How to Make Your Photographs Look Cinematic – 14 Creative Tips

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Cinematic style photography by Ainsley DS

Much like scenes from our favorite films, cinematic photography can evoke an emotional response in the viewer. Cinematic photography is a style of photography that emulates stills or frames from movie scenes. It is a highly effective storytelling technique that can create images with depth and feeling.

There are many ways to create a cinematic style photo. Paying attention to your photos when shooting and post-processing is a must. Cinematic photos can be either portrait or landscape. But they always evoke a particular mood.

Want some tips on how to create beautiful cinematic photography? Read on!

How to Create Portraits That Look Cinematic

Creating cinematic photos is about so much more than slapping on a filter in post-processing. The first step to making your images cinematic is to take control of your camera.

Modern cameras have come a long way. Digital cameras allow us to shoot with full control and versatility. You may want to shoot a dynamic HDR image to emulate modern movies. Or perhaps try to make your photos look vintage and grainy, like classic Hollywood films of the past. Photographers now have the gift of playing and creating stunning moments worthy of the cinema in different ways.

cinematic portrait of a women.
Cinematic photography © Ainsley DS Photography.

Taking a Cinematic Photo

Great care and detail need to be taken when shooting stills to look like a movie. To achieve an effective cinematic look, photographers need to pay attention to what they are shooting and how they are doing it. That includes light, subject matter, and composition. As well as many other smaller elements that help create an interesting image.

Here are some tips on how to control your photo-taking process to get amazing cinematic shots in your camera.

black and white photo of a women with cinematic look.
© Ainsley DS Photography.

Look for Cinematic Photography Inspiration

For film lovers, this is a distinctly fun part.

Before you even pick up your camera, re-watch some of your favorite movies. Pay attention to the scenes that capture your attention. What is it about them that holds you in that scene? What makes the frame work? Note down the differences in styles. What makes them recognizable? Is it the color grading, the angles, or the composition? What makes a beautiful, professional movie?

You may also want to research cinematic and stills photographers from your favorite films. These are quite different from video screen grabs. Stills images are taken by a special photographer on set. Therefore, even more control and thought has gone into the final photographs.

Pay attention to things like composition, color grading, angles, subject choice, and lighting. Look at the aspects of the film that you might want to emulate in your own cinematic photography.

Then, start coming up with a plan of how you will do this. Will you focus on street photography? Controlled portraits? Or will you take a bit of inspiration from films like ‘Nomad’ and seek out rolling landscapes?

cinematic street image.
Photography inspiration – Shanghai © Ainsley DS Photography.

Shoot Horizontal

It goes without saying that cinematographers shoot movies horizontally. So if we are aiming to take cinematic photos, we should also do the same. Use the grid on your screen to make sure the elements in your photo fit into the frame of a wider aspect ratio.

Image from a movie still.
Cinematic photo of a beach in Italy © Ainsley DS Photography.

Control Your Composition

Notice how cinematographers control their frame to achieve balance. Some of the most beautiful scenes in films are the simplest. They simply have well thought out composition. Use these same principles to add depth to your photo.

controling composition for a cinematic look.
Cinematic portrait © Ainsley DS Photography.

Consider Cinematic Photography Lighting

Just like in photography, lighting is an essential aspect of cinematography.

Lighting in films is very well thought out and controlled. There are teams of people who work behind the scenes to control every aspect. But it doesn’t always have to be that complicated. You can create effective lighting without the Hollywood set, you just have to put a bit of thought into it. Use those same lighting techniques to help create cinematic feelings in your images.

Light is important because it helps create a mood. For instance, soft lighting can make a scene look dreamy and airy. Hard lighting with harsher contrast creates a bit of drama in the photo. It’s crucial to think about your narrative and what your lighting will add to your cinematic portraits.

For a smooth look, use soft lighting that comes from a large source. On a cloudy day, clouds diffuse the light and give us soft light. Or you can try shooting with natural window light when the sun is not streaming directly into a room. You may also want to try working with a softbox. Softboxes are a form of artificial light that spreads light over a large surface, creating a soft light.

Hard lighting comes from a small artificial light source—for instance, direct sunlight on a bright day.

Don’t be afraid to play around with artificial lighting that isn’t in a traditional studio setup. Neon signs and the glow of their light can give you a cool, futuristic effect. Think of films like Blade Runner for cool, neon inspiration.

neon lights in a downtown street.
Nighttime street photography – Auckland, NZ © Ainsley DS Photography.

