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.
I found the people and streets of New York to be eminently suited to a bit of cinematic street photography. Perhaps it’s the fact that so many movies have already been filmed in New York, or it’s the quality of light filtering between and reflecting off buildings, or it’s the various diverse characters that live in the city. These are little moments, vignettes and slices-of-life; I don’t want to use the word ‘stolen’, but it does sometimes feel like one is peering into a pre-coreographed scene and simply borrowing a frame. I sincerely apologise in advance for having some fun with the captions.
Though visiting Chinatown in the USA is somewhat ironic for a person from Asia (we do have Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur too; it’s just not that different from the rest of town); I did find it to be quite photographically rich – especially with San Francisco’s inclined streets. Between the Cantonese and interesting side alleys, it felt a lot more like Hong Kong than anywhere else – which is perhaps a consequence of the origin of the immigrants. More than that though, something about the atmosphere was rather conducive to the cinematic style, though it could also be because both times I arrived at the end of the day as the sun was setting and pouring down the east-west streets in a gloriously saturated manner. I sent my workshop students off to explore style with a few different assignments, mounted the Leica 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH on my OM-D via an adaptor and set off to grab a few frames from a movie.
Before I launch into another lengthy and text heavy (but necessary) article, I’d like to take an interlude to remember why this site exists, and why we bother with cameras at all: it’s about the making of images.
Over the last few months, I’ve been experimenting with even wider aspect ratios than the usual 3:2 or 16:9 cinematic; I feel like I’ve got composition down pat for those two already. But what about going wider, and even more cinematic – say 2.4:1? This extremely skinny format presents a few challenges – compositionally, it only suits scenes with some depth and layering; otherwise the majority of the frame is just going to look empty. Technically, not many lenses have the required edge performance especially if you’re going to maximize subject isolation by bringing shallow depth of field into play, which means shooting wide open or close to it. And since you’re throwing away about half of a 3:2 frame, you’ve better have a decent number of pixels to start off with. Even from a display point of view, there’s going to be a serious amount of letterboxing which means not a lot of detail rendered.
It’s definitely an aspect ratio that works better on a larger display; an image that looks great across the whole width of my 27″ Thunderbolt Display looks rubbish on my 11″ Air. Our eyes might be next to each other, but we only consciously see this much perhiperal vision when it occupies most of the field of view in front of us – making us less aware of the limited vertical height. (To be honest, I’m not convinced that this blog is the best medium for display – horizontal images are limited to just 800px wide, which is probably about the same size as an XPAN negative on most monitors. Scrolling is just impractical and silly.)
Compositionally, it’s a challenge. A huge challenge. Mainly because for some odd reason I tend think of 2.4:1 as extremely cinematic, and cinema has shallow depth of field and mostly telephoto rendering; yet it’s the separation here that draws our attention to the motion and drama on screen. In a static image, this kind of perspective looks extremely boring: there simply isn’t enough depth rendered in a single frame to hold the viewer’s attention for very long. Moreover, I kept running into the problem of overestimating the vertical space available, resulting in cuts to anatomy or very small people – the solution to this of course being cut, but just be careful where you cut – that’s what happens in every single cinema frame. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen the top of somebody’s head in a tight shot.)
I’m now convinced that the answer is counterintuitive: you need to go even wider. I suspect that this aspect ratio would work wonderfully at 21mm, where if you’re not careful floor and sky can turn into vast desert expanses; however, the rendering of the central portion of the frame would be perfect. Forget what you know about perspective: the lack of proportion vertically means that frames render as a much longer focal length than they actually are; about 1.5-2x, I’d say. Crossings, for example, was shot at 120mm but feels a lot more like 200mm. Presumably, this has something to do with the horizontal field of view being very close to the diagonal field of view, instead of maintaining the usual relationship we see in a more square-shaped frame. One other thing I noticed was that if you composed for action in one portion of the frame, the rest became boring; there was too much context or empty space. I began to treat the single long frame as multiple small ones, and this resulted in much more interesting compositions.
In any case, it’s proved to be an interesting experiment; I’ll probably use it in busy compositions that have plenty of natural depth; these kinds of scenes lend themselves well to wider compositions. Somehow I can’t see myself using it for portraiture, though. MT
Images in this series were shot with a Nikon D800E, 85/1.8 G and 24-120/4 VR lenses.
Enter the January 2012 black and white challenge – win a multispectral Sony NEX-5 B&W machine modified by yours truly!
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