What is Cinematic Photography

Photographers working in different genres of photography have created a cinematic style to their work. Whether creating photographs in terms of street photography, portraiture, commercial photography or another genre, developing a cinematic style is possible across all types of photographs. In this blog I will focus on creating a cinematic style of photography within the genre of fine art photography known as “tableau” or constructed photography. The techniques discussed herein can be used by photographers across other genres but due to the highly controlled nature of constructed fine art photography, all aspects of creating a cinematic style of photography are needed. Thus by following along this exploration, photographers can leverage what they need and ignore the rest.

Constructed photography (or tableau photography) has been around since shortly after the invention of photography and involved scenes that were constructed by the photographer, typically involving actors, costumes, sets and other content that the photographer first envisioned and then went about creating. Oftentimes these images were created to convey a moral message or theme that the photographer wanted to communicate to viewers.

One of the earliest constructed photographs was created by Oscar Gustave Rejlander, entitled “The Two Sides of Life”. Rejlander depicts a young man presented with the choice of a virtuous life of learning and proper behavior versus a life of sin and debauchery. Constructed photography was not widely accepted at this time because the photographer constructed the content of the image and so didn’t adhere to the viewers’ expectations about the “truth” of photography. At this stage of photography’s historical development viewers saw photographs as representing their visual experience of the actual world and so images that deviated from pure representation were not easily accepted.


With the changing attitudes about fine art photography, beginning in the 1980’s constructed photography became more widespread. Artists such as Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson produced a style of images that raised subtler, more impactful questions that straight photography was not otherwise visually addressing in the same way.

More so than any other fine art photographer, Gregory Crewdson developed a cinematic style of photography that caused viewers to see his images as moments within a larger movie-like narrative. Crewdson developed his style of photography by using movie-style production companies including large crews of technical specialists, a director of photography, cinematic lighting, camera operators, post production specialists, etc. While a number of subsequent photographers have developed their own cinematic style of photography, none has gone to the same lengths as Crewdson in terms of size and scale of their productions.


The focus for my photography, and for the purposes of this discussion, is to leverage the outcomes achieved by movie production companies but without the crew of technical specialists and support personnel historically required. While not necessarily easy to learn, there are lighting, in-camera techniques and post-production tools that allow photographers to achieve large-scale as well as small-scale cinematic aesthetics in their photography.

A cinematic aesthetic invokes a narrative that is different from other genres of photography. When viewers see a cinematic image they experience a narrative and they actively participate in developing that narrative into a larger story. When we go to the movies we willingly set aside our understanding of reality and we engage with the movie. To some extent we forget ourselves as we become immersed in the world presented to us through the movie. By invoking a cinematic aesthetic in our photographs, viewers adopt a similar approach to experiencing our images and they want to understand both what is happening in the image and what has happened leading up to the image as well as what might happen next. While a photograph depicts a moment in time, cinematic images invoke a narrative outside of the image and viewers use their imagination and life experiences to construct that narrative, based on what they see within the photograph.

This blog explores the tools we might use to develop a more cinematic aesthetic as well as the underlying conceptual reasons for using a more cinematic aesthetic in our photographs.

Only my two cents,

Gregory Beams

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