Motion Pictures vs. Stills

On set of the short filmI'm In.
On set of the short filmI’m In.

Digital imaging has changed the way we capture and think about still pictures, movies, and video. That’s obvious. Cell phone cameras have all but replaced still and video cameras in most households. No longer do family get togethers have to rely on the family photo geek, to get decent pictures and photo albums. Slide shows are now viewed anywhere, any time over the internet.

This is great in most regards. I personally love it. My iPhone is my #1, go-to camera because it’s always on me. A lot of people feel the same way and sales of dedicated consumer point-and-shoot still cameras have steadily declined as camera phones have improved. There are some cases where a properly used iPhone can be used professionally as well (Searching for Sugar Man, Tangerine). As a professional cinematographer, this puts me in a bind some times. Not because I’m losing jobs to iPoneographers, but because I’m getting more requests for still photography.

I sometimes encounter the “one-camera-can-do-it-all” mentality with clients who want to capture stills at the same time we do our motion pictures. It only makes sense. If an iPhone can do it, why can’t a $30,000 digital movie camera do it?

The answer is twofold…technology and workflow.

Technically, most any professional digital movie camera and video camera has the resolution and image quality to take a still photo. The use of 4k resolution will result in a 13″x7″ 300 dpi print, more than enough of most commercial uses and it’s simple enough to pull a frame from the footage to use as a still. The problem is that motion picture shutter speeds are much slower than still photography and it’s hard to find a suitable frame that is still enough not to have too much motion blur. Motion blur is a good thing for motion pictures. It allows the human eye to perceive the succession of still image frames as a smooth stream of motion. If the shutter speed is shortened, the images in the footage have less motion blur and the movement becomes more staccato, jerky, and unnatural. This technique was used to great effect in “Saving Private Ryan” to introduce tension and urgency, but when I see it in commercial work today, it’s a dead give away that the filmmaker was shooting video on a still camera with a still camera lens, a wide open aperture, and too much light necessitating the use of a faster shutter speed to get a proper exposure. It could be that he or she was trying to shoot in a way that would allow to easily pull frames from the footage for stills later. In any case, the motion pictures suffer as a result.

Another hurdle that’s hard to overcome when shooting stills with a movie camera is frame orientation. A still camera can easily go from landscape to portrait framing with a twist of the wrist or quick release ball head. It’s not so easy with a fully rigged movie or video camera. The weight of the setup is one consideration. The other obstacle is that most support gear for motion picture cameras do not allow for turning the camera vertically.

Now this next one may not be an issue for many photogs or cinematogs, but it is for me. The mind sets for still and motion pictures are totally different. For stills I’m concentrating on finding that one millisecond of the time/space continuum that is a singular expression of an entire event, moment, though or expression. I’m pulling that slice of time out of the time/space continuum and freezing it, saving it forever. It’s not an easy task…shooting in burst mode helps…happy accidents are always welcomed.

Motion pictures are a sequence of images that in combination tell a story or show an action. Each frame of the sequence is dependent on the one before it and after it. For shooting motion, I’m attempting to create a linear passage of time. While I’m doing it, I’m always thinking of the shot that came before it and the one that will come next and how they will tell the story. Composition is different as well, if there is a camera move or the scene changes within the frame. Here’s where it fucks with my few remaining brain cells, if I have to shoot motion with stills in mind, it makes me lose focus on the shot I’m composing. It compromises the motion picture all for the price of getting a mediocre still image.

Now I know as a professional I may be shooting myself in the foot putting this out there, but I really feel like I have to stay true to my calling and craft. I still have a long way to go and there is always a new challenge, a vision, or technique to learn. I also know some very talented still photographers to who I’m more than happy to pass the still photography.

Like I told someone recently, there’s only one Dave Perry.

With that said, take a look at my trip back in time to my recent test in Super 8 film.