Have you ever watched a movie so visually compelling that you wanted to replicate it through your photography?
Giving an image the cinematic treatment dramatically affects both its appearance and the mood that it conveys. It doesn’t just make your photo stand out, but also reminds your audience of blockbusters that they may have seen before.
Fortunately, you don’t need to be a cinematographer to create Hollywood-worthy pictures. If you want your photos to look like screenshots from your favorite films, we’ll show you how to achieve it with these simple steps.
01. Study your favorite movies
Before you can take cinematic photos, you need to ask yourself what makes something look picturesque in the first place. Forget about looking up its textbook definition. Instead, watch your favorite films and try to identify how you can interpret their essence visually.
You don’t have to stick to one particular genre when looking for cinematic inspiration. You can learn a lot from watching everything from action movies to animation to independent films. Broaden your influences by researching lists of films online, such as IMDb’s Top 50 Most Beautiful and Visually Stunning Movies.
Once you find the right inspiration, write down everything you like about it visually. Observe how every shot is composed, and pay attention to how the lighting establishes the mood of each scene. Filmmaking and photography may be different platforms, but they share many rules. Subsequently, you can easily apply what you learn from watching movies to your photography.
02. Capture images with a prime lens
Movie cameras rarely use zoom lenses. A lot of cinematographers actually prefer using fixed prime lenses because they’re a whole lot sharper than lenses with variable focal lengths. Apart from that, they also provide incredible bokeh that helps isolate the subject from the background.
The most popular prime lenses that you can use for photography are 35mm and 50mm. If you need to capture a scene up close, then choose a 35mm lens. Although it's considered a wide-angle lens, it doesn't distort images as much as other lenses. If you need a distortion-free, general-purpose lens, however, then 50mm would be your best choice. It's not only cheaper than the 35mm, but it also offers better background blur.
35mm and 50mm lenses do a good job at making a photo look cinematic. In reality, however, filmmakers rarely use them since they force you to get too close to your subject and interfere with the ‘action.’
So, if you really want an authentic film look, select a portrait lens such as the 85mm. Why? Mainly because it's focal length allows you to shoot from a safe distance. Furthermore, it doesn’t distort faces, unlike other lenses. Lastly, it produces better background blur than most other options.
03. Focus on your subject
Movie scenes often blur backgrounds to help the audience focus on the subject.
Newer films often have an extremely narrow depth of field. To blur your background like a modern movie, switch your camera to Aperture Priority and select the lowest aperture possible (either f/1.8 or f2/8).
Meanwhile, most older movies tend to have just have enough bokeh to make the surroundings less distracting.
If you want to achieve the look of older films, feel free to use a smaller aperture such as f/3.5 or even f/5.6. If you try to go even higher (such as f/8), however, you might lose the bokeh altogether. As a rule, try to stick to values between f/1.2 to f/5.6.
04. Learn to shoot RAW
Giving photos that cinematic feeling goes beyond having great camera skills. You also have to be prepared to edit your images as well. To improve your photos, you’ll need to switch from JPEG (default setting) to RAW.
JPEG is a type of file which you can readily use right out of the camera. However, editing it introduces digital artifacts (visible noise and pixelation) that makes an image look less desirable. On the other hand, a RAW file allows you to make significant changes to your photo without destroying its overall look.
To switch your file settings, access your camera's menu and change the image quality to RAW. If you're not sure where to find this mode, consult your manual for instructions.
05. Communicate via angles
Every element of an image influences how your audience feels about your subject. This includes using angles to establish different moods. Just by changing your camera position, you can affect how people perceive your photo.
The most common angle is the eye-level shot. Since it replicates how we usually see other people, it helps us connect with the subject on a more personable, intimate level.
Shooting from a low angle can make your subject feel bigger and dominant, while shooting from above, on the other hand, makes them appear more vulnerable.
Another important cinematic angle is the Dutch tilt, which is used to frame a scene diagonally. Since it’s an unusual angle, people are immediately drawn to it. The tilted angle creates the feeling of imbalance and restlessness.
You can use the energy of this angle to make a shot look edgy, or give it a thriller movie vibe.
06. Tell a story
In the same way that movies tell stories, you also need to incorporate a narrative into your imagery. Conveying messages through a single photo can be challenging, but it can be done if you plan your shot carefully.
The story doesn’t have to be complicated. Just give your audience enough clues to let them know what’s going on in your photo.
For instance, if you want to add a sense of mystery to your image, you might want to consider shooting in an ominous setting, such as a dark, foggy landscape. Including a human subject also allows your audience to relate to their situation in the shot.
To make better sense of what your picture is trying to say, your viewers are likely to create their own backstory in their head. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what kind of narrative they visualize. The point is to allow them to engage with your work by letting them use their imagination.
07. Set the mood with lighting
While lighting in regular photos often comes from natural surroundings, lighting sources in movies are often deliberately placed to achieve specific effects. That’s why it’s essential that you meticulously plan your shots in order to replicate the atmosphere of your favorite films.
The two main types of lighting you can use to shape the mood of your images are soft lighting and hard lighting. Movies often use soft lighting to make scenes look dreamy and heavenly. On the other hand, they apply hard lighting to set a more dramatic tone.
To produce soft lighting, you’ll need a large light source. That’s why you see large softboxes in studios because they spread the light coming from the bulbs. However, you don’t need special equipment to create soft lighting. All you have to do is wait until the sun is shining through the clouds during an overcast day. Alternatively, you can also place your subject beside a window to diffuse the harsh light outside.
At night, shop windows with neon signs or fluorescent lights can also be excellent sources for soft, multi-colored lighting.
If you want to use hard lighting, you’ll want to use a small, artificial light source. Since it’s more concentrated, it causes strong contrasts and brighter highlights.
08. Get creative with color grading
A subtle enhancement that you can use to complete that movie look is color grading. This process is used to manipulate the tones and hues in filmmaking. It doesn’t just establish the appearance of the film, but it also heightens its overall mood.
Naturally, you'll want to do the same for your photos. Even if your shots already look beautiful straight out of the camera, you may still have to do some extra editing to make them look even more cinematic.
To color grade your image, play around with color temperatures in order to suit the kind of mood you would like your photo to convey. Keep in mind the way colors affect your viewers' perception. You can slide the temperature more towards the yellow side if you want your photo to look and feel warmer, and towards the blue side if you want it to evoke a colder response. Adjust the values of your hues, saturation, and luminance (HSL) until you achieve the color palette that you want.
Ultimately, color grading is an artistic choice. That’s why you’ll notice that the colors of Michael Bay films are vastly different from that of Wes Anderson’s, for instance. There aren't any exact rules to follow. Just have fun with it and try not to go overboard with your editing. Remember that the sky should always be blue, and skin tones shouldn't appear overtly pale or orange.
To achieve the cinematic look, you need to adopt a cinematographer’s mindset. Don’t just snap photos casually like any other photographer. Instead, you should be more calculated with the decisions you make while shooting. Ultimately, everything boils down to controlling color, composition, and lighting. Once you figure out how to manipulate all these elements, you’re guaranteed to produce visually striking images that are worthy of the big screen.