Five Ways Shooting Motion Will Make You a Better Still Photographer

I’ve been shooting both mediums – video and still photographs – for over a decade. Some may say that I was an early adaptor of motionForty Deuce burlesque club, Las Vegas, Nevada, but that’s now how I look at it. In a way, I’ve been a motion shooter ever since I became a still photographer – not in the literal sense – but in how I approach the craft of photography.

I’m a storyteller; in fact that’s why I made photography a huge part of my life. I want to utilize my craft to tell the stories that I feel compelled to tell. I think in terms of paginations, like pages in a magazine or scenes in a film and I realize now that I have always approached still photography like a cinematographer.

Here are some tips I learned from shooting motion that will make you a better still photographer:

  • Cover it – Get comprehensive coverage – a variety of perspectives, focal lengths (wide, medium, tight and close-ups.) When shooting video, you always need plenty of b-roll to work with when editing a story. My still photography clients enjoy getting the variations that I shoot. It gives them an abundance of choice and I benefit by making more money.
  • Get sequences – Get mini stories of people interacting within the whole story. When I’m shooting, I think about how my shots will come together as part of the whole video. I approach still photography stories the same way – in paginations. How will I connect the still images to make the whole?
  • Get storytelling images – With still photography I need to make sure that my independent shots (or moments in time) will also be able to stand on their own and tell the story. They can’t just be “wowy zowy” images as Bob Gilka (former Director of Photography of the National Geographic) used to say when I showed him eye catching, colorful photos that didn’t say anything.
  • Action/motion – make the images feel. I started exploring motion because there were times when I found it difficult to convey the feeling of motion that I was trying to express in a still image. I find it is easier to convey the feeling of movement in a still image now because my eye is trained to look for the opportunities.
  • Give the images sound – (like a hammer hammering). Natural sound gives a video the element of reality. It’s almost like it gives the video a well-needed extra layer or dimension. When I’m shooting stills, I look for images that will illustrate the sound of the environment.

I usually incorporate both video and still components when working on personal projects. For my current project, Like A Woman, I’m shooting still environmental portraits and short 2-4 min. films. And when I travel, I’ll always take a digital audio recorder and microphone to capture good sound.

I’m headed to Vietnam tomorrow to shoot stills primarily, but I’ll be shooting with the eye of a hybrid.

10 Tips For Getting GOOD Audio When Using a DSLR

If you’re like most of the professional still photographers I know, you have either expanded your business and offer videomicrophones (in addition to your still photography) to your clients, or have plans to.  If you do have future plans to offer video to your clients, then you are either learning the particulars of that skill set, or you are collaborating with others who are in the know, or both.

Perhaps, one of the most daunting components of video, for still photographers is audio. Capturing audio is totally foreign to a still photographer, yet it is the most important component of all, in video production.

Here are a few tips for getting good audio:

  • You’ll never get good audio using the camera’s built in microphone, – at least not for interviews. Don’t turn the camera’s audio off however.  You can use it later for reference audio when syncing sound later in post-production.
  • Use external microphones for capturing audio interviews.  Ideally, you should record your interview audio using a digital recorder like the Samson Zoom H6 or the Tascam DR-60D with XLR connections.  I usually place a “lav” microphone on my subjects. I will also use a shotgun microphone, mounted (with shock mount) on a boom pole that’s on a fixed stand.  I rely on the microphone on the fixed stand, as opposed to hiring a boom operator, especially if I don’t have the budget for a big crew. If you should decide to use an amateur or assistant as a “boom operator”, rather than hire an experienced operator who knows how to capture “consistent” audio, you’ll most likely end up with poor audio captured at inconsistent levels. The shotgun microphone should be about 12-18 inches away from your subject. You can sync the sound with the video, later in post- production, using the software Plural Eyes.
  • Don’t cross your audio cords with your electrical cords. This causes a hum that you will detect if you are wearing headphones.
  • For run and gun” situations, you can probably get away with using a microphone mounted on the camera, as long as you are close to your audio source. You can either run a microphone (with a mini plug) directly to the camera OR you can run a microphone with an XLR adaptor through a pre-amp like a JuicedLink or a Beachtek, which will yield a cleaner audio capture. This works well for capturing ambient sound for b-roll or live action, and your audio will be recorded to the same card as your video. If you do want to capture your interview audio using a microphone mounted on the camera, make sure that you get your camera in close to your subject (not more than 18 inches away), and that you us a mixer or a pre-amp.
  • Microphones – Use an omni-directional or cardiod microphone when you are in a more controlled situation and you want your sound coming from more directions – like on a sound stage.  “Lav” microphones can be used for interviews, either hard wired or with a wireless kit. Be careful when you attach it to your subject and position it to avoid any unnecessary noise coming from hair or jewelry rubbing up against it. A good camera mounted microphone is the Sennheiser MKE 400 (compact shotgun). For interviews I use my cardiod Sennheiser ME66 with K6 powering module.
  • Use a wireless system only when you NEED to. In cities like New York you can get a lot of interference on various frequencies. Always go wired when you can. A great and affordable hard-wired “lav”, is the SonyECM44B And if you find yourself needing a wireless system, spend the money to get a system that has a good range.
  • Use a good windscreen or “dead cat” when outside. Even if you’re inside, on a windy day, with windows open, you can pick up wind noise.
  • Use headphones. Don’t just look at your meters.  Your meter may indicate that you are recording sound, but it may not be good sound – it could be you are picking up interference or getting distorted and clipped audio. Wear headphones and make sure that you are getting quality sound.
  • Always consider that you will be using the audio – even for your b-roll.  You will need clean usable audio for b-roll, even if it’s only intended as ambient, background sound.
  • Pay attention to audio. Start by letting your ears do more of the work. Every room and situation has its own sound. Listen up. Be quiet and tell your crew to be quiet as well. You never know when you’ll want to use the audio – even if you think you won’t need it.

You can read more about what I brought with me in the way of gear, when I literally circled the globe, creating my first feature length film.  The film is now available on DVD.

If you’d like to know more about “moving into motion”, check out my book, The Craft and Commerce of Motion and Video.

Storytelling – Words or Pictures?

I have always been a visual communicator.  For over 35 years I have been making a living taking photographs for magazines all over the world.  I have always “seen” the world and captured its stories through visuals.  Somehow, it was far easier for me to communicate with images than with words.  Sidewalk performer King Biscuit Festival Helena, ArkansasBut it was also a bit frustrating for me because many times when I was photographing a person, I felt like I was leaving a portion of their story untold.

When I photograph people, invariably I spend a good deal of time talking and listening to them.  It’s this rapport that usually enables me to capture a more intimate photograph. For me, this has always been my favorite part of the “process”, yet I never had an outlet for my subjects’ words, other than through the captions of my photographs.

When I started producing documentaries, my conversations with my subjects finally had an outlet through their recorded interviews that became the backbone of the “script”.  Even though the script was not something that I wrote using my own words, I was instrumental in the process because I was selecting the words and giving them an order.  I was involved in the process and structure of screenwriting.

In recent years, I have become fascinated with story structure and screenwriting.  I have read numerous books on the topic of screenwriting and this past weekend I decided to immerse myself in an intensive 3-day workshop with John Truby.  John has taught some of the best screenwriters around.  I knew going into this, it was going to be a great and informative workshop, but I had no idea how rewarding it would be.  Essentially, John gave me knowledge of the “process” and the structure of storytelling to enable me to take an idea and turn it into a really good story.

I have come away from this workshop with a deeper understanding and respect for a well-written story.   We can all spot poor writing in a film.  It stands out.  Even the layman who knows nothing about “the process” or story structure can identify really bad writing.  The audience may not know why the story or the film doesn’t work – they just know it doesn’t and they’re not buying it.  Like any other craft, screenwriting has gone through stylistic changes over the years, but the fundamentals remain.  After all, telling stories is as old as time and there has always been a constant – and that is “the audience”.  Ultimately the audience will decide if a writer has done their job well.

I think those of us who are “content creators” in this era of multi-media communications need to broaden our understanding of all kinds of mediums in order to effectively communicate.  Many times, I see creatives become too narrowly focused on their one set of tools and in the process lose sight of their end goal  – and that is to deliver the message or story to the audience.  Ultimately, the audience will always let you know if you’ve hit the mark or not because they are looking at the “whole” and not the “parts” of the story.

The Difference Between Photographers & Filmmakers

Red carpet of the Palais des Festivals et des ...
Red carpet of the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès during the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am winding down after a couple of intense months, traveling the film festival circuit with my documentary Opening Our Eyes.  I have enjoyed every bit of it, but it wore me out – in a good way.

