5 Lessons for Photographers from Memoirs of a Geisha

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A Guest post by Andrew Gibson

I’ve just watched the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. The director went to great lengths of recreate the world of pre-war Japan – the movie is beautifully filmed and successfully evokes the atmosphere of a time and place that no longer exist.

It’s one thing to do this on the set of a high budget movie, but there are lessons that photographers can learn from the director’s approach. You can use the same techniques to create moody, evocative photos of your own.

1. Shoot in low light

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Low light is a constant theme from the opening scenes. Some of the movie is shot indoors. Whether the scene is set during the day or at night, light levels are always low. The rooms are lit by pools of light and detail is obscured by shadows. The director has used low light to create atmosphere.

The same applies to photography. Shadows are important – they help define the shape of the subject, they give the image depth and they help create atmosphere because the viewer has to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. There’s no need to reveal every detail.

In the movie, I don’t think there is a single scene shot in brilliant sunshine. When the action goes outside the scenes are filmed in the evening, or on a cloudy day or the late afternoon. If you want to create evocative images, these are the best times to take photos. You’ll get your moodiest images when you shoot in all types of low light; including bad weather, the golden hour or during twilight.

2. Take photos at night

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Parts of the movie are filmed at night. The director makes use of a scenic location (Kyoto in Japan – although much of the movie was shot on purpose built sets) and the atmosphere created by tungsten street lights and lamps. You can do the same yourself in any urban environment. Most towns and cities, especially if the architecture is beautiful, have a wonderful atmosphere at night. If you are going to include the sky in the photo, you should shoot at twilight, when there is still enough daylight to give the sky some colour.

3. Use telephoto lenses

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Cinematographers use telephoto lenses to get in close to the subject. Using a telephoto lens pulls the background closer to the subject, and they often use a wide aperture to throw the rest of the scene out of focus. You’ll see this technique used a lot in movies when the camera focuses on the face of an actor making a speech.

These are techniques that you can also use in your photos. Out-of-focus highlights and bokeh are mysterious and create mood. Again, it’s because the photographer isn’t revealing every detail – and the viewer has to use their imagination.

This works best if you have prime lenses, but you can still explore these techniques with a typical zoom kit lens on a crop sensor camera. The long end of the focal range is effectively a short telephoto lens and even with a relatively small maximum aperture of around f4 or f5.6, you can still get a narrow depth-of-field, especially if you move in close enough to fill the frame with someone’s face.

4. Close ups and details

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In Memoirs of a Geisha the director has painstakingly recreated the world that the geishas lived in. A lot of attention has gone into the details that make the recreation convincing, such as the cups the characters drink from, or the wooden shoes worn by the geishas. There are a lot of short clips in the movie that zoom in on these details, such as a scene showing the main character slipping on a pair of traditional wooden shoes as she exits a building.

You should look for intimate details like these too. This is a good technique if you’re travelling – look for the little things that capture the atmosphere of the place that you’re visiting.

5. Use of colour

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The way the movie uses colour is enchanting. In fact, it’s worth watching the movie to see just how the director used the power of colour. You can then apply these lessons to your own photography.

The movie uses colour contrast to create atmosphere. There is a dance scene where the geisha is lit by blue light and there are tungsten lights burning, out of focus, in the foreground. The orange and blue contrast with each other. It’s a very powerful, moody effect. You also see the same blue/orange colour contrast in many of the night scenes.

There is also a lot of subdued colour in the movie, especially in the indoor scenes. There is a limited colour palette, and it’s something that you can learn from. It’s tempting, and easy, to use bright colours in photos for impact. It’s more difficult to use a limited range of colours, but doing so can help you create mood. For instance, think of a seascape taken at twilight, with mostly blue tones. The colours are limited and this adds to the mood.

Some of the scenes in the movie are shot in cold light, and others in warm light. You have a similar control on your camera. It’s called white balance and you are probably more familiar with its role in obtaining a neutral colour balance (that’s one of the things it’s designed to do).

This is fine for general purposes, but it doesn’t help you create moody images. By taking control of white balance, you can make your images cooler or warmer, depending on the type of mood you are trying to evoke.

It’s easiest to do when you use the Raw format, as you can experiment with raising or lowering the colour temperature in post-processing to see how it affects the mood of your photo. That’s what I did with the two photos above. I processed the first with a colour temperature setting of 4500K in Lightroom. It fits the mood that I felt when I took the photo as it was getting dark. But I also created a warmer version by setting the colour temperature to 5977K. I like both versions – and it just shows what a difference one simple change can make.

The Evocative Image

In this article I’ve touched on just a few techniques that you can use to create moody photos. I’ve written an eBook that explores these techniques and more in much greater detail. It’s called The Evocative Image and it’s available from Craft & Vision for just $5US. It’s also available as an iPad application – see the Craft & Vision for full details.

Andrew S Gibson is a freelance writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. He is the Technical Editor of EOS magazine and writes photography eBooks for Craft And Vision. including The Evocative Image.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • You should also watch Stanley Kubrick’s movies. He was a lighting genius. Barry Lyndon was all shot in natural light to recreate 18th century atmosphere. Lot’s of candles, lights from windows, no electrical lights! Amazing!
    He used 50mm 0.7/f lenses developed by NASA!
    Check it out!

  • Hi

    This is a great article about lessons learned from watching movies. TV soap operas, strange as it seems, offer many clues about lighting as well.

    I would like to add, look for different perspectives on the same subject. Move around, find unique angles. For example, here are three different perspectives on the same bridge in Sacramento – each conveys a different mood and story. Most important is to relax and experiment!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/04/16/the-tower-bridge/

  • ScottC

    I couldn’t agree more, amazing how much cinematography can teach us about still photography.

