Cinematic Photography – Dissecting a Scene – Neon Demon

A great exercise for learning how to create a cinematic aesthetic in your photography is to select an image from a movie that is emotionally impactful and work to recreate it. Use the image’s lighting, coloring and composition to create a version of the scene, carrying over the elements that are most impactful. Through this process we learn something new about cinematic lighting both specifically as it relates to the image we are creating and about cinematic photography more generally. We did this in a July blog post (Cinematic Lighting – Dissecting a Scene – La Femme Nikita) where we recreated a well-known image from the 1990 movie “La Femme Nikita“.

For this week’s post we’re dissecting a still image from the recently released 2016 “Neon Demon” This is from a scene where Dean (Karl Glusman), a photographer, is visualy drawn to the model Jesse (Elle Fanning), the movie’s central character.


In dissecting this scene we look for the interplay between the light and shadows in order to discern where the cinematographer placed the lights that created the image. Also, we consider the colors within the image and how best to recreate those colors within our photograph. Did the cinematographer use gels on the lights in order to create the colors and if so, which lights and which gels.

There are three main aspects to the image that immediately impact to the viewer:

  1. The red background – that creates a sinister sense to the image
  2. The up-lit soft shadowed lighting across the character’s face – that focuses our attention on him
  3. The blue cast across the top of the character’s camera – that conveys the importance of the camera in terms of the character’s obsession with his subject

We can then set about recreating these attributes in the image we create. When recreating a scene, I like to start with the larger elements and then work towards the smaller ones. These larger elements generally impact the entire scene and so by starting with them I can better understand their effects on the smaller elements and take that into consideration as I consider the light settings and gels on the smaller elements. Starting with the smaller elements oftentimes becomes an iterative process because the larger elements impact our original settings on the smaller ones and so we have to revisit and revise the lighting on the smaller elements as a result. This rarely happens if you start with the larger elements.

Red Background

The red background can be replicated by using a wall or some other flat surface that doesn’t create sharp shadows or angles that we then place our character in front of. A neutral color surface is best but we can recreate the red hues on most any surface that isn’t multi-colored.  In our case we used a simple black background (black being devoid of color).

To turn the background red, we used a single strobe light with a red gel set to 40 watt/sec shining upwards from the floor onto the black background – with the light pointed to the center of where we planned to position the character. This provided a good spread of red that evenly lit the background behind the character. We then placed a black flag in between the light and the character to block any spill from the light (light impacting other parts of the scene from what we intended) and minimize the amount of red light hitting our character. Once this light is set, we can adjust the watt/sec to make the red more or less visible in the final photograph. Since we flagged the light off our character, then adjusting this light only adjusts the amount of red behind the character but doesn’t significantly affect the lighting on the character. While there is still some small amount of red light “bouncing” off the background onto the character that isn’t blocked by our flag, the other lights being added to the scene should easily overpower the red and thus eliminate it from the character’s coloring.

Key Light

The key light (main light) illuminating the main character is shining upwards from below the character and we can “see” this from the nose shadows on the character. The shadows on the character’s nose are above the bottom of his nostrils and form little rings around the front sides of his nose. This visually informs us that the light creating these shadows is coming from below the nose and is aimed upwards onto the character’s face. This also has the benefit of NOT hitting the background since it is aimed more towards the ceiling and so our red background remains appropriately colored.

An initial question about the key light was how the light could be below the character’s hands and yet his hands are not the brightest element in the scene. Since we expect the hands to be physically closest to the light, then we would otherwise expect the hands to reflect more of that light and so be much brighter than they appear in the image.

At first we wondered if the cinematographer used two lights – one softer light to illuminate the hands and then a second brighter strobe light shining up below the chin to illuminate the character’s face. As we played with this idea, we found that by using barn doors on a single light and then using the bottom flap on the barn doors to block the light from hitting the hands, the hands were then only lit by the spill that wraps its way around the barn doors, while the bulk of the light hits the character’s chin and face. By adjusting the bottom barn door on the key light, we could “feather” the light hitting the hands and replicate the softer light seen in the image. We used a CTO (color temperature orange) gel on the key light to support the character’s flesh tone.

When shooting photographically most photographers rarely use barn doors but when shooting cinematically, we routinely use barn doors.


Gregory Beams, Self Portrait, 2016

Blue Accent Light

We used a strobe light mounted with a snoot to restrict the blue light to a narrow area and positioned it to hit the camera in the character’s hands coming in from camera right. We used a CTB (color temperature blue) gel to create the blue tones. By positioning the strobe to camera right and aiming across the scene, we avoided any blue spill hitting the background or other elements in the scene and restricting the light to our intended target – the camera in the character’s hands.

Other Thoughts

The colors in the original image are more saturated and intense than the image we created but I suspect that has more to do with post processing in order to support the overall look of the film.

The camera in the original image appears to have a reflection coming from the viewfinder (small rectangular piece in the upper-right of the camera) that is either producing a light or is reflecting something in front of the scene back towards the viewer that is then captured within the image. If we needed to reproduce this aspect of the original image then we could have continued to develop the image further by moving the blue accent light to different positions until we found where it was best reflected to create this effect. Since I was creating the image without assistance, this was going to take more time than I had available to create the final image.  With an assistant to direct how to turn the camera in the character’s hand so that the reflection is caught in the image would be fairly easy – but it requires an assistant.

In terms of coloring, the character in the original scene (which we replicated) is wearing a green toned sweater. Green is a complementary color of red because they are on the opposite sides of the color wheel. Visually, complementary colors look good together, provide a strong contrast to each other and so help separate the opposing colors from each other within an image. Cinematographers and photographers will use complementary coloring to direct the viewer’s attention to key elements within the scene. In this case, the coloring was meant to better focus our attention on the main character. If the colors had been analogous (next to each other on the color wheel) then the character would have visually melded into the background more. Neither choice is inherently right or wrong, it simply depends on what the photographer is attempting to say with the photograph and then selecting those colors that support the photographer’s intent.

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I always enjoy these types of exercises and will be doing more of them in future posts. If you want to find all of the similar posts, select the category “Dissecting a Scene” and they should come up.

Only My Two Cents,

Gregory Beams

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