Purpose of Cinematic Portrait


Lighting and Posing for a Cinematic Portrait


Lesson Info

Purpose of Cinematic Portrait

So again, this was an image I shot in New York. It was of a model walking downstairs, and it was just giving people a direction to do. I just had her looking back and forth knowing where the light was, and trying to capture that hair and that moment almost as a still, so you kind of sense the motion and emotion that image evokes. So I always want the purpose of a cinematic portrait to give the viewer, to tell a little bit of a story where it evokes emotion from you as the viewer, and you also try and guess what's happening in that image, 'cause it might not be so clear. The fun part of this, the story's never wrong, you just kind of guess what you think is happening. So cinematic portraits feel as though they are a single frame from a film. I'm a big movie guy. My favorite movie is No Country For Old Men. For anybody who's familiar with that, it's definitely dark, it has a lot of qualities where almost any frame within that movie, in my head I'm like man, I wish I had taken that as a p...

hoto. So, knowing that, taking that frame-by-frame, each of those moments, that's how I want some of my portraits to feel. Not necessarily of the content of No Country For Old Men, but just having that graphic quality of where every moment can be captured on a still, and still tell a story on a single frame, not necessarily need a feature length film to tell a story. So, just capturing a moment. With those moments come movement, emotion, depth, and they tell that story. And again, it doesn't have to be an actual story. You can just make something up. You can let the viewer determine what the story is. That's kind of the fun of it. And the key for me is having that emotion. Whether there's, there's this full gamut of emotions from happiness to sadness to everything in between. I like the viewer to look at a photo and wonder, what is this person thinking? What's happening here, what's going on? And again, that's the fun part for me, is, I don't, there wasn't anything going on. But what do you think's going on? You're not wrong, you're not right, it's just kind of fun. And anything that makes you think when you look at a photo I think that photo's already done its job. So with that said, let's keep going through the fundamentals. So this was another photo, a little bit of a cinematic moment where this was on a stage at some sort of theater. And there was these woods, you know, fake woods hanging in the theater and she happened to have a red coat, so I just instantly went with that Little Red Riding Hood theme. And just kind of told, I told her that story. And this was, we didn't even mean for this to happen. I didn't know that she had a red coat, and I didn't know that there were these curtains up on the stage. But once I saw them, it's putting this together, giving the model the scenario. Like, she wasn't an actress or anything like that. She was just a model for a shoot, and it was telling her okay, here's the mindset I want you to be in. You're Little Red Riding, you know. So she just was running around through there, and I lit it and told her, this is an X on the floor, where I put some gaffe tape, where the sweet spot of the light is. So whatever you do, just make sure you end up here, and I'll click the frame. So it's working and collaborating with your model or your subject to get them on board, where they're less of a posed subject in front of the camera and more of an actor, actress within your little one-frame film. So, you know, I take hundreds of frames and you find that one that just clicks, and you know it when you see it. There's really no describing it, it's kind of like oo, that's the moment right there. And there's a lot of misses too, so you gotta play around a lot. And it's one of those things where just where you think you have it, that's when your shoot should just be starting. I know Victoria Will did a class here a few years ago, and she always says that quote. She said, "At the moment that you think you have the shot, "that's when your shoot has just begun." Because now everybody's in the zone. It's like you have that one image, that safe one, now you can start pushing beyond that and play and see what more you can pull from any scenario, any scene. So, it's kind of about getting out of your comfort zone once you hit that sweet spot. So I'm all about doing things that push beyond your original expectations, because you never know what you'll end up with at that point. So with the fundamentals, I do a lot of on-location work. I do a lot of studio work. There are differences. One, in studio, generally speaking, like we're gonna do today, we have white seamless and lights. How do you create cinematic moments with such a simple backdrop and simple concept? You know, what are we gonna do with the model to make these moments happen, because we don't have a stage with woods and a red coat. We don't have any of these elements. We have to create that, so I really wanna talk about fundamentals of what your mindset needs to be to create these moments in the studio. Well, let's go, next one. The subjects are engaged and draw emotion from the viewer. So you need to have everybody on board. If you have a model or anybody who you're working with that just doesn't really like the concept, you should probably just scrap it and do something else, because you need everybody to be on board. Whether your concept is simple, a simple spin on looking at the camera, or an elaborate scene through Central Park. You have to have someone who buys into what you're doing and wants to have fun with it, kind of gets into it to make it believable, and make it work. Otherwise it's just kind of, you know. Not your best attempt and you're better off just making portraits or something a little more straightforward. And