Consider the Time of Day

Although a bit harder to control than artificial lighting, the weather and time of day make a huge difference to your cinematic photography. There’s a reason most horror films are set in the dark or at night time. Stories in movies always seem even sadder when they’re set in rainy, full grey days. The same can be true with your images.

If you want to shoot a cinematic look with a happy feel, you may want to shoot during the golden hour. The time of day and the light it provides can make a huge difference to your photos.

evening light for a cinematic photos.
Evening photography – Muriwai Beach, NZ © Ainsley DS Photography.

Use A Wide Aperture

There is always a nice depth to a scene in movies, which allows us to focus on the main subject. This way, the background does not distract the viewer. You should use the same formula should when taking a cinematic photo. This can be achieved by using a wide aperture.

Prime lenses are sharp and create a nice bokeh effect in your photo. This means your background will be softer and your main subject sharper. This shallow depth of field draws our eye to the main subject.

Prime lenses like 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm are the most popular for portraits and street photography. These lenses usually have an F stop of about 1.4 or 1.8. This sharpness makes them great lenses to isolate your subject and control the narrative of your photo.

Alternatively, you can use a fast zoom lens with a wide aperture. A zoom lens is beneficial for street photography as it allows you to focus on your subject without getting too close. This means you can get discrete but interesting cinematic shots without shoving a lens in someone’s face.

It’s important to control the aperture so that the background is soft but not unrecognizable. The background should be blurry enough not to distract your main subject, but its presence should still add to the photo. The background is still an important part of the story you are trying to tell as it provides context to the scene.

black and white cinematic photography.
Wide aperture photograph – Auckland © Ainsley DS Photography.

Shoot Your Photos in RAW

If you’re still shooting in JPEG, it’s time to improve your photography. Shooting in JPEG significantly compresses your images which means you lose vital details in your photo. This can make it harder when trying to edit your photos to have a cinematic look.

Shooting in RAW records much more information. This means you have maximum control of your editing in post-processing, as you have more to work with. Being able to edit RAW produces much higher quality images like what would expect from a film.

snow falls in Montmartre, Paris creating a cinematic image.
Street in Paris © Ainsley DS Photography.

Think About Cinematic Photography Mood & Subject Choice

A cinematic photo should leave the viewer wanting more. What was going on in the moments before and after the shot that evoked this feeling? What does the shot say? Ideally, your cinematic photo will provoke an emotional response. It should be something that the viewer can connect with so that they understand the story.
Think about a narrative. What are you trying to say in your image? What story are you trying to tell?

Try to capture an emotion in your photography. Emotion doesn’t have to be seen in a face. You can create emotion with the subject choice and framing.

A key skill to creating cinematic photography is to be observant. Many cinematic-style photographs are best shot in street photography or candid situations. This is because, just like in a film, the subject is either unaware or not acknowledging the camera. This helps it feel more like a real cinema still. Almost as though you have captured a raw moment from a movie and made it into a stunning photo.

If you are using a model, let them know what kind of story or mood you are trying to portray in your cinematic photo.

creating mood & setting tone.
© Ainsley DS Photography.

Pick a Cinematic Photography Theme & Shoot a Series

If you really want to get into cinematic storytelling, follow the formula of a film and capture a range of images to tell a story. Like a movie, use a variety of compositions to keep the viewer’s interest.

For example, movies will often start with a wide-angle to set the scene. This gives us a good overview of the environment and begins to build a story.

They will then begin to build on the story by going in for a medium shot of their subject. This helps show more detail and helps the viewer begin to develop a relationship with the subject. This is also when we can start to convey a deeper mood in our photo.

If you follow that with a close-up photo, you get a sense of emotion and intimacy between the viewer and the subject.

This sort of storytelling sequence used in film will help create a narrative. This formula couples nicely with the cinematic photo you wish to create.

telling a story through visuals.
Telling a story – Portugal © Ainsley DS Photography.

Editing and Post Processing Cinematic Photos

Now that you have captured the perfect cinematic photograph in-camera, you’re ready to fine-tune your image on the computer.

Editing and post-processing is an important part of giving your photo an overall cinematic feel. There are several tips and techniques that will help you get your shots looking like something straight out of the movies.

There is no one formula for editing cinematic images. Practice different methods and see what works for your photos. It may be having low highlights and desaturated images, or perhaps you find that vibrant, high contrasted editing works best. It all depends on the image you took on your camera and the story you are trying to tell.
Have fun and get creative!

