Talking Movies: Using Cinema to inspire your Street Photography – Blade Runner
This week’s Talking Movies will be looking at the cinematic masterpiece that is Blade Runner, and will talk you through how you can analyse some of the scenes in this movie and use them to help you compose some stunning street photos. I will look at some of my own photos and describe how this movie influenced my own shots. Visit the previous segments of Talking Movies for more info.
Introducing Blade Runner
This Ridley Scott helmed gem is quite possibly my favourite movie of all time. Released in 1982, Blade Runner is a sci-fi movie of truly epic proportions that muses on the grandiose theme of what it means to be human. Based on the 1968 novel ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’ by legendary science fiction author Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner is about quasi-detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) hunting for a gang of escaped artificial humans called Replicants, and is set against the moody, dingy, rain-drenched backdrop of a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. The doleful Vangelis soundtrack makes for melancholy tone to the movie, while the spectacular special effects and production design are perfectly showcased by Jordan Cronenweth’s excellent cinematography, and play just as much as a part of the telling of the movie’s story as the characters themselves. Blade Runner suffered a complex and fraught production for numerous reasons, not helped by director Ridley Scott’s manic attention to minute details in each scene and shot. This obsessive approach paid dividends in the end, while the movie was not a critical or box office success, it is now widely lauded as one of the most iconic movies of its genre, with a die-hard following of devoted fans.
The first scene from Blade Runner that I will examine is this incredible shot of the character Rachel, played by Sean Young. It is immensely powerful owing to its simplicity – it is entirely dominated by Rachel’s face. The shot has been perfectly arranged; note how her face is positioned two-thirds of the way along the horizontal axis in accordance with the oft-quoted ‘rule of thirds’ layout to framing visual images. With the focal point of the image off-centre the shot is left unbalanced which has a disruptive influence on the viewer’s mind and makes it more memorable. The same effect can be attributed to the negative space dominating two-thirds of the right hand side of the frame. This mass of black shadow leads the viewer’s eye to wander across the frame and seek out the only area of light in the whole shot – the face of the key character. The high contrast makes her stand out like a beacon against the darkness, placing further emphasis on her expression, which is key to the scene. The lighting setup for this shot is actually very simple, which again is what gives the shot its power – all of the lighting ‘effect’ for this scene is being provided by one strong light source focused on Sean Young’s face, which the camera is exposed for, with the unlit background providing high contrast, making it abundantly clear exactly what the viewer should be focused on. The focal length and camera position too, is important, this is a classic style ‘head shot’ using a normal to telephoto length lens which makes the actor’s head fill most of the frame.
How then, can a street photographer seek to emulate this style of shot? The answer is fairly simple – they can aim for total minimalism, and be brave in getting close to their one subject and keeping only that one subject in the frame. They should look for a dramatic light source too, which falls on the face of their subject, and expose for it – be it a ray of strong sunlight during the ‘golden hour’, or an artificial light – perhaps from a street lamp, shop, or bar, or maybe even provide their own in the form of a flash.
I wouldn’t say my street photography style is defined by shooting photos of single subject head shots strongly lit in the frame, but the craziness of carnival season in Rethymno gave me the opportunity to push my street photography out of my usual comfort zone and experiment with using a powerful light source to illuminate my subjects for dramatic effect. For this shot I was using off-camera flash, and you can read the details of exactly how I set up my camera in my guide for using off-camera flash in street photography. As with the Blade Runner scene my lone subject is lit only by a single light source (my flash), and I have exposed my camera for this light source and made sure to underexpose the background so only she is illuminated. Like the Blade Runner shot, this makes her the clear focal point of the image. The sharp fall off between the flash lit woman and the dark underexposed background adds high contrast to the image.
I post-processed the photo slightly to further simplify it to achieve a minimalist style as in the movie – I burned out (darkened) some very dimly lit shadowy figures in the right of the frame (they were barely visible anyway as they were heavily underexposed), and I cropped the image slightly so that the woman fell more along a third way across the horizontal axis rather than towards the centre. I didn’t compose nearly as perfectly as the movie shot!
Where my shot differs significantly from the Blade Runner still is in the quality and positioning of the light. My flash threw a very harsh light on my subject as it was not diffused, and I uplit my subject for a more surreal effect. My focal length too is different, for this shot I used a wider 35mm lens so you see more of the subject’s outfit adding context to the photo (it was carnival day after all!).
The second scene I want to examine is a shot from inside the fantastic set piece that is this synthetic eye-manufacturing lab. This shot is a marked contrast to the first scene I analysed, because here it truly is the set and production design that make it memorable. The laboratory tools in the foreground of the shot act as a great frame for the actor, with the weird and wonderful collection of foreign objects catching the viewer’s eye but not drawing attention away from the character in the scene, as they are surrounding him not obscuring him. He is, of course, located in accordance with the rule of thirds too. The shallow depth in field and the use of a wide lens creates a nice sense of separation between the foreground laboratory tools, the actor, and the background, which is also filled with interesting items, helping to ‘dress’ the scene.
Perhaps unsurprisingly though, it is the set lighting which makes the shot stand out. The most important thing to note is how the actor is lit by two parts of the set. The oddly shaped tube light to his left throws light onto the right side of his face to illuminate it. The most interesting source of light though comes from the table itself – the backlighting turns the table into a giant lightbox, providing an eerie uplight to showcase the laboratory tools as a key part of the scene. The table lights the actor’s face from below, which is not something a viewer is familiar with seeing – it not only brings him out from the background but also emphasises the brilliant character lines in his face, as well as his spectacular moustache. A novel light source like this really helps to make the shot distinct. The placement of no less than 5 different sources and styles of lighting in the background of the scene also adds further visual interest to the scene, and lends a real sense of depth to the shot, making the laboratory appear a mysterious and warren-like cavern, and adding further colour to an already interestingly cluttered scene. Speaking of colour, the choice of set lights is masterful – the cool blue/green hues make the whole room look cold, really adding a sense of temperature (pun intended) to the ice-cold laboratory.