again, you want that emotion to be drawn from the viewer because like I said before, any time I look at that image, or anybody looks at that image, you know, there's something about certain images that catch your attention, you keep going back to them. And a lot of times it's because they drew some emotion, whether it's something that happened in your life, or something that the story, or maybe it's even the actual elements of the photo, the composition, the graphic, the color, anything like that that brings you back and pulls you back into the image. Compositional elements create depth and help tell a story. You know, in the instance of this image, it's the fake trees and then that red and her pale, white skin right in the middle, it just kind of draws your eye right there but yet it has the storytelling theme. It's very graphic, using the Rule of Thirds and all that with placement and everything. I'm a technical photographer, but I also like to get all the technical stuff out of the way early, so as soon as I frame up a scene like this, put the gaffe tape on the floor where the light's gonna hit, then I can get into that storytelling mode because I know all those elements that make it a graphic composition and all that are gonna fall into place and I can just work with the model or the subject to tell that story. So I'm a big believer in getting all these technical details whether it's metering your light exposure, framing out your shot, all that stuff, do that before you start working with your model, so that way your attention doesn't need to be spread among all these different elements. You can just focus on one thing and know the rest of it will come together because you took care of it up front. Here's a couple of examples of another portrait. So again, another very graphic composition. We have a lot of diagonal lines going all different directions, different types of light. This was my stairwell at my apartment when I lived in Brooklyn. I walked down these stairs every single day, and I always looked down over the edge 'cause people would be walking up. And I always thought, oh that would be kind of a cool photo, I don't know why. And I met this girl. She just seemed like she fit the part, so I was like hey, I have an idea for a photo. It's the most random thing, you're probably gonna think it's weird but I don't care. I just want you to like, walk up and down these stairs. So I just put a strobe at the top of the stairs with a grid on it. I wanted those specular reflections on the stairs to kind of look like it was a streetlamp outside or an overhead light in a dark stairwell. This was actually the middle of the day, I just used an aperture to overpower the ambient light. And then I put another strobe at the bottom of the stairs to kind of give her hair that little bit of separation from the background. So it was thinking of all those elements, and then having her walk up, and giving her something to think about looking, you know, looking towards the camera, looking in a flattering way, where we just did this over and over. We did some where she was carrying things, all sorts of stuff, where I just wanna capture that one moment where it's like oh, is she running from somebody, is she waiting for some, you don't know what's happening. But it's just one little moment. It's nothing mind blowing, but to me it's just an interesting portrait, both graphically, compositionally, and with the subject matter. So directing the subject into motion to make images feel caught and candid. You know, again, like I said on the last one, putting that piece of tape on the ground so she can move around freely and I know where to shoot. Same thing here. It's like, we picked a sweet spot on the stairs where to stand where the light was best, and then I just directed her. It's like, all right, we're gonna have you go up. Now I'm gonna have you look, I'm gonna have you, as far as the technical standpoint, look off this way and then as soon as I see a sweet spot through the camera, okay, what are you looking at right now? Oh, I'm looking at a fire extinguisher. Okay, when you get to the step, glance over towards that fire extinguisher, 'cause then I know that everything's gonna come together as far as lighting composition, and she has a goal too. She's not thinking, oh I'm just standing here. She's gonna run up those stairs and stare over at the fire extinguisher. And depending on the emotion, if you want it to be somebody who's scared, you can pretend that that fire extinguisher is something scary. If you want it to be happy, oh, your boyfriend who's been gone for three months just appeared. And you can play with these little emotions and get at different mindsets from your subject by giving them these scenarios to work on, and by having her look towards that fire extinguisher, I know the light's gonna be awesome every time so I don't have to worry about it. So it's kind of putting together all the elements of that story. Direct from small movements to full scenarios. So this means not everything has to be some big, elaborate story. I've had some that are just crazy stupid stories in my head that I tell, and we act those out and capture them. There's other things where I'm like oh, I just need you to be writing and to glance up out a window. Something as simple as that, where you're capturing that type of moment. They don't have to, you're not writing an entire movie. You're just trying to capture a moment, and make it to be worthy of your frame and also technically sound. And even the technical part can be overlooked a little bit, but at the same time, I mean, I've had images that aren't totally sharp but they have the rest of the emotion. I have images where one light didn't fire, but everything else worked and I still, those are my favorite ones because the emotion was there. And that's a recipe a lot of people