10 Tips for Creating a Cinematic Photography Portrait

"The Cliffhanger" INT. MRS T.'S KITCHEN – DAWN

1. Define a Story

Create a fictional story to support your portrait. Write it out in movie script format for fun. This will help you clarify your vision and help you determine whether all the items in your frame  support the visual you are trying to achieve. For example:


At the kitchen sink Mrs T. fills herself a glass of water from the tap. Glancing up towards the window she sees mysterious other-worldly lights moving fast in her direction...

Treat your subject as a character performing an action in the story, instead of as a client posing for the camera.

2. Think "Environmental"

Unless backgrounds are being created using digital sorcery, movies are usually filmed on a built-out set or in a real environment. Conversely, photographers often shoot portraits in a studio or in front of a plain backdrop but these options won't work when you are attempting to create a cinematic look. Find a location where the environment supports the story you aim to tell.

3. Lens Selection

For the featured image I used a 50mm prime lens because it is just wide enough to capture the indoor environment whilst providing a glorious soft bokeh and a natural looking perspective without too much distortion on a head and shoulders portrait where the emphasis is on the face of the subject. Because of its screening format, footage for cinema is often in the range of wider lenses which provide more room for action to happen within the frame. 24mm and 35mm are other options you might want to consider,  if you want to capture a greater area of the environment or a full body portrait.

"The Cliffhanger" INT. MRS T.'S KITCHEN – DAWN

4. Aspect Ratio

Create your portrait horizontally, not vertically. Imagining the end result on a cinema screen (not on your phone!) helps. The aspect ratio of film designed for cinema can vary, but it is certainly wider than the default of a stills camera. You've probably heard the term 'widescreen' which is used to refer to several general aspect ratios used by filmmakers, or to describe widescreen TV. If you edit your portrait in Lightroom there is a default 16:9 option available in the cropping tool which you can use to get that widescreen-for-TV look, or try an even wider crop for an even more cinematic aspect ratio. This wiki has a list of common aspect ratios on the right hand side of the page.

+ TIP:

If you are going to be posting your cinematic portrait on social media consider adding black bars to your frame, especially if it will be displayed as a square thumbnail on a platform like instagram. This will reiterate your  cinematic-style intention to your viewers and prevent your image being cropped in a way that diminishes its cinematic effect. 

5. Creating a Shallow Depth of Field 'Sandwich'

Cinematography is often shot with a  shallow depth of field and sharp focus on the protagonist. By framing the scene so that blurry environmental accents present both in front and behind the main subject not only does the viewer experience an enhanced sense of depth, they are also left  in no doubt about where to focus their attention – on the sharpest element in the scene, the actor.

The strategic placement of props can also help to build the story. Notice, in the image above, that although by itself the tap may not have been immediately recognizable, by including some obvious fridge doors in frame and  having the actor hold a full glass of water, the viewer is provided with visual clues that suggest this scene takes place next to a kitchen sink. 

6. Makeup for realism, not for a beauty shot.

At its core, cinema celebrates the essence of humanity. Movies employ actors to play the parts of humans, either real or imagined. It's a rare movie scene that would have the protagonist wearing the kind of flawless make up designed for a typical photographer's portrait session. Movies don't show people looking pretty, no, they show people looking terrified, heartbroken, lonely, vulnerable, ecstatic, determined, joyful and all manner of other messy emotions that make us human. 

Design hair and makeup efforts to reflect the  story you are telling. Maybe it's a scene when the subject has been crying, leaving a smudge of eyeliner dribbling down their cheek? Maybe the subject has been out for a run and their skin is moist with perspiration. Pay attention to these kinds of details and incorporate them into your shoot preparation.

In my example the story dictates that our protagonist had just woken up, so she is presented makeup-free with messy hair. Despite the no makeup look,  the appearance was not left totally to chance: The day prior unwanted facial hair/stray nostril hairs were removed and immediately before the shoot the skin was well moisturized and a clear beauty stick employed to add a little sheen with a small dab of gloss on the lips to help reflect the light on the face in a natural way. 

7. Say no to skin retouching

Film is a series of many hundreds and thousands of still images per second sequenced together over time, so frequency separation  and skin smoothing in the manner of a stills photography retoucher is not even viable.  Any pixel modifications to a character on film would need to  be created as an effect tracked in 3 dimensions. Sure - these kinds of sophisticated  techniques are used  for creating other-worldly Hollywood blockbuster effects, but as a rule they are not used for general skin retouching. Skip the skin retouching,  keep it real and your portrait will feel more cinematic. 

Untitled photo

8. Dramatic Lighting

Compared to photography, movie cinematography is often darker, moodier and less exposed and this works because we  generally watch movies in the dark where even a little light can go a long way.  Look at cinema stills for inspiration and light your portrait with drama and intention in mind. Even when a movie scene is bright by definition, for example in a snowy environment, you'll notice that the snow is often portrayed cinematically as more dull and grey than a regular  portrait photographer would consider acceptable of a snowy scene.

When creating a cinematic style photography portrait  that is more likely to be viewed on the web or in print than  in a darkened theater, the trick is to strike a balance. In the featured portrait, I started with the version seen above left then  boosted the vibrancy, color and contrast, above right, to give it more appeal as a standalone portrait.

Straight Out of Camera / Final Image

Untitled photo

9. Color Grading & LUTs

What is a LUT? A LUT is a Look Up Table  which in the simplest of definitions is a something like a color filter that cinematographers use to grade all of their footage with a consistent look so that their resulting movie has overall cohesion and style. 

For Photographers who want to play with color grading to emulate cinematic style you can start with Lightroom's new Color Grading tool that allows you to control the colors of your shadows, mid tones and highlights separately using a color wheel. Settings can easily be copied to several (similarly shot)  images to apply your style to a series.

For increased control head into Photoshop where there is an Adjustment Layer called "Color Lookup". When you create your Color Lookup layer the default is set to "Load 3D LUT". Click on the drop down menu and play with the option and test them with different blend modes and at different levels of intensity. 

There is one LUT in Photoshop called TealOrangePlusContrast. A teal and orange color grade is a classic cinematic color grade. These two colors complement each other  meaning they are directly opposite each other on the color wheel. Since they look great together and because we find them to be an appealing combination you'll see they often crop up in movie color palettes.

My own process in getting from my straight-out-of-camera version to the final result was slightly more complex than the basic tools would have delivered, but my overall goal was reached  in achieving teal in the shadows and orange in the highlights in a nod to this popular cinematic style. 

Before / After boosting film grain

Untitled photo

10. Season with a Pinch of Film Grain

The finishing touch: I shot my images with a higher ISO than in an attempt to emulate the grainy look we expect of cinema. I felt that the effect could be even more pronounced so I boosted the grain further during the raw conversion.

What other tips do you have to make portraits look cinematic?

  • No Comments
Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In