A street photographer is offered little such opportunity to arrange and ‘dress’ a scene with objects and light like this – in fact, such an approach flies in the face of much of what the genre stands for. However, that doesn’t stop a street photographer from recording subjects at work surrounded by the objects of their trade – perhaps framing a labourer with a pneumatic drill or JCB, or a stall seller surrounded by their wares. Be on the lookout also for novel and interesting key light sources which illuminate the subject from unusual angles, or for great unusual background light sources like bar and club décor lighting.
My photo was made from the inside of one of Rethymno’s most popular bars where I was enjoying a beer break mid-way through a street hunt with street hunters Spyros Papaspyropoulous, Dan Berntsson and Yannis Fragakis. I remember thinking the first time I ever set foot in this bar at night-time was that it was lit up like something from Blade Runner! I loved the variety of unusual styles of contrasting lights the place, which really help to build a ‘full’ complex scene just like the laboratory.
What I was desperate to photograph though was the effect from the lit-up tables, which were straight out of science fiction. As with the Blade Runner still, I loved how a strong and colourful light was coming from such an unusual angle, illuminating the glasses on the table, but most importantly the woman’s face. The light casts an interesting effect on her photogenic features, emphasising her red lipstick, her eyes, and her arched eyebrows. As I remarked with the Blade Runner shot, this is not a way in which we’re used to seeing people’s faces lit, which makes it more memorable. As with the Blade Runner scene, I used a wide aperture, separating my subject nicely from her busy background, whilst also throwing the brilliant array of lights in the background out of focus in a pleasing way.
I composed largely according to the rule of thirds, though I cropped a little from the right and bottom of the shot to simplify, as I wasn’t afforded the luxury of changing my camera position. In an ideal world, and for the shot to be more powerful and akin to the Blade Runner scene it would have featured more objects in the foreground acting as the frame for the woman as the main subject. Perhaps if her friend hadn’t been sitting with her back to me that might have been the case, as there would have been an unobstructed view of the glasses on the table.
My final Blade Runner still is by far the most abstract, and is a brilliantly quirky shot, and one I feel lends itself very well to exploration in street photography. The first thing to notice with this scene is how striking it is – the camera is peering ‘into’ in the scene through the window of the shop, which lends it a very lifelike feel. The scene unfolds before the viewer like looking from the street into a coffee shop. The two main characters stand in the centre of the frame, lit from above to add heavy shadow to their faces and a sense of drama. Extra details and elements of the scene are then ‘built’ around the characters.
What makes this shot so exceptional and impressive though is how the extra elements of the shot are made up of the bizarre reflections of light sources on the glass from the street outside. The blue and yellow neon create a real sense of depth and layers in this scene, and really confuse the viewer’s brain, imbibing the scene with a surreal and thus memorable feel. Note the attention to detail in the way the lines of reflected yellow neon form a converging vanishing point on one of the characters, exactly following the line of his back and head, drawing the viewer’s eye to him. With this shot we not only get a sense of the world behind the glass, but also the world outside it on the street too. The masterful arrangement of the scene prevents too much attention being drawn away from the characters though – the angles of their bodies converge to form the peak of a triangle, which again helps to guide the viewer’s eye. The use of lighting too prevents the scene from being too misleading for the viewer, the abundance of shadow and the central pool of light on the characters inside the shop really makes it clear what the eye is supposed to be focusing on. In this sense, and in the style of peeking into a room the shot shares some core similarities with Edward Hopper’s magnificent ‘Nighthawks’ painting.
This is perhaps the easiest scene of all the Blade Runner stills to emulate on the street, as lighted windows are a real staple of night street photography! At night, offices, shops, and bars offer fantastic little glimpses into different worlds, and shooting through a window lends a real sense of ‘the street’ and the contrast between life out on the street and life on ‘the inside’ to a shot. Reflections need not be an annoying distracting element that gets in the way of a subject through the glass, instead, if used carefully, they can add a psychedelic element of confusion to make a photo truly memorable.
This is another shot from Rethymno Carnival season, and I can remember being particularly taken with the bizarre appearance of the conversation unfolding between ‘death’ and this woman. As with the Blade Runner scene, the crazy reflections from street outside really mix the shot up nicely, and like in the movie are exacerbated by the repeating ‘effect’ created by the thick layers of the glass door. I was pleased with the way the reflection of the giant umbrella supports converge from the light above the people’s heads and the upright descends perfectly between them, appearing to sprout from the woman’s hand as if she is holding it.
Of course this photo sadly lacks the glorious simplicity of the Blade Runner scene, something which is not helped by the less than ideal lighting – a more controlled and powerful light source on the two subjects is required, as well as less background lighting.
As I’ve stated, I truly adore Blade Runner as a movie, it’s a hauntingly beautiful musing on the impact of technology in peoples’ lives and a study of what can be said to define being classed as ‘living’ and ‘human’. Its power lies in its ability to immerse the viewer wholly into the nightmarish future world it depicts, and it does this by turning the camera on the actual world itself, through lingering explorations of the ‘ordinary’ streets that its characters inhabit. Like street photographers, the Blade Runner ‘eye’ sees beauty in the seemingly mundane, and understands the importance of the way characters interact with the outside world around them, turning this interaction into a true feast for the eyes. For me, Blade Runner is one of the finest showcases for all that street photography can offer in a modern city. I can’t recommend it enough; it’s one of the most visually inspiring pieces of cinema I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing.