Learn Photography Techniques From Hollywood (Part I)


I would hope that I am stating the obvious when I make the statement: Movies and (Still) Photography have a lot in common. It is a fact that we are all readily able to accept without debate. But I find it difficult to believe that many photographers fail study cinematography to further their own still-shot technique. There is so much to learn from the world of Hollywood that can be adapted, easily, into your own work. I’d be willing to bet that at some level, you have a natural affinity for movies. So why don’t you start analyzing the movies in the same ways you analyze photographs. This is part one of a two-part article where I intend to point out a few of the techniques that I’ve learned from Hollywood.

The Power of Zoom
Until I started seriously thinking about the moving pictures, I never really thought about how to properly utilize zoom. In the past, zoom was a way for me to reach an object that was out of reach.[singlepic=127,240,180,,right] That was before I learned the true power of my zoom lenses. Have you ever seen that technique where an actor suddenly learns something disheartening and the background suddenly shifts into this really bizarre perspective? The best examples I can think of are in Jaws where Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) learns of a daytime shark attack; or in Hitchcock’s Vertigo whenever Scottie (James Stuart) looks down. This effect, called a Dolly Zoom, is achieved by moving the camera away from the subject while zooming in on the subject at the same time. In the movies, it creates a feeling of vertigo, or sudden tension. With a still camera, this affect can hardly be achieved in a single frame. But what can we truly learn from this technique? The answer is simple: The distance between you and your subject will greatly impact perspective.

[singlepic=128,240,180,,right]If you are close to the subject with a shorter focal length (zoomed out), any object appearing in the background will appear to be smaller. If you are far from your subject with a longer focal length (zoomed in), objects in the background will appear relatively larger. Knowing this will greatly impact how you frame your shots. Pay attention to the background. You may be able to utilize it in a way to make your subject appear more dominant (get close to them) or you can dwarf them (get far away, but zoom in). You can also use the technique to take any focus away from your background by changing the overall perspective. Take note of two examples I have provided to the right. I took the top picture about 8 inches from the fruit with a focal length of about 18mm. The second was taken about 9 feet from the fruit with a focal length of 135mm. The fruit appears to be about the same size in both pictures, but notice the difference in the backgrounds. In this case, I would consider the background to be a distraction – an eyesore, to put it bluntly. With that in mind, I would choose the second picture over the first. If you have a situation like this where you cannot control the background, taking advantage of your zoom lens may just help you get the results that you need.

A classic movie that will long be among my favorites is Saving Private Ryan. The film, set during World War II, has a characteristic washed out look that yields a vintage or antique appeal. The goal, of course, is give the viewer historical context – as if the film were created with technology available at the time, or as if the film were old and somewhat worn. If this is something that you desire in your work, the effect is not hard to do.

[singlepic=129,240,180,,right]My advice is to handle this in post-production. There are a few things that you can do to age your photographs. First, you’ll want to look into warming your shot. If you use Photoshop, you can actually use the “Photo Filter” (Image > Adjustments > Photo Filter…) to apply a warming filter. but you can also adjust your curves to boost the reds and drop the greens and blues slightly. Decreasing contrast and increasing brightness helps to wash out the image slightly. Edit your Hue/Saturation levels to lower the overall saturation (or just certain color ranges) of your exposure will complete the aging process, at least on the color side of things. To make things look really authentic, you’ll want to add some monochromatic grain. The image on the right is the final product of antiquing from the image above through these methods. Note, I tried not to over-do it. The trick is to be subtle.

If you choose to, you can also get a similar effect during your photo shoot. You can take the photograph with a higher ISO to get a grain effect or to cut out some of the definition of your subject. If your camera supports it, you can also set your camera to soften edges. Finally, you can use the Exposure Compensation settings to overexpose your shots which will give you a nice washed out effect. Optionally, you can also experiment with the white balance settings in conjunction to exposure compensation to get a more accurate effect. This is similar to the settings I used to create my photograph, Do Not Remove, except that I used a special Photoshop Filter to add the grain in the post-processing stage.

So today we learned about zoom techniqus and antiquing. In the next installment of this mini-series, we will explore some mood handling techniques featuring a few more classic movies.

Further Reading: Learn Photography Techniques From Hollywood (Part II) (now online)


About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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