Transitioning to Video

Transitioning to Video

By: Chris Gamel

This article first appears in the 2011 Winter Issue of Currents, the quarterly publication of the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA)


Start a discussion with photographers today and one word keeps popping up: video.  How do I do it?  Do I have to do it?  These questions are asked with hesitation and often a touch of fear.  Why this obsession with video?  Why are still photographers feeling it necessary, or even expected, to take up this new creative outlet?  Aren’t still photography and videog­raphy separate creative endeavors?

The last few years have seen a dramatic rise in the use of video.  With the availability of increased bandwidth, websites are incorporating video in their marketing and enter­tainment efforts.  Online magazines include multimedia editions of their content.  Even mobile phone users are demanding the ability to create and share video content, with YouTube giving everyone the ability to distribute their creations to a worldwide audience.  Given this explosion of interest, is it really a surprise that photographers find themselves caught up in this new creative environment?  More than just a passing fad, anyone with an interest in professional photography needs to learn how video works.  Today, our clients don’t ask for it, they expect it.

While video provides a host of challenges to the still photographer, it also provides new opportunities.  The combination of still photography, motion images and sound creates a dynamic and powerful set of tools, which can be used to share thoughts, ideas and beliefs.  Through video, photographers are transformed into storytellers.

The good news is that many of the skills and techniques developed as nature photographers are directly transferable when shooting video.  Good light is good light; it doesn’t matter if you are shooting still or motion images.  The elements of composition are also transferable.  Most importantly, both video and still photography allow for the ultimate goal of sharing a vision.

While it is nice to know that the two disciplines overlap to some degree, it is not the similarity between still photography and video that causes concern.  The issue is how they are different.  For the budding videog­rapher, there are three fundamental differences between still and video: motion, sound, and the importance of story.

To even a casual observer, there is an obvious difference between photog­raphy and video.  Photographic images are still while videos move.  This differ­ence is fundamental and obvious, yet it is often misunderstood and poorly utilized.  To understand how motion is used in video we need to distin­guish between two types of motion: subject motion and camera motion.  No, image-stabilizing lenses are not the solution.  In the world of video, motion is a good thing, but it needs to be used properly.

The ability to record the movement of a subject is something that cannot be mimicked in a photograph.  Sure, we can freeze a hummingbird’s wings or create a stylized blur as a cheetah runs by, but these are only attempts to suggest motion.  Neither image truly depicts motion.  In video, however, we can capture a range of movements.  The movement becomes a key part of the imagery and plays into the telling of the story.  Rather then depicting a moment in time, video draws us into the scene and lets us participate in the experience as the action unfolds.

Video also permits the incorpora­tion of camera movements.  Where panning is possible with still cameras, the results are different.  With video, pans and tilts (a vertical pan) expand the viewable area and can be used to reveal elements of the story—picture a gazelle lying under a bush only to reveal a lion on the other side of the bush.  Zooming and moving the camera impact how the viewer relates to the subject.  Zooming can be used to emphasize particular aspects of a scene (zooming in) or to reveal the big picture (zooming out).  Moving the camera can enhance our experience by having us approach or retreat.  The use of camera motion does not exist in still photography, and it is often the first stumbling block we run into as we make the transition.

A second departure from still photography is the introduction of sound.  From background noises to music, sound is an important part of any video project.  Quality sound pulls the viewer in while poor sound pushes them away.  The use of proper sound recording equipment and techniques is essential when working with video.

Finally, we come to the critical difference between still and motion images; the importance of story.  Most still photographers walk out of their homes with the intention of creating beautiful images.  Unfortunately, when it comes to video, beautiful images are not enough.  Don’t believe me?  Try visiting your favorite video website and watch a few.  Which ones did you like?  Most likely the ones that actually told a story.  Without a purpose or story behind the imagery most videos fail.

The importance of story is the most fundamental difference between motion and still photography.  A good photograph can stand on its own without assistance.  It captures a moment in time and therefore does not require any additional support.  An amazing video clip, in contrast, is useless without supporting elements.  The power of video comes from the way the imagery is connected to tell the complete story.  A compelling series of images has the potential to reveal a story that moves and connects with the audience.  When dealing with nature, this is even more important because the inherent beauty can distract viewers from your message, forcing them to create their own inter­pretation of the images and potentially missing the point.

The world of video is here and, like it or not, there is an expecta­tion that photographers should know something about it.  In future articles, we will take a closer look at some of the key aspects of video, including equipment, sound, editing and distribution.