If you have a late-model DSLR, chances are your camera shoots HD video. And even if your aspirations don’t reach beyond capturing the big moments of everyday life, it’s still worth setting your camera to record, if only to see what beautiful movies you can make using the tools you already own.
For all the differences between still photography and motion pictures, each is about making images. And you already know how to do that; every time you shoot, you compose carefully and expose deliberately to tell a story. In the most basic sense, a video is just a lot of pictures—a high-speed slide show of stills.
So how do you begin making movies? Vincent Laforet, the New York Times photographer-cum-director, says the trick is connecting those frames. “Your audience can choose how long to stare at a [still] image, whether it’s a few seconds, minutes or hours,” he says. “Motion is all about putting shots or images together in a sequence—holding your audience’s attention throughout.”
Laforet knows a thing or two about making movies with DSLRs, having turned a lucky chance with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II prototype into a career as a director. For him, preparation is key; thinking about shot sequence well before a shoot can be especially helpful.
Laforet suggests watching favorite films, remote in hand. “Pause and rewind,” he says. “When you see your favorite sequence or a scene you like, really watch it, shot by shot, and break it down in an academic fashion. Figure out why the director chose this angle or this camera movement; why they chose this sequencing and this pacing and why it’s effective.”
On the flipside, you can learn just as much from bad productions as you can good ones. Identify the elements that don’t work, and avoid them. Corey Rich, an adventure sports photographer and director, suggests learning from the video you see every day: “Even on crappy evening television, you can watch the way the camera is moving and analyze how they do it,” he says. “You don’t see the camera shaking, ‘Oh, they must be using a tripod.’ Wow, when the camera goes from left to right, it’s pretty smooth, ‘They must be using a fluid head.’”
Often the easiest way to produce a good video is to start with a strong visual concept that informs every creative decision you make. While shooting an impromptu music video for his friend Moruf, professional video editor and freelance shooter Adam Saewitz decided to incorporate formal design principles into the work. “I was in a phase where I was drawn to 90-degree angles,” he says. “I wanted it to project confidence—to present it in a bold, evocative way.”
He shot two takes, one handheld and one on a tripod, all the while composing his shots to incorporate the visual themes he wanted. The result? Powerful images with strong lines that communicate Saewitz’s interpretation of Moruf’s music.
With his professional experience as an editor, cutting together a bunch of short clips was simple for Saewitz, but longer takes will save you time editing your final product. The catch? It’s much easier to lose a viewer’s attention when you leave more time between cuts.
Since Saewitz’s video was a live performance, the musicians took care of their own audio. But for a shooter just starting out, a high-quality hot-shoe-mounted mic like Røde’s VideoMic can provide enough clarity and noise reduction to add a bit of polish.
Most cinema and video shooters scoff at the idea of autofocus for video, much as photographers did upon its advent in photography. And it’s true, there is something to be said for the ultra-smooth focusing rings on the fast prime lenses currently flooding the market—you just can’t recreate that action using autofocus.
But AF technology is constantly improving. The video AF on Canon’s EOS Rebel T4i uses stepping motors to track subjects and keep them in focus automatically, in micro adjustments. It won’t give you the smooth transition of a follow-focus rig, but it might be good enough to convince you to set it, forget it, and concentrate on other elements of your production.
A neutral density filter helps keep shutter speed in check
You can also expand your capabilities without cutting-edge technology—neutral density filters can help you shoot at wide apertures in full daylight. Shooting video, you have less flexibility with your shutter speeds. Shoot any faster than 1/60 sec, and you’ll start to notice choppiness. Buy several ND filters and stack them as needed; a single variable ND filter can do the job, but can cost upwards of $300.
The Next Level
When you’ve got the basics down, and your Facebook friends are waxing poetic about the composition and shot selection in your cat videos, it’s time to get a little bit more sophisticated. That could mean adding field recorders to get multiple audio tracks, a second camera for shooting live events from several angles, or a video-friendly fluid head for your tripod to make those dramatic pan shots look as smooth on screen as they do in your imagination.
