Shooting Photographs with a Video Camera? by Aaron Feser

This is a special feature post by Aaron Feser, a photographer and videographer based in Calgary, Canada. You can see more of his work here.

Shooting photographs with video has a difficulty level that falls somewhere between stills and video. It’s a hybrid tool that’s only practical for special situations. But if you like a challenge it represents a unique creative experience that might change the way you think about street photography.

by Aaron Feser. Calgary AB. December 2017.  (All photos are JPEG frames pulled from 1080 video and processed in Lightroom.)

Street photography is a great way to be creative, communicate, learn, grow, and get some exercise. Traditional photography does this job very well and it’s simple, easy, and fun. With modern cameras even a beginner can take a good shot of a pretty sunset.

Video is technically more difficult to shoot than stills and no matter how many videos you make, it’s always hard to make a good one. Video is based on story and a story is hard to watch for more the twenty seconds unless it’s good. The advantage of video is that it’s a far more powerful medium than stills. A good video will be always be more popular than a good photo.  That’s the trade-off.

The camera I used for this test was an Olympus EM10 II. Almost any camera will do, even a cell phone, but I do a lot of night video shooting and the Olympus performs very well in low light. Although some of the newer cell phones are pretty good in low light too. The Samsung S8 is one of the best for low light video. The Samsung Note 8 has the same camera but is bigger and more expensive.

What most cell phones don’t have is a tilt-up LCD, like the EM10 II. I find swing-out LCD’s to be very disorienting, cumbersome, fragile, and attract a lot of attention. Non-tilting LCD’s, like on a cell phone, require you to hold the camera at eye height. Not ideal for comfort or creativity. I shoot most of my video at waist height because video requires long takes and this position gives you a comfortable grip. A camera neck-strap will also compliment this hold quite well. And a waist/chest level camera height creates a more flattering parallel angle, compared to the high angle from the eye which always looks down on people and distorts their bodies.

EVF’s place the camera over your eye and this represents a very aggressive, threatening, almost robotic way to look at someone. LCD’s also provide more situational awareness so you can glance up frequently and avoid collisions, especially when moving.

The lenses I used were the Olympus 17mm F1.8, Panasonic 15mm F1.7, and Olympus 45mm F1.8. Wider lenses usually work better but longer lenses can be useful sometimes. The shallow DOF of longer lenses looks cool. But the tight framing makes it a lot more challenging to shoot.

With video there are many technical issues that will affect the quality of each frame in the video file. Such as resolution, frame rate, shutter speed, motion blur, camera angles, and camera movement. You have to know a lot about video in order to get good quality photos from your video. But if you place artistic value above technical quality, you’re golden. Just shoot and let the chips fall where they may.

4K video will allow you to make a decent 8X10 print from a single frame of video, but 1080 is more than enough for the net. 4K has issues with large file sizes at the shooting and storage phase. And there’s often rolling shutter issues. Whatever the case, don’t get hung up on sharpness because when it means nothing to the value/popularity of a piece of art.

Casey Neistat is one of the most popular Youtubers in the world who also invented the daily vlog and he used to shoot 4K a lot. But in his Dec 28, 2017 vlog he said he’s going back to 1080 because he wants to focus more on things that matter to him in video. And resolution isn’t one of them. Peter McKinnon is a popular Canadian Youtuber who is also doing the same. The ROI on 4K just isn’t there. When you have a good story you can break all the rules.  Any resolution is good enough.

When shooting stills with video a good default setting is 1080p60, 1/125 shutter, small aperture, and a wide lens. This will also give you smooth motion if you want to use the video for a video, and not just stills. 1080p24 will work too, you just have less frames to choose from when there is a lot of action.

A higher shutter speed like 1/500 is better if you want sharper frames, or you’re moving the camera, or the subject is moving. Sharper frames require higher shutter speeds and a sharp lens with a middle aperture. 1080 resolution will also have sharpness limitations baked into the codec which will vary from one camera to another.

If you want to get more artsy, lower the shutter to 1/30 and start panning the camera and embrace the motion blur. Or shoot 60i interlaced video and embrace the imperfections it has. Or shoot 640×480 video and just enlarge it as big as you want and see what happens. Anything is art if you say it is.  Or even better…if a buyer says it is.

You can easily scrub through long video files with a good media player. I use Quicktime. Just fast-forward through the movie. After awhile you’ll know what to look for and can find keepers just as fast as you can with stills. Just don’t archive the files or storage will kill you. Pull some frames and delete the movie. Eric Kim has great advice on the danger of hoarding pictures. It’s just as bad as hoarding anything in your life.

All of the above technical issues can theoretically be improved with time and R&D. But none of these issues matter because they won’t affect the quality of the experience and that’s what gives an image value in video. Regardless of whether you’re shooting video for the photographs or you’re shooting video for video. Videographers are looking for an experience, not a moment. Experiences contains story and that’s where the best images are hiding. Videographers shoot the way you see with our eyes. Shooting video is like hanging out at the mall. We look for interesting experiences and it’s in these experiences that we find stories. That’s why the best memories come from the best experiences.

Photographers, on the other hand, look for details and moments to grab quickly. They run and gun. This works for a photograph but it doesn’t work as well for a story. Especially a good story. The better the story, the more time you have to spend with it.  Stories are like rabbit holes. You don’t run and gun in a rabbit hole, you get lost in it.

Videographers have no choice but to claim some space, join the conversation, and participate in the story they are telling. Everyone can spot the videographer in the crowd because they stand out. They get as close to the action as they can and stand there with a camera in both hands pointing it at someone or something for long periods of time. As a result videographers are exposed and vulnerable. But even though this may feel scary for the videographer, for everyone else on the street, it’s even more scary. Because confidence is intimidating. Everyone fears that which doesn’t appear to have any fear.

You need be brave or a special kind of crazy in order to be a street videographer. Or a news/documentary videographer. After you shoot video for awhile your stills photography will improve because you’ll have more attitude. But you’ll lose that edge if you go back to stills for too long.

The good thing about being so visible is that people who hate cameras will run from you. This saves you the hassle of having to sneak past these people and look like a creep in the process. Which most photographers will try to do because they’re trying to blend.

Videographers will also try to blend but they do it differently. They blend by not blending. They use bold action and shoot without fear of judgement, which makes it seem like they belong and this gains them acceptance. In a war zone this can also get you shot, but this is the price you have to pay to be a videographer. You can sneak a shot but it’s very hard to sneak a story.

There are some stills photographers out there who are more bold with their cameras and they don’t need to be sneaky either. Eric Kim is one of them. These photographers are generally more successful in the long run. The more bold you are with a camera, or your words, or your clothes, or you anything in your life…the more brave you have to be. Brave people will attract a great deal of love or hate, but they will always be grudgingly respected. And so will their art.

Eric Kim has always maintained that “80% perfection is good enough or you’ll never do anything.” This advice was vital for this project because I have trouble “closing.” I have a lot of ideas that I start but never finish. My interpretation of Eric’s words are that bad art is better than no art. Bad art represents movement and that can lead to good art someday. But no art leads nowhere.

So if you try this idea, or any other new idea, don’t focus on the results too much or you’re dead in the water. Try to find value in the journey and celebrate that. That will get you out on the streets more often and shooting more content and that’s how you will eventually create something great. Even if you don’t, you still had an amazing journey and that’s about as good as it gets. So use this technique as an excuse to get out there and create.

by Aaron Feser. Calgary AB. December 2017.  (All photos are JPEG frames pulled from 1080 video and processed in Lightroom.)