Shoot stills like a cinematographer
How do you tell a good story with stills? How do you meld your heart and soul with the camera you carry to convey the emotion in a photograph?
Photography is a hobby since my teens. I used the fully manual Minolta X300 camera then - my first love. It was a trusty and simple camera and other than instinct and insight when I looked at light and visual spaces, it was pure anticipation after every roll gets sent to the lab. Then the anxiety and waiting began. That was my introduction to 35mm photography.
I stopped shooting stills when I went into the army, and into the workforce thereafter. Those were lean and tough times, the worst economic recession in the 1980s.
Finally, my photography was rekindled when I was working at Pricewaterhouse, and I got to shoot seriously for some corporate communication materials. I was shooting 6x6 on a Mamiya TLR, as well as the Yashicamat.
Medium format, and even large 4x5 view camera photography became something of a new found passion. It was tough to work with, but the results were often exhilarating and incredible. There is nothing like larger format film - the resolution, the smoothness.
Eventually, with failing eyesight, manual photography became difficult. I started running a professional services firm, and time became a luxury.
But the digital photographic onslaught swept me up again. Camera after camera, and I eventually found a couple of good cameras to work with, the Olympus OM-D EM-5, the Panasonic Lumix GH3, the Fuji X100S, and the Fuji XE-1. They each serve a different purpose, as I began to intertwine still photography with filmmaking. After all, filmmaking is a more esoteric field that combines photography with sound, through a passage in time. The end result is often much more communicative than a simple photograph.
I have always shot stills through the eyes of a filmmaker. While some photographers may focus on getting the perfect single frame, I was always keen to tell a good story over time. I have always been a storyteller, on stage delivering historical stories, parables, and even acted on stage in high school. Storytelling to me is everything, and the photographic medium, or the video medium, are tools.
Recently, an important client had a media launch. I was not directly involved in the event, but thought I would show up as a second photographer and videographer. After all, I would like to document what my hardworking team has done for every client, and these are great memos of a job well done.
I brought my Fuji XE-1 with the 35mm F1.4 lens and a TTL flash for stills, and the Panasonic Lumix GH3 with a RODE Videomic Pro and Rotolight RL48 for video.
Why the Fuji XE-1 instead of my Olympus OM-D? The OM-D is adept at capturing moments swiftly and surely, while the XE-1 trails in terms of autofocus. So why did I choose a Fuji XE-1 over the OM-D? In a nutshell, the Fuji XE-1 handled like the good old manual cameras I used way back.
There was a dedicated event photographer who showed up with an expensive DSLR with a zoom lens. His photos were presented after the event, and many of his shots were pin-sharp, but yet were not that good. Why?
His photographs were pin-sharp, from every part of the image, which meant that he shot every image on a small aperture, probably F8. The background was in focus, as were the people in the foreground. The viewer could not be led to a singular focus on each image. He used a direct flash pointed at the subjects, which meant harsher lighting on faces.
I first adapted my camera's white balance to the room lighting. I intentionally took the more difficult route of using a prime lens with a wide open aperture, with my flash bouncing off the ceiling instead. With the flash bouncing off the walls, the lighting on human faces were softer and more flattering, but required more skills.
Using a zoom lens is easier for a photographer because he can stay at a distance and simply zoom in or out to compose his shots. A photographer with a prime lens is restricted by the fixed field of view, and has to physically walk forward, or backward, to compose his shot. You may wonder, why bother? The answer is in the possible depth of field. With a good prime lens, you can have a wide open aperture that would isolate a foreground subject or object while blurring out the background. This is a common cinematographic technique filmmakers employ. If you have observed films of old to the modern day, you might notice in many scenes, the background is intentionally blurred out. The viewer would not be distracted by all the background details. The filmmaker or storyteller leads the viewer to focus on a foreground subject.
With my simpler prime lens setup, I had to take odd positions, cramp myself into tight corners, or hold the camera in odder angles to get the shot I want. But the results were priceless.
Also, with the Fuji XE-1, there is a dedicated knob to adjust exposure on the go, very quickly.
This means that I could easily adjust the exposure in a split second, and get the right exposure I wanted. While the other photographer's photographs showed that he allowed the camera to do everything through automatic exposure, I intentionally manipulated the exposure to convey the mood I wanted. I also chose to use spot metering instead of the typical average or multi-metering. The reason is with spot metering, I could get the exposure I intended, without relying on the camera computer to get average exposure, which tend to become more "bland" than artistically demanded.
Anyone can buy an expensive camera. Anyone can capture an accidental good shot now and then. Anyone can also capture a decent picture relying on the smarts of a modern digital camera, even a point-and-shoot one. While the trend is out there with tons of real photographers facing the crunch from wannabes with digital gear (read Robb Montgomery's opinion piece), I for one would pay tribute to those who inspire, those who labored for decades to hone their craft, those who saw the hearts of images and not mere technicality.
In the end, photography is not about following common trends, or chasing after equipment, but understanding composition, light, focus (depth of field), and especially, emotion. It is all about storytelling.
PS - Fujifilm announced that they will release new firmware that would provide "focus peaking" found in some advanced DSLRs and ILCs, that would really help manual focus modes, for both the XE-1 and XPro-1.