Cinematic Street Photography tips: The definitive Guide

Cinematic Street Photography:
The definitive guide

Cinematic street photography, (sometimes confused with film street photography) is a popular sub-genre of street photography. In this definitive guide with many tips you’ll find out how to create images that look straight from a movie. Let’s dig right in.

cinematic street photography example
Cinematic street photography

What is cinematic street photography?

Cinematic Street Photography is a street shot that looks like a frame from a movie. It’s a combination of letterbox crop, mood, aesthetic, colors and more that make the shot appear like a movie still.

Unlike classical street photography that is shot in Black and white with large areas in focus (large depth of field), cinematic street photography is shot in color and also makes heavier use of shallow depth of field, meaning lots of blurry backgrounds (Bokeh)

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Why do cinematic street photography?

There’s a few good reasons to do cinematic street photography:

  • It is different than classical street photography, so if you shoot the classical style, this will allow you to expand your creativity and shoot in another way.
  • It is fun. Well, street photography IS fun by default, but nothing beats like feeling like a movie director walking down the streets. Plus, playing around the colors in post processing is really entertaining.
  • People “Get” it. Street photography is a bit hard to appreciate when it comes to the population at large. But cinematic street photography? People “Get” it right away. So don’t be surprised if your cinematic images get more traction than your regular street photography.
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How do I start cinematic street photography?

Unlike regular street photography that you can do with any camera, the cinematic style is a bit more involved. Not only in terms of processing, but also gear. It requires high end gear to achieve the movie look. But even if you don’t have access to high end cameras and lenses, you can still fake the look with software. So, here are the requirements:

  • Large sensor camera (4/3 sensor minimum)
  • Fast zoom lens or medium to short telephoto lens (2.8 minimum)
  • Lightroom (Or similar software)
  • Photoshop (Or similar software)

You will need to edit the images to look cinematic after shooting them,there is no way around that, that is why Lightroom or other image editing software is a must.
Why do you need photoshop? Because Lightroom doesn’t really support the layers feature needed to add the letterbox around the frame.

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If your camera has good ISO you can mix in night street photography for extra moody shot.

Getting the cinematic street photography look

Like I said above,the process to making cinematic street photography is a bit more involved. Here’s the overview:

  • Shoot cinematic subject
  • With classical cinematic composition
  • Edit your colors
  • Crop and add letterbox

So, now that you’ve got your gear and you know what’s involved, it’s time to head for the streets. 

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Find a cinematic subject

Some subjects just scream “cinema” more than others. So go and look for those subjects that you think will translate the best as a cinematic subject based on movies you’ve seen.

Then shoot the subject in a cinematic fashion

How many movies have you seen? Recall some of the greatest shots you’ve seen on screen and get inspired by the composition you’ve seen. You’ve probably seen a photo of someone in a subway like the image below in Japan:

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Part of what makes a shot look like a movie still is the composition, so get inspired by the movies you’ve seen and translate that composition to your shots. Pay extra attention to the light, movie directors have light technicians behind them but you don’t!

What settings?

It depends on the shot you have, but remember that movies use a lot of blurring of the background so your aperture will have to be as high as it can from 1.8 to 2.8. Don’t be afraid to go telephoto,it really adds to the effect. Make sure you shoot RAW so that you have maximum capabilities to stretch the image in Lightroom.

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Once you have your shots, and you look at the back of your camera, you will be disappointed for sure. Why? Because the images look so bland, normal and un-movie like! That’s normal because images don’t look movie-like just like that. They need to be worked on and processed.

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Processing your images

Once you have your shots, it’s time for the fun to begin. When you look at movies they actually never look like real life. They have been processed to look a certain way.

  • Fire up Lightroom and play around with the colors. You will want to focus on the clarity, contrast, saturation, toning and curves panel. These are mostly where the magic happen, especially with the last two.
lightroom curves

You can adjust your colors with the curves panel. Play around with the different channels

  • Crop your photo in a letterbox size
  • Once you are done, export your photo.Then fire up Photoshop (There are ways to do this online for free) and make a blank file with a black background.
  • Place your letterbox image inside and that’s it, you have the complete look.
  • When playing around with the colors you will probably find some looks that you would like to use again and again. That’s when you use presets where you can save that look for another time.
  • There is cool Flickr group to put your images in
cinematic street photography before after
before and after processing your photographs

Cinematic street photography: Conclusion

There you have it. The keys to making street photography look like movie stills is both in camera (cinematic subject & composition) and in Post processing (especially with the curves panel). If you want a more in depth tutorial, check out my cinematic street photography ebook. It teaches the classical film camera compositions, how to fake a high end lens, includes presets and more.