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4 Ways Still Photography Can Make You a Better Cinematographer

Tanner Shinnick

In this article, we examine visualizing light through photography — and how it can make you a better cinematographer and filmmaker.

When I first started out in filmmaking, I had little to no interest in still photography. I wanted to tell stories with moving pictures, not still pictures. Frankly, I wasn’t very good at still photography either. For years, I brushed off photography as something I wasn’t interested in. However, recently I’ve found still photography to be one of the best means to continually grow as a filmmaker, storyteller, and cinematographer.

1. Filmmaking Is a Team Sport, Photography Doesn’t Have to Be

4 Ways Still Photography Can Make You a Better Cinematographer — Desert Light

Image via simona pilolla 2.

Filmmaking is very much a team sport. Your crew includes a director, cinematographer, grips, sound, and many others. Often, the challenge of assembling this team can discourage us from creating. However, photography can be just you. All you need is a camera to start creating. This minimalism can be liberating for a filmmaker, knowing that you can begin telling stories without a script, production budget, or even a production crew.

By embracing these limitations, you can really open up and exercise your creativity — whether you’re into documentary, street, or landscape photography. And photography keeps your eye sharp.

2. Learning to See Light

4 Ways Still Photography Can Make You a Better Cinematographer — Light Movement

Image via R.E.D. image.

As filmmakers, we tend to create our own light. If we want a beam of sun to blast through a window, we bring an HMI to make that happen. If we want a soft, beautiful light, we have a collection of diffusion materials to choose from.

Still photography is typically a game of patiently waiting for the existing light to become perfect. Photography can quickly become a study in lighting and how it naturally moves throughout spaces during the day, uniquely interacting with the environment.

3. Finding and Cultivating Your Style

4 Ways Still Photography Can Make You a Better Cinematographer — Cultivating Style

Image via Loekiepix.

Finding your voice (or style) as a filmmaker or cinematographer is a tough, constantly evolving challenge. Most often, clients don’t want to pay you to find your style or voice.

However, still photography eliminates the pressure of a studio or contract gig, allowing you to simply create and (most importantly) fail. It allows you the creative freedom to try new compositions or methods to effectively tell a story, without the pressure of client work.

4. Using Less to Tell More

4 Ways Still Photography Can Make You a Better Cinematographer — Minimalism

Image via frankie’s.

As filmmakers, we have all the frames we need to tell a story. However, still photography limits you to only one frame to tell an entire story. Essentially, every detail matters. The stripped-down process of photography motivates you to say more with less. Crafting this discipline helps you realize just how much of a narrative advantage you have as a filmmaker — how each frame should tell a story.

Still photography is a great way for filmmakers to exercise their fundamental storytelling muscles. It keeps your eye sharp, helps you practice new techniques, and prepares you for the next job on the horizon.

Cover image via Agatha Kadar.

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