5 New (and Old) Movies You Must Watch as a Photographer

5 New (and Old) Movies You Must Watch as a Photographer

Going into the colder autumn months, we start to spend more time at home, especially in cities with a lot of rainfall, such as Munich or London. Sitting down with a cup of warm tea or mulled wine and enjoying a movie is one of the many things I look forward to each year.

You may be expecting to see something along the lines of “Finding Vivian Maier” in this list, but you won’t. These films are selected based on something much more than just being about a famous photographer. I tried to make this list unconventional, as there are dozens of articles with photography-specific movies for you to discover. Besides, I am a strong believer in having a niche in photography, but being a well-rounded individual. Hence, getting inspiration from as many places as possible is a good idea — something that isn’t the small bubble of photography, at least.

Barry Lyndon

I’m a sucker for Stanley Kubrick's work. He is a great master who can compose shots, tell a story, and evoke emotions deep inside the audience. It is almost like he puts human qualities under a magnifying glass to warn the audience of something. To a photographer, Barry Lyndon will show that you don’t need anything beyond the basics. Indeed, you simply need to light the shot and nail down the very basics of image-making. The rest will take care of itself. This can be best seen in how Kubrick is able to communicate every detail through the screen: changes in weather, mood, texture and so much more, not to mention the way with which he zooms. I wish I could zoom in like that! 

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

This is probably one of the best movies to watch if you like black and white photography. Notably, you should consider the ways in which Stanley Kubrick uses light and composition to transform the mood on screen. While watching this movie, you should pay attention to the contrast levels and harshness of the shadows. It is as if Kubrick is able to create with light and shadow on their own. Strangelove constantly moves in and out of the light, which is best seen right before the final monologue he gives. Strangelove emerging from shadow to light parallels the emerging nationalism in the nation at that time. 

Grand Budapest Hotel

Color, wide angles, and crop formats. This movie will be interesting for photographers for the unmistakingly iconic Wes Anderson's use of color. As the movie is technically set in two periods, the 30s and the 60s, the use of color is notably different. While watching the movie, notice how the 1930s part appears to be pink-tinted and relatively colder when compared to the 1960s part, which is predominantly orange and brown. Wide angles on straight-on shots give an immersion-like feeling. High and low shots are also made using a wide angle lens, which leaves one wondering: how did they possibly get that composition? The answer is simple: crop formats. There are three in the movie, each representing a particular time. Perhaps Grand Budapest Hotel is a lesson in wide -angle composition as well.

Blade Runner 2049

Unless you haven’t seen it already, Blade Runner 2049 is an excellent choice for those who want to experience unmatched color theory. It is often said that each color has a story behind it, just like music has a leitmotif. A certain color or lighting scenario can be associated with a character. In Blade Runner 2049, these are yellow, orange, green, pink, and white. If you’re further interested in learning about the psycholog                 Ty behind each tone, particularly in fashion, I recommend purchasing Pantone on Fashion. But, back to movies.

From Blade Runner, we can see that yellow is a color associated with knowledge, orange with caution, green with life, pink with innocence and romance, and white with the truth. There isn’t much analysis required into why these colors were chosen, as each tone (bar yellow) is already associated with its meaning. If you know why Deakins used yellow for wisdom, let us know in the comments!

Moonlight

A rather touching if not heartbreaking film about the struggles a young man goes through in an LGBTQ+ and black community. The film tries to paint a beautiful nightmare, with color, light, and composition. As pleasing and beautiful as the tones of this movie are, they do show a rather eerie scene. It pushes the limits of contrast, which can be a good lesson for those of you who like to add extra contrast to your images. To replicate the Miami sun, the film had to show both dark shadows while also having clipping and shine on the highlights. A lot of the movie was shot with almost no fill light. As photographers, we’re told to use fill light all the time, but perhaps that may not be always necessary. Another interesting aspect of Moonlight is the color grade. Because of the high contrast used, the colorist didn’t have too much space to play around with the color grade. Nonetheless, the stills from this movie can be used as good references for color in your very own photos.

Closing Thoughts 

These are only some of my own favorites. In fact, it’s just the beginning of a long list. Whenever watching a movie, I suggest you pay attention to the color, clothes, angle, and many more things. After all, they are nothing more than moving pictures, though it must be much harder getting perfect 24 images each second for hours, rather than getting one good one in an hour.

I know that some photographers won’t find this list particularly enticing, to which I say: if you have any suggestions, write them in the comments! I would love to hear what movies you find yourself coming back to over and over, whether it is for their plot, their aesthetic beauty, or for some other reason. 

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17 Comments
Studio 403's picture

One classic is "Babette feast" suggested, Tender Mercies,Robert Duval and the Apostle a movie he funded, (Duval)

Mike Ditz's picture

I don't recall if The Apostle was about photography or photographers but it was a great movie.

Charles Mercier's picture

Not what I was expecting. Any great movies about photography or photographers? Blowup? Ugh. Terrible. As a movie it was fine but photography-wise, I thought it was bad.

Mike Shwarts's picture

Kubrick is good, but if you watch old movies as I do, there are many in both color and black and white that are treats to watch from a photographer's point of view.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I love the 300 movies. Just waiting on the right shoot to go crazy on.

300: https://youtu.be/UrIbxk7idYA

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300: Rise of an Empire: https://youtu.be/2zqy21Z29ps

Chris Feldman's picture

Also: 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' (Coppola / Ballhaus), Guillermo del Toro, and anything by Orson Welles. Among many others, of course.

Mike Ditz's picture

Funny Face (1957) is a good one too, specially for fashion photographers.

Weston Edwards's picture

Nearly any movie by Terrence Malick ("A Hidden Life" "The Tree of Life," and "The Thin Red Line."). He truly understands lighting and composition.

A Hidden Life:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJXmdY4lVR0

The Tree of Life:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTD5UGpKO50

Jose A. Giralt's picture

Although I'm recommending two films directed by Wim Wenders, I want to recognize the cinematographers.

Paris, Texas (Robbie Müller)
https://youtu.be/GP8_H1_KC7I

Wings of Desire (Henri Alekan)
https://youtu.be/hAzzR2Uklok

Rex Larsen's picture

1,000 Times Goodnight is not to be missed.
Barry Lyndon is a great choice. Extra high speed lenses were invented for the film.

David Mullen's picture

For a cinematographer, there are a hundred must-see movies... Anyway, for learning classic composition, I recommend the John Ford film "How Green Was My Valley".

David Mullen's picture

Another great film for composition is Kurosawa's "Red Beard" -- shot on telephoto anamorphic lenses stopped way down for deep focus.

Leo dj's picture

Kubrick (the legend) and Andersen are great. But i'd suggest to watch more French, Spanish and Korean movies as well.
I find Kaw Wai Wong's work very impressive. Especially the color use in "In the mood for love".

Ruud van der Nat's picture

I really enjoyed the opening scenes of Spectre (007) , I like Sam Mendes’s compositions

Kevzi Paris's picture

One of the best black and white films I have ever watched is Carol Reed's "The Third Man" with Orson Welles. The dramatic lighting and certain camera angles capture the stressful atmosphere of post war Vienna

Geoff Miller's picture

One of my favorite movies, both in terms of acting and the use of visual imagery is The Road to Perdition.
https://youtu.be/OreveBlLfho

Also, Lawernce of Arabia

Joachim Elz-Fianda's picture

From the series of the last years I liked "Better call Saul" with it unusual macro perspectives which show a deep sense of humour: ,https://www.netflix.com/title/80021955