To Shoot Better Video, Focus on Photography
We can often get swept up in the world of digital video. Topics like ‘What it will mean for the future of photography when we can pull stills from video?’ occupy a lot of time and thinking.
Discussion like this is relevant but I sometimes think we miss the most important element of all. The single biggest contributor towards great video is actually making sure we understand what it is that makes a great still image in the first place. To go faster, we should actually slow down. Maybe even stop.
If you’re a photographer, this article aims to provide food for thought about how you could bridge from the stills world into that of motion. If you’re already a videographer, or working with videographers, I’m hoping some of my experience will help strengthen the output of the video you are shooting or directing.
‘It’s The Gear, Stupid’ VS. ‘It’s The Stupid Gear’
There is no doubt about it, the gear we have seen in the last 5 years has created a revolution.
Whenever I see poorly executed video though, I can’t help but think back to this quote:
“So many people think cameras and lenses are getting better. They are. But cameras are stupid no matter how “great” they are. They know nothing. They see nothing. They don’t come with vision. There isn’t a Decisive Moment Indicator light in the viewfinder. There’s no Avedon button on the back. The most important piece of gear for a photographer is their brain.”
Our gear always gets better and allows us to do more for less, but none of this matters unless we utilize the tools to express the vision that we have inside our head.
What’s Happening to Photographers?
There is no doubt a high demand and pull for photographers who can also shoot video. The key here is to remember the photographic fundamentals on which strong video content is built.
Many of us (including myself) can forget about the fundamentals and get swept up in video because we go from a singular moment of image capture, to many unfolding moments and frames.
This is where photography becomes invaluable, in terms of visualizing the shot you want and going after that, and excluding what you don’t want, both from the frame lines you’re working to, but also the video you are capturing. While we can be guilty of over shooting as photographers too, when you have many minutes or hours of footage to sift through and review, this ‘shoot first, think later’ approach is particularly counter productive in the world of video.
Basic photographic principle helps bring about a sense of control here.
How Do We Regain Control?
Over the last few years as the industry has focused on video, I’ve spent time refocusing back on fundamentals of what actually makes a good image ‘a good image’.
To try and get a better insight into how I could shoot better video, I reread a number of books by Michael Freeman. Michael’s books are useful to dip in to, with lots of visual illustration behind the theory to remind us of what simply makes a good image and how to go about creating stronger work.
I’ve been spending as much time as I can around photographers who play with and understand strobe light to increase my practical application here. This has given me an appreciation for playing with light that I never really had. When I think of the emotion I want to bring out of a video, I think far more now about light direction, quality and intensity on my subject than I ever did. It’s also fine tuned a sense of what I’m looking for in my scene when shooting. I was missing this before.
I’m finding I’m visualizing possible moments in my head while shooting video. I’ll toggle back to stills mode and try to capture a dedicated still image of the video moment I just captured. If you aren’t working in a fast changing, dynamic environment, this technique can work pretty well.
I find this sense of trying to anticipate ‘the moment’ I’m looking for is incredibly useful. It’s the equivalent of when you would see something that makes you want to press the shutter if you were shooting stills. This sense of anticipation, of what we are looking for and then capturing it, helps keep us in control of the video we shoot.
I’ve posted some examples below of a BTS video that i shot recently that illustrates this point, which has the video screen grab first showing the moment i was anticipating, and then the stills shot i captured of the same moment immediately afterwards.
A Decisive Moment VS Many Decisive Moments
Toggling back and forth in this way is the ‘poor man’ equivalent of grabbing high res frames from video.
This video shows what happens when you peg a 5K RED Epic up against a Hasselblad in a test Patrick Hall ran with Peter Hurley to compare stills from a dedicated medium format camera against those grabbed from video files.
Workflow for Peter got kind of insane, but things are definitely moving this way. Technicalities aside, for most of us this is cost prohibitive (at least for now), but it’s likely where the convergence between stills and motion capture is going to end up. What that means is those shooting video will need strong photographic principles to fall back on, to be clear on which frame to pull. Look at how long it took Peter, going back and forth between individual frames, to pull the head shot he wanted. It takes time even for the best photographers out there, to get the right frame from video.
