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9 tips and techniques for creating a cinematic look in your photography

Some pictures look like scenes from a movie—and not just because they’ve been cropped to an aspect ratio of 16:9. Maybe it’s the colours, or perhaps it’s the contrast. It could be that touch of film grain or the directional quality of the light.

Around the world, photographers are chasing that cinematic feeling, experimenting with different types of light (natural and artificial), tools, and edits. They’re inspired by the greats: Roger Deakins, David Lynch, Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, and Wong Kar Wai. We asked five such artists, each with a different point of view, to share their tips for creating a mood and telling a story within a single frame.

1. Gather inspiration

The tricky thing about the “cinematic photography” trend is that “cinematic” can be hard to nail down, so start by defining it for yourself. “Cinematic can mean almost anything, from the flat minimal style that’s en vogue now to the high contrast styles of David Fincher,” the Brighton-based artist and author Ian Howorth says. “Watch a lot of movies and see how things are done. Study the use of light, lighting ratios, and when they are applied. If you’re shooting film, a light meter will teach you a lot about light and how ratios work; how you choose to expose has a dramatic effect on your shots.”

Start putting together a mood or inspiration board, and see if any themes emerge. “Each cinematographer I admire has different attributes,” Ian admits. “I love Jordan Cronenweth for his incredible use of texture and, of course, high contrast lighting; Roger Deakins for the incredible skill of making his films so natural, it’s like they haven’t been lit; Robby Muller for his mastery of colour and composition; and Frederick Elmes for his ballsy use of mood and very soft light.”

Image © Ian Howorth (@ihoworth on Instagram)

2. Wake up early…

Cinematic lighting tends to be very warm, in the case of the golden hour, or very cool, in the case of the blue hour. Either way, it helps to wake up before the sun rises, especially if you plan to use natural light, as the photographer Olaia Macías does. “I’d say almost 90% of my photographs are taken at dawn or in the early hours of the morning,” she tells us. During that time, the light is soft but also directional, meaning you’ll get longer shadows. You’re also more likely to encounter foggy conditions—a favourite technique of Olaia’s for creating atmosphere.

Image © Olaia Macías (@huertaderegletas on Instagram)

Olaia Macías is inspired by Jane Campion’s “The Piano” and the works of Tim Burton and Coppola.

3. …and stay out after dark

The golden and blue hours occur twice daily, so you’re not limited to morning shoots alone. The photographer and filmmaker Natascia Mercurio, who goes by the artist name Natybtw, usually starts working as the sun goes down. “I mainly shoot from the sunset into the blue hour and all the way down to a pitch-black sky,” she tells us. “Within each time of night, you’re able to convey different feelings and emphasise different tones.”

When shooting at night, you can use existing light sources, such as street lights, car headlights, or neon signs, as several of the photographers we interviewed do, or you can even bring your own lights. Naty relies on available light when shooting street photos and chooses portable, continuous LEDs for portraits so she can see exactly how the light’s falling.

“My narrative-cinematic world is heavily inspired by many cinematographers and film directors, such as Todd Phillips, Roger Deakins, David Lynch, Christopher Doyle, and Steven Spielberg, but if I have to come down to one, in particular, who has impacted my artistic vision, it has to be Wong Kar Wai.”

Photographer and filmmaker Natascia Mercurio
Image © Natybtw (@natybtw on Instagram)

4. Watch the weather

Naty prefers rainy or foggy conditions to elevate that mood and create depth, so keep an eye on the forecast. If you’re shooting in the city, just after the rain can be a good time, as you’ll get those reflective puddles, which work well with neon signs at night. In the countryside, chase those foggy conditions, just like the classic sci-fi filmmakers did.

Image © Francesco Aglieri Rinella ( on Instagram)

Francesco Aglieri Rinella is a fan of Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Christopher Nolan films.

5. Embrace film (even the rarer film stocks)

The analog photographer Francesco Aglieri Rinella credits his atmospheric shots to the use of negative film, including CineStill800T (night) and Cinestill 50d (daylight), both of which are based on motion picture film. “My favourite films also include much rarer films, such as the now discontinued Kodak Portra 100T,” Francesco says. “These particular emulsions have the ability to keep lights and shadows very clear and defined, creating that cinematic look we see in movies with a good amount of contrast.”

Image © Francesco Aglieri Rinella ( on Instagram)
Image © Francesco Aglieri Rinella ( on Instagram)

6. Try backlighting

Much-loved by filmmakers like Terrence Malick, backlighting creates an enchanted glow around your subject. You can use natural light at the golden hour to create this effect or artificial light after dark, as Francesco did in the portrait above.

Image © Ian Howorth (@ihoworth on Instagram)

7. Open up that aperture

One thing you might notice in Ian’s portrait of Ornella, above, is the shallow depth of field, creating that beautiful bokeh effect. By opening up your aperture, you’ll cast your background out of focus, resulting in that dreamy atmosphere and separation between your subject and the surrounding scene. You’ll see a similar bokeh in Naty’s portrait below.

Image © Natybtw (@natybtw on Instagram)

8. Play with curves

“Mostly, I shoot using neon lights and various other light sources, so I need to make sure the colours are right in post-production,” the artist Diyar Shahbaz tells us. Colour correction is the process of making the colours in your photos accurate; colour grading is the process of tweaking your colours to create a mood or atmosphere. The first thing you do before any editing should be basic colour correction so you have a solid and consistent point of departure.

From there, however, you can get creative with your colours. The curves adjustment, for instance, is a powerful tool that allows you to fine-tune your shadows, highlights, black point, and white point. You can create a subtle “S” curve to bump up your contrast for a cinematic touch. If you wish, you can also go in and target individual colour channels for more control over colour grading; when using curves, a light touch goes a long way. Diyar uses curves to enhance the mood of his pictures, transforming them from warm to cool and back again.

Image © Diyar Shahbaz (@diyarshahbaz on Instagram)

9. Bring out those complementary colours

When colour grading, consider a complementary palette, such as the always-popular orange and teal/blue combination. You’re not limited to just these two colours, so consult the colour wheel to find a pair that works for you. “People would define my colour palette as the classic teal and orange, but it’s something more: a teal that’s taken to an extreme and an orange that’s bursting with vibrancy and richness,” Naty says.

“People would define my colour palette as the classic teal and orange, but it’s something more: a teal that’s taken to an extreme and an orange that’s bursting with vibrancy and richness.”

Photographer and filmmaker Natascia Mercurio
Image © Natybtw (@natybtw on Instagram)

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.