Learn Photography Techniques From Hollywood (Part II)

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This is part II of a series in which we exploring and adapting cinematic techniques from popular Hollywood Films. In Part I, we learned about the still shot adaptions of the Dolly Zoom and some photo antiquing techniques. In this installment, we are going to learn about portraying emotion and drama in your work. As I mentioned in the opening of Part I, the analysis of movies will help us to understand and utilize specific techniques as photographers. So lets look at some motion pictures and see what we can learn.

Portraying Emotion
Hollywood is spoiled because they have the element of time on their side. Movies are shot with a frame rate of at least 24 frames-per-second. That means that in a 30 second scene, over 720 frames of film are taken. It is pretty easy for a cinematographer to capture emotion in 720 frames. A slow zoom or pan will elude to a peaceful or a calm segment. A hand-held camera jostling around without any constant position will create an uncomfortable or tense feeling. Even if the camera is unmoving, a decent actor will be able to emote well enough so that the audience can understand their feelings. Unfortunately, as photographers, we have only a single frame to explore the same level of emotion. Our job can be a bit more challenging. But understanding how movies portray emotion will help us to better present the same in our own works.

[singlepic=130,240,180,,right] For starters, facial expressions in emotive portraits are nearly essential. Framing and view angles are going to be your bread and butter here. The way you frame the shot depends on the emotion you’d like to portray. For calm or peaceful portraits, you want to see most of the upper body and all of the head, and you want to see at least most of the person’s face. If you’re trying to portray anger, fear or insanity, try zooming in close to specific facial features. The pictures to the right are two screen captures from the famous shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Hitchcock was known for his use of the camera when portraying emotion, and these are no exception. Just taking single-frame captures from a movie like this will demonstrate the power of framing when it comes to emotion. In some cases, you need to bend the rules a bit. If you want your subject to appear lost, lonely or feeling insignificant, the facial expressions become less of an issue. You want the viewer to see that the person is solemn, but [singlepic=131,240,180,,right]you may want to zoom way out so that the subject is only one small part of the scene. Even if the background is all a single color, your intent will come across through your framing.

Camera angles are also very important when it comes to portraying emotion. Camera angles will greatly affect your viewers interpretation of your photograph. A skewed angle provide a perspective that the viewer may not be comfortable with. Combined with a closely framed shot, the subject may appear disoriented, or even completely insane. Aiming up at your subject will present charisma and confidence. Looking down on your subject yields uncertainty or a diminishing quality. Play around with combining framing and camera angle techniques, and you will quickly realize some more emotions than I’ve mentioned here.

Dramatic Photographs
Before you consider any other aspect of your work, consider shooting in Black and White if you want to make dramatic photographs. Even in modern times, black and white is often used as a means to enhance the dramatic feel of a motion picture. Citizen Kane was released in 1941, but even if it were being filmed today, I would be willing to bet that Orson Welles would have chosen to film in Black and White. There is just something naturally dramatic about black and white. Now that we’ve established that Black and White is king, lets discuss the three main components of a dramatic shot: Darkness, Contrast and Framing.

Darkness: Photography, as you know, is the art of capturing light. Photos are nothing without light. So it’s a bit unorthodox to think more about the darkness in an image. As a general rule of thumb, you want the majority of your image to be dark. The point is to obscure almost everything that is not the subject. You want to simplify your image. The goal is to focus the viewer’s eye to the subject at hand. And this is a nice interlude into our next component…

Contrast: The photograph below is a screen-capture from the widely acclaimed movie, Citizen Kane. Orson Wells spent a great deal of time (and money) considering every aspect of each shot. Note that there is very little gray area in this photograph. Nearly everything is black or white (and, as noted above, most of which is black). The shadows cast by our subject have an incredibly hard edge, a result of very bright, single-point lighting. Right down to the black coat and white scarf framing Kane’s face (played by Wells himself), every detail has been painstakingly drawn out to achieve an incredibly high contrast. Contrast is going to be your best ally at achieving the dramatic.

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Framing: When it came out, Citizen Kane was the movie that changed the whole industry. Up until Orson Wells got his mind into the movie business, films were commonly made to mimic stage theater. Cameras were set at eye level offering one, and usually only one, perspective of the scene. Wells, on the other hand, wanted to offer unique perspectives throughout his masterpiece. The camera was set up in weird angles, sometimes aimed at the feet of the pacing reporter, sometimes positioned in uncomfortable angles aimed away from the actor as he read his lines. Aside from the drama that resulted from such film work, it made the movie much more interesting to audiences at the time. The movie was incredibly moving. And as bland as the subject matter might be in this day and age, in 1941 this movie was an emotional roller coaster.

Once again, I’d like to reference the photo above. With his chin up, Kane appears very confident and proud. But the camera angle and framing tells the true story. Here is a man that has achieved so much at his young age, he’s standing on a literal mountain of newspapers. He’s only looking up, but the camera allows you to look directly in his eye. And even though you’re looking down on him, you can see the confidence in his face and in the manner that he holds his hands behind his back. But the newspapers behind him are a reminder of what he’s accomplished, and they are essential to the shot. This is no small stack of prints, and it is very obvious with the way the shot is composed. Framing is the last and most important element of a dramatic photo. You want to include enough context to get your thoughts across, but you want to eliminate those items that are not essential to your shot. Your finished product needs to tell a story, and any unnecessary details will cloud that goal.

With all three of these elements combined, this image is incredibly dramatic. And this is only one frame out the entire movie. If you haven’t seen Citizen Kane, as a photographer, you owe it to yourself to see the movie. Watch it with your photographer’s eyes and you will learn more from this movie than you will learn from a whole year of experimentation. Kane is proof that there is a lot you can learn from movies. But don’t stop there. Watch lots of movies from several different genres. There’s always more to learn.

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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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