Still Photography: Telling Better Stories Through Cinematography

It’s 2:45am, and you’ve finally mustered up enough courage to visit that 24-hour main street diner off the interstate. The weather outside is dark and raw, and it’s been drizzling all night.

Firefly Lounge (Clarksville, Maryland)
Firefly Lounge (Clarksville, Maryland)

The lobby entrance sign tells you to seat yourself, so you find a cozy spot slightly out of the way.

An attractive older waitress is sifting through order slips behind the counter and a tired looking truck driver sips on his coffee with slow purpose, clutching his warm cup of java like an old friend.

The smell of slightly burnt fried food and lime-scented floor cleaner hangs in the air like dense morning fog.  The fluorescent lights hum overhead, only broken up by the faint sound of silverware clanking in the kitchen.

Playing out like a scene from a Hopper painting, you quietly unzip your photo bag, take out your camera and place it to your eye. You’ve been there for a while now and seem to be doing a pretty good job of blending in.

Station 2 Diner (Durbin, West Virginia)
Station 2 Diner (Durbin, West Virginia)

You work quickly to compose and focus the scene the way you envisioned when you were lying in bed the night before, then fire off a few frames in quick succession. Feeling good about what you think you’ve captured, you pack up your gear, pay your bill and head home for a few hours of shuteye.

After reviewing your images the next day, you find that the majority did not come anywhere close to capturing the mood that you were feeling at the time.

The scene presented itself gloriously at your feet, yet all you walked away with were mere snapshots.  Clearly, there was a story to be told with your camera, or so you thought – and all you managed to get was a flat documentation of the scene, rather than a soulful and dramatic interpretation.

Frustrated, you wonder what you could have done differently to make your photographs more emotionally compelling and closer to your original storytelling vision.

Railroad Ghost Town (Thurmond, WV)
Railroad Ghost Town (Thurmond, WV)

What’s The Secret?

I was a movie junkie growing up (especially the classic movies) – so I’d like to believe that a lot of my subconscious visual instinct came from having absorbed all those wonderful images, even though I probably didn’t know what I was assimilating at the time.  So it’s only fitting that I attempt to explore the synergistic intersection of still photography and cinematography.

So what exactly is the secret to telling compelling stories in a single image? Before I can answer this often elusive question, it’s important to have a better understanding of cinematography and how it specifically relates to still photography.

For many people, cinematography is viewed as “the art and science of motion-picture filmmaking.”  Almost always, it is interpreted within the context of the moving image.

Needless to say, filmmakers have the luxury of incorporating many techniques that go way beyond the means of the average still photographer – from sound effects and dramatic dialogue to scene transitions and period wardrobe.

When it comes to telling effective stories, cinematographers are relying on multiple images and other supporting effects stitched together in a creative way to help advance plot and ultimately tell the story.  And although the individual elements can be crafted to elicit a certain emotional response (whether through literal, metaphoric or symbolic meaning) – it is primarily the sum of the parts that drives the overall story.

The beauty and drama of any given shot is not just a matter of applying rules of composition.  Rather, it’s about the union of technical elements, compositional choices, and narrative context – all working together in harmony to convey meaning.

NY State Fair
NY State Fair

At the heart of this philosophy is the still image. Like a painting, static images present inherent storytelling opportunities in and of themselves.  When all the elements come together, the still image has the power to emotionally move viewers beyond the supporting elements contained within the four edges of the frame – potentially transforming an ordinary scene into an extraordinary one.

The primary difference between pure cinematography and still photography is that the latter needs to tell a story in only one image.  One exception to this thinking would be the multi-image photo essay – which uses conventions like establishing shots, gesture shots and closing shots to tell a broader story based on the cumulative effect of all the images working together in symphony.

Can a Single Image Tell a Story?

One of the most powerful film techniques used by cinematographers is called an “emblematic shot.”  These shots have the power to communicate complex ideas, with compositions that reveal special connections between visual elements contained within the frame.

Emblematic shots can “tell a story” with a single image, often conveying ideas that are generally greater than the sum of their parts.   You can take an emblematic shot out of a film,  show it to someone who is unfamiliar with the story, and still have him or her recognize what the film is all about.