Vincent Laforet has been talking about the ability to pull a 5k res still shot from RED footage for years.
RED already have workflow mapped out for ‘cinephotographers’ (film shooters who pull stills from video) showing how easy it is to grabbing 5k .TIFF files from video.
The point though, is that Vincent was a staff photographer for the NY Times for many years before he moved into video. If you hear him talk, he often discusses his framing, angles, lens choices and lighting considerations from his photographic days. This photographic background is responsible for his ongoing success as a video director.
Even his recent work directing his new short MoVI highlights the importance of his photographic experience. The camera doesn’t stop moving throughout MoVI, but without strong ‘photographic fundamentals’ to anchor the piece, it wouldn’t work as well.
Let’s look at some of these photographic fundamentals in more detail.
Where Do You Want Your Video To Take You?
While you give thought to the question, please invest a couple of minutes watching this beautiful video that Lindsay Adler originally turned me on to. If there is one video I’ve seen that underscores the need for a strong photographic foundation in our video work, without a doubt, this is it.
It should come as no surprise that Aveillan is not only one of the world’s most in demand commercial directors, but he is also a photographer.
Key photographic fundamentals we see in ‘A Journey’ include:
1.) Masterful Understanding of Light
Rim lights, reflection and refraction, beautiful sunrise and sunset lighting, chiaroscuro
2.) Lens Choice and How This Affects Storytelling
Going from wide establishing shots, all the way to super macro. Every shot guides the eye with intent
3.) Framing and Composition
Sometimes playing by the rules, sometimes not, but always strongly composing each shot, and deciding what is in and out of the frame
4.) Filling the Frame
At 0:25 look at how the kite and young boy’s eyes fill the frame. The child’s smiling eyes make for a beautiful punch line
5.) Creative Use of Color and Texture
There is even an attempt to give texture to air between fingers at 0:35 by incorporating water movement
6.) Obscured View
Fog, mist, rain drops, close up, sun flare shadow play, lens flare, distortion and blur, out of focus shots – all help direct our attention
7.) Small Gestures Have Big Impact
Exhaling breath, stretching, moving fingers, opening eyes, even standing and looking out at something with back towards the camera (0:37). All of these have an emotional impact
Of the 127 shots in the commercial, I count 12 that have any form of true camera movement. The strength and emotional impact of his work come from his restraint and distinct lack of motion in his camera, and minimal movement in his frame.
Aveillan has also cut those 127 shots into a 167 second film. It’s a sequence of very still moments, almost like a slide show. He also makes liberal use of half speed to slow down the movement even further (for example, the woman running at 2:06, boys playing in water at 2:15 – 2:20). In beautiful motion work, Aveillan is showing us how powerful it is to go very slow, and to even be completely still.
What Does This Mean For Us As Photographers?
By applying fundamental photographic technique, we can make stronger video that has greater emotional impact.
Applying this thinking first and then thinking about how to move the camera is a key step to strengthening our video output, and provides a strong foundation for the bridge between photography and videography.
This recent Zara commercial, while showing a lot more camera motion and movement, applies similar photographic technique giving it a strong foundation on which to then add more dynamic camera movement.
Strong composition, frame within a frame at opening, diagonals into corner of frames at 1:11, repeating patterns, chiaroscuro, repeating patterns, lens choice, incorporating the background and foreground together – there is more camera movement but the fundamentals of good photographic technique are there first.
What Should We As Photographers Be Taking Away From This?
1.) Begin By Thinking About Style
The key words you use to describe your photographic style are what you can bring (and should focus on) when you’re shooting video.
2.) Focus On Fundamentals
Lighting, composition, framing, color, texture, gesture – these are all critical for strong video. If you don’t want to shoot video, but end up working with videographers either on set or shooting BTS video, this will help provide better creative direction to them.
