Of the common elements shared by photo and cinema, there are a few that stand out as most significant. A photographer sampling the world of cinema is generally familiar with the concepts of lens choice, composition, light, and color. But these tools are still new to many videographers who are just entering the DSLR world and are, for the first time, encountering the overwhelming abundance of choices, and exploring light in a whole new way.
The transition to DSLRs is an exciting one, but not without its challenges. By grabbing hold of a few of the most powerful concepts in photography, we can unleash the creative potential we have in all of us.
What Is The "Best" Lens?
There's something so beautiful about that glossy cylinder of glass. From the moment we take it out of the box, we clean it, we baby it, we adore it. And most of us have a favorite one-our go-to lens that we're confident will give us a beautiful image every time.
But there's a story-killing error that many of us make. Those who come from a world of "video" cameras never really had to deal with changing lenses and the impact lens-interchangeability would have on our workflow and our work. But now, we've been thrown into the curious world of DSLRs, where lens choice is a critical reality.
In comes the error: We choose a shorter focal length because we see more with it (it's wider) and a longer focal length because it "zooms" us in (it's tighter).
And while this is absolutely true, it is far from the only thing to consider when choosing a lens. In fact, field of view (how much you see in the frame) is only one of many variables that change when you change a lens.
So what are some of the other factors? Consider these:
• Depth of field
• Image stabilization
• Maximum aperture
When you choose a lens based solely based on its field of view (FOV), you end up tossing all of these other storytelling tools aside, and leaving them no opportunity to contribute to the story. As a matter of fact, our failure to consider these tools in your lens selection may indeed impact the story, but in a detrimental way-whether we realize it consciously or not.
So, what's the difference between a 35mm and a 135mm besides lens how "wide" and "tight" they are?
The 135mm has a shallower depth of field with a "creamier" bokeh; it has far less distortion; and it's a somewhat bigger lens and a darker one too. It also compresses things front and back, making them look closer together, and it's sharp as a tack with great color rendition.
But what does that mean for the story?
Let's start of by ignoring FOV because-let's face it-we can move our feet to get more or less in the frame (practical limitations aside). It's the other tools that work together with FOV to create the mood of the frame.
The 35mm is a great choice for funny moments, majestic environments, with a degree of unpredictability. Its distortion and exaggeration of distances and sizes make the subject look and feel larger than life, more comedic, and often grander as well.
The 135mm is great for sentimental, dramatic, or intimate settings. The compression makes rooms look smaller and brings people closer together. It also minimizes facial features, making more flattering and realistic-looking images. The shallower depth of field separates the moment from the background, making it the foremost focus, while the comparative lack of distortion keeps the frame straight-lined and distraction-free.
Whether we're shooting events, commercials, or movies, there are a multitude of moods to portray. When choosing a lens for a particular scene, we need to ask ourselves, "How does this moment feel?" and "Which lens feels the same?"
With so many lenses available, it may seem difficult at the beginning to know instinctively how each will "feel" on an emotional level. However, there's a very efficient way to learn: by shooting with primes.
A prime lens has a single, fixed focal length, while a zoom has many, which you're free to choose with the twist of a hand. But the problem with zoom lenses is that you rarely know which focal length you are using exactly. If you're shooting with a 24-70mm, it's difficult to tell whether you're at 45mm or 60mm and this, in turn, makes it nearly impossible to discover the emotional qualities of each focal length. However, primes promise a focal length each time they're attached to your camera. They promise a "feeling," and by familiarizing ourselves with each lens's "feeling" we can, without a doubt, become better storytellers.
Shooting with prime lenses makes it imperative that we be able to anticipate things well. If the mood in a room were to change suddenly, our zoom lens would be ready for action with the turn of a dial. But primes aren't quite as convenient. In the same situation, a videographer would have to reach into a gear bag, grab a different lens, and make the switch, all the while missing significant moments. Using primes forces us to be more aware and present in our surroundings, which means that we can predict things skillfully and be ready with the right lens before something happens. It's this commitment to being truly present that results in closer relationships with our clients, and closer relationships lead to more meaningful and inspired imagery.
Framing Your Thoughts
Where is the subject? How much of the frame does it take up? What's the angle? What's in the background? How is a frame with negative space different from a centered closeup?