Another reason to take it up a notch? You’re a pro photographer watching budgets dwindle, and it’s smart to start producing video work, too. For wedding photographer Todd Reichman, watching the lost revenue stream right before his eyes was just too much to take. “People would ask us as wedding photographers, ‘Hey, do you have a recommendation for a videographer?’” he says. “As a business person, you look at that and you say, ‘do I want to refer that business, or would it be great to have that business in house’?”
For Reichman, that question proved to be a no-brainer. But Adam Weiss, a 20-year pro who has shot stills for the likes of Esquire, Nike, and Sony Music, found crossing over more difficult. Despite a stellar reputation with an all-star client list, he found himself shooting videos on spec.
“I started approaching clients, like: ‘You know me, you know my work. Let’s do motion,’” he says. “They all said: ‘You gotta show me something first.’”
Regardless of who is funding a production, one of a video’s most important aspects is its soundtrack. Even the first “silent” films had live music to accompany them. Audio may be foreign territory to photographers, but for motion pictures it’s crucial; bad sound can render even stunning visuals moot. A hot-shoe-mounted shotgun mic may handle your basic field recording needs, but for a professional operation like Reichman’s, off-camera solutions were a necessity.
The Zoom H4N is one of the most common recording solutions for HDSLR video
“You have to think about the audio you’re going to get, how you’re going to get it, and if you’re going to be able to get it redundantly in case one source doesn’t sound good,” Reichman says. “We use digital audio recorders. We’ll use a lavalier mic if we can. Or we’ll drop Zoom audio recorders in various places around the room. Sometimes we’ll plug into the soundboard.”
But when the sound is the star, having a crew member dedicated to capturing audio can make all the difference. Jim Beckmann, Web content manager for the University of Washington’s KEXP radio station, oversees the production of hundreds of live performance videos a year. A recent shoot at the Pickathon festival in Oregon exemplifies the challenges of live audio.
The Rhode shotgun mic is another popular DSLR audio option. It mounts to the camera via hot shoe.
“In the past, we’ve used handheld recorders, but now we bring an audio producer in the field,” Beckmann says. “We were set up in a small open space in the woods. There wasn’t a lot of isolation from the stages nearby, but our engineer captured the audio from acoustic performances really well, with no more than five or six mics and a portable multitrack recorder.”
Even if the sound is pristine, shooters like Reichmann still must resist falling prey to schmaltzy cliches like racking focus (shooting at a shallow depth of field and transitioning from focusing on one element, say, a bride, to another, say, the groom in the background) and learn to tailor their clips to their audiences. These days Reichman and his team play to short attention spans and record short takes that give a sense of a place and help tell a story.
“I'm looking for interesting things 3 seconds at a time, sometimes even less,” he says. “It’s about moving the frame. If you have a wide-angle lens and put something in the foreground, middleground, and background, there’s a relationship when those things change that’s interesting.”
While shooting a newly married couple’s first dance, for example, a wide shot that has the couple in the foreground, the parents in the midground, and the band or guests in back, will have multiple elements moving within the frame. Even when the camera itself doesn’t move, action is key.
Of course, stringing together short clips means more work editing. Reichman killed two birds with one stone when he expanded his business, hiring a videographer with extensive editing experience. As your concepts become grander and the shoots become more complicated, delegating important tasks to specialized experts becomes crucial to making the transition from photographer to director.
“It’s about letting go a little bit, giving up a bit of control,” says Weiss. “You become an art director, in a sense. You have to hire someone to realize your concept.”
Reichman also found that the video component to his wedding work ended up improving his still photography. “As a photographer, if I know I have video, I don’t have to overshoot,” he says. “I don’t have to get shots of what everything looks like. Now I can produce fewer images that have more meaning.”
Reichman proves that the photography/video symbiosis can benefit both the still photographs and the videos. And Corey Rich points out that the line that divides the people who make stills and the people who make videos is ever blurring. “The separation between filmmakers and still photographers is getting a lot thinner,” he says.
