#1078. Large format, Cinematic … Getting the Looks (2/3)

By pascaljappy | How-To

Jan 07

Recent movies such as Blade Runner 2049, Interstellar, The Joker or Parasite exhibit a level of aesthetic control that hinges on lighting, set dressing and camera equipment, and makes a trip to the moon seem like an improvised picnic. Can a solo photographer create something vaguely similar without 9-figure budgets and months of creative work?

Welcome to episode 2 of 3 in this series about recreating the look of traditional large format photography and narrative movies. The first was devoted to large format, and you can read it here. But, to summarise, in order to achieve this look :

  1. Use an old lens design with nice looking aberrations, preferably in a long focal length (roughly equivalent to the diagonal of the film size you wish to emulate)
  2. Close the aperture down to something a large format photographer would have used (usually f/16 to f/64)
  3. Stitch multiple frames of your subject, making sure the camera doesn’t change focus in between frames. As for exposure, see below.

It’s a simple enough process, and very gratiying, in that it slows you down and makes you think about the actual making of the photograph. And results can be excellent. As reader Andreas Aae rightly commented, panning a camera to create your shots approximates using a curved sensor, with all the benefits this implies.

The use of an appropriate lens is essential as the purpose of the stitching is merely to increase the angle of what you are photographing. The actual aesthetics come from the lens and aperture you are using.

The (multi-stitched) photograph above was made with an X1D lens and doesn’t have the same look as the top one, made with an old Zeiss C-Sonnar lens originally designed in 1932 (though built to modern standards by Zeiss in the 21st century). While the look of that top photograph isn’t quite there, it shares with large format a huge tonal range and a vivid, organic pop that’s full of life, and really difficult to find in modern gear.

Above is my final attempt, using a longer 90/2.8 Elmarit at f/16. It’s closer still. To transition to video and the cine look, here’s a nice video – also curtesy of Andreas – made by the crazy geniuses at largesense.

The problem with the cinematic look …

… is that there are many looks! Noone would compare Wes Anderson to a gritty Todd Phillips (Joker). The many looks come from multiple related factors including :

  • The desired cinematographic style (naturalistic, realistic, expressionist, documentary …)
  • The gear used to film and light the scene

As fascinating as the first aspect is, it has a lot to do with working in a large studio or treating the outside world like a huge studio to control the light falling on the scene. This hardly relates to photography although one superhero has become a master of this very process: Gregory Crewdson. The man will eviscerate houses, block entiry streets set up lighting to satisfy the Rolling Stones, storyboard and direct actors all for … one frame. If you’ve never seen his work, a documentary describes it, as does this interesting YouTube video.

This, of course, is fascinating in its own right. But, for now, let’s focus on what mere mortals can do solo, in the field, with common gear and no assitants. How do we use our gear to create photographs that look like they’ve been pulled out of a cinema movie? This is what I tried to achieve, above. What do you think?

OK, so maybe you need to think of a film about donkeys πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰

The good news is that, unlike large format photography, cinema doesn’t require huge sensors. The bad news is that pro cinema gear still costs as much as a tourist flight to outer space …

But it doesn’t have to! Let’s begin.

Frame format

First things first, this is something we can all master in post processing, either via stitching or cropping. Cinema uses two main formats :

  • “Flat” : 1.85:1 (or very close to 17:9 which is native on some cameras and fits modern screens and TVs very well).
  • Some variety of “scope” close to 2.40:1 (2.35:1, 2.39:1, humans and standards, don’t ask)

The format you choose isn’t something to decide lightly. Composing in Flat is *a lot* easier than composing in that narrow strip that is cinemascope. Not everyone has Lee Van Cleef’s eyes to fill the frame and it can be daunting to imagine what to … simply put on either side of your subject!

This is particularly troublesome for me. Panoramas come naturally to me. But … in vertical format. Framing wide and horizontally is really tough for me πŸ˜‰

So, let’s move on before I start sobbing.

Blur (motion and other)

Let’s draw a clear distinction between video and cinema here, because the desired looks and gear requirements are very different. Video, as seen mainly on youtube, but possibly also in corporate footage, some TV adverts, nature shows … has a very realistic look, with an impression of high resolution, and makes active use of slow motion, aerial shots … It all provides an immersive feeling when done well and is a genre quite distinct from features films.

Narrative movies, on the other hand, tend to favour a softer image that doesn’t highlight every wrinkle on a famous actor’s face which will end up measuring 7 feet on a wide screen.

Both, however, will tend to be very specific with shutter speed, in order to allow for some motion blur in individual frames, in order to ensure that the transition from frame to frame looks natural. A high frame rate (60 fps) with very fast shutter speeds gives a distinctively video look. A low framerate (24 fps) with longer shutter speeds (typically half the duration of the frame, so 1/48s) feels much more natural and cinematic. If you want your photographs to look cinematic, don’t overdo the sharpness thing. A sharp image screams “photograph”.