I find that when I am “out there”, I get richly rewarded in many ways.  I think what I enjoyed the most about the film festivals, and what was the most beneficial to me, was the opportunity to dialog with other filmmakers.  I learned a lot in the process. But what stood out to me was how different these conversations were from conversations that I have with my still photographer colleagues.

Many times the conversations I was having with other filmmakers were centered on a story.  That should come as no surprise because that’s what filmmakers do – they tell stories.  But filmmakers tell stories “cinematically”, so when they are talking about the story that they are currently working, or a story idea they want to pursue, they speak in great visual detail so I see a very clear picture in my head.

My conversations with my still photographer peers, in terms of craft, are more apt to be about how they created an image.  Photographers generally talk more about the role they played in making the photo, like how they lit it or the gear they used.  Sometimes, photographers will tell me a story about what they went through to make a photograph and those stories can be very interesting and entertaining, but again the conversation is more about the execution of the image – than the story of the image.

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how and where I fit into the mix. The truth is, I remain in the middle – a true hybrid.  I realize that ever since I can remember, I have always seen stories playing out cinematically in my head, so I guess I have always had a filmmaker’s mind even though it lay dormant for most of my professional career.  On the other hand, as a still photographer and one who has been an observer of life through my camera I see things like light and composition.

So, I am a true hybrid and I can see my still photographic “eye” in the motion work I create. Others who have seen my film have remarked about the composition and lighting, because it does look different and stands out from other documentaries.  Sometimes that has been a good thing and sometimes not.  Regardless, it is what it is – a creation from a still photographer’s eye applied to motion.

Embrace the differences – see what happens.

How to Become a Still and Motion Hybrid

I’ve been living the life of a still and motion hybrid for the last 13 years.  Sometimes my work is weighted toward still imagery and sometimes more toward motion.  These days, it seems more like the two mediums have merged and my time is evenly balanced between both.

This past month I’ve talked to a lot of filmmakers as I’ve traveled around the film festival circuit with my film, but I’ve also talked to lots of photographers at Photo Plus Expo and other photographer gatherings.  I started to notice a difference in the conversations I was having with still photographers and filmmakers.  Filmmakers were usually talking about “the story” and the conversations were more like listening to the unveiling of a movie.  Still photographers, tended to talk more about how they executed “the story”.

When I talk to “hybrids”, the conversations are a blend of telling the story, with a bit of “execution” thrown in. I’m starting to notice something new in visual communications with a new aesthetic developing.  This recently became very apparent to me when I was asked to be a juror on the 1st AP-AI Motion Arts Awards.   I looked at over 50 entries and what I saw was a very unique look emerging.  What I saw was motion through a still photographer’s eye and it was incredibly exciting.

As technology continues to change how society communities, I truly believe that we as photographers need to think of ourselves as more than just someone who shoots still imagery.  As print gives way to electronic delivery, photography will take on a broader meaning as to how it’s executed.

Some things to keep in mind going forward:

  • Hang around with people who are embracing change.

From Seth Godin:

“Who you hang out with determines what you dream about and what you

collide with.

And the collisions and the dreams lead to your changes.

And the changes are what you become.

Change the outcome by changing your circle.“

  • Stop thinking of video or motion as a separate market
  • Stop giving yourself reasons NOT to do something.
  • Say YES more often
  • Remember the “tools” and the “medium” are just a means to an end. We have a whole array of new tools to create with and platforms that allow us to communicate globally.  Get excited about that.

Why Photographers Need to Stop Thinking of Video as a Market

I find that many still photographers I talk to either want to “get into video” – or they don’t.  In either case, most photographers think of video as an entirely separate market. The truth is, video is not a market at all.  It’s simply another visual medium a “photographer” can use to express themselves with, convey a story, or hopefully do both.

I have been a still photographer for over 30 years and a motion shooter for over 15, but I have been a storyteller since I started talking.  I have not abandoned my still photography, by any means, In fact if anything, adding motion to my skill set has made me a better photographer.