There are so many ways to frame a shot: long-sided, short-sided, centered, close, far away, shooting up, shooting down, eye level, using the rule of thirds, shooting through objects, and so on. Each of these facets can communicate something different, such as optimism, tension, curiosity, trust, comfort, intimacy, privacy, isolation, power, intimidation, weakness, connection, disconnection, anxiety, and balance.
In general, we strive to make our imagery interesting to look at. The more interesting the visuals, the more likely we are to grip the viewer with our story. But when making our imagery "cool," we must be aware of all the messages being conveyed by our techniques. On occasion, we may unintentionally send out the wrong vibe, simply because we focused our attention on making stylish imagery and forgot to consider what else it might be suggesting.
For example, it has become a popular trend to shoot through objects such as windows, or bushes. Arguably, this creates visual interest by providing context and texture. But it can also generate feelings of separation and uncertainty-feelings that may not actually fit the story. By nature, if a person were to watch a scene through a window or through the small spaces between branches, she may feel removed from the moment-like an outsider looking in. Does this particular piece of the narrative warrant such feelings? Consider the images in Figure 1 and Figure 2 as examples.
Figure 1. Shot through the same window as the bride peered through moments before walking down the aisle. Like an outsider looking in, she was anxious to become part of the action.
Figure 2. With no window in the foreground, the viewer feels less removed. Rather, with heads in the foreground we now feel like we're part of the audience, somewhere in the middle of the group.
With careful thought and evaluation, we can use composition to draw our viewers in, and make them feel more connected to the moment. The more our audience feels like they are a part of the story-as if they were actually there-the more invested in the characters they will be. We have the power to guide our viewers' emotions and to make them feel certain things, and it's our knowledge of composition that can be employed as a catalyst to make these feelings appear quicker and more intensely.
Compare the next two images as examples. In Figure 3, our subject is relatively small in the frame with a silhouetted view of the surroundings. Looking a little bit upwards on the horse, we see that he is running out of the frame. In this scene, equal importance was placed on the environment as the horse and rider, to reflect the significance this farm has on the rider's life. By shooting up on them slightly, we project feelings of confident energy, which adds boldness to this warm spirited frame. And by having the horse running out of the frame, we foster feelings of mystery and exploration, which signify the youthful curiosity the rider experiences every time she steps onto the farm, where there's just so much to take in. The viewer wonders, "Where are they going, and what are they about to see?
Figure 3. In this image, the subject and the environment have equal importance.
In Figure 4, by contrast, the subject, the couple, takes up the whole frame. Both of their faces are close to the thirds range, creating a balanced, comfortable image. Given that their expressions feel comfortable and safe, a supportive composition only propels those feelings further. Also, by shooting at eye-level, we create a more powerful and relatable connection between the viewer and the couple.
Figure 4. An eye-level shot connects the subjects and viewer.
As the authors of our story, we must actively examine the purpose behind our composition and be mindful of the impact each decision will have on our viewer. Whether we want to build suspense or convey happiness, the right composition is an invaluable tool when used in a relevant manner.
Lighting for Effect
First, let's get this out of the way: If you've got an on-camera light that follows your every move, it's time to get out your trusty sledgehammer and smash it to bits. Ok, that might be a little harsh. But let's think about what such a light does for you, or doesn't do for you.
Most videographers who are using an on-camera light are using it solely to increase exposure in dark situations. But light is about so much more than just intensity. It's a storytelling tool with many facets, many moods-and the "deer-in-the-headlights" feel that an on-camera light can engender in your subjects shouldn't be one of them (unless you're shooting a "frightened deer" scene of course).
With cameras being able to "see" better than the human eye in a dark room, intensity should be one of the last things to think about. It's direction, softness, temperature, and all the other qualities of light combined with intensity that truly influence the spirit of a shot.
Being able to identify a mood through lighting takes some practice. But there are a few questions we can be asking ourselves each time we walk into a room that will help us evaluate the light and ascertain whether changes should be made. Are the shadows soft? How big is the light source? How far away is it? Is there mixed lighting (different color temperatures mixing together)? Which angle is it coming from? Does the lighting match the feel of the environment or the moment?
