Creating a Cinematic Photograph

This week I’ll cover why and how we created the photograph from last week’s post in terms of set creation and lighting.

Concept or Narrative Intent

For this image, I wanted to depict a girl inside a closet with a laptop computer who was viewing something on the computer screen.  The setting is designed to create a sense that the girl is viewing something secret that she isn’t supposed to see.

Closets have been used in literature and movies as a place to hide people that didn’t want to be found and so by creating a closet for this image, we leverage that narrative of mystery and tension.

The girl’s expression then informs us that she is seeing something on the computer screen that she wasn’t expecting to find. While we as viewers don’t know what she is seeing, we inherently understand that she stole away to find it and she is surprised at what she found.

If we look closely at the computer, we can see that it’s an Apple computer but the logo is different from the standard logo. We don’t know if the logo was one customized by the owner of if the Company’s logo has changed but it provides a clue that we as viewers, can consider.

I enjoy photographs that provide narrative elements but that maintain an amount of ambiguity so that as viewers, we bring our experiences into the image and create a narrative that is personal and subject to change as we consider the elements within the image or across the series of images.


Creating the Set

Closets are generally small and shooting this photograph in a real closet would have created all sorts of logistical challenges that would have prohibited me from creating the image as originally envisioned. To overcome these logistics, I used a wide hallway, with a door at the end.  The door visually informed the viewer that the character was “inside” a darkened space. We could have used a variety of spaces but this was available and provided plenty of space to work with.

I used a metal bar above the character, set on top of two light stands so that I could hang coats on either side of the character from the bar and then placed a variety of boots on the floor around her. By having the door behind her slightly ajar, it informs the viewer that she has gone into a dark space and presumably partially closed the door behind her.

The character holds the computer in her lap so as to convey a sense of urgency in terms of her actions.

Lighting the Scene

For the key light we used a strobe (mono-light) mounted with a barn door and placed it in front of the character, low to the ground, so that it was about the same height as the character’s head.  The bottom flap of the barn door was raised up so that it shielded the computer from most of the light and it was gelled with a cyan gel.

We supplemented this light with a flash, covered with a cyan gel, that was placed behind the computer screen, aimed up at the character’s face. This increased the intensity of the light hitting the character’s face and served to support that the light within the closet was coming from the computer.

We placed an un-gelled strobe light (mono-light) behind the character mounted with a snoot to narrow the beam and limit the amount of spill it created in the rest of the scene. This light was aimed at the back of the character’s head and was placed so that the character is blocking the camera from seeing the actual strobe light. This light is creating the yellow halo around the character’s head and hair.

We used a strobe light just outside the door behind the character and aimed it at the door sill to create light spilling into the “closet”. This separated the character from the background, provided a visual explanation as to why there was yellow light hitting the character’s head/hair and supported that the character had left a brightly lit environment in order to view the computer screen from a darker, secret place (the closet).

We used two different colors of light in order to create complementary coloring and the lights became a reason/source for those colors that is consistent with viewers’ expectations:

  • Cyan for the key light and flash consistent with a computer screen
  • Orange light for the strobe lighting the character’s hair and the strobe lighting the door sill behind the character consistent with the viewers’  expectations about natural light

Complementary colors are great for creating visual interest and separating image content within a photograph and in this instance they helped support the importance of the character in terms of this image and the narrative underlying it.


As we think about photographs we want to create, it is important to remember the visual cues that viewers bring to their experience of cinematic imagery and leverage those cues in our photography. We don’t have to physically be in a closet in order to create an image of someone “in a closet”. We need to understand and use viewers’ visual expectations about our scene to depict the scene we want (and they expect).

By knowing the narrative that we want to communicate through our photographs before we create them, we can think about how best to use viewers’ expectations about the scene so that we communicate what we want, in the way we want to do it.

Only My Two Cents,

Gregory Beams

No Comments