While both narrative movie makers and video makers tend to agree on shutter speed relative to frame rate (referred to as shutter angle), their preferences in lenses vary quite a lot.


A set of 6 Leica Cine Lenses costs over 200 000 euros. A single ARRI Signature Prime Lens can top 30 000 euros. An old Zeiss Master Prime Lens, looking more battered than Galileo at a flat-earther convention, can top 15 000 euros.

Their MTF charts are nowhere near as “good” as those of cheap kit zoom. And that’s by design, although some people didn’t get the memo. For a very interesting deep dive into what someone like Christopher Nolan looks for in a $25 000 lens, check out this ARRI specialist interview. Sharpness is nowhere near the top of the list. Weight, focus breathing, bokeh, consistent colour throughout the range all are. And details such as getting rid of chromatic aberrations in the focus plane and ensuring that what residual amount subsists out of focus is a natural warm/cool rather than an unnatural-looking green/magenta.

Absolute control over aesthetics is what separates the grown-ups from children in the cine world. And anyone choosing a cine lens based on high MTFs will end up with footage that is both harsh and unflattering rather than beautifull, natural and flaterring. That might suit certain video styles, but it’s not what we’d call the cinematic look. Movies are all about keeping the audience’s attention in the story for hours on end. Anything that stands out technically will pull the viewer out of the dream. So, go for a gentle look.

So, what’s a poor tog to do, if selling organs isn’t an option?

Well, important scenes in Interstellar were shot using 30 year old Mamiya 645 lenses that cost 200€ on fleabay! I kid you not. The scene with the big waves is one of them. Duclos, the company famous for cine-modding photo lenses features those Mamiya lenses on its corporate website. Others filmmakers are quite fond of Leica-R lenses, and buy numerous copies to make sure they get the most consistent colours throughout their set. Zeiss Contax lenses are also very affordable (200-800 depending on the lens), will hold their value better than a brexiting currency and look so gorgeous as to be hard to tell apart from the bigger cine brothers in the same stable (at 5% of the price).

You’ll see a few Otus lenses on some sets. But more often for adverts, corporate or musical clips. And I’m pretty sure you could make a gorgeous feature film with a set of Otus lenses as well. But, if on a budget, look no further than a nifty 50/1.7 Zeiss costing less than a month of TV subscriptions. Or the achingly beautiful Mandler lenses from the other side of 1980’s Germany, at a slightly higher cost.

Anamorphic lenses are particularly associated with the cinematic look. Those incorporate a cylindrical element to “squeeze” the image horizontally. It is then desqueezed digitally or by a projector equiped with the “reverse” lens. The effect is that the center of the frame feels like it’s shot with a longer focal length than the edges. Distortion, oval bokeh and heavy flares add to the impression. The degree of flare and distortion you are willing to put up with is entirely a personal choice. I find them a little bit gimmicky; but others love them.

All right, enough for now. In the final instalment, well take a look at tone curve, sensor size, composition and colour palette to complete the series. Coz, yes, that’s another problem. Transitioning to video when your photography is mostly in b&w can be tricky πŸ˜‰


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  • David says:

    Thanks Pascal for this excellent, eye-opening series! Can’t wait to read the next episode.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I find it had to respond empathetically to someone who can afford to go Hassy.

    But I’ll ignore that. Because the thrust of this episode is an expose – not of “who dunnit?” – but “how” they did. And like any other brat who’s ever rolled jaffas down the sloping wooden of the “Star” or the “Odeon” during the Saturday afternoon matinee while Tarzan was getting “rope burn” near that naga naga, or Hopalong Cassidy was cleaning up the Wile West, I’ve had a lifelong love of film.

    Before you finish tearing pages out of that cheque book, save at least one, for Samsung’s latest offering. I’m not sure if it’s aTV or wallpaper – could be either. Just HUGE.

    Lens. Hmm. Did read somewhere about someone who commissioned three copies of an otherwise unique lens, just to make one film. Not sure what happened next – whether the studio kept one, one ws damaged, and he kept the other one. But I think the original cost was somewhere around USD$3 mill, and his later went to auction and fetched something like $5 mill.

    If you’re getting yours for 200 euros, you’re doing well.

    Format? Well you could become internationally famous, developing a whole new genre of vertical frame movies. Let’s see – Spiderman pursues the villain to the top of the Empire State? Leon’s just sent a rocket towards Mars, exporting Dumbo Tramp and his retinue, on a well earned holiday? Salvaging the wreck of the Titanic? A children’s tale, about giraffes?

    My favourite “use of format” scene was John Cleese in “A Fish Called Wanda” – when he’s in an apartment somewhere down Canary Wharf way, shagging Jamie Lee Curtis, who is inspired by his knowledge of Russian and screams for more – when suddenly the owners of the apartment burst in, with their two children. The whole of the rest of that scene is filled with vignettes – different stories, unfolding indifferent parts of the room, each one funnier than the others. You have to watch it several times, to enjoy it all properly – there’s way too much on the go to take all of it in, during one sitting.

    No doubt Cinemascope could be employed to advantage with scenes like that. There’s your answer – fill it, with multiple stories!

    I’m afraid a lot of the fun has gone – AI and lord knows what has replaced it – whizz bang action films & monster movies, sci-fi and dinosaurs. But the softer images have went & gone, the suspense of the whodunits is replaced with what can the computer generate for the next scene, and what sort of romance can you expect between a Tyrannosaurus and our 25 year old blonde heroine? Simply dimming the lights as they crawl into bed, ain’t gonna make it!

    Reminds me of cellphones – not my concept of “photography”, and the better they make them, the more bizarre they become.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah, I remember Wanda with fondness and that is indeed a funny scene.
      200 euros is quite a common price for some medium format Mamiya lenses and the others are probably 3 times that. 3 millions … that must have been quite the lens. It must have come with a swimming pool and a light aircraft πŸ˜‰


      • PaulB says:


        Now you are channeling an old Leica advertising campaign; β€œBuy this lens (a big R-mount) and we will give you this fine carrying case (a Volkswagen).”


        • pascaljappy says:

          Really? That’s hilarious πŸ˜‰

        • jean pierre guaron says:

          ROTFLMHAO – too funny! Wherever did you get that one, Paul

          • PaulB says:


            In 1990 I attended a photography workshop in Colorado given by Boyd Norton. He was using a mix of Leica R and Nikon cameras and lenses. During one of our classroom sessions we were having a discussion of his impressions of the differences between Leica and Nikon. During this discussion he mentioned that several years earlier, Leica was trying to compete in the long focal length lens market and they produced a new longer/faster lens than they previously offered (I don’t remember which one). The price of this lens was so high that in order to entice photographers to buy it, they offered it with a free Volkswagen.

            I tried to find the advertisement using Google, but there are too many returns to go through all of them.


  • Sean says:

    Hi Pascal,
    This instalment has just made the series more ‘real world’ because of it’s “… how they did it …” approach alluded to by you know who, above. πŸ™‚ In a practical and financial sense it helps resolve the dilemma posed by your question “… Can a solo photographer create something vaguely similar without 9-figure budgets and months of creative work?…” So, for me and by way of example, I have owned a Zeiss Jena 80mm F2.8 Tilt Shift – EOS modded. I now feel I might – or should – have to take it take it for a walk, on my equally aged EOS 5D Mk1 to put your advisory into practice.

    Getting back to the above mention of certain lenses etc, I found the following on ThemPipe, and it may interest both you and others. I sum, be happy with what you’ve got because the alternative is out-of-reach:
    Title: Classic cinema lenses on modern cameras, with Jody Eldred
    Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_nY2kv_oO0

    • pascaljappy says:

      Brilliant, Sean, thanks for that video. One sentence (about an old lens) stands out and, for me, sums up the difference between filmmaking and photography : “It’a beautiful piece of glass, it’s not made like a computerised piece of glass, I mean this thing had personality all over it”.

      Which is not to say all modern lenses are bad, but the fact is that filmmaking is a continuum, and from the script to the casting, the lighting and the lens choices, everything has to come together to create a given mood and feel. Contrast this to the drab reviews we are spoon fed in the photo hobby. Outside the quantitative notions of sharpness and shallowness of depth of field, there’s not a lot to go with.

      However, even those old lenses are out of reach. But an old Mamiya 645 or Leica R or Zeiss Contax is well within the reach of a majority of photographers and we must remember that many films where made using just one or two lenses. So we’re talking $500 total here …

      Cheers, Pascal

      • Sean says:

        I knew those words would sing to you; they immediately sang to me as soon as I heard them. Those words are the ‘dogs bollocks’ aren’t they. I agree, some modern lenses are sure to be up there in regards to what you are chortling on about, for example the Loxia 50/2 (older planar design), for me, may, measure up to the idiosyncrasies discussed in this article, as may the newer Sigma 45/2.8 – I can’t prove it, but … Ah yes, those other older lenses from ‘top shelf’ brands as you allude to, well, some are sure to be ‘pearls’. I have a Zeiss Contarex Planar 50/2 modded to Nikon mount, and it’s definitely a ‘pearl’ in this respect – low contrast, flat field and not too sharp, but having buckets of character.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Ah, the this with Zeiss — and, now, this is the absolute fanboy speaking πŸ˜‰ — is that they have developed a tremendous ability to predict the look of a lens before building it. So even modern lenses look good, on top of lowering aberrations. And they older lenses are simply gorgeous. My only reticence is the slightly yellow colour given by the coatings. Not an issue per se, but given the natural colour drifts in past Sony cameras, the two added up to create something I found ugly. Whereas the cooler Leica seemed to better cancle out the colour science peculiarities πŸ˜‰

          • jean pierre guaron says:

            Maybe it was only an issue on Sony? I shoot with my Zeiss lenses a lot (practically all my travel ‘tography), and if anything, I’d say they’re colour neutral. What you see is what you get.

