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Cinematography part 1

August 12, 2020

I love cinematography, it’s essential and directly connected to the directing work. In fact there is a connection between the director of photography (DOP) and movie director. In some cases there are indissoluble unions as Coen brothers and Villeneuve with Roger Deakins , Emmanuel Lubezki with Iñárritu and Cuarón. Cinematography is a complex and controvertial topic at the same time. It’s about shadows and lights, format, sensors, films, lens, composition, color palette, focus, depth of field, post-production, editing… I’ve mentioned Lubezki and Deakins as two great DOP, but I want to remember also another living legend, the italian Vittorio Storaro, a three times oscar winner (one for Apocalypse now). I love also the works made by Salvatore Totino (Cinderella man), Greig Fraser, Dan Lausten (John Wick, The Shape of Water) and Darius Khondji (Seven). In that article I’d like to talk about some roles performed by the director of photography using practical examples. Photography is not simply aesthetics/style, it is important also in the story telling, to give a message, to excite and so on…  Obviously I wrote only a few practical examples trying to explain what a cinematographer really does. Let’s start with the first topic: the selective focus.

Cinematography: selective focus

As i said before photography isn’t only about aesthetics, it has a function also in story telling. Photography is important to guide spectator in the scene. In that sense focus and depth of field are important to guide our attention to important details of the frame. The zone in-focus will be sharp while the zone out-focus will be blurry.

This tecnique is very simple and common, pratically used in every movie. Eyes (or better the fovea in our retina) are attracted by clarity, sharpness and contrast; the selective focus tecnique is based on the fact that areas out of focus aren’t interesting for our brain (occipital cortex). The subject of the scene is in focus sharp and clearly distinguishable. Below an example taken from Enter the Matrix with Keanu Reeves. Someone is calling, phone becomes more important than Neo in that small sequence.

Enter The Matrix

Cinematography: Kubrick’s movies

Let’s talk about Stanley Kubrick for example, a visionary genius, director. Before becoming a great movie director he was a talent  street photographer. Here is a frame from one of his masterpiece, Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick used a subjective point of view from below; we are looking from the point of view of simple soldier Joker, who is down on his knees. This shot strengthens the sergeant’s dominant authority, that looks like a lion over his victim.

Full Metal Jacket

In Barry LyndonKubrick uses wide-angle lens trying to create static and geometrical compositions. Using photography in this way he tries to represent “the rigidity of society” of the period. We can find this kind of approach in cinematography also in his masterpiece Dr. Strangelove with Peter Sellers, a movie about the power of atomic bomb in the hands of military and political hierarchies of the Second World War.

Barry Lyndon
Dr Strangelove

Cinematography: which lens?

The kind of lens used when filming is very important of course. Each photographer must know that the wide-angle lens “shrinks the background” and widens the camera angle, distorting at the same time closer things, increasing also depth of field and of scene. Instead tele lens brings the background closer and decreases the camera angle and the depth of field; in this way scene looks flatter. Changing the focal length we can emphasize or reduce these aspects. There are a lot of variables including the proximity to the subject; choice becomes difficult.

As example i’ve posted here a frame by the thriller Seven directed by David Fincher.  The DOP Darius Khondji used a tele lens for this particular sequence.


As you can see looking at this frame tele lens flats the layers decreasing the depth of the scene (and field). You have the sensation that elements are very close each other. In this case using the peculiarity of that lens Fincher compresses the space creating an illusion, like a spider-web; probably he tries to say that the two detectives are falling in a trap. The viewer is far away, he can only watch without entering in the scene to help the protagonists. This is a perfect example how cinematography, implicitly, can suggest a message or a sensation. It helps in such way to tell better the story. This is a classic example of visual metaphor in cinematography.

Using wide-angle lens you can create an opposite effect increasing the depth of the scene and of field. In this case we have a different kind of distortion given by the lens itself; it’s called barrel distortion, it is more evident in closer subjects, in the horizon line and in vertical elements on the edges of the frame. I’ve posted below an example by a recent movie directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favorite. Lanthimos usually uses extreme wide angle lens in movies (for example also in his The sacrifice of a sacred deer). In this case he has used a fish-eye wide angle lens to increase distortion creating in this way a sense of bizzarre and strangeness perfect for the plot of that movie.

The Favorite

End of part one


You can read the full article (only italian) at this link.

That’s all folks

 Stay well, have always light in your life

Best, F.S


Read previous article about color:

Complementary colors: cinema, photography and art

Red in art, painting and cinema here

Orange in cinema

 Yellow in cinema


read also:

Social classes and racism: street photography and cinema

Underground: street photography, street art and cinema

The midnight meat train: cinema and street photography

The wonderful photography in Federico Fellini’s movies

Blade Runner 2049 cinematography


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