Learn Visual Storytelling From Steven Spielberg

I recently saw a great video about cinematography which, as you might imagine, also pertains pretty well to photography. It’s a collection of long shots that comprise entire scenes (also known in the biz, apparently, as "oners") that were culled from Steven Spielberg movies. This compilation of "oners" is actually pertinent to us still shooters in a couple of ways. First, these are very well composed images that do a great job of storytelling within a single frame. Like those shooting motion pictures, photographers are also telling stories in pictures; at its root, that’s what we do. But there’s a more powerful message here, and it’s about what Spielberg is actually accomplishing with these long, complex shots—these "oners." For cinematographers, this type of long single-take scene is typically done with some amount of showiness: "Look at this amazing feat of cinematographic technique I’m pulling off!" But as the author of the video concludes, the way Spielberg does it is the opposite. His "oners" are totally subtle, because rather than wanting to show off what amazing cinematography skills he has, he’s simply trying to do the most efficient and effective storytelling job he can. His technique, while impressive, is subservient to the story. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a very powerful message for us photographers too. Many of us, myself included, find ourselves getting all caught up in technique as an end in itself, when in fact what’s most important is the content of our pictures. And so studying the work of the greats like Spielberg can certainly help us improve our compositions. But more than that, seeing the way they defer to the greater good of the story instead of showy technique, is a good reminder to us all about what’s really important in our imagery. It isn’t how we make it, it’s what it is. It’s the photograph that matters.


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