            • PaulB says:


              I have also seen lenses introducing a color cast to images. Some of this is due to the glass formulations and the coatings being used at the time the lens was produced; early Leica M lenses do produce an image that is cooler (bluer) than the modern lenses. The various Japanese lenses also have a different color palette when compared to lenses produced in different parts of the world.

              Another possible cause of a color cast, that I have heard of in large format lenses, is the glues used to cement lens elements together and how they react to UV light and environmental effects over time; the ultimate effect of this aging would be fogging between the elements. The explanation was the early glues were sourced from animal products and for later lenses the manufacturers used petroleum based glues. I do not know if this was true, it is just what I heard.

              Your assessment that Pascal’s experience is Related to Sony may be correct. Sony has a different color palette for each of their color settings than the other manufactures, just like the film manufactures had different color palettes for their emulsions; and different parts of the world. Digital makes it easy to see.


        • jean pierre guaron says:

          I loved my Planar – I certainly didn’t find it “not too sharp” OR “low contrast” – I guess I had control over contrast anyway, depending on how I developed my films – but I regularly made A3 prints from B&W of mechanical & architectural subjects, and sharpness definitely wasn’t an issue.
          If I’d known I could mod it for a Nikon, I’d still be using it! Alas, it’s long gone now.
          And just in case some of you don’t know, it was scaled up, stuck on a Hassy, and became the first lens ever, on the moon!

          • Sean says:

            Hi Jean Pierre,
            Thank you for your reply. When I said “… I have a Zeiss Contarex Planar 50/2 modded to Nikon mount, and it’s definitely a β€˜pearl’ in this respect – low contrast, flat field and not too sharp …” I was comparing it to a more modern Zeiss, the 50mm F2 ZM lens (which also I have). This does not discount that fact that the Contarex version isn’t sharp, it’s just not as sharp as the more modern ZM version, and I can see the difference. I should have made this point clearer, in the first place. Yes, my Contarex Zeiss Planar is modded to the Nikon mount (very basic) – no AIS or otherwise cleverer, just plain Jane Nikon F mount, which I derive a heap of fun from on my Canon EOS 5D Mk 1 and Mk 2.

  • PaulB says:


    Another wonderful article and images. I particularly like the comparison between video and cinema. This helped me to understand some of my own biases in what I am doing in my own photo efforts.

    I seem to be torn between video and cinema. For much of what I have done I am driven to achieve video (realism, or perfectionism). But in large format I was captivated by the softer (cinematic) look; which I really tried (and still want) to return to after I moved on to β€œnewer/better”.

    I have also enjoyed the above conversations. They help to make the article personal to each of us.

    Concerning the lens recommendations and the conversations above, I would add the following.

    1. Embrace trying the oldest vintage lenses. The qualities that give a lens character will probably be more prevalent in the older versions than in the newest.
    2. Embrace trying lenses from off brand name or defunct manufacturers. Exacta, Praktica, Zenit, Yashica, Angenieux, Kodak, Voigtlander, and others, offered lenses that rivaled what the current big name manufacturers produced at the time.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Paul, I agree entirely.

      Right now, I’m torn between the desire to go all out on completing my Leica-R range (some of which I was really silly to sell …) + grab a set of old Zeiss, and to keep it simple and minimalist going with just two nice and consistent lenses.

      From a convenience, quality, look, price standpoint, you are right, the Loxias are excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed the 21, 25 and 85. The 50 was also pretty nice. Only the 35 felt a bit harsh in some lighting conditions.

      The reality, though, is that I don’t even own a camera … so all of this is very virtual πŸ˜‰


      • PaulB says:


        Lets face it, we are lens junkies. Always looking for our next β€œfix”.

        Though, I think you may be replying to Sean.


        • Sean says:

          Ha harrr, Paul, I sensed that too.
          Well Pascal, what’s the definitive on this? πŸ™‚

          • pascaljappy says:

            Sean : I can neither confirm nor deny those allegations πŸ˜‰

            Yeah, of course we are lens junkies πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ Can’t help oursemves, thinking of all the various looks that no amount of PP or presets can recreate.

            Oh dear, we need help πŸ˜‰

            • PaulB says:


              No, we need more $, €, Β£, or Β₯ (), to fund the fix.

              Perhaps selling blood plasma would help with this.

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