Stills Mode – Six Reasons to Take Your Photography Seriously
While capturing and crafting moving images may be our primary focus, there’s a lot to be gained by taking your photography just as seriously. I’d like to quickly highlight six reasons why you should spend as much time capturing stills as you do motion.
Actually… I’ll take it one step further. As much as I love even shooting with my iPhone, and much of what I’m about to say applies no matter what medium or camera you use… preferably you should put away your digital cameras altogether and get yourself an all-manual SLR.
Shoot film, and everything I’m about to say will double or triple in value.
It’s not simply about composition and framing. It’s about light itself and developing a tuned and calibrated internal compass for exposure, color and light…
Let’s start with a famous quote that I often remind myself of. – “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
We seem to forget this all too easily, or not acknowledge at all that it applies to cinematography also. If you really want to become a cinematographer who is recognised and known for producing works of compelling, emotive visual art, then you need to start thinking and operating on a totally different level to what you may be used to. You need to get your head out of video and surround yourself with art. I have found that seeking out other related visual input, such as architecture, design and photography has led to a greater discovery of my own interests, preferences, style and creative voice.
I find far more inspiration following some photographers’ Instagram feeds than I do in most Hollywood movies. It’s amazing what a single still frame is capable of communicating.
If you’re not an Instagram junkie yet, get on board even if you have no intention of sharing your own work. Follow photographers that consistently create imagery that inspires you and makes you feel something.
It’s fun to share your own work too, and although I started years ago just with iPhone shots using the apps “ProCamera” and the fantastic monochrome iPhone camera app “Lenka”, lately my work has all been 35mm film scans, which kind of takes the “insta” out of it altogether, but whatever… It’s a snapshot of my own journey in imaging and you can use it the same way. Let others discover your work and be inspired, we’ve all got a different story to tell.
Pinterest is another fantastic platform for searching out and tracking ideas and inspiration you want to draw from in your own work. The great thing about Pinterest is you can pin other people’s work, and images that others share onto your own organised boards. For instance, I keep separate boards titled “Creative Shot Ideas”, “Lighting and Composition”, “Lighting and Color Mood References” and “Color Grading References”. The great thing about it, is it’s a constantly growing and evolving library curated by you. It is always online and accessible from anywhere on your phone or tablet. You can be on a location recce and swipe through a library of images that immediately gets ideas flowing.
The ability to reduce a scene that you intend to shoot in motion down to a single frame, one simple moment, a fraction of a second captured in time will give you a strong and focused purpose for what you are trying to achieve.
One of the biggest weaknesses I see with videographers that like to call themselves cinematographers is they have no sense of purpose. They simply don’t know what they want to achieve, they have no intent. Without intent, you are just someone with a camera. You may know how, but you don’t know why. Believe me, knowing why is far more important, and it’s the more difficult question to answer.
“How” is simply the question of a technician.
“Why” is the question of an artist.
A technician can know how to operate a camera and be a perfectly capable videographer, but that is not cinematography. Cinematography is an art form, it is about knowing why, not just how. It’s about intent, and every decision creative or technical is intentional. A love for photography instills purpose and intent.
3. Technical Competence
Ever heard of the Sunny Sixteen Rule? Neither had I, really. Or at least I never bothered to entrench the very simple mathematics of exposure into my head until I started shooting film on a vintage Russian SLR with less than trustworthy metering. Sure, I have a Sekonic L358 which is always in my bag but, more importantly, I learned it is possible to calibrate your eyes and brain to be a great (and often accurate enough) light meter.
Illustrated is a simple vintage Rolleiflex TLR exposure guide based on 10 deg DIN film speed, which is equivalent to about ISO/ASA 50.
The sunny sixteen rule states: “On a sunny day set aperture to f/16 and shutter speed to the [reciprocal of the] ISO film speed [or ISO setting] for a subject in direct sunlight.”
