Ten films to improve your photography
It is easy to become stuck in a rut with your photography. I find myself getting bored of my own style all the time. I look around at the work of others and think, ‘why didn’t I think of that?’. In a world of limitless photography potential where do you go when your inspiration well is empty?
With the Oscars just behind us (well done Leo!), one way is to kick back and watch some of the most beautiful cinematography you’ll experience. But be an active watcher. Look for the shots that strike you. Pause a scene and analyse the lighting. Check out the camera angles and the impact they have had. Look carefully at how colour has been used. Honestly it is addictive!
I have compiled a list of ten films to improve your photography. This list is, of course, subjective –I’d be interested to know which movies have inspired your photography!
Days of Heaven (1978)
Days of Heaven has often been described as the most beautiful movie ever made. It’s a romantic drama, and although not hugely successful commercially, it did win the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Watch it and you’ll see why.
Photography Inspiration – Golden hour, landscapes and use of natural light.
Road to Perdition (2002)
Tom Hanks plays a conflicted Mob enforcer. Set in the 1930s during the Great Depression, much of the mood comes through in the cinematography. It’s dark, it’s gritty, and it’s undeniably beautiful in its own way.
Photography Inspiration – Shallow depth of field, low light and urban nightscapes.
Amelie is a quirky romantic comedy, but it’s as much about Parisian life as it is about the shy waitress played so wonderfully by Audrey Tautou. Visually, it’s a stunning film to watch. Full of saturated colours and warmth
Photography Inspiration – Wide angles, close up portraits and use of colour.
Apocalypse Now (1976)
Regarded by many as the finest Vietnam War film, Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece is a visual treat from start to finish. From sweeping shots of helicopters in flight to the gritty portrayal of the lead characters. Even if you’re an ardent pacifist – it’s worth a watch!
Photography Inspiration – Low key lighting, shadows and saturated colours.
American Beauty (1999)
Depending on your perspective this film is either hilarious or depressing. It’s famous for the scene where stunning Mena Suvari’s modesty is covered by a multitude of rose petals but there is so much more to love about this. The lighting throughout is in complete alignment with where the main character has found himself in life.
Photography Inspiration – Camera angles, side light, long shots and low key lighting.
Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
This is a beautiful film, and it’s clear to see why it picked up the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. The film courted controversy by casting Chinese actresses in two of the lead roles. I have to say I wasn’t bowled over by the storyline but the visual feast more than made up for it!
Photography Inspiration – Close-up shots, use of colour, low light night photography.
Black Swan (2010)
This crosses the genres of psychological thriller and horror. Starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, it’s a story of jealousy and one dancer’s psychosis in the ultra-competitive world of professional ballet. I dare you not to pause it at least 20 times to analyse the lighting.
Photography Inspiration – Dark, moody lighting, contrast and use of mirrors.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Based on the life of T.E. Lawrence, this epic film has stood the test of time. Although Peter O’Toole is wonderful in the lead role, the real star of the show is the stunning, sprawling landscapes of Morocco and Jordan.
Photography Inspiration – Sweeping landscapes, leading lines and wide angles.
Fight Club (1999)
This falls into the category of ‘cult classic’. Critics didn’t like it, it wasn’t a box office hit and it courted controversy because of the levels of violence. But all that publicity helped make it a massive DVD hit on its release. Personally I just love the dark, gritty cinematography!
Photography Inspiration – Gritty portraiture, low key lighting and close-ups.
Moulin Rouge (2001)
And finally – time for something completely different. Baz Luhrmann’s over-the-top musical is a vibrant film from start to finish. The theatrical red and gold used throughout creates a spectacular canvas for some stunning cinematography. Can you imagine the field day you would have let loose on that set with your camera?!
Photography Inspiration – Interior landscapes, low key night scenes and dramatic stage lighting.
Are these the ten best movies ever made? Arguably not. However, what they do offer is a mix of styles and cinematography that will hopefully spark some inspiration for your next project.
There are dozens of great films that didn’t make our final cut.
Here’s some that you might want to consider…
- Gone with the Wind
- Blade Runner
- The Tree of Life
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Big Fish
- Thelma and Louise
- Life of Pi
- Lord of the Rings
- Lost in Translation
- The American
- Taxi Driver
- The Godfather
We know there are others. Don’t be offended if we’ve missed one of your favourites out. Right our wrongs by adding your own favourites in the comments section.
PS – for a more in-depth analysis of lighting tips we can learn from the best cinematographers have a read of this excellent article on Petapixel – ‘To Get Better at Lighting, See Light Through the Eyes of a Cinematographer’.