Photography without compromises

Breaking Bad Photography


In the last few days I’ve been having this thought a lot: It’s really incredible how many different things can be of inspiration for photography.

As an example, just watching TV could be an endless source of inspiration, if we are very careful with what we’re watching anyway.

One of the shows that is inspiring me the most these days is called Breaking Bad, a TV series very well written but not very well known in Italy.

If you’re curious you can find it on Rai4 channel but since there are so many other ways to experience it I’d prefer to mention Youtube, the BitTorrent protocol, various streaming websites and some added WTF-a-moles.

But why, exactly I am talking about this? Because this show has one of the most beautiful and convincing photography works I’ve ever seen.

It’s so awesome that it actually makes ma wanna go visit Texas and all those arid pieces of ungrateful land.

Telling a story with pictures

Because photography isn’t all about telling stories, in the end?

Of course there are plenty different ways of taking photos and the many existing genres are just a little example of the flexibility of this medium.

But when I look some great photo, or, better put, a photo I happen to like a lot, I often experience the same feeling. Here’s what goes on: I really feel like I want to indulge in watching such picture, time stops while I struggle to understand what it’s trying to tell me, and I make my guess at what is the story behind it. I usually feel like I wanna get lost in such an image.

I realize this may be my very personal idea of photography and that it’s not really valid for anybody else but please take my word for it and follow my dark reasoning for a while. I promise it’s gonna be a short ride punctuated with many beautiful photos wink

Michael Slovis, who is Breaking Bad director of photography surely made an incredible work here.

Point of view and lighting

Something that reaches the eye pretty quickly while analyzing the direction of Breaking Bad is the use of very interesting and “cinematic” point of views for the cameras.

Such feeling is kinda far from standard television fare and has more to do with movie production than TV in general, as insightfully noted in this excellent article on Cinevenger I urge you to read.

I really am uninformed when it comes to directing and movies in general so please take the following thoughts as random rants from some lunatic and don’t be offended at me for such ignorance.

I tend to notice that some of the wider framing work is actually meant to slow down the action and make the viewer to concentrate more on what’s he’s seeing, the resulting narrative style is kinda slow, and deliberate at building momentum that often explodes in very entertaining climaxes.

You can make experience of such mechanic in this wide shot showing the scene from very far away. There’s our famed RV slowly moving to cross a piece of land which is very typical of the views you would experience in a territory where Texas and New Mexico meet each other:

L'inquadratura super wide aiuta la narrazione ad assumere un incedere lento e colmo di attese

Please behold this wonderful landscape, incredible sky and colors, if you look closely you can also detect a hint of ND filter in the upper left corner to add some dimensionality and help the eye focus on the action (the RV moving).

Photographic filters constitute a recurring theme in photography so please take note because if you pay attention you’ll see many outstanding examples of this in Breaking Bad photography, as I’ll try to show you in the following of this post.

Some other scenes are more conventionally shot and therefore result in typical TV footage. But please have a look at the following image from Season 3.

We can note a very precise control of Depth of Field and illumination making a simple still into a complex visual tale like the shot below:

Walt dice alla moglie un sacco di cose in questa scena! Ma la foto parla moltissimo anche a qualsiasi fotografo.


The choice of directional lighting, acting like a spotlight on Walter White character (played by Bryan Cranston) in such a difficult moment of the story (no spoilers, don’t ask) gives a very unique interpretation to this scene.

The corridor in Walt house, sharply in focus (just like the foreground) traces a marked separation between the two protagonists in this moment of maximum conflict.

Lighting plays an important role also in some of the portraits depicting minor character, like in this lens breaking solar flare used to introduce these mexican twins looking for vengeance:

Uno dei gemelli messicani, un osso davvero duro, adamante nel suo desiderio di vendetta

Use of light filters

Another very central thing in Breaking Bad Photography is, without doubt, the heavy usage of light filters.

Both light and color modifiers are used to a huge degree to set the mood in many scenes, like this desert view, typical of a certain way of telling the desert but also very alien looking  to our eyes:

Siamo sulla terra o su marte? Certamente questo filtro arancio ci confonde le idee!


The chromatic effect may look very exagerated on a still but when things are in motion and set in the context of the story it feels more natural. Color here is key to the mood of this sequence, one of the most cruent of the first 3 seasons.

Filters, gels and special lighting are often combined to render interesting effects like in this case:

I gemelli trovano vestiti da peones appesi al filo da stendere di una famiglia di campesinos messicani.

Outstanding examples of scenes with incredible colors and lighting plentiful throughout the unfolding of our television tale:

Walter e Jesse si godono la calma dopo una cooking session particolarmente intensa...

Portraits and closeup

The Breaking Bad plot entirely revolves around morals and the conflicts that those morals cause in the various characters. We can therefore say it’s a very human tale, and this is why the main characters are very well portraited and told in richness of detail while minor characters often look much like monodimensional stereotypes.

Certainly it’s impossible to tell the background story of each character well enough, and in this sense stereotypes are used as narrative mean to leave more space to the mainplot and the conflicts occurring between protagonists.

Having said that all episodes are punctuated by some powerful portraits showing the multitude of facets of each starring character. As it always happens between stereotypes and reality of each one there’s a deep contrast:

Walt è un buon padre di famiglia? Perché qui sembra parecchio pensieroso...

Would you say that Walter White is a model father just by looking at the picture above?

What about Jesse, ex high school student, does it look like a junkie loser…?

Jesse e Walt in modalità poltrona!

The following character is called Gus, a calm Chicken fast food chain owner …or is it?

Gus è il proprietario della catena Los Pollos...

Well, as you may have understood by now, in Breaking Bad things rarely are what they look:

Walt nella prima scena del primo episodio, azz.

Final words

I hope this post may be of inspiration to all photographers, especially to remind us that there’s beautiful photography everywhere, not just in galleries and books.

If you feel curious about Breaking Bad in particular, I can only encourage you to have a look, this is the best TV series I’ve experienced in a long time after House MDThe Good Wife e Californication so if you’re into those I believe you’ll appreciate this too!

Thanks everybody for bearing with me till the end of this post and please let me hear your voice in the comments below as usual!


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