Photoessay: After the establishing shot

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You might think the title for this post is curious: that’s because it is. In cinematography, a wider angle is used as an establishing shot to provide the overall context for the scene, location and any human dialogue that is to follow. The tighter head shots are frequently interspersed with equally tight cutaways to detail: it is a deliberate device to focus the attention of the audience very specifically on whatever specific object or action that is desired by the director. These cutaways always serve a purpose as they typically contain explanations or clues to the later storyline. In a way, they form a narrative or logical bridge of sorts. Compositionally/ visually, they are tricky to get right: too much visual texture and the scene is too busy for the audience to instantly register only one thing; too plain and it’s a starkly boring scene. It’s even more difficult to pull off as a candid still for the simple reason that the action is not planned; you have to anticipate and hope you’re in roughly the right place at the right time, then rely on instinct and experience to make any last-minute changes to composition as it happens. It is a slightly lighter photoessay than usual for the simple reason that these images are very difficult to make in practice…Enjoy! MT

Images shot mostly with a Olympus E-M5 II, Zeiss Otus 1.4/85, Zeiss ZM 1.4/35, and Canon 5DSR, post processed with the Cinematic workflow from Making Outstanding Images Ep.5. You can also look over my shoulder at the underlying postprocessing in the Weekly Photoshop Workflow series.

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  1. Rex Gigout says:

    Interesting; I had not really thought that there was anything creative about my “establishing shots,” a term used in my police/forensic/evidentiary photography. I had only considered my detail/close-range shots to be important, and had, on occasion, tried to coach a human subject/victim into showing inner strength during the head shots. The establishing shots seemed to be just a means to an end, part of a series, that could only be coincidentally creative, on rare occasions. Now, I have a new way to look at it! (On the other hand, I have tried to compartmentalize my on-duty shooting, to be separate from my personal shooting, in an effort to avoid growing to hate photography. Hmm…)

    Thanks, Ming, for your images and narrative.

  2. Kevin Sutton says:

    Hi Ming, What lens was used on the Olympus E-M5II?

  3. As always, I’m impressed by the clarity of vision as well as the technical quality of your images. But I will venture a gear head observation: an Otus f1.4 on an Olympus E-M5 MkII? The hapatics must be quite horrendous!

  4. Every image has a story! I’m a sucker for drama! haha! Fantastic as always, Ming!

  5. Some of your best shots (IMO), I have seen to date. Great work. The colour is lovely. I gotta figure out how to get those tones and colours 🙂

  6. Carlos Polk says:

    You are fine wine – better with time. These are some of my favorites. Ever. Very thought provoking.

  7. Ming, who’s that gentleman carrying Leica with Otus on his neck?!!

  8. Larry Kincaid says:

    Once again you have provided valuable insights and have provoked us to think more deeply about what we’re trying to do ourselves. But without this explicit: “In cinematography, a wider angle is used as an establishing shot to provide the overall context for the scene, location and any human dialogue that is to follow. The tighter head shots are frequently interspersed with equally tight cutaways to detail: it is a deliberate device to focus the attention of the audience very specifically on whatever specific object or action that is desired by the director. These cutaways always serve a purpose as they typically contain explanations or clues to the later storyline.” Which is quite valuable by itself. The images illustrate it quite well. I also noticed that the focused, tighter shot may also serve to get the audience to look at the scene from a particular character’s point of view. The little girl in the red hat, in particular, and what one “actor” is doing with their own hands seem to do this for me. The full scene perhaps would show the mother or other adult doing whatever, but the unexpected focus on the back of the little girl would make you realize that the whole scene would mean something else to the little girl. And so forth. It would be nice–if you have them or could do this again later–to show the wider scene as it might appear in a film, followed by the tighter shot you’re showing us here. Again, the shot of the little girl really makes you want to see the larger scene in which she is embedded. Two or three of these pairs would be nice.

