I have a background of 35 years of photography, the last 20 years focusing on classical landscape photography. Not long ago I found any video features in my cameras quite annoying. But recently I have changed my trusted Sony A7RII against the A7SII (to be upgraded soon to the A7SIII) and shot on my last trip for the first time in my life more video sequences than still images. Something has changed.
There are a couple of reasons for this step:
This all together led to my decision to give filming and video a try. Since I have always been convinced that it is impossible to shoot both video and photography on the same trip in a professional way this means my main focus is shifted from now on to video with photography degraded to snapshots for documentation purposes.
The idea of switching to video is in my mind for quite some time. But before giving up fine art landscape photography I wanted to bring it to a controlled (preliminary?) ending, some kind of finale.My idea was, before starting something new, to produce a book about my personal top 10 wild places in the world. I’ve just finished it and it is available as a print-on-demand book at Blurb. I have 0€ profit with this book, instead, 20€ will be donated with each purchase to the WWF. If you are interested you can find it here:
Now I can focus 100% on the change to video.In the following sections, I describe my experience during the first steps into the video world and give some hints on what’s important to understand to make this switch a bit easier.
Some things are quite similar in the video world compared to photography. Aperture and ISO values have the same effect. Great light for photography is often great light for video, just limited at sunrise/sunset/night by the possible exposure times. More about this later. Great compositions for photography with an interesting fore-, mid-, and background or isolated subjects are in most cases also great for video. Also, the usage of filters is quite similar.
Some things are different in the video world but with a photography background nevertheless easy to understand.
That’s easy. 4K is currently the standard. For YouTube, 1080P is still sufficient, but even there the expectations are changing more and more to 4K. And 4K TVs are getting really cheap now. I still only have an FHD TV at home but a 5K monitor, where I can watch my 4K videos. For me, it’s a no brainer to shoot everything at 4K.
If you have a camera that’s able to shoot at 5K, 6K, or 8K the decision is more difficult. I think it will take some time until many people have an 8K TV at home or the internet is fast enough to stream 8K videos in real-time. But shooting in 8K offers the ability to crop in post. This can often be very useful. If your camera can shoot in 8K, you have large enough memory cards, enough space on your hard discs, your computer is powerful enough to process 8K and you like to crop in post it makes sense to shoot at 8K otherwise stick to 4K, which is what I do.
The biggest and most important difference is probably the selection of a suitable shutter speed.
In landscape photography, the ideal shutter speed is mainly defined by the selected aperture unless you shoot long exposure images of moving water or clouds. In sports or bird photography you choose a shutter speed short enough to freeze the action and avoid motion blur.
In filming the longest possible shutter speed is defined by the frame-rate. If you shoot for example 30 frames per second, a shutter speed longer than 1/30 sec simply won’t work since the exposure would extend over more than one frame. Everything shorter than this maximum shutter speed is chosen by aesthetic criteria. As a rule of thumb, for a „cinematic look“ it’s best to follow the 180° shutter angle rule. This rule is derived from the mechanical construction of analog film cameras. The turning shutter mechanism on these cameras was open for half of the duration of one frame (meaning for 180° or the full 360° circle).
For several decades we are now used to the aesthetics of cinema films using this principle. If you follow this 180° rule you shoot with an exposure time which is 1/(2x frame-rate), for the above example 1/60sec for 30 fps. If you decide to shoot intentionally with a longer exposure time for example 1/30 sec you get more motion blur and the result is a more dreamy look. In extreme low light situations, it is sometimes necessary to shoot with 360° just to get enough photons on the sensor. If you shoot with a shorter exposure time like 1/120 sec you get less motion blur resulting in a more inharmonic, uncomfortable, and gritty look, often used in war movies.If you don’t have a good reason to choose something else it’s best to stick to the 180° rule.
Another very important topic, which is also very different compared to photography, is choosing the right frame-rate for the timeline of your video project (as opposed to the in-camera frame-rate setting, which will be discussed later). This defines significantly the look of a film.
The most common frame rates are 24 fps, 25 fps, 30 fps, and 60 fps (48 fps and 50 fps are also used but are less common). If you follow the shutter angle rule above you get automatically more motion blur with lower frame-rates. The result is a more cinematic look with lower frame-rates, like 24 fps and 25 fps, and a more realistic/sharper look with higher frame-rates like 30 fps or 60 fps. Which look you prefer is often an individual choice. The Hobbit was for example filmed at 48 fps and while some loved the resulting hyperrealistic look, many hated it.