Civil War Reenactment (Slippery Rock, PA)
Civil War Reenactment (Slippery Rock, PA)

Translated into a still photography context, this is most closely associated with the concept of a universal theme.  For example, we may see a truck driver sitting in the corner booth at the diner sipping on his coffee.  But what we’re really looking at is a metaphor for loneliness, solitude – or maybe living the hard life.

But make no mistake, we simply can’t just aim the camera in a certain direction – and hope that our viewers will understand the story we’re all trying to tell.  As still photography cinematographers, we must make certain creative decisions that will ultimately propel our story forward – giving our images greater meaning and impact.

Jockey's Ridge (Outer Banks, NC)
Jockey’s Ridge (Outer Banks, NC)

From our choice of lens and vantage point, to the decisions we make from a framing perspective – everything we include or exclude from our viewfinder will impact the final image.

In reality, there never truly is a perfect image, only a continuum of perfection. And while our image in its current form may move viewers to some degree, the question we must always ask ourselves is whether or not we did everything within our power to maximize the inherent storytelling potential that was present when we chose to press the shutter.

NY State Fair
NY State Fair

I could write an entire book if I really wanted to review all the questions we should probably ask ourselves as still photography cinematographers when making creative decisions – from observing where the light is falling and how this affects mood, to analyzing the lines, colors or tones in the scene to determine what, if any, emotional context they might suggest.

The whole point of this article is not to review every conceivable decision that should be considered when framing up a scene.  For a more detailed explanation of these all-encompassing concepts, I suggest reading books from accomplished photographers such as David duChemin or Michael Freeman. Rather, this article is meant to introduce you to some of the more common conventions employed by moving image cinematographers in order to help drive the narrative and tell the story.

Old Las Vegas Blvd.
Old Las Vegas Blvd.

It is up to us as still photography cinematographers to apply these concepts to our own craft, using them to our advantage where and when possible. Each of these tools, when used correctly and often, has the power to help transform our images. But before we can become master storytellers, we must first understand the emotional implication of each, so that we can help draw viewers into our images in more meaningful ways. It is here, that intent meets vision.

Cinematic Techniques:

Wide-Angle Shots:  With an inherently deep depth of field and an expansive field of view, wide-angle shots are ideally suited to landscape-oriented vista shots – or when creating photos essays, establishing shots.  Unlike shots that utilize a shallow depth of field, wide angle shots enable subjects in the foreground, middle ground and background to be rendered in focus simultaneously.  From a storyteller’s perspective, the still photographer can create layers of drama by capturing multiple subjects in different planes reacting to one event happening in real time.  A powerful background or setting can add even more narrative context.

Being able to capture a dramatic layered moment requires keen observation, ample preparation and a commitment to capturing a key moment at the peak of activity.  National Geographic photographers are masters at creating layered moments at a decisive moment.

Photography is essentially a two-dimensional interpretation of a three-dimensional world.  That being said, seasoned photographers using wide-angle lenses often place subjects low and close in the foreground to not only help establish prominence but to add much-needed dimensionality. Done correctly, prominent foreground subjects rendered through a wide angle lens can also help anchor a scene while providing a potential leading line entry point into and around the image.

Telephoto Shots:  Telephoto lenses compress space, making objects appear to be on the same plane. Shallow DOF also allows us to throw certain parts of a scene out of focus.  By extracting a subject from its background, the still photographer can focus more attention on the subject while de-emphasizing the overall setting.  This “bokeh” effect can add drama, while at the same time, eliminating distracting clutter that doesn’t serve the narrative of the story.

Location:  Given that film (or digital photography for that matter) is a visual medium, location offers huge storytelling potential.  It can heighten drama, suggest parallel and contrasts, and help define our subjects. From a photographic perspective, this helps show us a subject’s environment, giving us additional insight into their world, essence and character.  In environmental portraiture for example, location plays a huge role in helping provide subject personality context.

