As photographers we are story-tellers and understanding and applying cinematic techniques to our work will result in our stories being more effective, more plausible and more enjoyable.

There are so many aspects of the cinematic we can be inspired by so to make it viable for our workshop we will focus on these select concepts:


Cinematic lighting is very controlled and is fit for purpose - lighting supports the narrative of the scene. 

Cinematic lighting set-ups include:

  • key light - the main source of light, often the brightest
  • fill light - this "fills" the shadows created by the main light - the ratio of the key to fill provides the mood
  • back light - this separates the character from their background
  • set light - this illuminates the background
  • effects - eg colour quality (hard, soft), colour temperature (to suggest time of day or location) or kicker lights (light an element of the scene specifically)

inspiration exercises:

  • photograph a scene that has a high key-to-fill ratio, then a low key-to-fill ratio - what mood does it create?
    • looking at your image does that ratio support the subject matter, narrative or concept you captured in your photograph?
  • photograph a scene with hard light, use it to support a narrative or concept; then a scene with diffused light, again using it to support a narrative or concept



When Thor: Ragnarok was filmed in Brisbane the city had to become New York. This was done through using the visual symbols and props of New York such as yellow cabs, school buses, traffic lights etc. Called establishing shots - they establish a location and set the tone.

inspiration exercises: 

  • identify the symbols of Brisbane - look for architecture, spaces, lighting, people, colours, relationships, community, clothing, flora/fauna etc that represent Brisbane (to you)
    • photograph a scene to include these symbols to ensure your viewer locates your photograph in Brisbane.
      • extra challenge if you're up for it: no pictures of the river or the Brisbane Wheel.
    • then photograph a scene to exclude these symbols to ensure your viewer can't locate your photograph in Brisbane

Superhero films at their most basic are films of good vs evil. Marvel of course attempts to blur those lines and allows its heroes to have darker sides.

inspiration exercises: 

  • think about how we use visual cues to identify good vs evil - colour, size, light and shadow
  • photograph a person or scene that has visual elements to suggest good; then evil

Look at your photographs - how is the light supporting your concepts of location and good/evil?



In cinema, composition, camera movement and angles create relationships, visual pace and suspense. Let's do that more consciously with our photographs.

inspiration exercises: 

  • photograph space
    • using a single subject experiment with the space around them
      • centre-framing? balanced
      • crowding the frame? put your subject in the corner of a frame while someone else takes up most of the shot = tense
      • distant? put your subject at a distance from another subject / element (try the extreme edges of the frame) = conveys disconnection
    • look at your photographs - how is the light supporting your story of your story of calm, tense, disconnect?
  • add some movement to the shot
    • photograph your subject moving but others stationary
    • photograph your subject still but others stationary
  • look at your photographs - how is the light supporting your ideas of pace and suspense?



Classic ensemble cast... 

inspiration exercise: 

  • identify a scene with numerous people
    • look for their stories
    • photograph the scene to show key players and their mini stories within stories



Additional resources


  • look at the work of Jeff Wall for his staged "street" photographs - very strong narrative and the use of light plays a key role in supporting those narratives 
  • look at Phil Toledano (Maybe series) for his use of props and costumes
  • Alec Soth for his quiet narratives 
  • David Hilliard for using the triptych to tell a story
  • Gursky for his capacity to fill / crowd a frame and for the hyper-real
  • Sarker Protick (What Remains series) for his use of light and narrative 
  • Atget for the stillness of the city, the presence of absence
  • Alex Prager for her use of the cinematic colour palette, fashion, pose 


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