If you shoot with artificial light the frequency of your AC should also be considered to avoid flicker. In Europe, it is better to shoot at 25 fps, while in the U.S. it is better to shoot at 30 fps to avoid flicker. For outdoor shooting, this doesn’t matter. If you plan to ever show your film in a cinema 24 fps is the quasi-standard. For everything else including YouTube, Vimeo, etc. you are relatively free to choose your preferred frame-rate according to your taste.
If you have defined the frame-rate of your project timeline, next you have to choose the right frame-rate in your camera. This can (and often is) identical, but not always. If you want to include for example slow-motion sequences you have to shoot them at a higher frame-rate. For example, if your project timeline is in 30 fps and you shoot at 120 fps, you can get a 4x slow-motion in post without a loss in quality.Slow-motion aside the frame rates of all cameras should be identical or a multiple of the project frame-rate otherwise you will get stutter. Shooting in 30 fps and putting this in a 24 fps timeline (without slowing it down) is not a good idea and should be avoided at all costs. While shooting at 60 fps and putting it in a 30 fps timeline without slowing it down is possible. In this case, every second frame is just deleted and no stutter is generated.Here is a trick which I often choose regarding in-camera frame-rates: If you set your cameras to twice the project frame-rate and in addition set the shutter angle to 360° instead of 180° (see above for the explanation) you have in post the option of deciding for each sequence whether it should run at 100% speed or be slowed down to 50%. The only disadvantages of this trick are: In slow-motion, the motion blur is a bit higher than usual and since the data rate of a video stream is often fixed using for example 48 fps instead of 24 fps means less information per frame, leading to slightly more compression artifacts. But the additional flexibility is often worth it.
For photography I typically use high-quality ball heads, for video, this is not the best choice. Filming often requires a movement of the camera during the shot for a more dynamic perspective, but this movement has to be as smooth as possible. This can be achieved by using heads with integrated fluid damping (and counterbalance for the tilt). Really good fluid heads, like the ones from Sachtler, are very heavy and very expensive. For the start, Benro and Gitzo offer some reasonably good lightweight solutions, which are at least better than any photography head.
That’s the tool used to cut, process, and color grade your video sequences into the final film. In the beginning, they can be a bit overwhelming. It’s like opening Photoshop for the first time. But when you start with video you need only a small percentage of the available features of these tools. Using some online courses it’s easy to learn these first steps.If you use a Mac I can highly recommend starting with iMovie, it’s free and part of the standard OS. Once you have mastered it, you can easily upgrade to Final Cut Pro X, which has a very similar layout and philosophy, just a lot more features.In the Windows world, I would probably choose DaVinci Resolve. It has the best color grading tools of all NLEs and is often used for Hollywood productions. The free version of DaVinci Resolve has already all the important features you need at the beginning.
Normally you don’t shoot videos in RAW. The main reason is, that for RAW you often need additional equipment and it also generates huge file sizes.This means the dynamic range of video footage is limited, depending on the camera, bit-rate, codec, etc. sometimes even very limited. It’s like shooting JPEGs only.To slightly improve this situation it is recommended to choose a flat profile, with lower contrast, lower saturation, and if possible lower sharpening. But this means you have to adjust the contrast and colors of your footage in the NLE, otherwise the result will look just like that: flat.
Another big difference between photography and video is the underlying sound. A video without a good sound is nothing. Some people even say that the sound is more important than the images in a film.The easiest way to begin is to just add some suitable music to your footage. There are two options: you can either cut your film to the music or compose the music to the film. The latter is typically done in bigger film productions but unless you are or know a musician, the former option is often your only choice.
The two best providers of royalty-free music are Artlist and Epidemic Sound. Epidemic Sound has more available tracks to choose from but Artlist has more flexible conditions. With Artlist you can still use the downloaded tracks even if you have canceled your subscription which is not possible with Epidemic Sound. It takes a couple of hours to get used to cutting to the music, but it’s not too difficult to learn.
There are some things in the video world that are easy to understand but very difficult to realize.
Fast panning looks always terrible. Everybody knows this. But when you try to pan as slow as possible using your new fluid head it’s often still too fast. It takes a lot of time to get a feeling for the right panning speed. One workaround could be to switch to higher frame-rates like 30 fps or 60 fps, which are far less sensitive to panning speed, but this has some other disadvantages as discussed above.Another option is to train, train, train until you master it.
