Repost: Defining cinematic

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Given we’re in the first day of the Cinematic Masterclass with Zeiss in Hanoi, it seems only appropriate that I bring back this classic post for another round – with new images, of course! 

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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.

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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 was on show a little while ago 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. How do you decide on the aspect ratios of your images? Are these standard ratios that you are using?

    • For this set, yes – 16:9, because they were also meant to be used as stills in the accompanying video. But normally, I use whatever the subject gives me 🙂

  2. First Ming a big thanks for all the time and effort that you put into equipment reviews and articles helping readers to both chose the right equipment and become better photographers. I have read a number of your reviews over the years and more recently the one you did on the Leica Q. I handled one in the Leica shop in Shanghai recently and fell in love and then read your review which only helped to confirm my camera instincts are still good. I enjoyed very much this article on cinematic photography, it helped me to understand not only the elements required to get it right but clarified some things that I probably already knew but had never really taken the time to think about it enough. Now I have a much better idea of what I am doing when I try to capture the same mood. Your writing like your pictures is full of precision. Nothing left to chance. We all point our cameras at something we like but not many know why and what the elements are that combine to make us like it. Reading your articles it is clear you give this a lot of thought and attention. Rob

  3. Martin Fritter says:

    For fun Google “Kubrick Look Magazine.” He more or less got his start in photo journalism. Contrawise, the great Paul Strand made his living as a cinematographer.

  4. Cool photos! Here’s some inspiration to put those 28mm’s to work (at least I was impressed):

  5. very nicely done – great explaination and beautiful photos

  6. Martin Fritter says: – Emmanuel Lubezki – my hero – from Tree of Life. All natural light.

  7. Thanks Ming.

  8. These new photos are really great, especially for the way they deal with light. Along with the last article on painterly style, it’s suggested to me a new way to look for light quality in the 4 things.

    Specifically, that now includes looking for unexpected kinds of light, or framing or composing such that the light is rendered in an unexpected way. 7502760 and 8B24297 above kind of exemplify this for me: they both depict found light as artificial light. It’s artificial in the studio sense in that there is light placed intentionally to bring out some aspect of the subject even though it looks artificial. Good fill flash looks like this good kind of artificial to me, too — it’s one idiom of photographic language.

    Lots of things to think about and very applicable to lots of other subjects too, like landscape.

    • I suppose it is more about presenting the illusion of control where it doesn’t exist – and being able to curate out instances where we can’t quite hit perfect.

  9. Cindy Sherman rose to fame on the basis of a portfolio of work entitled “Untitled Film Stills”. Given that this is a well known and important body of work, I admit I’m a little surprised that you don’t seem to mention it.

    • I’m sure there are many others that might qualify for the same omission – the article was not intended to be a list. Having said that, her work is a very early stage of the genre – I honestly don’t think all of those would qualify as cinematic in the context of today’s expectation of what something cinematic should be; but that’s a reflection of changes in society and production techniques as much as anything else.

      • Allow me to quote you directly, then “I’m not aware of any other photographer who’s actually spent time shooting in this style”.

        • In the specific manner I do – found scenes, color use, presenting the illusion of control and a set: no, I’m not aware of anybody. However, in the general wider remit of what might be considered cinematic, that isn’t the case: shooting on a film set? Plenty. Shooting their own still-film sets? Plenty – Crewdson, for a start. Shooting in the style film noir? Plenty. I hope that clarifies things.

          • Well, I’ll drop it after this, because there are more important things in the world. Apparently the fellow you cite in the “*There is one exception… ” remark is also not relevant, since he, per your description, is doing precisely what Sherman was up to. I hope you can understand my confusion.

            • Sorry, but there’s either some miscommunication here or I must have missed something because firstly where I am or am not the only one doing it doesn’t really matter, and secondly, it’s really quite simple:

              1. I haven’t found anybody who specifically shoots in the manner I do: -> “I’m not aware of any other photographer…”
              2. The exception was working in a similar way to Luca DiCorca and even then was a qualified exception because he was using his own controlled lights
              3. I don’t consider the earlier generation of Sherman etc. to be doing something similar because they don’t read as ‘cinematic’ by today’s expectations of the genre.