Earl the Conductor (Durbin, WV)
Earl the Conductor (Durbin, WV)

In a narrower sense, location is the backdrop we choose to use. I’m not talking about choosing a certain town in which to photograph, but rather, a unique street corner captured from a specific vantage point or angle using a particular lens (at a certain moment).  Photography is really just an extraction constrained within the four walls that we call a frame.  As still photography cinematographers, it is up to us to seek out a stage to use for our own theatrical production.  But even the best stage can be boring without actors and moments.

Oregon Inlet (Nags Head, NC)
Oregon Inlet (Nags Head, NC)

Props: Provides a dramatic way to express a character’s inner world.  In relation to still photography, it means showing a subject’s environment, which helps tell the story, provide context, and give insight into a subject’s personality. A cinematographer can exploit or select props to add a layer of meaning.  Similarly, a wardrobe can add dramatic value and provide insight into a character.

Still photographers seeking an honest representation of reality have to walk the fine line between setting up and staging a scene that wasn’t necessarily there, versus simply taking advantage of found props – especially those that relate to our subject and their essence. It is up to us to find the right angle or backdrop that places these props into view, or to relocate our subjects if needed.

Somewhere in West Virginia
Somewhere in West Virginia

This doesn’t mean that placing a prop that was on a table into our subject’s hand should be entirely ruled out – and even these can reveal spontaneous moments when coupled with the right gesture. But when we create false realities by staging props into a genuinely real scene (that is supposedly unfolding in the moment), the image can come off as forced and contrived.

Of course, there are many photographers who thrive on creating these false realities – and we should never judge them (unless they are purposely misleading their viewers – for example, trying to pass off a doctored photojournalistic image).  Everyone has his or her own unique vision – whether it is grounded in reality, fantasy or somewhere in between.

High Angle Vantage Point:  As still photography cinematographers, we have the ability to make a statement based on our vantage point – whether high, low or eye level.  Often, shooting from a higher angle makes our subjects look defeated, weak, passive, powerless, psychologically vulnerable, small, lacking in confidence or distraught.  But like anything else, these interpretations are not absolute, and can be subverted based on the context in which they are presented.  Often a minor adjustment of the camera above or below eye level is sufficient to make an impression in the mind of our viewers.

In one example that has become a rather well-entrenched cliché, homeless people are often photographed from above, magnifying their destitute status. Of course, we hold the power to change this paradigm by shooting from an angle that gives our subjects grace.  In this same example, had we shot looking up, our subjects would have appeared more confident and proud – almost as if to say…”even in the midst of personal hardship, I will continue to maintain my dignity.”  While they may not be particularly proud of who they’ve become or their circumstances, they retain a strong and resolute sense of self that is often larger than their circumstances.

Low Angle Shots:  Conveys confidence, power and control.  This angle makes the subject appear larger than life.  It translates power to the subject, making it appear to dominate the objects beneath it.  A common rule of thumb when shooting children is to shoot at eye level, because it imparts equal respect. Likewise, we can shoot children from a slightly lower angle, which might suggest that “children are our last great hope and we look up to them.”  Again, the angle we choose to use (whether high, low or eye level) and the suggested meaning for each depends on the subject, and the context in which it is presented.

Something Fishy (Outer Banks, NC)
Something Fishy (Outer Banks, NC)

In another example, shooting a creepy old house from a lower angle could suggest something ominous. As still photography cinematographers, we can use these angle decisions to help add subtle meaning to our images – providing one more layer of impact.

Of course, not all high or low angle shots have to convey emotional meaning. Sometimes it’s just about getting our camera in a different place, or to paraphrase Joe McNally, “it’s about presenting a slightly different view.” Whether we’re shooting from the POV of a bird or a bug, shifting our vantage point can present a fresh perspective and help us see through someone else’s (or something else’s) eyes.

Photographing Through Objects:  Shooting through objects can help create layers of drama, both figuratively and literally.  For example, shooting through a diffused window pane may add historical significance. The distorted view created by a window may externalize the subject’s own distorted view of reality.

