Video for the still photographer and the future

It has been nearly 3 years since the dslr video revolution put high quality video cameras in the hands of nearly every professional still photographer on the planet. Since then there has been an explosion of well made films by some of the worlds greatest visual storytellers. The lines between photographer and film maker, magazine and television network have become incredibly blurred. This past year I became a still photographer who shoots films for the radio. How did we get here and where is all this headed?

Technical innovation has always driven visual storytelling.
The photo essay was perfected on 4×5 Graflex cameras at places like Look and Life magazine, the introduction of smaller more discrete cameras opened up photographic opportunities that the larger cameras did not allow. They changed the speed that a photographer could work and how discrete one could be. Essays got more intimate, more real. Photographers had to adopt to the new technology and new shooting style. The economics shifted as well. The Graflex company that manufactured 4×5 press cameras all but disappeared.

The introduction of high quality digital cameras have changed the craft of storytelling, but they have changed the economics of publishing even more. Now the cost of shooting and publishing an image has fallen to near nothing. Advertisers have fled traditional publications to the Internet and publications have folded like never before. Conventional wisdom at magazines is that tablet publication is the savior, yet this piece in the NYT points out that tablets are likely to be competition for current television networks  more than magazine replacements. After all a screen is a screen is a screen. All of this circles me back around to films and dslr video. Photographers, like it or not motion is here to stay. Much like color film or smaller cameras it is here and not going away.  Photographers will be able to survive without embracing it, but it is one more option for telling a story.

They key for still photographers who are working in film is to understand what to expect out of this new tool. The first thing to point out is that you can either shoot stills or video. Editors might like to think that since one tool can now produce video and still images that one person can do both, but really you can’t. Video storytelling is fundamentally different from still storytelling. A videographer needs sequences of moving images and sound that fit together, a still photographer needs one all encompassing image. The two are mutually exclusive. I have set my Canon 5D up so that it is virtually impossible to shoot stills with it if I’m doing video. I learned early on that if I try to do both at the same time I might as well do neither one.

The second important things is that you can not do video alone. The minimum crew is 2 people, one running the camera and the other running sound. There is just too much going on to try and do both alone. Still photographers need to think of themselves as producers. What is the story? How do you want to tell it? With the Prostitution film I shot, Jacki Lyden did the sound but we both shared producing duties, shaping the story, figuring out the questions and where we should go next. The wonderful thing about these new tools is that a crew can be as small as 2 people but a more typical crew is the one who made Percebeiros. 5 or 6 people at a time worked on that film along with 2 video editors and the results are beautiful.

The biggest question in publishing right now is will traditional magazines budget for films in online publishing? After all they are now competing not just with other print publications but with television networks, and unknown players like Google’s commitment of $100 million for YouTube programing. The lines are shifting and rules are changing. It is a fantastic time to be telling stories. Making a living at telling stories? Well only time will tell.

Stephen Alvarez

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