To Shoot Better Video, Focus on Photography

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.

DSLR video rig


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.”
Zack Arias


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.


MichaelFreeman PhotographersEye bookCover


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.


bridal fashion stillsfromvideo stillsgrab comparison




bridal fashion videograb video comparison



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.


Final Thoughts

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.

David Geffin's picture

David is a full time photographer, videographer and video editor based in New York City. Fashion, portraiture and street photography are his areas of focus. He enjoys stills and motion work in equal measure, with a firm belief that a strong photographic eye will continue to help inform and drive the world of motion work.

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Johnny that link to the article by Elliott McGucken was fascinating, thank you. The shutter speed issue you mention does speak for the benefit of dedicated dual camera systems. Will be interesting to see if/how the industry overcomes that issue for single camera systems

Johnny nice workaround you guys have to this particular issue, kudos on coming up with this. As i was writing this article, i knew toggling back and forth is easy on a relatively slow moving subject only. It's great you've innovated and found a way around this even when the technology for us isn't really there to meet the need (well it might be, but it's not affordable and the work flow still isn't as efficient as running a stand alone stills camera like you have).

Will be interesting to see what the next few years bring!

Video and photography are different mindsets. The examples you pulled are from still subjects. Try pulling stills out of a moving subject and the 1/60 or 1/50 shutter speed that most videos have will give you blurry images that are unusable.

I don't shoot video professionally but one thing I've noticed is that shooting photographs is like driving a car. You can stop on a dime, make sharp turns, and make quick decisions. Shooting video on the other hand is like driving a boat. You have to anticipate what's going to happen far in advance and slowly work your way up to tell the story.

very good point, for fast moving subjects what i describe above is impossible. I like your analogy. I would say though - and if you ask any street photographer (or even wedding, wildlife or action sports photographer for that matter) - anticipation in stills photography is probably about 90% of the battle there too. I think once you see the moment, it's lost. You need to anticipate this stuff if possible.

It will be interesting to see what happens when our DSLRs can shoot full HD (or even 4 or 5k res) at 1000fps. Sounds outlandish for now, but look at what the last few years has brought. Even a Phantom frame rate will attain a consumer or at least prosumer price point at some point, probably in the not too distant future if we follow Moore's Law.

Whoa let's back up a second here. A photographer starting to learn video should understand that there's still a great amount of additional technical skills you need to learn and develop to shoot decent video. There's a reason that schools offer Photography and Film Production programs independently, while they share some similar aspects they are, and will always be two separate professions. It's like looking for a good plumber who's also a good electrician. The plumber might know some basics about electricity but he won't be certified in it, if you want the work on your house done right you should hire the right man for each job to begin with.

The current generation of kids coming into the industry have a distinct advantage, they're learning photo and video at the same time and there will definitely be some stiff competition in the near future. Now would be a good time to register for some night classes in film school or find some filmmaking workshops in your local town because you won't learn all that you need to know about video by reading blogs (well, maybe you could learn a good amount but it will be a heck of a lot easier if you take the time to learn it properly). I think there's too many people out there who think that just by tinkering around with a DSLR they'll master the art of video...You might, I'm not saying you can't, but just, don't under estimate it.

BDWT i agree - i want the right man for the job. However, I'm just not sure the industry is going that way because clients are consistently asking for a photographer on a shoot, and they also want video - often for the same price from the same person.

I also often see people shooting video on a DSLR and ask them about their background as photographers - they don't have any. They have come straight to video on a DSLR because of the DoF, and more cinematic look they see. I just shot a large dance music event last night, about 4000 people, there must have been 6 DSLR shooters - 3 of us were dedicated photographers, i also shot video, and there were about 3 or 4 kids that from what I could see from what they were doing that they didn't really have a fundamental understanding of how to compensate for lighting changes (lots of smoke, lasers, big lighting rig with dynamic changes etc) or focal lengths.

I just see so many of these guys and gals out there and think "if they knew a few basics about lighting, composition, shutter speed, ISO, lens choice, aperture" etc they would probably be getting a lot better results.

