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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.