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Cinematic post processing tips for photography

Illustration © Seanlockephotography – Dreamstime.com

Increasingly photographers are looking to add a cinematic effect to their finished images, giving them the overall look and feel of well-shot movie footage.  If you are a fan of that look, and you can certainly count me in that camp, the steps for creating this great effect are straightforward enough for even a novice to achieve.  Let’s delve into what makes an image “Cinematic” by converting this picture into its movie equivalent.

Photo © Karen Foley – Dreamstime.com

Color tint

Cinematic images will be dominated by a color overcast or tint.  To create this effect, create an adjustment layer of Solid Color in Photoshop (or equivalent). First you need to decide how you want the image to “feel”.  Choosing a cool tone – like dark blue –  in the Color Picker will add cool contrasts to the shadows and warmth to the highlights.  Switching to opposite ends of the color spectrum will swap the effect.  Set the layer Blend Mode to Exclusion and Opacity to 30%.  If you are not happy with the results, double click on the Layer Thumbnail to bring up the Color Picker and tweak your color selection.  Trial and error work best for finding the color pallet that suits your tastes and you will get better at this with practice.

Fade the Highlights and Shadows

Well-shot movie footage is both high contrast, and muted in the highlights and shadows.  To achieve this effect, create a Levels layer adjustment.  Use the slide bars below the visual histogram to adjust the highlight and shadow levels by moving them with towards the middle to clip the histogram edges (adjust more or less depending on your taste).  This will create a high contrast look.

Now soften the look by using the Output Level slide bars underneath.  Move the left bar in to lighten shadow, and move the right bar in to darken highlights to create a faded, but still contrasting look.


High Cinematic images have a rich, intense color in them.  To achieve this create a Vibrance adjustment level.  The two sliders allow you to control the Vibrance (increase or decrease the intensity of only the muted colors) and the Saturation (increase or decrease the intensity of all the colors).  Increase the Vibrance to 10 and decrease the Saturation to -15.  These settings are again a matter of taste.  Move the sliders up and down to see the effect and find the settings that best fit your needs.

Sharpen image

Film footage is generally crisp and sharp, so we want to add that effect back into the images after all these adjustments.  Unlock the Background image to make it Layer 0.  Using the Filter – Sharpen – Unsharp Mask (make sure you have the image layer selected and not one of the adjustment layers when working with filters), try settings of Amount=50% and Radius-7.0 pixels leaving Threshold=0.


Movies have different aspect ratios, or sizes, from the standard image.  To make a picture look more like footage, we want to add a Letterbox, which is basically a black line on the top and bottom of the image, with a 16:9 ratio.  Add another Solid Color adjustment layer, this time filled with black.  Use the Rectangle Tool to draw a rectangle – use the shape properties to fill with black and turn stroke off – use Edit – Free Transform Path to make the size 16×9.  Move the Rectangle and Fill images to below Layer 0 and use ALT-Click for Mac (or OPT- Click for windows) on the line between Layer 0 and the Rectangle Layer to create a clipping mask.  Use the Move tool on Layer 0 to position the image within the frame.

Specialty Effects

Two final adjustments are completely optional, but I think add just the right finishing touches.  We have been told with digital images the grain (often referred to as noise) is bad.  But grain in film footage gives it an authentic feel.  Add grain to your image using Filter – Noise – Add Noise (on Layer 0) at about 5% and definitely not higher than 10%.

And finally, a lot of vintage footage was shot with lenses that created a vignette around the edges.  Add a vignette by creating an elliptical shape on top of Layer 0.  Use the shape Properties to fill black, turn off stroke, set Path Operations to Subtract Front Shape, and use the Mask icon to set Feathering = 50%.  Next use the Layer Properties to set Opacity to 30% to create a beautiful vignette on the corners of the image.  Giving the final image that polished film look.

I hope that takes the mystique of the Cinematic Effect for digital images – and gives you the confidence to try the technique for yourself, I know you won’t be disappointed with the results.

Karen Foley is a freelance photographer and frequent contributor to dreamtime.com.  See more of her work at karenfoleyphotography.com.

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