#1086. Large format, Cinematic … Getting the Looks (3/3)

By pascaljappy | Art & Creativity

Jan 30

We know from the previous episode that the 1.85:1 (ish) and 2.4:1 formats are favoured by filmmakers. That motion blur is used to soften the transition from frame to frame, and that lenses are chosen for a look that complements the desired mood of the film. What are the other aspects of movie photography that are different from our everyday practice as common garden photographers?


Composition (3D, layering)

My first question when faced with a very wide frame is what to fill it with? In fact, that’s rarely a question filmmakers ask themselves and it’s quite rare to find a very elongated composition placing important characters or features close to the edges (when this happens, it is used sparsely, and mostly to dramatic effect). Instead, composition is quite often centric with a lot of “contextual elements” on either side, most often to set a mood and create 3D.


Gently panning through a horizontal frame apparently produces a soothing effect for the brain. See the very tranquil image above.

Mostly, though, the elements at the edges are there to create layering. A strong 3D effect is a signature cinematic look. This can be helped by lenses with 3D pop, but composing with elements that clearly indicate depth is far more effective and lens selection is mostly decided with mood considerations in mind. See below. The very clear layering produces an image that seems to be infinitely deep.


Frames with frames are also widely used to either focus the action in on specific point of the wiiiiide available area (again, often for depth and realism), or to split action into zones, as below. Look carefully at your next movies. It’s uncanny just how many shots are frames by trees, windows, cars, blurred characters, blurred furniture, blurred props …

Of course, the direction of light plays a major role in the sensation of layering and 3D. And you’ll very rarely see a front lit shot in a move that tries to emphasise the sense of place. Side or back lighting are most frequently used (found or created).


Light and Highlight control

This is a big one! Cameras costing more than my car mostly come in low resolutions, but high dynamic range is greatly prized. High contrats scenes with deep shadows and pure white highlights, can be found, as below. But they will be deliberate and never a consequence of gear that can’t cope.


When the dynamic range exceeds the capabilities of the sensor, lighting is brought to the rescue, sometimes in spectacular fashion. For instance, the whole ceiling of the huuuuge hangar used to shoot the film 300 was covered in hundreds of light boxes to create the very diffused look found in the original comic.

While this places that sort of effort well out of the reach of amateur photographers, we can still do our best to understand the light and to understand our gear. A camera such as the RED Komodo offers 13 stops of usable dynamic range, for instance. This is nearly identical to what competing cameras from photography brands offer. But the shape of the Komodo’s tonal response curve is very different, ensuring that the highlight rollof is extremely smooth and the transition, from areas of the frame that contain colour information and those that are pure white, is smooth and imperceptible. Some competitors simply can’t match that and introduce artefacts that can pull the spectator right out of the story by drawing attention to the gear.


So pay huge attention to those highlight rolloffs. The #1 characteristic of a cinematic look is the huge dynamic range and totcal control of light. Most directors of photography will not have a single pixel blown out or burried, unless for a specific reason. Controlling light is Paramount (sorry πŸ˜‰ )

Now, don’t ask me why, but true cinema cameras with small sensors (M43 or APS size) get a lot more dynamic range out of them than famous full frame photo cameras that claim to achieve 14 bits or more. Ain’t true. Check before you buy, and don’t trust the specs πŸ˜‰

Colour palette

This, in many ways, is a composite of previously discussed elements : the desired mood, the type of lenses used, the type of lighting used. And, in the case of feature films, the set dressing and wardrobe (see Wess Anderson movies for a striking example).


The dominant look in filmmaking is natualistic (see the two photographs above and also note the strong emphasis on depth in both). But the movie world is far less attached to neutrality than the photo universe. Whatever sets the mood for the story is what gets selected. The wintery scene below is accentuated by the cold and slightly harsh processing. This is nowhere near neutral but it feels real.


In many ways, filmmaking is far more story-driven than photography (see separate set of articles on this topic). And filmmaking gear is subservient to storytelling ability, not technical IQ.

But it wasn’t always the case and film stock of the past (for instance) used to add their own signature to the movie. Today, this look is deliberately imitated through digital post processing, see below, although a filmmaker really serious about a vintage look will often use vintage gear, whatever the cost.


