Cinematic Look in Still Photography. Part I.

You’ve probably seen photos that make you want to scream: “Wow, how cinematic!” Perhaps you even did it a few times yourself. But why? What does it mean, “cinematic?” What makes a picture similar to a movie and different from “ordinary” photography? And in general, why and why, in fact, is the movie picture “better”?

To understand all this, you first need to understand what is the difference between  “cinematic” and “photographic.” Therefore, let’s talk about the motion picture first.

The main distinguishing feature of the cinema is the constant action. Something keeps happening on the screen, even when nothing seems to be moving. Accordingly, all the cinematographic visual (as well as all the others, but we will not mention them here, so as not to accidentally open one of the boxes of notorious Pandora), the techniques are designed for the most effective presentation of this action. The aspect ratio, composition and light do not allow the viewer to linger in any part of the frame more than it is necessary to perceive the action. Moving image does not allow to rest. We are actively monitoring what is happening and lose ourselves in the unfolding events. The movie screen “sucks” us and surrounds with details – just stretch out your hand. Thanks to this, even the most unbelievable things seem if not real, then quite plausible.

In photography, this phenomenon of “impossible reality” can be amplified multiple times. The fact is that, while watching a feature film, we accept that we consciously participate in the act of self-deception, which ends when the final credits appear on the screen. We perceive a photographic image in a different way, believing (often, naively) that it is impossible to photograph what was not before the lens in the first place. Therefore, still pictures that show actions that can not be explained, or seem unbelievable, affect the viewer no less impressively than a similar cinematic scene. Moreover, the ability to hold back the eye and return to the photo time and again, potentially makes the photo more memorable than the film episode.

Fig. 1 Leica SL, Zeiss Distagon ZM 1.4/35 T*

To enhance the illusion of reality, the filmmakers work very hard to create the illusion of depth. This is achieved by means of composition (multi-plane composition, the presence of visible, or imaginary leading lines, taking the eye into the depth of the frame, distortions that enhance the perspective) and, of course, lighting (setups with backlights and weak fill). Something like this:

Fig. 2 

Taking into account all of the above, it is not that hard to figure out what can make a photographic image look like a movie. First, the action. Secondly, an illusion of depth. Finally, for the sake of similarity to the motion picture, you can stop composing your still photos vertically, even when photographing a portrait. Although, here, too, everything is not so simple. Sly cinematographers have their reasons to stretch the screen as wide as possible. In the “wide” picture an eye has a lot of space to travel through. This allows the director to move on to the next chapter of a storyline before the viewer stumbles into the right edge of the frame. In photography, this technique is no less important, because the longer the look stays in the picture, the more likely it is that the viewer will like it and remember it.

In the example with the Eiffel Tower (Fig. 1), the action is explicit. However, having it right in the face is not at all necessary. You can just bring the viewer to the idea of ​​the action. That is, in the picture there should be omens of what can happen (like the super tired banana peel on the sidewalk). The action can be specified directly (as in Fig. 2), but literalness is not always the best way to present a story. Often, the more mysterious the details pointing to the upcoming action, or the more incomprehensible the behavior of the characters, the more the viewer has the room to interpret the story in the context of his or her own life experiences (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 Leica M10, Summicron 2/35 – IV

You can specify not only the action that will occur in the future. Elements of the image, indicating the consequences of something that has already happened, are no less effective (Fig. 4). And, unlike the movie, where the further development of the plot does not depend on the viewer, the photo allows the viewer to actively use the image elements to form his or her own version of the finale.

Fig. 4 Leica SL, Zeiss Biogon 2.8/28 ZM

Vague can be not only traces of what has happened, or signs of something that should happen in the future, but the action itself. The lack of explanation for what is happening makes the viewer look for answers, and the closed composition of the image pushes him to search for them inside the photo. This gives us an opportunity to control the viewer’s thinking process, planting semantic anchors inside the frame: “hints” of varying degrees of evidence. It is noteworthy that conclusions based on these clues may be completely wrong, yet, nevertheless, perceived as completely satisfactory by the viewer.

Fig. 5 Leica M10, Elmarit-M 2.8/24 ASPH

Compare the examples in Fig. 3 and Fig. 5: there is no action in the former image, and several possible versions of how the events will unfold are possible, while something is clearly happening in the latter, but the reasons for this action are totally incomprehensible, because the actions of the characters are not subject to logic (in this Fig. 5 is similar to Fig. 1, only the absurdity in Fig. 5 is hyperbolized).

About half of its lifetime the cinema was black and white, so we felt compelled to discuss the use a monochrome in creating the illusion of reality, although this was beyond the scope of the workshop. The most obvious and technically simple way here is to use a low key; This allows us to achieve a strong emotional effect by minimal means. Often available lighting is enough to get a frame full of mystery and drama (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6 Leica M9, Noctulux 1/50

Achieving the cinematic look in a still photograph is not limited to the methods described above. Therefore, in the next article, we will discuss how the cinematic look can be attained via not only the use of cinematic techniques, but also direct allusions to cinema.

Irakly Shanidze © 2017

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