when they're teaching photograph don't throw into it. They talk about exposure and white balance and your aperture and all those type of things, not necessarily so much about actually getting emotion from the image, which in my opinion is the one important ingredient that you can't really train for, you just have to practice and do it, and organically find it within your photography. User resources, your location and your subject. A lot of times I'll draw a blank. It's like, okay, I have this great person here, but I don't really have a scenario for the cinematic portrait. There was one example, I should put the image up there. But we were in this area where there was all these bunk beds, it kind of looked like a dorm room type of thing mixed with a prison. I don't know, it was weird. But I had the subject, I didn't know what to do. I said okay, if you were locked in this room, what would you do? And he said, well, I would pull these two bunk beds together and I'd probably just work out 'cause I'd be bored. So I was like, I didn't think of that. So he took off his shirt, and he had like huge muscles, and he pulled the beds together and he started doing dips in between the two beds. Well, I used my resources, he pulled the room together, and he just started doing it. It made the coolest shot, but I had no clue he was gonna go in that direction. So it was about using what would you do if you were here? And sometimes they got nothing, but other times you can use that. I had another one where we were sitting at a picnic table, I was creating a portrait of this girl. I had the frame up high looking down on the picnic table, all these diagonal lines and this cool light coming through a tree, you know, you get that dappled light. And I said, now I didn't know what to do. And she was sitting there fake carving initials into the picnic table. So we just pulled a bottle cap off of, I think we might have found it in the trash, bent it in half, and that was her little carving tool. So she was outlining the letters that were already in the table and that was kind of the story. It was like, oh, is she carving in for her boyfriend, her, what does this mean? When in reality, it didn't mean anything. She was just sitting there doing it. I was like, oo, keep doing that. So, it's all about adding that extra element. Because when she sat at the picnic table, I saw the graphic technical side of it, I knew it would make a great portrait, but it was getting that next level of action to bring it all together. So, you don't have to think out these things ahead of time. Sometimes they just happen when you get into a situation. This is an example, this is another shot from Brooklyn. This is a Chinese restaurant I walked by every single day to get to the subway. It had this light that said Chinese Food, really original, and it had one table in the restaurant. This is the only table. One table, two chairs, a takeout window, and a neon light. And I walked by there every day, and it kept capturing my attention just because the neon light and how, I don't know, old and raggedy the place looked. But it was kind of your stereotypical Brooklyn Chinese food takeout place. You know, you go and you spend three bucks, you might get sick, you might not, you'll definitely get full. And you move on. So this, his name was Brian, he's a friend of mine, lived in my building. And I said, I have this idea for a photo where I had walked by this place and ducked my head in there a bunch of times, so I had the frame in my head. But I didn't really know how it was gonna work out. I just knew before I left New York I wanted to make a picture of this. Kind of for my own sentimental value, and it's, you have those ideas that you push off for so long. I have them now too. It's like, I wanna do a photo with this and this and this, and all I do is talk about it, I don't actually do it. Well, I was running out of time because I was about to move so I thought, all right, Brian, you're coming with me. I'll buy you dinner if you wanna eat this. And you just have to sit there. You don't have to do anything. We'll figure out the scenario as we go. So the story here is this place was tiny. I asked them if I could take pictures in there, they said, if you buy food. I said, great. So we have a $5 location fee. He sat down, he started eating, and I started putting together the scene. The thing I didn't account for was the giant mirror behind his head, so what I did was I sat him down, looked through my camera, and we're building this frame technically, so he's just chilling. This neon light is casting the worst light ever. So I think okay, we gotta figure that out. So I actually put a bare ball strobe with just a reflector on it outside on the sidewalk and shot it through the neon light, overpowered it by about a stop and a half, so that way that color cast would be brought down, because my main light is no longer a neon light, it's a strobe what's white balanced at 5500, so we have nice, neutral clean light, but yet I can still capture that neon light and it's also not gonna be blown out because I'm exposing greater than the neon. So you can capture the rich color of the neon, and actually somewhat read it. You can tell it says Open or whatever, it doesn't really matter, it's the mood. So I had that one light set up, and then I'm just trying to create more depth, playing with angles, where do I want his head, I want that choking, I don't know, I want that sign in the background unobstructed. I moved this chair in front just to create a little bit of depth, it's adding that element that's towards the camera to create a little depth, and then also the last element and the most obvious one is his reflection. So moving in the frame to capture him but looking out the window, you don't know what he's looking at, who's out there, what's going on, is he just thinking? And then