Finally, a conscious decision made by filmmakers is whether to keep the look consistent throughout the movie or not.

A static lens plot ensures this consistent look from start to end through the use of consistent gear and lighting.

A narrative lens plot gradually changes the look to follow the change of mood in the story.

An elemental lens plot associates a specific look with a specific location (for example a warm cosy home at the Weasley’s and a cold harsh look at the Malefoy’s).


Sensor size

Let me end this with a kicker πŸ˜‰

Imagine that, instead of gunning for that 2 grand hybrid camera, you have unlimited money and a slew of human assistants to operate the cine camera of your dreams. Arri, Red, Canon, Sony, Blackmagic, you name it. That camera that filmed Parasite, and Star Wars, and James Bond, and 1917 … It’s on me πŸ˜‰ What resolution, does it have?

Be a sport, take a guess.


Eight mega pixels. And quite probably from an APS-sized (roughly) sensor.

Jaw. Floor. Klang.


In fact, that ultra smoothed high resolution, high frame rate footage from that super sharp lens, along with super shallow DoF from that big sensor, is probably the exact opposite to what Mrs Nolan, Sotherberg and Anderson are using on their current project : 8MP, 24 frames per second, softish lens. Because they know that is the recipe to the cinematic look they (and their spectators) have come to expect. It’s a matter of habbit more than anything else!

Let’s continue : Star Wars? That episode when Anakin becomes Vador? 8.8mm sensor. Yup. Way smaller than micro four thirds.


Things are changing fast, though, and even the ultra conservative ARRI now offer a lineup that contains full frame and are looking into even larger formats. My guess is the movie-going population has been educated to a different look by photography and cinema is now playing catch up. But that’s just me.


So I wouldn’t sweat it when it comes to sensor size. If you enjoy the look of the photographs your sensor produces, you’ll enjoy its videos. Need more depth of field? Get a smaller sensor (yes, you can close your aperture, but this has major implications on your speed, which – unlike in photography – is quite difficult to alter). Need a more shallow Dof? Go Big!

Summing up

Each of the facets we’ve examined contributes to a given look.

And while there is no such thing as a cinematic look as such (each director of photography defining the look for every new project) there is such a thing as cinematic codes (in particular when it comes to format and composition).


Each of the above facets corresponds to some of these codes. And, ultimately, it is the combination of appropriate decisions pertaining to each of these facets (and probably more I haven’t thought about or chosen not to discuss, such as artificial lighting) that takes the final look into a specific direction while maintaining believability.

A good composition in a well chosen frame format, with the proper colour grading and the use of proper lenses on a camera with the right sensor size in the proper light… all of this adds up to a specific aesthetic.


Ultimately, if you could only choose two, these would be highlight rolloff and layering. The common core of what defines a cinematic look is make belief. Very few directors of photography go for a strictly natural look or completely realistic depiction of a scene. Instead, they try to immerse you into a story and into the visual world of that story. They fabricate that look entirely but want to make it 100% believable.

So even the b&w style below would be acceptable in a movie, because it creates an atmosphere and brings huge 3D to a place that feels odd but entirely believable. Even a pure white sky is OK. But abrupt transitions between tonal values and photography that feels too flat to describe a real-world location are totally out of bounds. Anything that stands a chance of snapping the spectator out of the story and into technical considerations about the set or the filming technique is a major no-no. Pack up your bags immediately level no-no.


So that would be my final recommendation for a cinematic look : do whatever it takes to protect your highlights and ensure the frame has plenty of 3D cues. From then on, flavour with vintage lenses and filters all you want. You’ve successfully entered cinematographic territory, it’s your hard-earned right to set the mood you want πŸ˜‰

I have tried to create a set of photographs that could be believable as movies stills to illustrate this post, usually inspired by my favourite filmmakers, and hope you like them and find them useful to add visual cues to the textual information.

