The Stopping Power of the Still Image

The Stopping Power of the Still Image

Have you ever been casually scrolling through your social media feeds, not really paying attention when suddenly an image arrests you? If you’re anything like me, this is a daily occurrence and one of the reasons to use social media. I can’t say the same thing for video.

A couple of weeks ago, Fstoppers shared this mind-bending video of Iceland. The video includes beautiful footage combined with excellent special effects. It is clearly the result of months of hard work. Half way in, I was so impressed that I pressed pause to share it with my friends in the video production industry. I then moved on to the next article without watching to the end. So much time, talent, money, and effort went into making the video and I didn't even bother watching the entire clip. Was it worth it?

Don’t get me wrong, I find certain types of videos highly entertaining and can spend hours watching them. Video is great for educational content. I’d way rather watch a how-to video on YouTube than read a guide. It’s also an immersive medium for telling stories — I particularly love the Fstoppers behind the scenes videos from the Photographing the World Series and we've all been emotionally moved by films. So, for certain content, video is perfect, but for other types of content, video can be a waste of time and effort.

I’ve always felt that this was a thought unique to me until I read a post on a Facebook drone group. Someone asked the question, “Why do photos tend to get significantly more views and attention than videos?” There were plenty of replies, all with a common theme: creating an engaging video takes far more time and energy than most people are willing to put in. It is far easier to create a compelling, attention grabbing image. Related to this is that a video requires a time commitment from the audience, while the message of a photograph can be appreciated in a glance.

It’s not just me, other people also seem to prefer certain content delivered as still images rather than video.

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I started photography 14 years ago at a time when photography and video were different fields. Since the “convergence” of stills and video, I’ve been under the impression that video is this burgeoning industry full of opportunity while the photography industry is slowly stagnating.  For certain genres, I see this as a reality, but for other genres, the still image is still king. No other medium has the stopping power of the still image. Even big production films use a still image to first capture our attention.

Here are some examples where still images trump video:

  • Videos where the vlogger simply speaks into the camera for the duration of the film. In my opinion, this would be more useful as an article illustrated with photos or as a podcast.
  • Scenery with no narrative. These are often drone videos. Personally, I’d prefer to see a well-crafted scenic series of still images rather than a 5-minute film of the same scenery.
  • Stand-alone time-lapse videos. These are interesting when someone figures out a new technique, but for the most part, I’d click on an image to see it in full screen before watching an entire time lapse. The exception is when a time lapse is necessary to show transformation, like a plant growing.
  • Advertising boards. I was standing on an escalator in the London underground and noticed the video advertisements on the LED screens. My first impulse was to look away from them as I realized I’d have to watch it to completion to get the message. By comparison, the advertisements that were still images grabbed my attention because they delivered the message in one quick hit.

What this means for us as image makers (still and moving) is that video should not always be the automatic choice when we create content. I feel we're at a point where the novelty of video has worn off and it no longer guarantees a high view count.  We should be giving careful consideration to which medium most effectively conveys our message.

It also means that still photography will not stagnate because of the increase in demand for video. Nothing captivates attention quite like the still image.

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Robert Altman's picture

So true!! Still images freeze a moment in a clarity that transcends our natural perception of the world. They show us reality as we cannot usually perceive it. Frozen instances. Video is more familiar and ordinary- it's more the world as we usually see it.

Kirk Darling's picture

Regarding advertising billboards on the street--a pet peeve of mine. A changing board requires a constant span of attention, which I'm not going to give because I'm driving. So I don't gather what it's about.

With a static board, I can glance at it, glance back at the road, glance back at it again. I'll wind up having seen it.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Yes - those other drivers really hate it when I stop to wait until the picture comes back up again... ha

Lee Christiansen's picture

With clients repeatedly telling me that video gets them viewers on social media, I always reply to say that photographraphs grab the attention, whilst video keeps it, (unless there are more photographs... ha)

I've been shooting broadcast TV for 20+ years and commercial stills for 13 yrs, and I can honestly say that with all the (often interesting videos) that I've done, none stops a viewer like an arresting still image.

There is a power from capturing a single moment in a world of movement that says "hey - this sums it up" or "focus your attention on this fleeting moment."

It forces the viewer to stop and think - often studying a single image to imagine the story before and after. A still image encourages discussion and promotes memory recall. By virtue of the fact that it doesn't do all the work for us means a photograph embeds itself in our mind - and we need more things that make us think, rather than casual intake over a tub of popcorn.

Video is great, but for true heart wrenching power... photography wins almost every time.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Great to hear from someone with your vast amount of experience - completely confirming my very bias opinion.

Kirk Darling's picture

Lee Christiansen, have you been able to point out to your clients how significant that thumbnail is as a still image to entice viewers to pause for the video in the first place?