    In my case, and for others here, you’ve touched a nerve, an approach to photography that many of us share and/or are struggling to get better at. Understanding the general concept, along with examples, helps greatly. Moreover, it should also make all of us pay attention to this technique when it appears in movies that we watch all the time. In general now, I watch film from the point of view of the cinematographer, almost as a series of stills (okay, not the car chases). Very often in movies, the film simply becomes a single, long still image with some but hardly any movement. This shows up all the time in nature documentaries as well. They catch a sunset or perfectly framed land/seascape and just cannot not hold it for a few seconds. It make the documentary much better, especially for us. The key to film is that very little if anything is accidental or random. Every scene is a calculated and/or artistic choice. The most obvious one is filming in early morning or late afternoon to give us “back-lit blonds.” To the point of boredom. Keep this coming.

    • Thanks. It’s also worth noting that in modern film there’s a lot of short/ frequent cuts – it can be well done (i.e. If you don’t notice them) but I do also some times get the feeling of attention deficit disorder and not really being able to focus on one element of the story. I don’t think it’s so much multi layering as the lost art of the long shot…

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        “.. the lost art of the long shot ..”
        Also the lost art of keeping the camera and viewing angle still during a long shot.

        • Yes! For some odd reason, the DOPs like to add far too much jerky motion – it just makes the audience nauseous.

          • The shaky-cam effect was an outgrowth of 1960s film documentary photography, where cameramen followed the action wherever it led. The shot-to-used ratio was almost unimaginable. Yet, not matter how many miles of film they shot there inevitably came the moment when the critical bit of action coincided with undesirable camera motion. It stayed in. So did the zoom-focus-pull-back sequences. News film shot for TV also produced a lot of handheld (actually shoulder-mounted) jostling about in chaotic circumstances. For reasons beyond my understanding the makers of film and TV where actors work in completely controlled circumstances began to incorporate shaky, handheld film and video to suggest authenticity. Once you can fake authenticity, you’ve got it made.

            • liramusic says:

              I feel like some deeper and more interesting reasons exist for the shift in the way cameras are used. Some of the 2oth century anti-art movements affected everything, even if we do not realize it now. Not all artists wanted perfect camera work and some felt angry. Not everything held together on all sorts of levels and so we have post modernism. Ming, your photos can be so utterly beautiful that it can be startling right at first. Radical ideas about real life date back to WWI for art and music. Wild approaches were going strong before 1920, in art and also music. That means that the way we, or most people, imagine documenting in a filmic or cinematic way is very different now. I must be thinking that these kinds of photos are on one hand emulating film, movies, and so forth. Remember that B&W style, the old Cecil B. DeMille look. But of course here these were partly non-fiction, too. Those are real-life scenes offered in a sort of story mode of thinking. Ming you work is great. I can never get the kinds of blues and greens you get. That green door in my favorite photo there with the steps… The color is pastel-like yet sharper than sharp. I decided that the geometry in that steps photo is flawless. Secretly I even wish he were not stepping out. That photo is just wonderful.

              • I think it’s social media and an underlying sort of narcissism vs documentary…

                As for blues and greens – mainly profiling and color management through the workflow 🙂

  9. Kenny Younger says:

    Never knew about “establishing shots”. Thanks.

  10. Rene Francois Desamore says:

    No image is difficult to make for you. Talented an to humble.

  11. Paul Witcher says:

    I love these, they have a lovely movement about them.

  12. Michiel953 says:

    Very interesting and informative. When in an informal (as always; I don’t have a studio) portrait session (which just means I have a camera with me with a 50, 58 or 85) I always closely observe the “habitus” of the subject. How does he/she talk, move, characteristic facial expressions, is it someone that talks with the hands? And then for some shots I close in on that particular movement.

    If I were to go through my archive of portrait shots I could put together a series titled “The hands say it all”. No faces visible, still portraits.

  13. Peter Bowyer says:

    Absolutely loving these photos Ming; every single one plants questions in my brain and makes me want to know what’s happening next. I’m intrigued by the ‘active-ness’ of the photos, and that’s rare – the last time any photos engaged me like this was competition winners at the National Portrait Gallery 5 years ago…

    • Thanks Peter – I suppose they can go either way: you either find you don’t have enough info and it’s frustrating, or you want to see the progression…

  14. Interesting photoessay and theme Ming! I might be wrong, but I find that a lot of things that work in cinema/video don’t work that well in stills. While this is a good set, part of me suspects half of the images wouldn’t be able to stand on their own, or wonders if they’ll stand the test of time.

