Getting the Cinematic Look with DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras

The advent of video in stills cameras, has opened a whole new world to photographers and filmmakers alike. These cameras capture high quality, high definition video direct to memory card. Combined with sophisticated, cheap editing software we can now create cinematic looking video using either a DSLR or Mirrorless camera

One of the most talked about aspects of DSLR video is it’s ability to capture the much vaunted, “cinematic look”. The cinematic look is used by filmmakers to describe the look created by using traditional celluloid film for movies. It is characterized by a lower, flatter contrast and wider color gamut. Most importantly it often uses a shallow depth of field. So how do we go about capture the cinematic look with our DSLR camera? Well there are a number of aspects that need to be used together to recreate it starting with the depth of field

Cinematic Depth of Field:

Look at any movie shot on film, and very often, one of it’s defining styles is a shallow depth of field. Until recently this has only been available to those shooting on film or with cameras such as REDs. The reason for this is the sensor (or film) size. The larger the sensor, the easier it is to achieve a shallow depth of field.

These days both APS-C and Full Frame sensors are capable of giving a shallow depth of field in HD and 4K video. However, like stills photography, the depth of field is still directly related to the aperture and focal length of the lens. For the best results you will need a lens of f2.8 or less to get a true shallow depth of field. If you are shooting wide angle you will need a subject very close to the lens, with a telephoto this is less important.

The other thing you are going to need to do is focus manually. Auto focus is great for stills photography but using a DSLR for video you need to be accurately focused on the right point. This can be quite challenging at first, especially given the screen position on DSLRs. However with practice it will become second nature. One of the best cinematic effects to use with your DSLR is a pull focus. This is where, using a shallow depth of field, you change the focus in the shot from foreground to background. This draws the viewers eye into the subject. To do this you will need a sturdy, locked off tripod and steady hands.  You may  have to try it several times before you get the required effect.

Cinematic looking video incorporates many techniques


Shutter Speed:

The other vital element in the film look is the shutter speed. Movies shot on film are generally shot at 24 fps but with a shutter speed of of 1/48 of a second. This is called the 180 degree rule. What it does is create a small, virtually imperceptible blurring motion to the moving image, giving film that silky look. The 180 degree rule basically states that your shutter speed should be twice your frame rate.

Now although many DSLRs have a mode that shoots 24fps HD video, most do not have a 1/48th of a second shutter speed. The nearest we can get will be 1/50 of a second. This for the most part is good enough but if you want a true 180 degree ration then you can set your frame rate to 25fps.  Shooting a shutter speed significantly faster than than twice the frame rate will result in a very jerky staccato effect. In bright light, the combination of slowish shutter speed and wide aperture is going to make correct exposure difficult. To this end you may need to invest in a series of neutral density filters to control the light better.


Correct shutter speed is a vital element in the cinematic look



Looking at both professional films and videos and one thing you will notice is that there is often a lack of zooming and panning. When trying to shoot with a film look style, panning should be used in conjunction with the subject moving across the screen rather than with to convey a scene. If you wish to pan across a scene, it should be done very slowly and consistently. The camera should be locked off on a fluid tripod head. Rather than zooming a shot, which can be difficult with a DSLR anyway, look to shoot 3 or 4 different clips with different focal lengths and positions. This also helps give that cinematic look.


Post Production:

Lastly, there are a couple of post production techniques that can help enhance the look. Firstly, crushing the blacks. This is a technique similar to adjusting levels in photoshop. In it you deliberately bring the shadow side of the histogram slightly inside the graph. This gives the film rich black shadows. If your editing suite has it, you may fine a specific “film look” filter that will do the same thing as well as flattening the contrast. Lastly another post production technique is to add a subtle vignette to your clips. You should use this technique to draw the viewers eye towards the subject in the frame and not just a centralized vignette.


Many post production techniques were used to give this a cinematic feel.


Digital video opens a whole new world to stills photographers. However it does involve a steep learning curve to achieve good films. Although compositional rules are predominately similar, the use of exposure and focus can require a different approach to stills photography. However, once you have mastered them, there will be little preventing you from creating engaging and beautiful movies.

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