Three Films to Watch That Will Make You a Better Photographer

Three Films to Watch That Will Make You a Better Photographer

One of the best ways to get better as a photographer is to watch good movies. While the aspect ratio might be different, the same rules of composition and style apply. Here are some of my favorite films that will make you a better photographer to get you started.

In a movie, each frame in an individual photograph and — even at 24 frames per second — it’s likely that the director (and the cinematographers, colorists, and everyone else) is spending more time crafting each one than most photographers do. The care that good directors put into lighting, composition, the relationship of people and objects in the frame, lens choice, camera angle, and everything else is insane. We’re talking months spent obsessing about a single scene.

While most of this work fades into the background serving the plot and theme, if you watch out for it and pay attention to the craft, you can learn a lot that you can apply to your own photography.

But now: the films.

Blade Runner

Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott, is not only one of the best films of all time (don’t @ me) but it’s also an incredibly well made movie. Scott and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth crafted some superb dramatic moments. Pay particular attention to the composition in the scenes where Roy Batty meets Dr. Tyrell, Rachael gets tested, and, of course, Deckard and Batty’s final confrontation.

Another thing worth taking away from Blade Runner is the neo-noir color work. It’s hardly appropriate for wedding photography, but the consistent visual palette creates so much atmosphere. Use it as inspiration to use color in your own work, even if you don’t go this grim.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

At the other end of things, we have The Grand Budapest Hotel written and directed by Wes Anderson — though, really, I could have picked any of Anderson’s films. It’s bright, pop-y, and so much fun.

Anderson, collaborating with cinematographer Robert Yeoman, creates a surreal, almost overly-staged look. He plays a lot with symmetry, color, and perspective. His films look like films — in the best possible way.

In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson is at his most playful. Watch out for how the limited color palette ties in with the time period and tone of each scene. Also, keep an eye on the aspect ratio — it changes with each time period and is a masterclass in composition.

Anderson’s style is very idiosyncratic. If you try and copy things too closely, people will be well aware of where you got your ideas, but you can certainly get inspired by his work. I know I have been.

Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood

There’s no place like a movie theater for watching a film so if you want to catch something epic on the big screen, go and see Quentin Tarantino’s latest: Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. If you can, watch a 35mm print — I did and it was worth the extra hassle.

OUATIH is Tarantino at his most cinematic (working, again, with Robert Richardson). While the plot line featuring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio is awesome, it’s the scenes with Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate that stick in my mind as a lesson for photographers.

For most of the film Tate is slightly removed from the action. Instead, the film occasionally cuts to vignettes of her carrying on with her everyday life: going to the cinema, having dinner with friends, and the like. And in these scenes she’s practically silent. Each one is more of a moving photo, than a true dramatic scene. If you shoot any kind of portraits, they’re worth not just watching but studying.

Movies are great inspiration for photographers. Even bad films, where the director clearly didn’t put much effort into staging, can make you a better photographer: consider how a badly framed shot makes you feel, and don’t make the same mistakes. But good films? Go out of your way to catch them.

Log in or register to post comments

28 Comments

Alex Yakimov's picture

Agree on all counts 😎

Adriano Brigante's picture

"The Man Who wasn't there" by the Cohen brothers (and Roger Deakins as the DP). Also, "The Hudsucker Proxy" by the same talented people. And also "Fargo".

The other day, I discovered film-grab.com. It's a very cool resource to see stills from movies.

Dave Terry's picture

All great suggestions. I didn't even know who Roger Deakins was until the new Blade Runner 2049 came out, but since I've gone back and watched several of his movies. Such an inspiration.

Georgi Andinov's picture

These are so much better than the one in the article...

Martin Van Londen's picture

He was a rad photographer before became a director.

Martin Van Londen's picture

I just watched a trailer. Looks like a cool doc. I’ll have to check it out.

Motti Bembaron's picture

For a delightful cinematography experience watch Maigret (the new version with Rowan Atkinson). The coloring, lighting, and compositions are stunning. Very well done, one of the best created TV shows I have watched.

https://tinyurl.com/y2w93ytp

Dick Tracy for the vibrant (primary) colours and Tess for the soft muted colours. Both are photographer's delights! cb

Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 is amazing with every character framed on the left or right of the shot, often with focus pulled to the other character on the opposite side when needed. Almost no centred shot in a very long beautifully coloured film. Much like his other masterpiece In The Mood For Love.

Dave Terry's picture

This is a perfect list. Three cinematographers, three distinct styles. So much to learn. As bonus movies, I would add:

Blade Runner 2049 - DP Roger Deakins does an amazing job maintaining the look, feel, lighting and modernizing it.

Rushmore - Robert Yeoman (and Wes Anderson's composition style) begin to emerge, but in a more raw form.

Pulp Fiction - Same idea as above. Different DP (Andrzej Sekula), but Tarantino's composition style takes more shape than in Reservoir Dogs (which is also worth watching of course, though much more raw and loose).

I would add to this list.

Apocalypse Now Redux - DP Vittorio Storaro - The whole thing is obviously a masterpiece, but in the Redux version they include the scenes at the French Colonialists house. There is a discussion that happens in a large dining room as the sun is setting through the windows. The way the lighting and angles are handled are immaculate.