Use Cinematic Filters and Presets

An easy way to get a cinematic look on your images is to use filters and presets in post. The Cinematic Lightroom Presets are simply added to your already cinematic photo. With so much variety in a package, you still have lots of freedom to play around and get creative.

These are a great way to achieve a cinema look without the hassle of trying to control every bit of your shot in Lightroom on your own.

Using filters to create a cinematic look. cinematic filters for photography

Play Around With Tones and Colors

Color grading is what helps a film feel cohesive and establishes a certain look and feel. Almost every film has its own set color palette that it will work from. This color palette is what makes a film recognizable. It’s how we instantly know a Wes Anderson film from a Quentin Tarantino one.

The color and tone used in cinema has a large effect on the feel or mood you are trying to convey. For example, cold colors evoke feelings like sadness, isolation, and hopelessness. In comparison, warmer colors could mean vibrancy, nature, peace. Tones like red could mean danger, and yellow could convey heat. We see this in films like the Bond Series, where different tones are used depending on the country the scene is set in.

Control the skin tones and natural elements with realistic colorization unless you are going for a real sci-fi look of course.

Consider black and white if you’re looking to emulate the older cinematic style. There is no limit in expression if you are editing a photo to be in black and white. Even with monotone shots, you can still get creative with highlights, lowlights, contrast, exposure. One look at older black and white movies will be an illustration of how a photo or still from a movie can still have its own unique, recognizable style. This is because of the control the photographer has over these elements. Monochrome cinematic photo style works especially well for street photography.

How to emulate famous films in your cinematic images.
Taking inspiration from a famous scene in James Bond, Casino Royale – Thailand © Ainsley DS Photography.

Control Clarity and Details

Think about what kind of story you are trying to tell and compare that to some of your favorite movies. Do they look gritty and harsh, or are they soft and a bit hazy?

If you are going for a more romantic feel, you may want to consider decreasing the clarity to create a soft image with a whimsical atmosphere.

If you want something a little more intense, try increasing the grain and clarity bit by bit. This can work especially well for street photography. Increased clarity is also a great tool if you have a portrait with lots of character or depth.

Add some grain to your image to really create that old film photography look. Think of some of your favorite black and white film stills and how they created their iconic look.

black and white photo, birds over the street.
Black and white cinematic image – Cuba © Ainsley DS Photography.

Crop the Aspect Ratio for a Cinematic Shape

Cropping your image is a quick and easy way to create a cinematic photo look. Using a cinematic ratio will help your viewer subconsciously associate the photo with a video still as it is the same format we view movies.

This can be easily done in Lightroom, Photoshop, or any other photo editing tool.
The ratio of 2.35:1 is the classic frame that cinematographers will often use. Whereas the ratio of 16:9 is most common for wide-screen films.

what aspect ratio to use for cinematic style images?
Editing for a cinematic ratio – Mexico © Ainsley DS Photography.

Add Black Horizontal Bands

Black bands on the top and bottom of your wide shot will also help the viewer associate the image with a video still.

A smart tip is to crop your image at 2.35:1 and then put it on a black document at 16:9. This will give you a black band around your image. This will help to give it even more of a cinematic feel and frame the photo nicely.

adding black bands to your image for a cinematic feel.
Black bands add to the feel of a cinematic look – Paris © Ainsley DS Photography.


Cinematic photography is a unique and artistic way of storytelling.

There are many ways to make a stunning cinematic photo. The process involves careful consideration and control over your environment and post-processing. But a little bit of luck comes in handy too.

Practice different processing and editing methods to achieve different results. We would love to see what cinematic photos you create! Post your cinematic shots on social media and tag us so we can see what stunning cinematic shots you take.

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Ainsley DS is a photographer and writer based in between Auckland, NZ and Paris France. She specializes in travel, portrait and documentary photography and has a passion for all creative pursuits. With an addiction to travel, she has lived on three continents and photographed over 40 countries along the way. You can purchase travel prints directly from her website or follow along on the journey!
Ainsley DS is a photographer and writer based in between Auckland, NZ and Paris France. She specializes in travel, portrait and documentary photography and has a passion for all creative pursuits. With an addiction to travel, she has lived on three continents and photographed over 40 countries along the way. You can purchase travel prints directly from her website or follow along on the journey!

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