Rhyolite Ghost Town (Beatty, Nevada)
Rhyolite Ghost Town (Beatty, Nevada)

In another example, shooting through a sheer curtain can create a sense of mystery about our subject (while further reinforcing and externalizing our own view of them). In a related concept, shooting our subjects in a reflection can impart an almost dream-like meaning – whether about identity, memory, tangibility, or even passing time.  Like any technique, we always run the risk that our images will be viewed as a cliché if we don’t have a valid reason for using them beyond the novelty.

The Real Maverick (Western PA)
The Real Maverick (Western PA)

As still photography cinematographers, we must have a clear vision of the story we are trying to tell, using our creative and technical decisions to communicate this understanding with intent. Photographing through objects is an effective way to do this, because it allows us to utilize metaphoric or symbolic meaning to further reinforce personality traits.

Extreme Close Up Shot: This type of shot is frequently used in photo essays to tell the smaller stories within the context of a larger narrative. Using an extreme close up to frame a small object or detail of a character instantly generates the expectation that what is being shown is important and meaningful to the narrative in some way. Examples might include only showing eyes, hands, feet – or smaller props that directly relate to our subject and their lives (or careers).

For example, if we are photographing a story about a coal miner, showing a close up of dirty worn hands could speak to the hard and unforgiving nature of their jobs – while at the same time, giving us insight into their personality – especially if other images in the series reinforce this.  Taking this idea one step further, the same hands holding a cigarette that is burnt down to the stub could imply even more metaphoric meaning – possibly drawing a parallel between the person’s life and toxic conditions in which they are exposed to on a daily basis.  If the cigarette is all burnt up, what are we to think of our subject?

Close Up Shots: In cinematography, there are many variations on the close up shot theme, including: extreme close up (which I explained above), close up shots and medium close up shots.  As still photography cinematographers, all we really need to understand is that the closeness and intimacy of a close up lets our viewers connect with a subject (and story) on an emotional level. When used on a human subject, its main purpose is to let our viewers see nuances of behavior and emotion.  Depth of field, focal length, lighting and composition should be carefully manipulated to create an effect of intimacy.

The closer we get to a character (for example, showing facial expressions), the more sympathy we are likely to feel.  This is because the close up gives us physical proximity usually reserved for those allowed within a subject’s intimate space.  The close up can also be used to evoke fear or revulsion when our viewers are forced to be in close proximity to a character implied to be an antagonist.  For example, if we are taking a picture of a polarizing or controversial figure, getting in close can further magnify our feelings about them.  Ultimately, close ups draw attention to an object by making them larger than life, often presenting them in ways that are different than we typically see them.

Harrisville, PA
Harrisville, PA

Medium-Type Shot: Whether medium shots or medium longs shots, this focal range will typically show one or more subjects from the knee or waist up, while still including some of the surrounding area. Medium-type shots can convey the dynamics of a relationship through subject placement in the composition, in addition to body language. Medium shots are effective for showcasing subjects and locations almost equally, conveying a lot of information about their personality quirks, hobbies, and careers to our viewers – which makes them very effective for environmental-type portraits.

Long Shot: Long shots and extreme long shots typically include subjects in their entirety in the frame, along with a large portion of the surrounding area. The wide field of view of long shots also makes them ideal for emblematic or universally themed shots (shots that convey complex, associative ideas by the arrangement of visual elements in the frame).  In addition to conveying relationships between subjects and their surrounding area, the long shot can be used to suggest narrative and thematic dynamics between characters, through their placement and relative scale in the composition.

Wild Stallion (Corolla, NC)
Wild Stallion (Corolla, NC)

Over the Shoulder Shot: Although this is a convention that is frequently used in movies, an over the should shot can be quite effective in still photography, especially when you are attempting to document the exchange between two or more subjects that are connected in some fashion. In this shot, the camera is almost always placed according to the 180 rule (the imaginary line between the shoulders of the person you’re photographing past, and the character that is looking in your direction).

Over-the-shoulder shots can be used to suggest tension, intimacy, desire, hatred, imprisonment or even conspiracy.  It depends on the relationship dynamics of your subjects, the implied story, and the backdrop/staging.