3.) Play To Your Strengths, But Identify Technical Gaps
If you recognize a gap in your ability (like I did with controlling lighting) try to focus on improving that aspect through education and practice.
4.) Your Video Shoot Is A Project, Treat It Like One
Be clear what the end output will look like ideally before you pick up the camera, and certainly before you jump into editing. Being flexible with how you shoot is fine, but be as clear as you can on the output and end deliverable from the start.
5.) Storyboarding and Shot Lists Help
A storyboard keeps us in the photographer mindset – we think about framing, composition, angles, lighting and lens choice to make the scene work. Keep things simple and sketch out your thoughts. While I certainly won’t be winning any prizes for artistic merit, my quick ‘back-of-napkin’ storyboard last week helped me pre-visualize the scenes with some thoughts on focal lengths for this particular location.
6.) Editing Is Critical
Editing is an essential and integral part of the process, it’s what actually builds your video content into a coherent story. You can get an editor to do it for you, but you should know how it brings everything together and how you’d like the story to be told
While 24 frames a second sounds like a lot, I regularly find myself editing one frame increments on my timeline. Editing is like being the conductor in your own video orchestra – it is a how we establish our visual rhythm and pattern, especially critical when editing to music but just as important when not.
The video I shot below shows that even when not editing to an audio track, the video was designed to have it’s own sense of rhythm. We did this through discussion on creative direction and story boarding at the start of the project.
7.) Think Before You Shoot
Hitting the record button should be thought of as pulling the trigger of a machine gun. Most of us are shooting at 24 frames a second, sometimes for minutes at a time. On a long shoot, that can be a huge amount to have to review, especially if you are looking for individual frame-specific moments (for those editing to music, this can be critical). Make it easier on yourself (and your editor if that is someone else), and think before you ‘pull the trigger’. Try to anticipate ‘the moment’ you are looking for, and practice shooting a still of this moment once you think you’ve captured it. It will help keep you in control of what you are shooting.
8.) Shoot Less
If I’m shooting BTS video and not interviewing, just making something to be set to music, I really try to avoid any clip longer than 15 – 20 seconds (often my clips are half this length) and I try to get it right the first time and not reshoot something ‘just in case I missed it” the first time around. This has probably been the hardest thing for me to do, to not “go back around for another pass” just because I have the means to do so.
The convergence of stills and motion capture will continue to accelerate as prices for high res, high frame rate video cameras drop but what’s critical is that strong video comes from a strong photographic skill set.
How long we shoot for is critical to avoid nightmarishly long workflow inefficiencies, particularly as we gain the ability to pull higher res stills from video, which in itself underscores a need for strong photographic fundamentals.
The style and manner in which video content is shot is critical to building a strong video story. This comes from being as clear as we can about what our style is, and then focusing on bringing this into the world of video. Simple key words we associate with our photographic work can help define our style here.
The photographic skill set of playing with light, color, texture, shape and form, is what gives depth and resonance to our video work. Using this as a foundation for video won’t necessarily win you more clients, but incorporating these fundamentals with your own stylistic approach will allow you to express more of yourself in your work. Doing the work you love will help you get better at it, and will give you the opportunity to have others recognize this work and possibly buy your services.
Vincent Laforet, amongst others, is a constant reminder that bridging the world from stills to motion is natural, no matter the technical hurdles you cross in learning about new gear. Bruno Aveillan provides a wonderful example that in video, moving the camera is actually secondary to getting a great shot. Photographic fundamentals are key.
Finally, Stanley Kubrick is another great example of this cross over. His cinematic style was built on this earlier experience as a photographer. His framing and composition is what gives so many of his films that unmistakable Kubrick-esque sense of tension, unease and psychological imbalance. Check out the video below to see what I mean.
Connect to me on Facebook, Instagram or via Twitter or drop a comment below to share your thoughts on how you’re finding crossing over between photo and video worlds, I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on this subject.