Why Cinematography and Photography have a lot in Common

Have you ever watched an old movie from the 1950’s and found that it was not quite as exciting as a movie today? Well, cinematography has changed quite a bit since then and I am not talking about the explosive special effects department. One of the biggest factors utilized by the great Alfred Hitchcock, is the rotation of shots at different angles and proximity in one scene. Could you imagine if you watched a 90-minute movie where the shot never changed? There is a good chance that you might fall asleep before it ends.

In both the cinematography and photography industry, these “rotating shots” are often called: an establishing-shot, where the scene is established (think of Seinfeld when they introduce the outside of the restaurant or Jerry’s apartment), then there is the long-shot where you would see full body shots of the characters in their environment (in this case, inside the building). Next you might see a medium-shot from a different angle of the waist up, this might be of Jerry pouring milk into a glass behind a counter. If you watch drama television shows such as Law and Order, the show may cut to a close-up-shot of the face of a subject during an interrogation so the audience can connect to the character and feel the emotion of the scene. Sometimes the show may give you a glimpse of the room or environment such as cutting away to the clock on the wall or the subject fidgeting with a pen, this is called a “cut away”. The cut away shot helps build a sense of place and timing.

All of these “rotating shots” help build a progression of emotion, much like how music builds up and builds down with different instruments. It is a method for telling a story without boring the viewer. I would like to point out that the word “STORY” is the magic ingredient that many photographers in all genres forget. When you fail to tell the story, you have lost the essential purpose of photography. Composition and framing is only 50% of a great photo.

If you are still wondering what all of this has to do with photography, as I stated before, many of us photographers need to remember that when we are covering a shoot, we need to keep two very important things in mind; 1) Know our subject or story and ensure that we are composing the scene and the initial shot to let our audience build a natural correct assumption of what is going on without words. 2) Switch our lenses and change our angles like a good movie would. Don’t be a photographer who shoots an event all with one lens or your portfolio and albums will be like a movie that never changes shots.

In photojournalism, a good photographer much like a great cinematographer will know that they need a series of different shots and different angles. If you are just starting your journey into photography and don’t have the budget to buy new lenses, try using the next best thing to give some variety to your portfolio, “your feet” to create distance between you and your subject. Interview the subject or investigate thoroughly what your photography assignment will be. Learn the story and try to visualize colors and lighting that will express that story (such as a dark mood could be express with dark red and black colors with harsh shadows and minimal light).

I recall one of my great mentors, Chip Maury, a veteran combat photographer and professor at Syracuse University telling me “If you would like to learn more about being a great photojournalist, try looking at comic books or picking up a book on cinematography.” Remember the key to both of these traits is being a great storyteller, not someone who knows all the technical details about photography.

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