These days, I work with whatever medium that best conveys the message or story that I need to deliver.  I not only think about that in creative terms but also in how the story will be delivered and to whom. Last week

English: Cover of the February 17, 1933 (vol. ...
English: Cover of the February 17, 1933 (vol. 1 issue 1), first issue of News-Week magazine (now Newsweek). The issue features seven photographs from the week’s news on the cover. Featured are: Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Franz von Papen. The issue has 32 pages and cost 10 cents. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Newsweek announced they were no longer going to publish a print edition. Clearly that will have a trickle down effect on paper sales, printers, advertising agencies, on down to photographers. It won’t just affect photographers shooting for Newsweek, but will also have an impact on commercial photographers as well. It will affect many markets.

We, as a society are communicating differently and everything is in flux because of it. People are getting their news immediately and on demand, on their phones and other mobile devices.  How can a print edition of a news magazine compete with that?  It can’t. How will advertisers react to that?  That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?  How can an advertiser monetize the “mobile platform”?  Do they make a viewer watch a short ad at the front end of a story?  As we communicate more and more using smaller devices, advertisers and marketers will need to come up with new ways of reaching their target audience.

Technology is a double-edged sword. It forces change on all of us but it also opens up opportunities.  The advertisers will be able to know exactly the audience they ARE attracting, based on information gathered from analytics.  Independent photographers can use technology the same way, if they open their minds up to new ideas and start to see opportunities.  But that will only happen if they start to see video as just another medium to work with, instead looking at it as a separate market, and telling themselves that’s not what they do.

I had the privilege recently of being a juror on a “motion” competition.  I was very encouraged by what I saw and I looked at over 50 videos.  I saw something new and different.  I saw the “photographic eye“ applied to motion. I saw a different visual aesthetic emerging.  Makes sense doesn’t it?  Photographers creating in a new way using new tools for a society that communicates differently.

Mistakes Professional Still Photographers Make When “Moving” to Video

1.  They forget about the story – it’s not your camera that tells the story – it’s the person using the camera. Pretty visuals, slapped into a motion timeline with music, doesn’t necessarily tell a story.  Video is a story telling medium – don’t forget that.

2.  They think they already know how to shoot – if you think because you are a professional photographer and all you need to do is get a camera with a “video mode” on it, you are mistaken. Shooting in motion is far different than shooting still images. An experienced motion shooter can spot a video shot by a still photographer with little know how, right away.

3.  Thinking audio isn’t important – audio is more important than the visual when producing video.  Hire a sound person to do it right, but don’t discount it.

4.  Thinking the DSLR camera is all you need for video productions – this is a biggie.  How are you going to go after professional video jobs if this is the only tool in your kit?  Sure you can rent a RED – but make sure you are as proficient with this tool as your competition is before hanging out your “motion” shingle.

5.  Positioning themselves just as DP’s or Directors and thinking you’ll maintain ownership of your work. If you assume the role of a camera operator, DP or even a director – you will be in a work for hire position in most markets.  Position yourself as a producer – shoot if you want to – and direct – but realize that you’ll be just one rung on the “content ladder”.

6.  They don’t learn interview skills – this is what separates the pros from the still shooters who have DSLR cameras and think that’s all they need.  I’d say about  70% of my work includes on camera interviews.  Even though I ask the questions- I’m not on camera, my subject is.   I not only need to know how to ask the right questions and get great audio, but I need to produce a usable interview clip for an editor. That means knowing how to get great soundbites. This is one area I excel in – it’s all about rapport with your subject.

7.  They try to compete in “old business model” markets – Everyone wants to shoot broadcast spots and feature films (or short films) so they think that after shooting motion for only a few months – or even a year – they will be able to compete in the high end business of video production.  First, this market, like the still photography market,  has changed drastically, mostly marginalized by still photographers who are just starting to shoot motion,  shooting jobs for next to nothing because they have no understanding of this “business”.

8.  Learning the “how to’s” in terms of gear – but nothing about the business – this is also a biggie.  There are so many “how to shoot motion” workshops and roadshows out there but no one seems to be teaching the business end of things.  Still photographers think they already know “the business” but quickly realize that they don’t, and they put themselves out of business in this medium – before they’ve barely started.

9.  Teaching “how to” workshops in video with little or no experience – I can’t tell you how many photographers have called me for technical advice about some pretty basic stuff in terms of video,  and four months later they are teaching workshops. Please don’t become part of the problem and send more shooters out into this field without teaching them something about business. And if you are considering taking a workshop – do your homework and take the workshop from someone who is accomplished in this field and has done something.

10. They forget about the story – I know that’s #1 but it needs reinforcing.