both lack this, but have other redeeming qualities of their own. Surprisingly, despite this kind of imagery being already very prevalent socially – in the movies, of course – and highly developed, I’m not aware of any other photographer who’s actually spent time shooting in this style*.
*There is one exception – a photographer whose name I forgot but is on exhibition in the ‘Picturing Modernity’ exhibition at SF MOMA; he hired male prostitutes in LA and used artificial light plus posed setups to give the illusion of being in a movie.
In cinema, absolutely everything is controlled: the light, the backgrounds, the props, the expression and precise position of the actors. You could, in theory, do exactly the same for a still photograph – and this is what we do for commercial work – but to do so on a more casual basis would be rather time consuming. What I do when ‘shooting cinematic’ is rather than create scenes, as I would for clients – is look for them. With the exception of anything in an ‘On Assignment’ post, every single cinematic image I’ve posted on this site was unplanned and candid; I was not in control of light, subject, background – or anything else for that matter. This of course represents an enormous challenge; I tried setting this as one of the exercises in my recent USA workshops, but the students didn’t find it quite as straightforward as it appeared.
The two obvious hallmarks of the style are an abundance of out of focus areas, a narrow/ wide format, and highly directional light. The first is both a consequence of typically very tight shots on human figures, and the desire for as much isolation as possible. The second follows the big screen, and I find is quite a natural way to view the world as our eyes are side-by-side anyway. Finally, directional light works together with shallow depth of field to provide two of the five ways of isolating a subject (light, depth of field, color, texture, motion). These are all fairly straightforward – it’s easy to execute in the real world, and to my eyes, don’t represent much of a departure from conventional “too much bokeh” images. Knowing precisely how much depth of field to use is important too – I think the right amount of blur is enough to separate, but not so much to fully abstract. Let’s call this stage one, for easy reference.
What isn’t so obvious is what goes into stage two: color grading and metering. Metering is straightforward: you should be making conscious choices on how bright or dark your primary subject appears, and dealing with the rest of the frame accordingly. Together with color, the brightness of your subject heavily influences the way the viewer of the image feels; high key signals purity, low key signals mystery/ danger etc. I previously dealt with the inexact science of emotion and color; all Hollywood directors know this and color theory inside out, and apply it all the time. Have you ever stopped to wonder why a particular movie or scene makes you feel a particular way? It’s certainly not by accident: the choice of colors for both the subjects/ objects in the scene, as well as the color temperature, direction and mood for the lighting are all carefully engineered to cause a particular emotion in the viewer. This is good for storytelling, and generating an immersive viewing experience because of the subconscious emotional connection built.
Mastery of stage two means that you have to both have an extremely acute awareness of the quality of ambient light, quick access to your spot meter, as well as the discipline to get as close to perfect white balance as you can – this is important so that when you create the color shift in postprocessing, the hues are accurate. Hold on a minute: color shift in post processing? Well, since there’s no way to control your ambient lighting most of the time, the next best thing we can do is a) recognise direction/ diffuseness, and b) shift the white balance (and to a lesser extent, hue) to give the illusion of a different temperature source.
Finally – or at least this is as far as I’ve gotten personally – the third stage adds depth – literally. Here things diverge slightly from motion pictures: whilst they have a sequence of frames to be able to tell a story, given that each individual frame or scene doesn’t last very long, they tend to avoid putting too many subjects in a single shot otherwise it confuses the viewer and obfuscates the plotline. Cinematic stills are different: the viewer can spend as long as they wish taking in the frame, and this opens up several options for the photographer that aren’t possible for the director. Firstly, to maximize the storytelling element, we have to carefully use secondary subjects and backgrounds in the composition, otherwise we’re back to just a blurry background; secondly, since we don’t have the benefit of camera motion to illustrate depth, we have to artificially create that by the use of foreground-to-background layering.
One of the techniques I like to use is making the secondaries the back layers, and adding another ‘veiling’ layer in front; the spatial relationship between primary and secondary subjects (this article on compositional theory might be useful reading as background) tells the story, translated into two and three dimensions – the visual cue for depth being the relative amount of blur. I think of the foreground layer – almost always very out of focus (or even well-used flare) – as controlling viewer involvement. Depending on how much the foreground hides, and the perspective you choose, the viewer can feel more or less part of the scene – for example, if you have the impression of peering through a peephole, or some feeling of distance through a separated background (telephoto), then you’re definitely an observer, not a participant. If you’re clearly close to the subject with a wide perspective and eye-contact, you’d feel much more directly engaged and involved in the action.
One thing I haven’t mentioned is the use of perspective; though the majority of these scenes tend to be shot with longer lenses due to their depth of field isolating properties, it’s also possible to create cinematics with wide lenses; it’s all in the light, color and subject positioning. Typically, the camera is also held straight so that verticals are vertical; anything else is used only deliberately to create a feeling of disorientation. Though I tend to favor the use of longer lenses personally – especially when photographing strangers (it’s the ability to capture candid emotion rather than fear of engaging people; if you interact with the subject, then you often won’t get the shot you originally saw), I’ve been experimenting with wider lenses to create more dynamic scenes, where the focus is somewhat shifted from the participants to the scene itself.
The challenge, of course, is to find and execute all of this in a very short amount of time – perhaps ‘cinematic’ is not precise nonclemanture; it’s really a fusion of street photography, photojournalism and cinema. Even if all of the technical elements I described above are present, it doesn’t mean that the frame creates an emotional response or connection in the viewer; far from it. Generally, the most successful frames have some strong human element that engages directly with the viewer; timing the moment is still highly critical – except now you’re not just looking for peak action, you’re also looking for peak emotion. MT
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