Canted Shot: In this type of shot, the camera is tilted laterally, so that the horizon is not level and vertical lines run diagonally.  The resulting compositions can create spacial imbalance or disorientation which can convey a sense of dramatic tension, psychological instability or drug-induced psychosis.

When the basic rules of orientation are broken, they draw attention to themselves. Consequently, when they are used, they need to mean something. For example, a person filmed upside down could be a metaphor for inner turmoil. A disorienting shot intentionally disorients.

Of course, not all still photography shots lend themselves to a canted view. In landscape photography for example, a canted shot could mean that you did a poor job of leveling the horizon.  But in the right context (such as a dark foggy forest), a canted shot could create a sense of fear or foreboding. Again, the decisions you make should revolve around strengthening your story.

Other Cinematic Shots:  There are many other shots used by cinematographers that I won’t get into for this article. Some examples include: abstract shots, macro shots, zoom shots, pan shots, group shots, two shots, subjective shots, tilt shots, dolly shots, tracking shots, steadicam shots, crane shots and sequence shots.  Many of these shots may only be applicable to moving image cinematography.

Lighting: In cinematography and still photography, light and dark function as visual sign posts.  What’s dramatically or emotionally important is lit, what’s unimportant is left in darkness.  Often, cinematographers will utilize something called Rembrandt lighting, which serves to intentionally create strong contrasts of light and dark.

High contrast lighting (or chiaroscuro, as it is often called) was developed by the Italian painter Caravaggio.  This type of lighting often appears to come from spotlights shining on the action, while other areas disappear into unlit shadows.  This technique is said to achieve a heightened dramatization or greater truth-to-life.  It is often reserved for pivotal scenes expressing key philosophical questions of good and evil, life and death.

Unless we are working with external or mobile lighting sources, still photographers are constrained by the natural light inherent at the scene. While keeping in mind our desired backdrop or stage, we can always move our subjects into the best light.  For example, placing our subjects near north facing windows has always been a favorite of natural light portrait photographers.  Or we can move our subjects into stronger light, rendering one half of their face into darkness for added dramatic effect.

Again, I won’t go into too much detail about light – as there are entire books written on this subject.  But given that photography is essentially “writing with light,” you would be well served to learn as much as you can about how light can affect mood, or change the essence of our subjects. Through a better understanding of the qualities of light (such as intensity, quality, direction, balance, etc.), we will be better equipped to take advantage of this light when we see it, using it to our advantage.

It goes without saying that light is at the top of the list when it comes to helping propel a story, define a moment, or suggest a mood that creates a compelling narrative in a single image.  Painters understand this.

Rule of Thirds:  Yes, rule of thirds is an essential part of photography 101 – so I won’t get into this too much. Assuming you know what this is, and as it relates only to cinematic portraits, the eyes should be positioned at the intersection sweet spot: the top left sweet spot (with left eye) if they are looking towards the right side of the frame, the top right sweet spot (with right eye) if they are looking towards the left of the frame.

For the sake of this article, I will call it a guideline, because it is not a hard and fast rule under all circumstances.  Somewhat related to this concept is the golden ratio (the divine proportion), although I’ll let you look that one up (sidebar: the golden ratio is frequently found in nature and was used by classic painters throughout the ages).

Hitchcock’s Rule:  In cinematography terms, the size of an object in the frame should be directly related to its importance in the story at the moment.  A character’s relative strength and weakness can be established by the use of size.  In still photography terms, this basically is in line with our ideas around prominence and contrast.  In other words, we make an object more prominent to make it more important.

Cornfield Scarecrow (Portersville, PA)
Cornfield Scarecrow (Portersville, PA)

This can also work in reverse.  For example, we can show a tiny man on a camel riding though a massive desert, and still be able to make them the most important part of our scene (because of the contrast between large and small, and proper use of negative and positive space).  While this may not be the classic definition of the Hitchcock Rule, it does underscore how certain constructs like opposites, colors, uniqueness, breaking a pattern, negative space, etc. can all be used to establish subject importance.

Shapes:  Shapes have certain storytelling connotations and may help contribute to a mood. This is just something to keep in mind when framing up our images (including shooting a frame within a frame, for example), or choosing what elements to include or exclude. Shapes can also be suggested through composition, even if they are only implied (for example, photographing a group of people who are positioned to form a triangle).

