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The art of cinematic photography

Have a quick think about the last film you watched. If you were to describe it with one word, what would it be and why? For me it was Bohemian Rhapsody and my one word was “closeness”. That might sound strange considering this is a film about the rock band Queen, but the intimate story about Freddie Mercury had an overwhelming effect on me and I really did feel I walked out of the cinema leaving a small piece of my heart with the character I had been watching up close for the last two hours.

Films are designed to create an experience for the viewer. It’s all about the story and how to communicate it. Dialogue and motion play a big part communicating the narrative but it’s easy to forget that the picture is designed to tell the story too. Not everything can be said within the dialogue and the cinematography will hold layers of meaning that could add to the story and uncover hidden depths if you take a closer look. Being similar in nature, photography and cinematography go hand in hand. What the film borrowed from the photographic language in the beginning is now being claimed back by photographers and you can often spot them making use of distinctive cinematic effects in their photos.

The narrative

To understand the cinematic language in photography, we need to fully understand cinematography first. Let’s imagine we’re creating a film rather than a photograph. The very first thing to think about is the narrative and what form it should take. A narrative is a chain of events, linked by cause and effect which occurs in time and space. Usually a narrative starts off with a situation, then it follows a pattern of events (cause and effect), then a new situation arrives. The new situation will shape the end of the narrative. If the pattern of events is unfamiliar to us, we would struggle understanding the narrative and if you are working with photography, this familiarity is even more important as we are working with less layers of communication. To paint a simple example, imagine you are watching a film where a woman is unable to sleep, a coffee cup breaks, then the telephone rings. We would struggle to grasp this narrative because it is a random string of events. However, if the narrative starts with an argument, the woman tosses and turns in bed, she wakes up and breaks the cup because of her shaky hands, then the phone rings, we are now all part of a scenario we can recognise, and the story can unfold in front of our eyes. It’s also important to remember that the human brain and the unconscious part of it is remarkably good at decoding messages and reading symbols. In other words, following a familiar pattern does not mean you can’t be creative.

Marta Orlowska / Alamy Stock Photo

Light, form and symbolic patterns

Stylistic choices will help communicate the narrative and give wider context. It can give the viewer an understanding about the place and time and even the mental state of the character. The TV drama The Handmaid’s Tale is a perfect example of how visual language is driving the narrative. The story is set in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian state that has taken over the United States of America. Years of low reproduction rate and infertility among men and women have led to the government being overthrown by a radical new power. Their extreme values and rules are painting a bleak future for women. The last fertile women are forced to be handmaids and are all distributed between elite couples to carry their children. All freedom is removed and Gilead’s secret police force, ‘the Eyes’, are watching everyone closely.

The use of dark tones and minimal natural light really enforce the feeling of being trapped. As a handmaid, Offred, the lead character, is not only trapped within the four walls of the house – she cannot trust anyone, so her thoughts are also trapped within her. Another visual effect the Directors of Photography have made use of is composition. When several handmaids are in the same shot, they are formed into symmetrical, militant formations and the view is moved back or from above. This is to show that they’re being controlled and constantly overlooked. You can also see that whenever there is anyone of higher rank within the frame, the handmaids will always take up less space or be placed lower within the picture frame than the others. Perhaps this isn’t something you would notice when watching the show but your subconscious would pick up on this and understand that the handmaid has no power and very little hope. Finally, the lack of vibrancy and colour helps portray the artificial and surreal place of Gilead. It gives us the sense that this is not set in the past, but in a hostile, dystopian future. These are all visual choices that can be found in still photography too.

Boy standing on the steps in a swimming pool in the shadows
RooM the Agency / Alamy Stock Photo

The power of mise-en-scène

Mise-en-scène is an expression used to describe the designed environment of a shot. It refers to everything in front of the camera. Props, costumes, composition, actors, lights and so on, all have their own mission to complete the narrative. The mise-en-scène is the result of these different components coming together and if done well it should create the very feeling we are left with after watching a good film. The first aspect to consider is setting. What place are we in? Can the setting reveal important information to the viewer? Or tell you anything about the character?

Decor or production design is another important factor that needs reflecting upon. Have a look at interior choices and how they mimic the personality of the character. In Amélie, for example, the decor is as whimsical, playful and optimistic as Amélie herself and it helps you understand her world better.

Costumes and make-up are another two important factors. A lot of drama can be added by colour and texture. Have a look at how the use of makeup in Black Swan portrays the character’s dark and conflicting mental state.

Colour choices

Colour can, in itself, reveal a lot as it’s strongly connected with symbolism. Red can signal both danger and passion while blue can symbolise tranquillity and loyalty as well as conservatism and structure. We often see cooler colours are used in the background and warmer colours in the details and costumes to draw attention. Filmmaker Tim Burton is famous for his colour choices. And if you have a peak at the trailer for one of Tim’s most loved films Edward Scissorhandsit’s no doubt that colour has been carefully selected to drive the story. The American suburb, where the story is set, is all made up of pastel colours. The people and their belongings all have an 80s look and everything could well have been sugar-coated with a layer of candyfloss. In huge contrast, the neighbourhood is overlooked by a nightmare-looking mansion on top of a hill. The person living there, Edward, is the result of a mad inventors unfinished project and with his dark appearance you sense that he will become a threat to this utopian community. However, the artificial neighbourhood will soon reveal its flaws and the story will challenge your pre-existing sense of good and evil.

If you want to get a broader understanding of colour theory and how it’s used in both film and photography, you can have a further read here.

Luc Kordas / Alamy Stock Photo

Photography with a cinematic feel

There is so much to explore within the visual language of photography, but you can learn a lot by studying film. Next time you are about to switch on your Netflix or if you find yourself in front of a cinema screen with a big portion of popcorn in your hands, try and notice the light, colour and composition. If you removed all dialogue, what part of the story are you left with? The same techniques can be used for still imagery and help both photographers and image buyers; shooting and selecting imagery that is made to create an experience for the viewer.

The beauty of photography is that there are no other elements to distract our attention – it is visual communication in its purest form!

Matt Yau

Matt started off as a live music photographer covering up-and-coming bands in Brighton, and since then has become enamoured by the power of pictures. With a penchant for storytelling, he's on a mission to uncover unique images from the Alamy library and tell the story behind them.

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