Pieces of the Puzzle: Mise-En-Scene in Photography

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Back in college, I learned a term in cinematography class: Mise-en-scene. To sum it up in short, Mise-en-Scene is everything that goes in front of the camera (or affects it) in that particular scene. It has to do with various elements such as the lighting, costumes, backgrounds, foregrounds, positioning, props, etc. Then it hit me: If film crews put so much effort into storyboarding to make sure that everything is perfect, why don't most photographers apply that same careful effort to photography?

If you watch instructional videos by many of the best photographers, they all emphasize how they try to get as much right in camera as they can. However, I'm almost positive that many of them have not thought about Mise-en-scene.

Similarly, in college our professors would harp on us to try to get it all right in the camera. This was because we were a small university and didn't have the funds for high-tech programs that could accomplish the tasks that motion graphics artists do. But the world of still photography is different—and applying Mise-en-scene's standards is a different ballgame.

I personally feel that there is more leeway in the world of stills. If part of an image is too bright, I can selectively dodge it or use graduated filters in my favorite editing program. But let's throw out all of the technicalities for a moment, and focus on what actually helps to make an image.

Let's observe the photo above from my 500px page, and analyze its Mise-en-scene:

1. Lighting: This photo was shot with natural daylight diffused by clouds. In fact, it was raining on the Coney Island pier when I took it. Could the lighting have been better? If it could have, I'm not exactly sure how that could be accomplished. Adding an off-camera strobe could have changed the look and feel of the image. Plus, balancing the image to the light's temperature would have perhaps taken away from the overall gray and bleak nature of the photo.

I wanted a bleak look to the photo because that's how the scene was. And capturing the scene as it was is a major part of the Mise-en-scene.

2. Subject Matter: Let's figure out who or what is in this scene. There's a baby shark that is clearly in focus. The head starts in the lower left corner of the rule of thirds and the body goes all up to the top thirds of the photo. The little critter is purposely placed this way for our eyes to travel upwards.

In the middle ground, we see other fish that have been brought onto the pier. Further behind them, we see the legs of fishermen at the edge of the pier as they continue fishing.

3. Specific Details: There are certain things in this image that may purposely make people ask questions. For example, there is a rope coming out of the shark's mouth. We also want to see what the fishermen look like. Instead, we just get a hint of whom they are. These hints come from features like their clothing and their body language.

4. The Scene: When we see this photo, it's quite obvious where we are. We're on a pier. In fact, the pier is wet and people have walked all over it. It is a pier that is frequented by many visitors, as is evidenced by all the people in the background, and all the fish that have been caught. This is also a gloomy scene, as there is no evidence of sunshine.

These elements were intentionally placed in the image when I was composing it. Similarly, these elements should all be thought of carefully when we're taking images, and this requires asking a couple of critical questions: Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why? For example, if you're at a wedding, photographing a reception:

Who- Who are the main figures here? Who is standing out from the rest of the crowd?

What- What will happen here at the reception? Will there be a speech? Will there be dancing? What elements of photojournalism can I use? The emotional? The intimate? The newsworthy? The unusual? (I've seen weddings where the dog is the ring bearer!)

When- When will be the best times to capture specific images that will be important to the couple?

Where- Where are the best vantage points to get these photos? Do I want the background in the scene?

How- How do I need to capture these? Do I need more light?

Why- Why is this photo important to the story I'm trying to tell about the wedding of this couple?

All of these questions should be considered in your Mise-en-scene when you shoot. These questions, when combined with your elements, will help you to create better photos.

And in the end, it all comes down to putting in a bit more thought. With more thought will come better photos.

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Excellent write up.