How To Improve Your Photography? Make Films!

I follow on Twitter a man called Michael Warburton (@MichaelWarbur17). Michael is an actor but he also writes a weekly film column and describes himself as a cinephile, docuphile and drummer. He is also a ferocious tweeter constantly posting film and photography related content the majority of which is historical. Great films, forgotten films, interviews and back stage stuff. It is an eclectic mix but there is one constant, outstanding cinematography.

Films from the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s and a few from the 80s are clipped and shown and given context with clarity and concise captions. A cornucopia of visual delights that act as reminders of how important cinematography is to the filmmaker and how that visual language is based within photography. But this is not a one-way street.

Many of the great cinematographers and directors of photography studied and trained as photographers, transferring from the still to the moving image.

Photographers have had the functionality in their cameras to make films for the last decade and yet many still feel that the moving image button is not for them. As if the camera manufacturers had made a mistake in giving them something that is alien to their practice. Like giving Pelé or Messi a rugby ball and asking him to kick it. Similar, but different, requiring a foot to kick, but different skills too direct.

It is the mastering of those skills that often present a barrier to engagement. Sound recording, editing, grading, collaboration and extended narrative all come with the territory of filmmaking and they take time and effort to learn. I get that, but making movies can offer a photographer more than just additional skills. It can help you see!

Great cinematography is great photography plus narrative. It not only enriches the eye it does so by leading the eye and the mind seamlessly from still frame to still frame. Playing with composition, light and point of view. For me it is endlessly inspiring, challenging my approach to everything I do with the camera.

I know that I am not alone in this, but I am always surprised how few photographers reference specific films and their cinematographers as influences. It also surprises me how few photographers make films. I accept, but do not understand the fears I have previously mentioned, as the creative possibilities to me are too exciting to reject.

The truth is that I cannot see how making films cannot improve your stills photography. Therefore I can see no reason not to study the work of the great cinematographers from Roger Deacon to Robert Richardson, Gordon Willis to Rodrigo Prieto, Bill Pope to Rachel Morrison and the many others out there waiting for photographers to discover them.

Watching films will improve your photography if you look at good work, both historical and contemporary, applying that knowledge to make your own films will take that learning and your creative opportunities even further. Cut! That’s a wrap!

Image: Roger Deacon on set. Photographer unknown.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022


  1. When I asked a cinematographer about using my DSLR to make videos he said why would you use a still camera to make moving images? Moving images should be made with a movie camera!!

  2. In addition to the photography mentors I’ve had during my early years I had the good fortune to work with Gordon Willis on a few projects, in one commercial I played a photographers assistant. He seemed to like me and my questions about light. Over two days between takes we talked about light. He showed me about seeing light and then bringing the “working light” to photography standards of exposure. He told me about All the Presidents men and how he liked how the real newsroom looked and then brought that “look and feel” into the soundstage. What I like about modern digital sensors is that it doesn’t take a generator truck to get that look and feel anymore. Willis also turned me onto this really cool polaroid 110 A camera that I could use to pre-visualize my scenes even when using a 35mm camera. Still have it but the film is no longer made. The book Masters in Light also tell the story of All the Presidents Men and tells the stories of other cinematographers its always accessible on my bool shelf.

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