Shoot Like a Pro
when video production budgets swell, so does the gear list, crew size, and expectations. Once the focal point, the camera becomes merely a little cog in a machine with hundreds of parts. Though a professional photographer can reasonably expect to set out alone to make beautiful pictures, producing a big-budget video is decidedly a team effort. Cinematographers, camera operators, lighting grips, production assistants, even craft services all make the production go, allowing the director to focus on the creative vision as a whole. “It’s all about collaborating with others,” says Laforet. “It’s a very hard thing to do all on your own.”
Of course, collaboration begins with Laforet’s favorite thing: preparation. And KEXP’s Beckmann knows that when prepping for a shoot, great ideas come from everywhere. “During setup, we encourage even interns and volunteers to make suggestions. We all have opinions, and ultimately the best idea wins the day.”
For a scripted production, conceptualizing the project, building storyboards, and creating shot lists are even more important—these define the outline and the skeletal structure of your work. Laforet also believes these pre-shoot conceptual techniques can benefit your photography, even when you’re not working on video. “Preproduction is enormous,” he says. “It’s useful to everybody.”
In fact, shooting stills is often the best way to build storyboards and sketches. Scouting for a Luke Scott film, Corey Rich observed Scott’s storyboard-sketching process: “He was carrying around two Nikon D3s. We would show up at the location, and he’d look at it like a still photographer, sketching it with the cameras. He’d make frames and he’d look at the back of the camera, thinking about how he was going to do the motion sequences. He was thinking with motion as a filter.”
Part of the preproduction process is dealing with the size of the production itself, and the headaches that come along with it. The bigger your crew, the tougher it will be to shoot under the radar. At least one person has to be able to negotiate any production roadblocks, and if you’re the director, it’s likely to be you.
“If you’re working with a crew, or even if you’re just setting up a tripod, you’re going to find that people treat you very differently on the street,” Laforet says. “Cops will pay much more attention to you. Permits become necessary. It’s a whole different set of skills and hoops to jump through.”
Despite the many moving parts that comprise a large production such as Rich’s adventure sports doc, Why, or the technical challenges of piloting drone cameras in jungle rapids, the whole point of the increasingly sophisticated tools is to remove limitations to what our minds can manifest on video.
“It’s purpose-driven to enable us to spend less time fiddling around with the technical aspects, and spend more time on the creative,” Rich says.
So what can that mean for your video? These days, it usually means motion. Not just the image, but the elements within the image, and often the camera itself. “In modern video, it’s not just that stuff is moving in front of the camera,” Laforet says. “The camera itself is—more often than not—moving. You want to keep moving the camera, but do it with a reason.”
Sliders help make for smooth camera movements.
Motorized remote-controlled dollys such as Kessler sliders can make time-lapse videos amazing with automated tracking, and cranes can help quickly alter perspective with dramatic altitude changes.
“It should move to help tell the story and push it forward,” Laforet insists. “If your camera is always stationary—or as we call it, locked off—it’s very common for your audience to lose interest in what you’re shooting.”
When producing movies at the highest level, you almost certainly will have an editor to handle the time-intensive task of editing your clips. But as the director, it’s important to be involved in the editing process, and to learn from your editor. Laforet suggests becoming best buddies with yours. “You’re not going to learn anything by giving them your footage and having it come back all cut,” he says.
Apple's Final Cut Pro X is just one of the pro video editing solutions available.
“What you really want is to sit down with an editor [who will] tell you, ‘Hey, you’re missing this transition. You don’t have this coverage. You’re making the wrong lens choice from this shot to that shot and it’s making it hard to cut.’ Editors understand how to effectively sequence shots—working with one will give you a leg up on most people.”
For a professional like Laforet, the day-to-day differences of the life of a director and the life of a photographer may be worlds apart. But ultimately, the goal is still the same: to tell stories with powerful images. That the tool is the same is no coincidence.
“Photography is never going to go away,” he says. “People are just going to look at a camera as a multipurpose tool from now on. They won’t have the concept of the camera that just shoots stills. This has already happened.”