If I grab single frames from a video to use as photos, am I cheating?
Photographers are supposed to wait and capture the decisive moment. Video shooters can hose the scene and pick the frame that looks the most decisive. Except that Cartier-Bresson apparently did shoot frames either side of the one that became famous. Not to mention the news photographers who just hold the button down until the politician stops moving.
It occurred to me when I was diving over a weekend recently. I had been shooting single shots with a camera, but we were about to do a group dive on a wrecked aircraft and we wanted some grinning portraits of the two learner divers who were doing this for their first time. So I swapped and took a video camera.
Why? Well the video shoots thousands of frames, it has a wide angle lens so I can get very close, and it lets me shoot video as well. Very close is important underwater – the best way to reduce the haze and silt is to minimise the amount of water between the camera and the subject. Video was best because the swim-through of the fuselage would have lovely lighting from the windows and be backlit from the open end, plus we were likely to get some close encounters with fish later. So a video camera gave me the chance to capture a nice little story of the dive and some individual photographs of events. Granted, the grabbed frames are not your 20 megapixy dSLR jobs, but being there is more important than carrying tons of gear and missing the shot.
The other consideration is that my video camera is small. When I said that it was important to minimise the amount of water between camera and subject, a small camera can be poked under rocks and into cracks (fnarr, fnarr) to get up close and personal. I can also hold it out at arm’s length which means I can get the camera very close to a fish or critter without terrorising it by getting my body close.
So it might feel like cheating to capture everything and choose the best frames later, but I am thinking like a photographer while I’m doing it. By that I mean I’m not thinking “ooh look, moving stuff. Get it all!”. What I’m trying to think is “that’s a nice shot, and it would flow into that one like this”. So it’s more like a series of stills that transition. I blame an overdose of corporate Powerpoint slides.
The other thing I’m learning is editing. My fist attempts were virtually real time: the film took as long as the dive did. Then I got some feedback and started thinking about how to tell a (short) story. There was also a clue in the name of the software I used to do this: it’s called a non-linear editor. I don’t have to use the clips in the same order I shot them. I can even shoot my own B roll (get me! I am so down with the cool kids) to edit into the main action. There are establishing shots, close-ups, cuts and all sorts of wonderful things that the previous generations of properly clever people have already worked out and described.
And in the middle of it is the ability to pull out one of the best frames as a still image. What’s not to love?
OK, so I haven’t sold all my stills cameras yet. Up on dry land, where I can spare attention and hands to non-essential tasks, I still like to think I can select the combination of settings with the correct moment to make a better still image. I can get better quality too. The video might be shooting at 1080p but my real cameras range all the way up to medium format. Plus I can hold them still or even use a tripod. I do know that some diving photographers use tripods underwater for long exposures, but that’s a bit too hard core for me. Besides, I think my tripod would either dissolve or float (or tangle me up and kill me, which is also annoying).
I did hear though that some news photographers or paparazzi were doing the grab-frame technique: shoot the celeb on video rather than motordrive and select the best frame later. It makes sense if the subject is very fluid – you can shoot decent video at 60 frames a second but your SLR might only manage 5-10 frames a second for a short burst. What if your focus of the public’s attention had their eyes closed during your one crucial frame? The public would be distraught.
So yes, perhaps the hose-and-pick method is legitimate. I don’t really care about being a proper photographer, and the method works for me. So watch out for yet more fish portraits.