4.14.2015

The closer you get that big softbox the faster the shadows fall to black.... But what do we do next?


I think a lot of us in the profession are facing a quandary. The whole market is changing again and it seems that commercial photographers, as a group, are good at getting left behind. It's not that the need for talented lighting, good composition and effortless rapport has diminished but that the target market for the goods has shifted. And audiences have different expectations...

We lost a big segment of working stiffs who couldn't make the transition from traditional film work to digital. We saw a similar shift when the whole advertising market transitioned from print to web based advertising as the premium part of the overall ad buy. Now I'm watching people dig in their heels and resist the transition from doing all stills to embracing video+stills and I'm pretty sure the same thing will happen. Those who don't expand their knowledge and craft will exit the market and not on their own volition. But it goes beyond just mastering the gear, there's is a necessary shift in the thought processes that goes along with the shift to new offerings aimed at new audiences.

Photographers traditionally thought of video (motion?) and still photography as two mostly unrelated disciplines. Each requiring divergent skill sets. We could point to the dominance of stills in web advertising for the first decade of this century instead of video but the reality is that the slow adaptation of massive video story telling among brands was slowed down by technology. Bandwidth used to be expensive and limited. Consumers' connections were too slow to handle higher quality video in quantity but now that's all changed and sites like Facebook are seeing massive and accelerating uploads of video. It's growing much faster than stills in the same online environments.

At the same time clients are cognizant that they can now create and show high quality video programming right on their websites which can tell the story of their businesses, make sales insinuations, demonstrate their products and powerfully engage two senses (sight and sound) instead of just one. The final step was to make video truly portable across mobile devices. And that's done.

The big disconnection for traditionalists is that they want to overlay their past aesthetics on new or different technologies because they misunderstand that the targets and the ways of telling stories have also changed. Every day I meet videographers and photographers who profess to be engaged in learning how to create the highest possible production value in their new field. They covet the best cameras, the best lights, all the bling that they see attached to Hollywood production cameras along with a rack full of cylindrical Power Macs to buzz it all along. It's an expensive way to go and while it's great for making features with rich budgets it may be antithetical to the way their growing markets absorb information and marketing stories.

In previous generations getting the quality right was a big hurdle. The tools were difficult to learn and there were intertwined processes that had to be carefully handled. It's not that way now. Getting decent images and video is getting easier every new product cycle.

While I fight the same preferences all the time I try to be open to the idea that soaring opening sequences and establishing introductions in most video/TV programming are anathema to a generation truly raised in the digital age. They seem to resist the embellishment that was a style of TV shows and movies aimed at previous generations and want to go straight to the information. I might want to "follow the rules" but not if they rules only create projects that appeal to a market of viewers over 50 years old and actually cause cognitive dissonance in the rest of our markets.

What am I talking about? Newcomers to any field are always obsessed by the idea of technical mastery. Gentle, smooth slider shots, endless dynamic range, perfect color grading, soaring camera movements and almost robotically predictable editing. But showing off their chops with displays of mastery can get in the way of the immediacy of a program. And it's all just a copy of traditional movie making that has a different sort of relevance for us than creative video materials that are viewed on laptops, pads and phones.

I am not immune to the kneejerk and reflexive idea of mastering the technical at the expense of relevance. I recently wrote about the image quality of files I was getting from the Olympus EM5.2 in a less than flattering way and it's true that by the traditional metrics of high end video that a comparison of the output from the EM5.2 is less "perfect" than the output from a GH4 or even a Nikon D810. My last century, linear process brain immediately wanted to grade the cameras, almost numerically, from best to worst with the idea that a real pro would only use the best. 

But the reality is that the EM5.2 might be the "best" of all the cameras I own if you use it for hand held video which is much more in keeping with current cultural trends in video. You might also label it best if you constantly need a combination of stills and video and all of it needs to be handheld.

I started thinking about this as I was looking around the web at blogs and sites that are all about "new video." By new video I mean all the people who came to video via cameras like the Canon 5D2 and the Panasonic GH2 and have discovered more and better equipment and have moved on to things like the Sony A7s, the Sony FS-7 and the various Black Magic cameras and other machines that shoot big, uncompressed and even raw files. What I saw everywhere were long, lingering shots that showed off some aspect of the camera or the technique. Here's a long slider shot that shows off the dynamic range of the camera. Here's a long shot that shows how well the camera handles unlit street scenes in the middle of a moonless night. Here's shot that shows amazingly lush color and another shot that's so desaturated that you can only discern a whiff of color.  Here's a shot from 4K that's so sharp you can visually dive into a model's pores.

But here's the deal: None of these many, many sites have created interesting and compelling programming that is engaging and glues your eyes and ears to the screen. They are just collages of techniques meant to tout the superiority of the gear and the superiority of the taste of the acquirer of that gear. Lots of pretty pictures unrelated to a story and accompanied by this generation's version of New Age music with tinkly minor key pianos intermixed with electronic fluff.

But if you head over to YouTube or Vimeo it's possible to see fun stuff. Stuff with a message, a purpose a storyline and a big dose of humor. Even the sites that basically sell cameras like DigitalRevTV or the theCameraStoreTV are all about the basic narrative. "Why are we here today? Oh yes, to talk about this camera and how well it works!" But instead of standing still and lecturing to you they move and interact and intercut still examples and use humor and a fluid and comfortable casualness to get across their information to you.

The best storytelling I've seen lately (as far as video on the web goes) has been stuff from younger people using the most basic tools. I work with several schools and I meet kids who pick up iPads and make incredible stuff with them because the obsession with the knobs and specs of the gear never gets in the way of the project. If it looks good on the screen it's good. If the story works and the premise works it's good. When a piece is fun or sad or interesting no one ever stops to ask, "Hey! How many stops of dynamic range did that shot have???" Or, "Did you shoot that in raw?"

I'm not saying that good technique in and of itself is a bad thing. But when it becomes the sole determiner of quality in a medium that's about following a thought or an idea then it becomes the biggest roadblock you can imagine.

Photographers aren't the only ones who will have to change their perspectives to keep their audiences interested in their work. A whole generation of videographers seems to worship mastery as well. I think it's time to roll out the workshops in which each person is given a Fischer Price My First Video Camera and is shown how to use its most basic capabilities to make real visual tales that are something beyond codec obsession.

My idea of current visual education? Sit down and watch the 20 most popular videos on YouTube and see what the common thread is. It won't be production quality. It won't be about precision technique. I bet you'll find that the messages are powerful (or hilarious) and presented in an unadorned and straightforward way.

If I had to predict the future I'd say that companies will want more and shorter video programming. That everyday media consumers will want 15 minute shows and 30 minute movies. That personality and acting ability will trump getting all the gizmos set just right. That next year one of the Academy Award nominations will be a movie made on an iPad or Surface Tablet.

But it's the same thing in the photo world. There are guys who can tell you the blend of metals in the alloy that makes up the sub frames of their cameras but even though they have infinite pixels at their disposal and understand technique forward and backward they are ill prepared for making wonderful images because they don't understand the new culture in which they exist. Their vision is about perfection and not about emotional engagement. Or pure design. Or gesture. Just about getting it "right."

I'm afraid that the secret of success in the visual arts as it relates to video and still photography is to understand the power of both. When to use them, not just how to use them. But the most important thing of all is the need to create images that are really, truly interesting to the audiences. Story, story, story. Style, style, style. Gear? Not so much...