Yeah, it's a double edged sword for sure. Those basics you're referring to, are all things that are also covered in any first year photo or film program. My issue has always been with the self taught or for lack of better terms, the newbs, who often invest in a medium level DSLR and get right into the freelance industry because they know someone. The reality is that these guys often have no background in either field, and they will be producing less than stellar results unless they truly have a natural born gift for understanding how a camera works. Some of the video guys who have made their way over to shooting on DSLR's are still struggling with the switch but that's just because for years the video market used different terms like "gain"(iso), "20x lens" instead of using a focal length measurement. These guys will still be capable of producing good images but they have a new tool to understand, it's more like using a motion picture camera, not a video camera.

As I've realised recently, films of Steve McQueen and Wim Wenders emphasize a lot on stills (framing, compositions etc), while films by Martin Scorsese make use of dynamic movements. Both styles have their merits and deserve to be studied.

very interesting, thanks for the insights. Haven't seen a film by Wenders in forever, going to make sure i check something out this weekend - thanks for that :)

I started off shooting video for 4 years then went into photography professionally for the last 2. Ever since learning even more about lighting and balancing everything out, I treat my video work with the thought process of photography first. Video production is just moving pictures in my eyes now. I love it.

Awesome, your comment here definitely resonated a lot with me (and was why i wrote the article in the first place). Thanks for sharing

I think we're missing an important point: whereas shooting stills the camera doesn't move, when shooting video, camera movement is VERY important.

If you watch the commercial i linked by Bruno Aveillan here, it's strange but actually, even in video, camera movement isn't important in some instances. It really depends on what you are going for. He definitely didn't move the camera much (less than 10% of the commercial involves camera movement)

I personally haven't seen a short like that one Aveillan shot that was so moving and beautiful as the one above. Did you see it? Would love your thoughts on it

Some great tips, but one fundamental thing was missed was Audio..this is as critical as the image, If you are talking about story telling then Audio is a must and it needs to be mastered just as much as photography, reason why I say this is that part of creating an image, it needs to be shot in a way that the audio/sound/music also needs to be communicated and not as an after thought.

Also no mention of Camera movement, Video is all about that, all the examples shown in the article have camera movement, again story telling why is it moving in, out, panning etc...

A few haven mentioned shutter speeds, that is part of story telling, shooting 1/50th vs 1/500 it makes a hell of a difference what is being expressed in the shot.

good points - audio is critical. I often shoot music video style pieces, so dedicated audio for what i shoot is less important, but definitely a very relevant point.

Video is definitel about camera movement whereas stills isn't, but as i mentioned in the article and previous comment - some of the most beautiful video i've seen of late (that Aveillan commercial) involved barely any camera movement. I guess it depends on what you are going for

I'm a dedicated video shooter. Great article.

Keep this in mind -- with still photography, you get to use strobes and a fast shutter. We don't. Video shooters have to learn to use continuous lighting, from the sun or boxes of light. We also shoot at much slower shutter speeds -- normally 1/50 or 1/60. We use lots of ND to get outdoor light to a manageable level.

Bottom-line, video capture isn't always as quick as flipping from video mode to still's mode. However, if you begin from the perspective of shooting for video, you won't be hard-pressed to fire a good still.

thanks and good points. My example above is really only possible with a) slow moving subjects and b) when shooting natural light

Good article. I've been shooting film/video AND stills for over 25 years professionally and was curious to see what the younger crowd was thinking. So here's my voice of support- On the last show I produced/directed for HBO/Cinemax I not only shot the entire series but the series was also based on photography (all of which I shot). Now that was a harrowing experience having to shift back and forth between the different mindsets of cinematography/directing and still photography many times a day, every day, for over five months!

Two very important notes I'd like to make for photographers moving into motion; 1) Do it without fear, you've got a great advantage with solid photo skills under your belt. I've won awards for some of my shows because of "how they look". That's the photography which is my core. 2) There is a disadvantage when you come up from stills, we think in terms of the moment. In post production we'll tend to choose a clip for it's "look" which doesn't mean it's best for "the story". That's why so many great writers become great directors but not so much cinematographers becoming great directors. We get hung up on the image. Keep those photo skills but you have to remember the story which sometimes means tossing out that amazing shot where the sun just "popped!" It hurts like hell but it will make you better.

Good Thoughts to all and I love it when fellow photogs go cinema... that's what I did!

thank you for sharing these wonderful insights Gary, really appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts with the benefit of a long career and all the experience that goes with it. Cheers!

Yes, "cameras are stupid." And videographers are not. Whenever possible, turn off the automation. Sure, you will need it shooting on the fly, but on a carefully-planned shot, you'll get better results doing it yourself.