Achieving that Cinematic Look in your Photography (Part 1)

It’s not every day that you ask a couple of your friends to break-up. Nor should you. Especially when you are the one who set them up in the first place. But in this case I made an exception, mostly because it was fictional.

As a personal project, I have decided to create three different cinematic scenes. Scenes that look like they could be out of a movie. No one specific movie, but rather a genre or style. My first style I decided to tackle a romantic film–either romantic comedy, drama, or chick-flick. Ultimately I decided to go with a break-up scene. For my second scene I will create a Steven Spielberg-like alien scene. For the final scene I will create a Star Wars scene. That should be fun!

As you scroll through these images of Derek and Afton, you will see that I improved as each image went a long.

Start with the Wide


As you can see in the above image, I started with a wide angled lens. I am using my Panasonic GH5 with an RJ Booster and a Rokinon 14mm cine lens. On a Micro Four-Thirds sensor this comes out to be close to an APS-C sensor equivalent. I bracketed this shot to get a high dynamic range and merged the images together in Adobe Lightroom. In Lightroom I also added some grain to the image in an attempt to give it that film look. And of course, why not frame the image so you have a nice lens flare. That one’s for you J. J. Abrams!

Close in on the Subject


I went with a tighter Rokinon lens for this one. I think it was the 35mm if I remember correctly. Each of these images I edited initially in Lightroom and then brought into Adobe Photoshop. I cropped them to a 16:9 ratio. These images here on the blog were scaled down to 1920 x 1080, the same dimensions as Full HD.

Confrontation Angle


Back on the wide angle lens, I couldn’t help but hear Ron Howard’s voice in my head as I took this photo. If you have seen the Master Class advertisement that pops up on so many YouTube videos I watch, you would hear Ron Howard saying, “But there’s also a very other simple but important shot here. And that’s this fifty-fifty. It’s a good confrontational angle.”

Unfortunately, the bridge was very narrow and it was difficult to get this shot. I also bracketed this shot without making sure my subjects held absolutely still, and as a result there is some ghosting on the edges of my subjects.

Claustrophobic Angle – Power


I jumped ahead slightly in mimicking a popular Steven Spielberg technique. It’s this idea of claustrophobia. Notice how the back of Afton’s head fills about two thirds of the frame. Derek seems small in comparison. Who has the power in this particular scene? If you watch some of Spielberg’s films, you will notice that some of his angles are even more extreme. I believe I used the 50mm in this shot but it could be the 85mm. Through this shoot I used a 14mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lens.

Over the Shoulder


I love the framing in this particular image. I may have gone a little overboard with her eyes, but I love the look on her face. It almost seems apologetic, which is what I was going for. During this part of the shoot, Afton made up a sad story and acted as if she was the first person who had to break the news to Derek. She did a phenomenal job and I was able to get several really good expressions from her.

The Emotion


Looks can be deceiving, especially in photography.  While the image above this one could be interpreted as the moment she tells him “it’s not going to work out,” this is the image that I imagine would be the part of the conversation that goes something like this, “What about all we’ve been through? All the plans we made? Where is this coming from? I gave you my jacket!” He genuinely looks distraught, maybe a little upset. For this shot, Derek told Afton a true story this time about a past experience. One thing I love about Derek is he is a phenomenal story teller, he really gets into it with his voice and emotion. He wasn’t even mad, just getting to the climax of his story.

The Conclusion


I love the energy and the emotion in this shot. If you saw no other image but this one, I feel like you could understand what this story is about. Another thing to think about when you are shooting for a cinematic look is framing. How do movies frame their images? I tried in each of these images to frame at least on subject on a third. This image above follows the rule of thirds. Notice how Afton is positioned on the right third and her eye is near the intersection on the top third and the right third. Derek’s eye line is nearly level with Afton’s eyes. He is positioned on the left third.


The Revelation


I feel like in most projects you do, whether it’s photography, cinematography, or something else, there is that moment when you get to the end of your project and you think, “Wow, I would have done that completely differently now.” It doesn’t mean you dislike what you produced, it just means that if you knew then what you know now, your project would have turned out much differently. And that’s what learning is. That’s what improvement is! I won’t say that the above images are the best images ever, but I’m happy with them because what I learned over time.

Not long ago I produced a short film about a little boy, and his dad, and a superhero. I am happy with the way it turned out because of the process and what I learned. Is it perfect? Not by any means! Even as I was editing and publishing it, I knew so many flaws it contained, and so many things I did wrong: from the story, to the production, and even the post production.

By the time I got to this final image, I found a workflow that I liked: Raise the whites, lower the blacks, raise the shadows, and lower the highlights. I also lowered the saturation of the greens and yellows, which desperately needed to happen in the earlier photos in this post. I slightly increased the saturation on the blues to bring out her dress more.


Much of what I did here were stylistic choices. I added grain, I cropped at 16:9, I shot with Rokinon cine lenses, I used the rule of thirds. However, these are not requirements for achieving that cinematic look. There is much that goes into cinematic photography and honestly a lot of it is personal preference. I think the important thing is that you tell a story. You can do that with a single image. I chose to create a whole scene because I wanted to better use a variety of lenses to learn how to tell different aspects of the same story. You will see in Part II of my cinematic photography project that I abandoned the rule of thirds in some of my images. And you will see in Part III that I abandoned the use of the cine lenses altogether! This was my opportunity to experiment with different styles. I encourage you to do the same! Go out and try some things!

Here are some additional tips by Fstoppers on achieving the cinematic look in your photography.

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