    The kind of lighting you described here is the reason I like to photograph old Cathedrals so much, they can be amazing.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/sets/72157626744612959/

  • Excelent article, one of my dreams is to learn the art of scene handling, sucha as a photography director does in a film.

    What about Amelie? I know this movie was processed with some digitally corrected colors, which I just love.

    Greetings from Morelia!

  • Amazing what can be learned from the world around us. I’ve never seen this movie, even though it’s been on my list for a long time. Now, when I do watch it, I’ll have another dimension to keep in mind on top of the plot and acting.

  • Why show images taken in South America and then refer to Memoirs of a Geisha? Why not show some example shots from the movie so the title of the article would make sense?

  • Allen Sinclair

    Another great use of lighting is in the TV series Foyle’s War. Again, low/natural light has been used skilfully to impart character and atmosphere.

  • Marilyn Vache

    I seem to remember there were a lot of watery images — rain, reflections — in that film as well.

  • Thanks for sharing, interesting – not sure where to locate this movie though Maybe I’ll read through again 🙂

  • Very well written article. I loved Memoirs of a Geisha from a cinematographic perspective, a very inspiring movie. I hate shooting in low light as I only have a Rebel T1i and my shadows plug up really quick, but this makes me want to shoot more in low light situations. Thanks!

  • David H

    Another great movie for it’s use of colour is Hero. The cinematography is very nice. Colour, dynamic range, temperature, grain…. it’s all there.

  • This article really appealed to the artist in me. I can see the scenes unfolding. I can imagine myself on the set, taking photos as the story unfolds.

  • T-Fiz

    Yeah, I’ve learned a lot from the bonus features of the Richard Donner “Superman” movies. Since it was filmed before digital and computerized effects were commonplace in movies, Donner explained a lot about how they used multiple techniques in lighting for the same shot, using forced perspectives, miniatures, and even creating a new type of camera to create effects for the flying sequences. They had to use what he called “hard effects”, meaning that they had to make everything look real to the lens since digital effects hadn’t been created yet. I’ve been able to take a lot of that and apply it to still photography.

Some Older Comments

  • T-Fiz June 10, 2011 02:01 am

    Yeah, I've learned a lot from the bonus features of the Richard Donner "Superman" movies. Since it was filmed before digital and computerized effects were commonplace in movies, Donner explained a lot about how they used multiple techniques in lighting for the same shot, using forced perspectives, miniatures, and even creating a new type of camera to create effects for the flying sequences. They had to use what he called "hard effects", meaning that they had to make everything look real to the lens since digital effects hadn't been created yet. I've been able to take a lot of that and apply it to still photography.

  • Claire June 6, 2011 10:19 pm

    This article really appealed to the artist in me. I can see the scenes unfolding. I can imagine myself on the set, taking photos as the story unfolds.

  • David H June 6, 2011 09:04 am

    Another great movie for it's use of colour is Hero. The cinematography is very nice. Colour, dynamic range, temperature, grain.... it's all there.

  • mike June 4, 2011 11:21 pm

    Very well written article. I loved Memoirs of a Geisha from a cinematographic perspective, a very inspiring movie. I hate shooting in low light as I only have a Rebel T1i and my shadows plug up really quick, but this makes me want to shoot more in low light situations. Thanks!

  • Paul June 3, 2011 09:52 pm

    Thanks for sharing, interesting - not sure where to locate this movie though Maybe I'll read through again :)

  • Marilyn Vache June 3, 2011 09:18 pm

    I seem to remember there were a lot of watery images -- rain, reflections -- in that film as well.

  • Allen Sinclair June 3, 2011 09:21 am

    Another great use of lighting is in the TV series Foyle's War. Again, low/natural light has been used skilfully to impart character and atmosphere.

  • Julian Hebbrecht June 3, 2011 06:52 am

    Why show images taken in South America and then refer to Memoirs of a Geisha? Why not show some example shots from the movie so the title of the article would make sense?

  • SJCT June 3, 2011 04:28 am

    Amazing what can be learned from the world around us. I've never seen this movie, even though it's been on my list for a long time. Now, when I do watch it, I'll have another dimension to keep in mind on top of the plot and acting.

  • Ricardo Espejel Cruz June 3, 2011 03:17 am

    Excelent article, one of my dreams is to learn the art of scene handling, sucha as a photography director does in a film.

    What about Amelie? I know this movie was processed with some digitally corrected colors, which I just love.

    Greetings from Morelia!

  • ScottC June 3, 2011 02:37 am

    I couldn't agree more, amazing how much cinematography can teach us about still photography.

    The kind of lighting you described here is the reason I like to photograph old Cathedrals so much, they can be amazing.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/sets/72157626744612959/

  • Erik Kerstenbeck June 3, 2011 01:35 am

    Hi

    This is a great article about lessons learned from watching movies. TV soap operas, strange as it seems, offer many clues about lighting as well.

    I would like to add, look for different perspectives on the same subject. Move around, find unique angles. For example, here are three different perspectives on the same bridge in Sacramento - each conveys a different mood and story. Most important is to relax and experiment!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/04/16/the-tower-bridge/

  • Marcelo Valente June 3, 2011 01:15 am

    You should also watch Stanley Kubrick's movies. He was a lighting genius. Barry Lyndon was all shot in natural light to recreate 18th century atmosphere. Lot's of candles, lights from windows, no electrical lights! Amazing!
    He used 50mm 0.7/f lenses developed by NASA!
    Check it out!

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