  10. I sold my DSLR a long time ago and have since ventured into other artsy partsy hobbies (for the moment, it is handlettering). Looking at your photos makes me want to take up photography again. You’re amazing. 🙂

  11. Brett Patching says:

    Really lovely photos Ming (especially the one with the green station wagon)! Good to read this article again. Were you thinking of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s “Hustlers”? Do photographs in the cinematic style have to be in colour? (Some of Fan Ho’s B&W photos of Hong Kong look like they’re straight out of an old film.)

    • Thanks – possibly that series, yes. No, cinematic can also be in mono – think film noir – I just prefer to work in color because it’s a very strong tool to affect the emotions of your audience…

  12. Wow! This is an especially strong set of images.

  13. you never cease to amaze me, with your ability to shoot adeptly in so many different ‘styles’ of photography. Although I dislike the term ‘street’ photography, you blend it so well with your cinematic style.

  14. Great images here, Ming. You captured “the look”.

    Of course, there are photographers who shoot in this style on a regular basis, those being motion picture or television still photographers … though typically minus the anamorphic-style aspect ratio.

    But they’re definitely expected to capture the mood, content, and drama of the scene; effectively doing in stills what the DOP is doing with the cine camera—aka making the movie in stills.

    But learning this technique to apply to real life around us is a great workshop idea, Ming. Glad you’re offering it. It should help photographers to exercise their vision and look for new ways of seeing high moments around them. In many ways (and as you allude) it’s a close cousin of photojournalism (though, again, with a different aspect ratio and the addition of juxtaposed depth layers).

    I would encourage participants to study some of the great cinematographers of the past 50 years for additional insights into how such work can be applied to stills. For example: Lazlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond, William Fraker, Winton Hoch, Geoffrey Unsworth, and Roger Deakins.

    Incidentally, a good friend of mine (stills shooter) recently finished shooting on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘The Revenant’ with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, and I saw a few of her captures; truly some of the best stills work I’ve ever seen shot for a motion picture … ever. Magnificent studies in framing, texture, mood, light … and emotional high moments. And in very challenging winter wilderness conditions, too.

    • Thanks Robert. Those other motion picture/ TV stills guys shoot what has already been set up and lit by the director and rigging people; they just need to match camera angle. It isn’t in any way the same as making it work with a 100% chaotic and unscripted candid cast in reality – I’ve done both, and the latter is by far more difficult.

      • Yes, having your cast, makeup, lighting, and situations created for you is definitely advantageous. But I wouldn’t call it easy. You have to contend with difficult actors, avoiding their eyelines, finding positions where you’re not interfering with the cine camera or casting shadows from the lighting setups (sometimes there’s just no place for you to “be”) … and often you are having to pick different angles (though no less cinematic) of your own. And on top of all that you’re also turning the camera around to capture photojournalistic moments happening behind-the-scenes. And that is impromptu.

        So while I agree doing it in the real world requires one to balance more uncontrolled elements, I wouldn’t want to give anyone the idea that shooting stills on set is “easy”, necessarily. Also, cine cameras are so good in low light now, that cinematographers often light very sparsely … which can be a real challenge to the equipment of a stills shooter, particularly if there is also action in a low light scene.

        And don’t get me started on camera sound blimps! 😉

        • It’s not easy, but it’s definitely easier than having zero control. I’ve done both, and I can tell you my success rate for the former (as director/ cine stills photographer) is far higher than cinematic documentary person or street photographer!

          Good thing we have 100% electronic shutters now…

          • Well if you’ve done unit stills photography then you know what I’m talking about, yes. It’s also the central focus of my professinoal photography career now (close to joining our local IATSE chapter), and I do agree that captive subjects already lit (sort of lit?) and posing for you is definitely easier. I think some of the techniques of the former can be applied into the real world, though.

            Yes, thank god for fully silent electronic shutters now (Sony A7s, Fujifilm X-T1, Olympus E-M5II, certain Pannys). Use it all the time on my X-T1. Only restriction is fast moving action and certain types of lighting (e.g. mercury vapor / fluorescents). Fortunately most movie lighting is ok. I suspect these electronic shutters will improve with each subsequent generation.

            • Absolutely. So long as you don’t have any flickering sources (most digital cine cameras don’t like it either) then you’re ok with a full E-shutter. I’ve not had any issues with set lighting and flickering/banding, but in the real world…aargh!

              • I’ve had some occasional issues on set with Kino Flos (god, I hate Kino Flos). Biggest issues are being on location where there are fluorescents, however.

