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Some differences between still photography and filmmaking


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Like many people, I came to filmmaking after a long background in still photography and thought this automatically meant I knew a lot about filmmaking. I’m continually humbled by how different the disciplines of cinematography and still photography are and wanted to call out a few key differences and the practical implications they have on the skills you need to develop and the gear you need to use. 

    • In still photography, you are trying to freeze a single moment in time that stands alone. In filmmaking, nothing is frozen. You are capturing the movement of time, then editing many movements of time together in a way that adds context to, and change the viewer's perception, of what they just saw or are about to see. One of the practical implications of this is that you never want to recompose while you are shooting. Instead, you want to smoothly follow the action wherever it goes. This in turn requires a different set of tools to keep the camera steady- things like shoulder mounts, fluid tripod heads, and gimbals. 
    • In still photography, you never need to cut to a scene. In filmmaking, you are constantly cutting from one scene to another. Understanding how to cover a scene in ways that cut together is an entirely new way of thinking. The best way to learn how to think and see in terms of cuts is to learn how to edit video. 
    • Still photography is deaf and mute. You never need to think about what you are hearing. With filmmaking, what you are hearing is often more important than what you are seeing. One practical implication of this is that you need to be incredibly aware of audio and develop a new set of technical skills to capture it. All of a sudden, things like shotgun mics, lavs, and XLR inputs become very important. Try to wear headphones while you are shooting and follow the action based on what you are hearing. Ironically, this leads to an entirely new way of seeing.
    • Still photographers are lone wolves and have sole authorship. Cinematographers are collaborators who work alongside a team. Have you ever seen a credit roll on a still photograph? Exactly. 
    • Photography is generally about capturing an extraordinary moment in time. Filmmaking is generally about an idea or story you are trying to convey. The work you do as a cinematographer is generally in the service of this story which is generally driven by the Director. A practical implication of this is that a bunch of pretty moments strung together with music or Voice Over is generally much less interesting than a bunch of less pretty moments that work together to tell an interesting story. 

I hope this gets your wheels turning and helps save you some time. I would love to hear more differences or similarities if you have them.

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This is a great list, I heard a talk once from a photographer turned filmmaker who talked about how those with a background in stills make the best filmmakers, creatively speaking. She said it's because photographers make each shot beautiful, essentially setting up a still and then letting the motion happen in the frame. I found that encouraging as I was struggling with all the technical aspects of film I was learning! 

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