Rounded shapes typically convey: sensual/feminine (curves), community, integrity, perfection, indirect, passive, romantic, pertaining to nature, soft, organic, childlike, safe, flexible, celestial and the eternal whole (has no beginning or end).  Square shapes (including rectangles) convey: familiar, stable, trusted, direct, industrial, ordered, linear, unnatural, adult and rigid. Rectangles are balanced shapes and are manmade.  They may represent logic, civilization, control and modern.

Sometimes the rectangle is used to represent a portal to another world. Triangles can convey energy, conflict, aggressive, dynamic (and stable when they are on their base).  A triangle might refer to harmony of family or even conjure up a religious connotation such as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Spirals suggest: fertility, birth, death, evolution, expansion, transformation and natural creativity. Crosses signify spirituality and healing.  Lines:  thick lines project strength and thin lines project frailty.

In general, organic shapes are associated with nature, and geometric shapes with man. Each has its own connotation.  Although in and of themselves shapes may not tell a story, they all contribute to the layered impact of our still image – potentially adding one more subtle element into our narrative.  Master photographers like Bresson understood how to leverage the geometry in any given scene to makes their single images more compelling.

Color:  Like shapes, each color has its own connotation, as do color combinations. For example, red may mean danger, stop, negative, excitement or hot; black may mean serious, heavy, death; white may mean pure, clean, honest; green may mean growth, positive, organic, go, comforting or sick; dark blue may mean stable, calming, trustworthy, mature; light blue may mean youthful, masculine, cool; gray may mean integrity, neutral, cool, mature.

Brown may mean wholesome, organic, unpretentious; yellow may mean emotional, positive, caution or sunny; gold may mean conservative, stable, elegant; orange may mean emotional, positive, organic; purple may mean contemporary, royal; pink may mean youthful, feminine, warm; pastels may mean soft, feminine, sensitive; metallic may mean elegant, lasting, wealthy or mechanical/man-made.

Understanding your subject and the story you are trying to tell can give you clues into color choice. For example, if you are photographing a race car driver who has cheated death on numerous occasions, finding a backdrop that includes the color red could help connote danger or excitement (or even a subliminal connection to suggest blood).

Yes, color does matter. But just as color can help add a layer of understanding, it can also take away from our story if it does not suggest meaning, or is so dominant as to overpower our subject.  This is one reason why black and white photos can be so effective, because they strip away color meaning, leaving behind other elements to help carry the story.

Balanced/Unbalanced Composition:  Every object included in the frame carries with it a visual weight.  The size, color, brightness, shape, and placement of an object can affect the viewer’s perception of its relative visual weight – giving some compositions a balanced look, and others an unbalanced look.  Balanced compositions project order, uniformity and predetermination. Unbalanced compositions are often associated with chaos, uneasiness and tension.

Which approach you take should be based on the narrative context in which they are being presented. A balanced frame is one in which there is an intentional symmetry.  Mass, color, size, shape and complexity, and implied direction are manipulated to create this effect.

Depth:  As I referenced under wide angle shots, creating depth to overcome the inherent two-dimensionality of the frame is one of the most common compositional strategies used to produce a dynamic frame and a believable three-dimensional space.

Focal Points:  By carefully selecting what is included and excluded from the frame, what is in focus and out of focus, what is lit and unlit, and what visually dominates the frame, you can create compositions that won’t be misunderstood by your viewers.

Lens Selection:  Field of view is dictated by your choice of lens, each with its own corresponding focal length.  Lens choice ultimately dictates how much space can be included in the frame. It also speaks directly to the effect you are hoping to achieve as it relates to your story.  Each lens has its own behaviors and characteristics – typically relating to field of view, depth of field, perspective, light handling ability, tonal contrast, etc.

The cinematic shot-type references mentioned in this article (e.g. close up shot, medium shot, wide angle shot, etc.), are generally a function of our choice of lens and their inherent capabilities and optical properties.