  15. Thanks for the article. I’ve been experimenting with this idea lately because I like the way full screen 16/9 ratio images look on my TV. I think the aspect ratio is a key. I get what you’re saying about field of view and separation. It got me interested in figuring out what lens length cineographers use and found this article.

    • It’s not just the aspect ratio – it’s also the use of color, light and managed depth of field. There is of course more than that, but I’d say that would certainly contribute to a definably ‘cinematic’ look.

  16. Stephan says:

    Great article and great pictures. I haven’t read this when you posted it the first time so now I finally understand what you mean when you are talking about cinematic style. I only had an idea before.
    A pity that I am so afraid of shooting people, because otherwise I’d really like to practice this style. Here in Germany people often react angrily when they recognize that you took a picture of them.
    You mentioned once that you are pretty stealthy in general. Maybe one day you can write an article about how you achieve that 😉

    • I look like the quintessential Asian tourist, and do nothing to counter that impression/expectation when I’m out shooting: it helps, enormously so. You can always try shooting people first in a place where there are a lot of tourists and people are expecting to be photographed; it is a ‘safe’ environment. Take Prague, for instance. Then it becomes a matter of practice and confidence – look like you belong. I admit that is sometimes challenging with a DSLR, 85 Otus and Zacuto finder though…

      • Stephan says:

        Thanks for the advice. I guess I won’t be able to disguise myself as an Asian Tourist, but I will try shooting in places where many tourists are around.

        And yes, your combo is massive! It’s time that Nikon gives us a mirrorless D810 derivate with a state of the art EVF.

        • Well, Sony tried, but it doesn’t solve the size of the lens problem…optics for FF are optics for FF.

          • Stephan says:

            Exactly, they tried… It still lacks 14 bit uncompressed RAW and the lens lineup is not as mature as some of the competition (of course this has to be expected with such a relatively new system). And of course the lenses aren’t smaller but without the Zacuto and with a little smaller body you gain at least a significant decrease in overall bulk.

            • True – we could certainly give up the optical finder and mirror box, but the grip still needs to be comfortably sized for those lenses.

  17. Caesar Merlin says:

    love the new photos for this article

    • Thanks!

    • Indeed, nice to see some superb fresh examples of this style. Really not so easy to do when composing on the street, but a great challenge 🙂 I really feel like trying it out with a clearer intention.
      (And using it as an excuse to get an f1.4 lens that I’m craving..) 😉


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  3. […] is to make a graphic image, I’m going to look for very hard shadows and intense colours, or cinematic images require layering, dominant hue and conscious foreground use. But even then – they aren’t […]

  4. […] series was shot with a Hasselblad H6D-100c, 50 and 100mm lenses, and post processed with the cinematic workflow in Making Outstanding Images Ep. 4 & […]

  5. […] series was shot with a Hasselblad H6D-100c, 50 and 100mm lenses, and post processed with the cinematic workflow in Making Outstanding Images Ep. 4 & […]

  6. […] I shot with the Hasselblad H6D-100c, 50 and 100mm lenses, and post processed with a mix of cinematic workflow in Making Outstanding Images Ep. 4 & 5. and later on, The Monochrome […]

  7. […] Batis 1.8/85, FE 55/1.8, and Contax-Zeiss 2.8/85 Sonnar. Postprocessing was done following the Cinematic workflow in Making Outstanding Images 5. I’ll also no doubt be working on more images from […]

  8. […] frequently get asked if it is possible to work in the cinematic style with a wide lens; the answer is of course yes. There are a couple more considerations over the more […]

  9. […] barely scratch the surface photographically. On this trip, I tried out some different hardware for cinematic work compared to my normal 55/85 Otus – I wanted to see if smaller, lighter could also apply […]

  10. […] these types of shooting conditions. I’ll also present a future set (curated differently) in cinematic-style color, too. There’s something timeless and primal about the atmosphere that is distilled when the […]

  11. […] these types of shooting conditions. I’ll also present a future set (curated differently) in cinematic-style color, too. There’s something timeless and primal about the atmosphere that is distilled when the […]

  12. […] lighting, and shift white balance to control dominant color and mood. (I am of course talking about the cinematic style of photography here.) We can of course apply these techniques to mask the shortcomings of smaller sensors, […]

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