Telling A Story Through Every Frame

5 tips on telling compelling stories through cinematic photography techniques from filmmaker Dominic Panico (@dompanico).

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Cinematic photography is about creating still images that tell a story. Whether you are a filmmaker, photographer, or just in search of something new to try, approaching your photo subject like it’s a story can be really fun and rewarding.

Filmmaker @dompanico may not be on a set everyday, but creating cinematic frames is a way to keep his skills sharp. It keeps him present and examining everything around him. We sat down with him to get some tips for how you can follow his example:

Tip 1: Expose for highlights

If you want to take cinematic photos, light is everything. Expose your images for the highlights to take stress off your phone’s sensor. This will not only keep your image crisp but also gives you the least amount of noise in the shadows.

Dom says: “The three keys in order from most important. Lighting, Composition, timing. Like any camera you need to realize it has limitations. In my mind its limitations are its sensor and dynamic range. I try to keep my eyes open for a good light source to take stress off the sensor.“

Tip 2: Shoot horizontally

Shooting horizontally, applying a 16×9 crop, and adding white bars replicates the cinematic filmmaking standards. You can use Instasize to add the white bars.

Dom says: “I think in the end, aspect ratios come down to personal preference. We all like different things for many different reasons that sometimes cannot be explained. For me, the wider the aspect ratio, then the more cinematic it is to my eye. I think this is because 16×9 is the international standard for television and movies today. Seeing a frame carrying those similar traits makes me ask for more of its story. I have actually been seeing a lot of work out there in 4:3 ratio and think it also carries a beautiful purpose.”

Tip 3: Adjust color temperatures

The color temperature and tint adjustment tools are your best friends. Take the 2 extra steps and explore those sliders to introduce colors you don’t normally see.

Dom says: “This all goes back to personal preference, but if you pay attention to movie trailers, you can notice a grade over the image. The whites are not white but maybe an off tan, and blacks are a subtle blue. It’s all about complimentary colors and being conscious of what sort of mood you want your image to evoke. I personally find the look you see in almost every sci-fi film to be what I favor, that cross between blue and oranges.”

Tip 4: Don’t be scared to go dark

Shadows are where the emotions live. Phones sensors can only handle so much dynamic range, so don’t be afraid to let shadows and darkness define your image.

Dom says: “Remind yourself you are shooting with a phone. I don’t care how many megapixels the commercials say; it is not a DSLR or $40,000 cinema camera. There will be some compromise and choices to be made on how you want to expose your image that is best for the moment. “

Tip 5: Keep your mind alert

Don’t live on autopilot; be conscious throughout your daily life. The more you remind yourself of this, the more you will subconsciously pay attention to the beauty in even the most mundane things.

Dom says: “I find some of the most interesting photos are ones where you have to put yourself in that awkward situation to get the shot. Like, you’re at a restaurant, and you see a couple sitting under an awesome spot light. Sometimes when it’s obvious that you’re taking a photo, it’s uncomfortable and you feel rushed. But take your time, or you’ll kick yourself for not shooting it how you wanted.”

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