Let me know if you enjoyed this post and whether you’d like more of these in-depth how-to articles or would prefer other formats or topics πŸ™‚


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Fascinating. I don’t know how you manage to find the time to learn all this stuff, though. Are you thinking of going into cine, and ploughing into this area too?
    Getting the images is only part of the trip of course – you also need the sound track, for cine. And now you start to need assistants too. Not much point in filming baby’s first word, without sound.
    And I think that’s about where I abandoned cine. Did do a fair bit of it for a while, with a dedicated movie camera – but eventually lost interest and went back to still photography.
    Your comments on “empty frames”, especially in wide format cine, are interesting. The guys who make films are serious pros, and yet . . . .? Contrast your average photographer, whose big “fail” is “filling the viewfinder” instead of filtering the subject out, from all the junk in the background.
    And pixels? While all the still ‘togs were screaming for more, and ever more, pixels, the pros were sticking with around 21MP – because the larger pixels gave them better images. I’d cheerfully trade pixel numbers for better dynamic range, more detailed highlights and shadows, better performance in low light.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Jean-Pierre. Yes, I am thinking about it, but it’s such a different undertaking that I’m not sure I can face the steep learning curve right now. But reading about it forces me to watch movies and that’s got to be good, right ? πŸ˜‰

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Well, you’ve certainly acquired a LOT more knowledge than most people ever have, about the way cinematographers create movie film!

  • Dallas Thomas says:

    Pascal, a very interesting and educational article. I love the snow shot in the woods its magic. Keep up the great work. Dallas

  • Joakim Danielson says:

    Thanks for some inspiring articles and a look into the cinema world. For me shooting a cinematic photo has meant 16:9 and strong warm sidelight, like the donkey photo but there is certainly much more to it than that.

    This read made me very inspired to start some kind of cinema photo project.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks, Joakim. There’s a lot more involved than I imagined too. I’d love to start a cine project and am thinking about it. It would help grow a new facet of this website too. It’s complex, though πŸ˜‰

  • Perhaps the most intriguing article I have read on your site in years. I do hope you pursue your interest in filming and all it/you have to offer. Superb!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you very much David. Coming from you, that means a lot!! I’m thinking about trying my hand at filmmaking. It is so different and complex that tackling it solo as a total beginner is a bit daunting, to be honest. But I’ll give it my best shot. Watch this space, hopefully.

  • Claude Hurlbert says:

    Pascal, reading your three posts on the large format/cinematic looks are an education in photography. I learned a lot, but as a supplement I am also inspired, as Joakim says above, to try to achieve some of the cinematic effects you describe. In fact, after your first installment, I tried to do a black and white (Ilford HP5) cityscape pf Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, with one of my Minolta bodies and a Minolta 50 mm lens in portrait position, using a rail and stitching a row of something like 8 scanned photo files (I should have used 2 rows of shots). Alas, it didn’t work out as I cut off a necessary bit of foreground interest at the bottom of the scene (layering!), not to mention that I needed to recenter the image. I was nervous and distracted by the number of people passing me by without masks–which sounds like an excuse for my framing issue (because it is?) but also is the truth. Still, I will try again. In short, then, thank you for these insightful and inspirational posts–not to mention sharing such–as always–great photography which also happens to clearly illustrate your points.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you so much, Claude. It really makes me happy that you found the post interesting.

      Our initial attempts at most things tend to go wrong, it’s frustrating but is what guides our next trials and the process inevitably ends up in satisfying results. But stay safe above all !


  • Dave says:

    Hi Pascal
    Enjoyed the cinema articles, very inspiring helpful to us still photographers.

  • Steve Mallett says:

    Pascal, you continue to educate and inspire me! And you have a day job. Although I am absolutely not going to get into video (must put postit note to self on bathroom mirror). So many great images but I absolutely love the gothic noir of tree and clouds.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Steve, that’s very kind of you πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ I’m trying to resist video and slowly losing. Only my fear of sucking big time at it is keeping me safe for now πŸ˜‰ That picture is interesting. I tried to go for a vintage look, so defocused “slightly” and took 6 photographs to assemble into a large-ish format pano. Only, I completely messed up the defocusing and everything is super blurry. Thankfully, the image is huge, so it doesn’t show too much at small sizes, but it would be unusable for a print. Silly silly me πŸ˜‰ Cheers

  • Frank Field says:

    Pascal – A very helpful post. The images you selected well illustrate your points. This clearly was a labor of love to pull this story together. Thank you. And, it’s also a grounding on just how many MPix we really need. Thanks! Frank

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