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 :
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.
… 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 :
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 😉 😉 😉
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.
First things first, this is something we can all master in post processing, either via stitching or cropping. Cinema uses two main formats :
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 😉
So, let’s move on before I start sobbing.
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 😉
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