Barry Lyndon - DP John Alcott - Stanley Kubrick shot this movie using almost all natural light. He used special lenses originally created for NASA with a 0.7 aperture and adapted to a monstrous and heavily customized camera (never used on a film before) so he could shoot using only candle light indoors (it's a period piece. Not only is the lighting stunning (and the Godfather to all of the low-light shooting taking place today), the compositions look like paintings from the masters of the 1800's.

Clockwork Orange - Holy shit, Kubrick at his most brutal. DP also John Alcott - Wide and ultra-wide lenses, but close and claustrophobic compositions. The anti-Barry Lyndon in terms of how it feels - but by the same DP. Fucking amazing.

Oceans 13 - this may sound like an odd one compared to the above masterpieces, but this movie uses a ton of long and super-long lenses. Very different feel from most of the above, and a good counter point.

Special Mention: The original Highlander Movie. It may not be as sophisticated as these others, and there are plenty of basic/typical shots, but it was the first movie where I ever noticed how a movie "looked." I was probably 10 years old. I remember asking my dad about the how it looked and he taught me the word "Cinematographer" and gave a basic explanation of what that meant. That's when my love of photography began. =)

Lawrence of Arabia, The Third Man, Leave Her To Heaven (which won an Oscar for best Cinematography,), Chinatown, Paths of Glory, Vertigo, Brazil, Sunset Boulevard, The Searchers...

...Shane, The Last Picture Show, Manhattan, The Stranger, Macbeth (2015), Bladerunner 2049, Wonder Wheel, It Takes A Thief, Ben Hur (original)...

...The Yearling, Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, Eraser Head, Rumble Fish, Lilies Of The Field, Psycho...

Serial Game of Thrones maybe not a movie but they are masters of light

Allen Ng's picture

The Revenant -if a landscape photographer made a porno

"The Fall'", directed by Tarsem Singh, is a masterpiece of landscape photography.

And, regarding the mention of aspect ratio: What is the aspect ratio for still photography? Don't let cameras or photo frames lock you into a mindset. Let that be part of your (post-shoot) creative process.

Kubrick's, Kurosawa's, Andrei Tarkovsky have to be considered also.

Paying attention to the lighting in any good film will help make you a better still photographer. Marlon Brando in the cave in "Apocalypse Now" is one of my favorite lighting set-ups. But there is so much photographers can learn from any great, or even good, cinematographer.

Dave Terry's picture

I had seen that movie the first time when I was about 19 (1994), and since then I've probably watched it 12 or so times. But it wasn't until I got my first DSLR (Nikon D90 in 2012) and one lens (old Nikkor 15mm 3.5), and, had been running around with it, that I began to appreciate how much of a visual masterpiece that movie was. I watched it with a friend (probably my 7th time) and was just inspired. I began going back to a lot of old movies and re-watching them to look at the cinematography and lighting.

My biggest take away from the movie experience as a whole is how wonderfully everything came together... the story, the characters' journeys, the tension and dread... and how all of that is facilitated by the camera. The entire final sequence of Kurt's execution is one of the most "earned" payoffs of any film I've ever seen. And the lighting and cinematography do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of making it all work.

Georgi Andinov's picture

"The Fall", "Birdman", 'A single man""The Man Who wasn't there", "there will be blood" everything from Federico Fellini....

There are so much better movies from photographers point...

Chris Sampson's picture

One of the most important films for cinematography was Fellini's 8 1/2 featuring the cinematography of Gianni Di Venanzo. If there was any one movie I had to use to tell people how to compose and light, I'd pick this one.

"The care that good directors put into lighting, composition, the relationship of people and objects in the frame, lens choice, camera angle, and everything else is insane. We’re talking months spent obsessing about a single scene."

Except it is a bit the director who does that.

"A cinematographer or director of photography (sometimes shortened to DP or DOP) is the chief over the camera and light crews working on a film, television production or other live action piece and is responsible for making artistic and technical decisions related to the image."

https://youtu.be/CutWL8Al61E

The directors are responsible for one thing, and one thing only really, directing the actors and getting his story and vision captured. Everyone else are responsible for the look, for the cutting, for visuals etc.

https://youtu.be/GFMyMxMYDNk

There are way too much given credit to directors because they are directors.

There really are few who can do script writing, story telling, creating characters, visualizing scenes etc.
And only very few directors really lives up to that idea that article talks about, few like The Ridley Scott, Quentin Tarantino and Stanley Kubrick. And even they have their dedicated editors, cinematographers that they trust and let's them work freely because they are responsible for all visuals and audio.

Because those other professionals free them as directors to do what they really love to do, tell a story via actors.

I think I have watched The Grand Budapest Hotel about 10 times now. Simply incredible how frame, color, acting and music harmonize so beautiful together.
Would love to see another article with more movies ;)

Timothy Turner's picture

12 angry men with Lee J Cobb and Henry Fonda.

truth for me is that almost ANY motion picture will contain at least one or two shots that are good still photography. better movies just have more of 'em.

"Hi, my name is Tony and this is Every Frame A Painting."

“Ida” -- Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, DOP Lukasz Zal (and Ryszard Lenczewski) . B&W, 1.37 aspect ratio (approx 4:3). Worldwide awards: 69 wins and 84 nominations (20+ for Best Cinematography)

Every scene is exquisite in composition & lighting. There is virtually no camera movement; the entire film was shot lock down on sticks except for a hand held at the end.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tv41TyicoTs