    Out of curiosity, what do you estimate your hit rate on these images to be? I know cinematic as a broader genre has a low hit rate to begin with.

    • You’re not wrong, and yes, they don’t work on their own – I’ve said this before; a cinematic still has to be more ‘overloaded’ than a movie does to ‘work’ because there is no opportunity for causality and flow, and if there is, then the sequence is necessary.

      Hit rate? Less than 1%.

  15. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Sensationally good photography – thanks for sharing them with us, Ming

  16. liramusic says:

    You created suspense so beautifully in the gestalt aspect. What I mean is that idea of what the viewer does not see. It almost hurts! to not know (and never know) who owned that camera or that hat… and so on. Really inspiring. I knew of the inner-mat idea. You almost have this outer mat going, this part beyond. Wow, talk about kicking off into a mind conversation so to speak. Narrative is so extremely linked to sequence. Very engaging.

    • I’m going to have to look up this inner vs outer ‘mat’ thing…

      • liramusic says:

        Well, I’m wondering if I have just my own ways of wording ideas that are not universal. I made up that outer-mat idea. I get little breaks in my work to type in ideas. I was thinking of geometry in this, the photo having a primary area and surrounding that is a secondary, supporting area or “inner mat”. The red hat is a perfect example. A few others, too. Yet… it is quite interesting– more interesting– when the action or primary story element runs out to the edge– and beyond.The first photo is absolutely classic in this way and I think this is distinctly different than the first option described, the inner mat. I love that kind of idea of running out of the frame. Then took it even a step beyond by thinking of an “outer mat”. I think what I meant there was parts-unseen. Maybe that can be a keyhole view sort of effect. One can see how I am making up wordings here. The lady’s hand with the cigarette is, to me, a bit stronger than some of the others: in terms of narrative. Also, the step and foot venturing out.
        In these I felt that the viewer was deprived of information thereby increasing suspense. The geometry & content leading out of the frame… and this is terribly wonderful and engaging, “Who is this” and “what was there situation” and so on. Suspense! It’s just me but I am not responding to these merely as photos. I am thinking of story– implied story. In that sense some photos seem stronger as narrative pieces than others, sort playing off the viewer’s imagination, I feel, in story pieces. Okay, enough of my jibber jabber; I have to resume work. Ming, you are great! and thanks so much for letting me reflect more.

  17. liramusic says:

    Very lovely topic. This made me think of the fly-on-the-wall idea as well as the “fourth wall”. Intimate and captivating; almost a little bit earthy and tactile. Tiny, little delicate moments. Any one of these could have expanded a little into a worthwhile story. Thoughtful, like a gaze or pause.

    • Thanks – though there is a lot of talk of not breaking the fourth wall, I don’t see any other way of direct engagement between subject and audience without it…

      • liramusic says:

        Indeed, that is what I meant, with that theatrical fourth wall very much intact. Voyeuristic is not at all the perfect word but a tiny bit being privy to a small part of a story in great detail, yet not nowhere near the entire story. Suspense.

        • liramusic says:

          btw, some are responding to these, it just seems to me, as photos. I was totally in a different line of thought. I saw these as storyboard clips, so to speak. I actually like some more than others. As photos, not as stories, they are absolutely strong, clear, fabulous, and so on. In my mind, though, there is a distinct difference if I take them as narrative pieces. I could write more but I don’t mean to go on and on too much.

          • Storyboard clips was the intention – perhaps reference frames for mood and grading; certainly in a cinematic way. Hence the ‘after the establishing shot’ title, which is a cinematographic reference…

            • liramusic says:

              I like the stairs best. I love the mood and, to me, it seems like a perfect thought. Today “complete thought” is not ideal since, to me, narrative must have a certain suspense, not quite complete. To me it is far different than ordinary art photos. I think it has to pose a question rather than a statement. I almost think it has to be sort of this dependent clause. It is not easy to perfectly put words to it. Part of a flow, not a full thought. In that way the red hat is not quite as suspenseful. With the man about to step on to that narrow step, it is open ended. And it just happens to also be an lavish photo to boot.

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