Alan's Blog




Still or Movie?

You may well ask.

What brought this question about was something a friend said to me many years ago when she returned from holiday. She said she couldn't do both still AND movie photography. It was one thing or the other.

Now, many people may not know what she really meant – unless they've tried it for themselves. I knew exactly what she meant as I'd been in the same situation many times.

Because these two types of photography are so different, they each require different techniques to be used – and a different mindset for each. In still photography, generally speaking, the subject is usually, well, still or is captured as though it was still by exposing one frame of film, or capturing a few different images of the same subject over time. Movie photography captures (and records) movement (hence the name). Of course, it could be said that a movie is merely a series of still photographs. This is of course true, the difference being in the way the subject is viewed. In straightforward terms a still photograph is viewed as one image, usually looked at for an extended period of time. With a movie, each image is viewed at high speed – usually around 25 or 30 (often more) images (or frames) per second, thereby showing the subject moving.

When I started taking movies using a Super-8 film camera (in about 1970/71), I was taught the main basic rule which has always stayed with me and has been a great asset to me. The rule simply states "Keep the camera still and let the subject do the moving".  Apart from slow pans and tilts, it's a rule I still follow. These days many professionals use sliders and booms to move the camera, albeit it in a very controlled way (a technique often overdone).

Again, many years ago, a friend came to visit me from Madrid. She brought her video camera with her. She'd just returned from Washington (USA) and wanted to play back the videos she'd taken so we could both watch them. I connected the camera to the television and started to play the tape. I was horrified! And so was she! She had never learned the main basic rule and, as a consequence, she never stopped moving the camera. And I really mean move! The result, of course, was that none of her video tapes were viewable and that was really sad as she now had no recording of her holiday in the USA.

I took her out to show her how to use her video camera. The main extra item I took along with us was a hefty tripod. At the place we visited, I set-up the tripod with the camera on it and explained to her this main basic rule. We recorded some scenes in various places before returning home where, once again, I connected the camera to the television, started the tape and there was a clear, good quality image of the places we'd visited with the subject moving, not the camera. She certainly learned the hard way. No doubt she didn't make that mistake again.

This was, of course, in the days of separate film cameras and analogue video cameras (or even film movie cameras). Photographic life now is somewhat different as most cameras, and even telephones, have the facility to take both still photographs and movies.

However, still photography and shooting movies require two different mindsets. These two types of photography are so different they each need to be thought of in an individual way even when you have 'two cameras in one'.

The main problem with taking videos is still the old one of keeping the camera steady. Of course, a rock-solid tripod with a good fluid head is the ideal way as, even with in-camera or lens stabilisation, there is still no substitute for a tripod. Yes, I do know it's a bit of a pain lugging one around, but the results are well worthwhile if you make the effort. Why do you think the broadcasting and video production companies use such hefty devices? It's so they can guarantee steady, not shaky, movies. Isn't that what you want too?

So, how do you do both still and videos? There is no easy answer to this question, however, I can only make some suggestions that may be helpful.

IF you are using two different cameras, one for still photographs and the other for video, life will be difficult – as already previously outlined. Ideally, when shooting video, it is better to work from a pre-written script, as do the professionals (except news journalists and some other specialists, who have to be more flexible). Of course, most people don't have a script to work to and just record the scenes that they see, although planning ahead can certainly help.

In the case of using just one type of camera it is best to focus on just one type of photography at a time. If you're at an event or a place such as a stately home, for example, there may be an opportunity to first walk around the place using your still camera, then return for another tour using your video camera (on a tripod). The first walk round with your still camera will enable you to think about ideas for using your video camera the next time round as well as obtain your still photographs.

Life is certainly much easier when using one camera that takes both still and videos as one can switch from one to the other quite rapidly; something that was impossible in the past. However, it still requires a change in the way you look at what is going on in your scene – a change of mindset, to a certain extent, as there are now two ways of composing what you see into something the viewer of each will find attractive and worth viewing. There is even the possibility to just record video and then extract still frames from the movie and use them as still photographs but this is something I don't recommend for two reasons, one being the probable drop in the technical quality of a video frame compared to that of a good still image, the other being that there is likely to be a difference – and a major one at that – in the way you view the scene as a movie when compared to composing the photograph as a still picture.

Yes, it is now possible to take both still and movies – but only by giving what you do a great deal of thought about the final outcome and choosing the appropriate medium for what you want to achieve in your photography.

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