- f/16 at ISO 100 for 1/100th sec (or 1/125th sec if that’s the closest shutter speed)
- f/16 at ISO 200 for 1/200th sec (or 1/250th sec… it’s close enough)
- f/16 at ISO 400 for 1/400th sec (or 1/500th sec)
From that point on, it’s easy to calculate in your head. If it’s sunny, and you’d rather be at f/5.6 in terms of desired depth of field, and you’re shooting ISO 200 speed film, then you simply calculate that f/5.6 is +3 full stops from f/16 (count them… f/16, f/11, f/8, f/5.6), so you either need to increase your shutter speed by 3 (1/500th sec will probably be OK) or reduce the exposure by 3 stops by using an ND8 filter.
That’s for stills, but the math works the same for video… you’re just calculating for slower shutter speeds.
If it’s slightly overcast, the rule still works but at f/11 for the shutter speed at the reciprocal of the film ISO speed. Overcast conditions you’ll base the same calculations on f/8 and if it’s heavily overcast, you’ll base it on f/5.6. Shooting at sunrise or sunset? You’ll base it around f/4.
The more you shoot stills in varied conditions and practise your metering, calculating in your head, using a meter, comparing and building on that experience, the more you will know about the technical requirements of a video shoot just from seeing and visiting locations no matter how brief the recce.
Learn from shooting stills, practise the math, and you’ll know it all for video too… when and how to add a stop, reduce a stop, whether it is due to adjustments in frame rate, lighting conditions, filtration or shutter angle.
Imagine you walk onto a location or set, look around and know immediately how you’ll light it, or how you’ll work with the natural light. The image you see in your minds eye… it should immediately come to mind, you can see the focus, the DOF, foreground elements, background elements and where and how action will take place. You’ll know how much light you need, or if you have to make technical compromises due to creative limitation and how those compromises should be made.
That’s confidence… knowing the how, why, what and where.
It takes practise and one of the best and most effective means to practise is honing your all-manual photographic skills.
If your first 10,000 photographs are your worst then you’d better get shooting. It’s far easier to take 1000 still photographs, mistakes and all, and learn something from every exposure than it is to set up and shoot 1000 scenes in motion.
Photography is a fantastic place for experimentation. It really doesn’t matter whether something works or not as long as you learn something from it. Over-exposed, under-exposed… one stop, maybe two stops, it doesn’t matter if you end up understanding what caused the result. The beautiful thing about shooting film is you’ll soon realise you’ve got a margin of error for exposure that you typically won’t find shooting digital. You can still scan the negative and most of the image is retrievable, your exposure is just sitting on a different part of the response curve, and there may be consequences in contrast and grain.
You will start connecting parallels between your film exposures and what is happening digitally with a digital image sensor, and you’ll realise that even though the response of film and results are a bit different, the principles are the same.
We all get stuck in a rut at times, and typically find ourselves shooting within a certain genre or style. Often times this is determined by the type of work we do, be it weddings, corporates, promotional work or commercials. Photography gives you an easy opportunity to snap out of your normal routine. Sure, your best images will probably come from your travels, holidays, or trips to exotic or interesting locations, but that’s easy. It’s much harder to look for and find beauty in day to day normality wherever you are, and make an effort to turn the normal and routine around you into art.
Cause and Effect
There’s no result without hard work, but if you want to really push yourself, and see your work stand out among the ever increasing crowd of mediocre image makers, one sure way to make it happen is to get serious about photography.
Do yourself a favor, get an uncomplicated all-manual SLR and shoot film. You will take a lot of terrible photos, but you’ll also capture some magic. The more you shoot, the better the ratio of good to bad shots will get.
You’ll learn tons, and what you learn technically will influence how you shoot digitally. It will strengthen that internal compass, the voice inside you which instills confidence through experience. You’ll discover your voice, your style, your aesthetic, and it will become internal to everything else you do.
Best of all, it’s a lot of fun.