getting it where he's looking back at himself in the reflection. So it was kind of bringing all that together in one cinematic moment, in one still frame, and you know, and then technically sound as far as composition, not cutting off elbows and fingers and all that. And giving him something to do. It was like, you're just gonna be eating, and after every bite I want you to glance out the window, and I don't care what you're thinking about. We messed with different emotions whether they were like, surprise. Some of them were a little cheesy, some of them were a little dark, and it ended up being just kind of a moment where I don't know what he was thinking about, it was just a quiet moment, eating Chinese food. So again, it's somewhat silly, but I really love the results, and it's capturing that one moment that looks like it's a still from some scene in a weird movie filmed in Brooklyn. But that's it, it's just one frame. So this is kind of the, if I put everything together into one shot, this would be it, where it's just a nice little scenario. Another example of that on location would be with this girl. Her name's Bailey. We were in a parking garage, and there was this old 1980s gold Mercedes parked there. And it was cool. We were just using it as a prop in the background and the owner actually came out. And he said, I thought he was gonna make us quit using his car. He said, if you really wanna use it, and he threw the keys. He goes, you can sit in it. So I was like, all right. And she, she had a little speaker on the ground and was blasting Beyonce or something, so I said alright, here's what we're gonna do. I had one light, and it's all natural light coming from the left. We have this frame. I said, all right, you're Beyonce. You're getting out of this Mercedes, and you're just gonna storm past me like I'm paparazzi. So I'm sitting far away with a longer lens. I have her open the door, we frame it all out, so we have that depth element here, that door opening towards us. We have the natural light, which is what's lighting her hair and causing the reflections. It's just that ugly light that you see in a parking garage, where it's like that real amber tone. And then I'm filling in her face with just strobe from pretty far away, I think it was just a white umbrella, just basically as fill. And she just keeps getting up and out of that car with a lot of attitude 'cause that's what I wanted. She was just like all about, she was yelling and all that stuff, she was getting really into it, and we just had music blasting. So it was fun and she was just staring off as if someone in the distance is not her friend. But again, it was a moment that we created. She got into it, bought in. We framed it out, did all the technical stuff, and then I just sat in one spot and she did it over and over and the more she did it, the better it got. So is one of the last takes. But again, it's kind of like filming a scene in a movie where you just gotta do it over and over until everything clicks. But once again, I can't stress enough, all the technical stuff was done ahead of time so I knew the exposure, I knew where that door needed to be opened to be in the left third of the frame and all that type of stuff. So, another fun example of something. One final one I'll show you guys that was on location. This was actually my brother and his now wife in my dad's old Blazer, which he kept at his autobody shop strictly to plow snow in the winter. So it was like a 1984 rusted out Blazer, and I always wanted to do a shoot with the Blazer because he was gonna sell it because it was horrible. I said all right, let me take it out, and I had my brother dress up in a plaid shirt. I wanted him to kind of look like late 80s, early 90s couple who they might be fighting, you don't know what's happening, like what's the love story here with this connection, why she's almost sitting on his lap. I put a strobe in the back of the car with a red gel on it to make it look like the brake lights were on because they weren't showing from my angle. And then I put another strobe camera left out of frame with a really tight grid, almost to make it look like it was a street lamp or someone else's headlights shining on to them. So it was just a bare ball gridded light. If I didn't have it gridded the whole car would have blown out 'cause it's white. And then I actually climbed up a retaining wall and shot through a chain link fence, so that's the depth you see in the image. Originally I was above the fence and then I thought oh, I'd kind of like to get the added element of shooting through the fence. It's like I'm spying on somebody that I shouldn't be, it gives you a little bit of that feeling. And then again, framing it up so they're in the right third. I have those diagonal elements of the wall in the way top background, kind of bringing the image together and framing it in. And then again, giving them direction, and there were some where she was like, yelling at him, which was hilarious because it's my brother and his wife and it's probably pretty accurate. And then some where they were both sitting there, some where she was giving him a kiss, just all these different things and I'm just up there shooting from the same angle 'cause I know it looks good. And then this was the final frame. So again, it just looks like a still where it tells a story within a single frame, and it's up to you guys to figure out what you want it to be. Because again, it was just fully staged, and nothing was happening, they were just sitting there waiting to be done because I think I offered them dinner if they would do it. That's a popular theme if you have to, I won't pay you, I'll just buy you dinner. Hopefully not at a cheap Chinese restaurant, but whatever. So again, all of the elements came together and that was that. So those were all lit with strobes for the most part.