Roadside Relic (Western PA)
Roadside Relic (Western PA)

The Final Chapter

Imagine for a second that it’s 2:45am and you’re back at the 24-hour diner.  You select a wide angle lens and position yourself behind an old jukebox.  You boost ISO, because you know that a little noise will add grain to your image, giving the scene some nostalgic character.  The higher ISO will also give you the shutter speed you need to keep the focus crisp.  You use your table as a tripod in Live View mode, because it won’t be so obvious that you’re taking pictures.

You frame up the image with the truck driver in the mid-foreground, and the waitress in the background, directly in front of the food window that leads into the kitchen.  The jukebox anchors the scene in the immediate foreground, leading the eye further into the image – while providing dimensionality and a timeless feel.

Your choice of focal length and wide field of view allows you to capture additional location details that further reinforce the context of the story – from the homemade pies sitting on the counter to the neon sign hanging on the wall.  You shift your vantage point ever so slightly to eliminate some of the distracting elements on the edge of the frame that don’t add to your narrative.

The jukebox, truck driver and waitress all form an invisible triangle in your image, further establishing a connection and relationship between the three – and your subjects are balanced nicely in the image, set against the striking background.  You work to compose key parts of your scene at the rule of thirds intersection points.

Because the truck driver is more prominently featured in the framing, you are essentially placing higher importance on them to carry your story as the primary point of interest.  A strong spotlight from the hanging booth light adds to the drama of the scene, placing part of the truck driver’s face into strong shadows.  The smoke from the burnt food further defines the light, while helping to diffuse the overall scene.  The diffused light creates an almost dream-like atmosphere, adding one more layer to your story.

Ready for the decisive moment, you wait for the truck driver to slowly place the coffee cup to his lips, oblivious to your presence.  The truck driver has a contemplative look on his face, further accentuated by the hard lines around his eyes and on his forehead.  The waitress is sifting through the order slips in the background, and you can vaguely make out the small outline of a cook working in the kitchen behind the food order window.

Everything about the scene has come together nicely, and you feel like you’re making the right compositional and technical decisions in order to turn your storyteller’s vision into a reality.  The next day when you review your images, you feel a strong sense of accomplishment knowing that your photographs will resonate among your viewers – and that the story you envisioned has been clearly communicated with intent.  You can now proudly call yourself a still photography cinematographer.

In the End, What Really Matters?

Everything in the frame matters – and will be interpreted by our viewers as being there for a specific reason that is directly related to the story we are trying to tell.  The location, prominence and inclusion of anything in the frame will ultimately impact how our viewers understand its importance as it relates to our story.  How we arrange these elements conveys meaning – as does the context in which they are presented.

Before you can decide where to shoot and from which angle, you need to first understand what should dominate your composition, what should be included or excluded, and what meaning will be conveyed by your photograph beyond what is contained in the frame.

Before we make any creative or technical decisions, we must seek to understand the storytelling implications of each technique at our disposal – as well as each visible element contained within our scene, whether human or inanimate. By identifying the core themes and ideas that are at the heart of our story, and doing so in a way the interjects our own interpretation, perspective and personality (which we can call personal vision) – we increase the likelihood that viewers will connect with our image.  When we can do this, it is said that we are able to compose with intent.

Every decision we make and throw behind our composition should be designed to support our core storytelling idea.  And although technique is important, it is more imperative to make the technique work for our story – otherwise it’s just a lesson in technical execution, and nothing more.

Painters can envision and project anything they want onto a blank canvas. And moving image cinematographers can stitch together multiple images to tell their story.  As still photography cinematographers, all we have is what the scene affords us and our patience – and we must make the most of them if we hope to have any success in telling our story in a single image.  Through our choice of lens, vantage point, angle, perspective, background, framing, composition, design, light, instinct and moments, we hold the storyteller’s pen in our hands.


Reference Footnote: Some content and terminology has been referenced from “Cinematic Storytelling” by Jennifer Van Sijll and “the filmmaker’s eye” by Gustavo Mercado.  The idea behind “layers of impact” comes from David duChemin.  All ideas translated into a still-photography context are my own.

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