An on-camera light is fixed. It illuminates the subject directly, creating an unflattering look. Its color is usually constant, and for convenience, it's normally small, which creates a harsher, more dramatic, and chiseled quality. Quite simply, it offers very little creative control and yields an image that is often inconsistent with the message.
Off-camera lights present many more options, such as direction that can be changed at a moment's notice, as well as distance and size, which can be adjusted to provide just the right amount of softness and intensity. Even color can be altered through gels or variable temperature LED lights. If a moment feels calm, inviting, and sentimental, the combination of lighting variables should be quite different from a stormy, gloomy, and serious one. Exploring light teaches us a new language that we can use to communicate messages from our own unique perspectives.
Defining the Spectrum
What's your color? Do you best suit a dark, desaturated purple, or perhaps a lively red? In the imaging field, there seems to be a paradigm, that yellow tones are warm, blue tones are cool, and that's the end of it. But with so many colors in the spectrum, how can we ignore the possibilities they present?
These possibilities can be explored both in the shooting process and in post. Through lighting and camera settings, we can create an ambiance in itself, or prepare our shots for more efficient and accurate color work at the editing station.
Some of the powerful in-camera color tools to manipulate first are white balance, white balance shift, and picture styles. White balance, measured in degrees Kelvin, controls the yellow and blue balance of an image. We can use this tool to achieve "proper" whites, or we can use it to reflect the moment being captured. Thinking this way from the get-go saves time during the editing stage, which is especially important when creating a same-day edit.
White balance shift allows you to dial in and out of particular colors such as magenta, green, blue, and red. This is particularly useful on a bright, sunny day, when the green of the grass is reflecting off a person's face. To minimize this distraction, you can add some magenta tones, thus decreasing the amount of green, and produce a better-balanced image. Conversely, adding green to a scene can convey an alternative or even nauseating feel, which also has its place in storytelling.
The picture styles menu option lets the artist tweak sharpness, contrast, saturation, and color tone-all settings that may differ depending on editing plans. If a third party is responsible for putting together the final piece, it's often beneficial to produce ready-to-go, punchier, and more saturated imagery with higher contrast. But if the edit is in your hands, it pays to have a slightly blander image from the start that retains more information, so you have plenty to work with at the computer.
During the editing process, you have several decisions to make. Will the coloring go beyond the primary stage of balancing exposure, white balance, contrast, and so forth? And if so, which colors should be added or removed to propel the story best?
Here are some issues to consider: How do you personally perceive colors? What is a happy color? What is a sad one? What is a lusty one? What is an angry one? Do the emotions you associate with different colors change when these tones are mixed with others? Indeed, combinations of colors are just as important as the individual colors themselves. For example, complementary hues (directly across each from other on the color wheel) have a stark contrast and can be used to promote feelings of angst or to draw the viewer's attention to a particular part of the frame (Figure 5). Conversely, analogous colors (directly side by side on the color wheel) tend to foster feelings of calm, harmony, and nature (Figure 6).
Figure 5. The complementary colors here, red and green, are intended to cause tension in the viewer, to mimic emotions that were felt during this riot.
Figure 6. The analogous colors in this frame—magenta, red, and orange—combine with the subject matter to evoke feelings of calm and comfort.
As with lenses, the first step to becoming familiar with the varied attributes of hues is to know which colors you are using, and to be able to control them. Doing color work from scratch may be more involved than using "actions" or "marketed color recipes," but it certainly will pave the road to more emotive imagery with some added know-how to boot.
Add it Up
As artists, we can't be satisfied with simply capturing a moment. We need to interpret it and convey it through the tools, both mental and physical, that we have cultivated. I presume that everyone reading this article understands English, but at the same time, each of us speaks it in a different style. Imaging, whether through cinematography or photography, is simply a different form of communication with word-like components, which can be combined in nearly infinite ways. And it's up to us to use these visual words wisely to tell the powerful stories that have been filtered through our remarkably unique eyes.
Amina Moreau (firstname.lastname@example.org) is co-founder, along with her husband, Patrick, of StillMotion, one of the world's most highly regarded photo/cinema studios. She also coordinates the still-image components of StillMotion's internationally renowned educational workshops and 1-on-1 training (www.stillmotionexperience.com).