Class Description

Creating a cinematic look to your portraits will add another dimension by incorporating depth, emotion, and movement. Award-winning editorial and advertising photographer Dan Brouillette breaks down the components of lighting for a strong portrait. He will show you how he uses different lenses and lighting setups to make your portraits stand out and take on new life. He'll also explain how to direct the subject so they are involved to help bring all of the elements together for an amazing and cinematic photograph.



I was interested in this course firstly because I am interested in this type of image and secondly because of the negative reviews. I seldom watch instructional videos these days because I want to be instructed on all the details but I do watch lots of them because of the inspiration they can be for new work. This video is a walk through of some great shots taken by the photographer but that is fine by me and certainly gives some ideas for new material. The little bit of studio work on a white seamless is also fine and gives some insight into capturing the image, which is easily transferred to a hosed-down, back lit, cobbled alley or anywhere else you can imagine. I use this type of image in pre-wedding shoots and my only criticism is that the video could have given better examples of a really cinematic look. e.g. there is a scene in the movie 'Unbreakable' where Bruce Willis falls onto a pool cover in the pouring rain. The shot is made low to the ground with a long lens and it makes a terrific inspiration for a photoshoot. Or, there is the airport scene in 'Casablanca' or pulling the boat up-river in 'The African Queen', which I recently saw a Hong Kong photographer reproduce for a pre-wedding shoot in Iceland. There are millions of examples like this so finding more challenging scenes to motivate a cinematic look is not really hard. Google 'movie posters' and you will see what I mean. Nevertheless, there are good examples and some great ideas available here, making the videos value for money.


This course provided a practical application of some the basic creative tools and techniques that I learned years ago in an entry-level photography course in college. The beauty of Dan Brouillette's creative strategy and teaching style lies in his ability to make dynamic and interesting portraiture simplistically attainable. Brouillette breaks down his own work, walking you through the creative and technical process that he used. He is an interesting speaker--well-informed, technically proficient & relatable. I was lucky enough to be in the audience for this course. I found the content incredibly useful and easy to learn. Thank you for an awesome course!


I like Dan's easy going nature when presenting this information. Loved watching him demo this live!