For smooth shake-free handheld footage, a gimbal is often necessary. Compact integrated gimbal-cameras like the DJI Osmo Pocket can be a good starting point. Calibrating and holding a gimbal and understand its main principles is easy. But walking with a gimbal is not.A gimbal can correct (and stabilize) movements in three rotating axes but not in any translatory axis. The problem is when you walk, your body also moves up and down and this movement can’t be compensated by the gimbal.There are two solutions to this problem (ignoring professional Steadicam systems for over 10000€): don’t walk (just pan and/or tilt slowly) or walk like a ninja. This ninja walk takes a lot of practice. The master of this is Brandon Lee, check out his great Youtube videos.CullingChoosing the best sequences out of many hours of footage takes a lot of time in the beginning. It’s probably not much different compared to choosing for example the best 20 images out of 5000, but currently, I find it much more demanding with video footage, but maybe that’s just because I’m not used to it.
Now we come to the things that are a bit more complex and take more time to master.
While adding music to a video is a rather straight forward process, on-site sound recording and mixing different sound sources in post is a quite complex topic. Currently, I’ve only scratched the surface. It will probably take years to get a good understanding of the principles.
In the NLE you can do a lot more things than just cutting your clips and adding some music. Topics like cool transitions, speed ramping, and especially advanced color grading need a lot of time to get used to them. Especially the advanced tools for color grading like vector-scopes are far from anything a photographer is used to.
If you want to get more out of your camera you have to deal with SLOG profiles, LUTs (look-up-tables applied in the NLE), and the advanced settings within the picture profiles. That way you can further improve your dynamic range and colors but if it’s done wrong it can easily worsen the output. For example, if you have a camera that can only output 8 bit you should stay away from LOG profiles. In addition, you should look into the possible codec options (All-Intra, H264, H265, etc.), bit options (8 bit vs. 10 bit), and available data rates (bits per second) in your camera. By choosing the right combination (which your computer can still process) you can significantly improve the result.
For a good starting point about these topics take a look at the YT videos of Gerald Undone.
Last but not least is the topic of storytelling, my main reason to switch to video but also the most demanding to learn. There are thousands of books, videos, and courses about this topic and I can’t even scratch the surface here. Pascal has written a really interesting series of articles about the principles of storytelling, beginning with post #1082 (https://www.dearsusan.net/2021/01/19/film-or-photography-which-is-best-for-storytelling-1-3/).Some additional remarks from my side: It’s very important to have a flow and continuity in your video. For example, if someone moves in one sequence from the left to the right the movement in the next sequence should be in the same direction. And you have to keep your audience curious. So-called revealing shots can help. You show for example at the beginning of a sequence a tree and then move the camera to the side to reveal something interesting that is hidden behind the tree. Also, shorter sequences are often better than longer ones to keep the attention of your audience. It’s good to change between different perspectives of the same subject, let’s say from an overview to a close-up or vice versa. But whatever you do it should be done for a reason and should emphasize the main story.
Coming from landscape photography there is one discipline in filming which is very similar: time-lapse. For time-lapse videos, you take images and combine them later to a video using certain tools. The results can be, if it’s done right, quite fascinating. The by far best time-lapse tool is LRTimelapse from Gunther Wegner which is based on Adobe Lightroom. If you know how to process images in LR, learning the additional workflow for time-lapse is very easy. Therefore it is a very smooth start in the video world. For me, it’s also a fallback plan. If at a certain point I find some filmmaking topics too overwhelming I can just concentrate on time-lapse for the next years or combine time-lapse sequences with short sequences of other footage.
Drones are also a rather easy entry into the video world. At least for me, this was the case. Current products are extremely easy to fly and very stable in the air. Therefore you can quickly focus on the composition. Contrary to any other camera, you can completely ignore any thoughts about camera shake. Drones produce in nearly all cases perfectly stable and smooth footage. And they have a slider and fluid head quasi integrated. With drones very smooth pans, rises and slide-movements are possible which would need a lot of technical effort and knowledge with normal cameras.
Exactly for the above reasons the video from my recent trip to Scandinavia consists mostly of time-lapse sequences and drone footage.
The story-telling aspect in this video is still not on the level where I would like to have it. But it’s a learning curve and I hope to improve with every future video.
I’m curious to hear about your opinion and experience of this topic!
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