Video & Filmmaking

Frames Per Second: Lessons Learned About Breaking Into Video

April 24, 2014

A still from a recent photo-and-video assignment Jenn Ackerman and Time Gruber did for the U.S. Army.

Some of the emerging photographers chosen for PDN’s 30 issues in the last five years have been experimenting with video almost as long as they’ve been taking pictures. Many who entered professional photography around the time that digital SLRs gained HD video capabilities see moving and still images as equally important tools for their visual storytelling. But to land assignments as a director or a cinematographer, most had to acquire the skills, experience and vision that came from producing their own video projects from start to finish.

“No books or tutorials can match the simple act of doing and learning from your mistakes along the way,” says photojournalist Jenn Ackerman who, with her partner, Tim Gruber, made their first video as part of a documentary project on mental health issues in prisons; they are now being asked to bid on jobs requiring only video. Kyle Alexander, who has directed videos for many of his still clients, including O’Neill, says, “Technical things you can learn about the craft of filmmaking from a book or videos, but being a good director is more about your personality, I think.” Directing demands a passion for your subject, the ability to work with talent and crew, and “extreme patience,” he says, adding, “everything takes forever on a set.”

Learn by Doing
Advertising and editorial photographer Tobias Hutzler’s first forays into video were small, self-funded projects he made as an undergraduate. “The constraint of a very limited budget was a fantastic challenge,” he says. “I learned to improvise, condense, focus, and work creatively with very limited production and technical setups—a very similar approach to a still shoot.” The experience helped him hone his style. “Rather than getting caught up in gear and technical aspects, at the beginning I needed to learn about myself, [and] listen to what I have to say.”

Nick Hall: “Jump in, make massive mistakes and enjoy the epic learning curve.”

Kyle Alexander: “Write a small script or treatment, do all the parts you can: gaff, sound, shoot, wardrobe and edit. It might be awful but you will learn something.”

Find the Right Partners

“Coming from photography, directing was a new thing,” says fashion photographer Bon Duke, who used DSLRs to shoot his own videos, then showed his work to a production house, which hired him to shoot with their teams. “I have to really give it to my producers and especially my cinematographers for really believing in me when I needed help,” he says. They “showed me things I needed to understand or learn.”

Tobias Hutzler says that posting videos not only helped him find clients, it also introduced him to some of his collaborators. “By publishing work you gain recognition, and people want to work with you.” He worked with the production house B2Pro in New York City to make his video “Balance,” which was picked up by TIME and went viral.  

Be Prepare
Bon Duke says one of the most important lessons he’s learned is the value of planning and storyboarding before shooting. He considers his sketchbook as essential as any gear he brings to a set.  

Nick Hall: “I think the most important thing to learn, once you have some experience under your belt, is that pre-production is everything. If you have locked down the moving parts as much as possible prior to being on set with actors, talent and crew waiting, then there can be space for creativity.”

Know What You Need: Gear
Photographers we interviewed for this article have used a wide range of cameras on assignments. Among them: ARRI Alexa, Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EOS 7D, GoPro cameras, Nikon D4, Nikon D600, RED cameras.

Photojournalist Jared Moossy, who has worked as a cinematographer for CNN, Al Jazeera, HBO and Bank of America, says, “I use a variety of cameras from the Canon DSLRs to the C series to GoPros to … the Alexa and RED cameras.” He adds, “Whether it’s run-and-gun documentary work or commercial work, each one has its advantages or disadvantages.”

Jenn Ackerman: “A lot of our projects are … documentary in nature so the [Canon EOS] C100 is also a great fit for the way we work, which often means being quick and nimble.”

Besides cameras, what other gear have photographers found valuable?

Nick Hall: “For smaller productions, my 1m glider has been indispensable. No matter where you are, you can put the camera on the glider and get a mini-dolly shot.”
Jenn Ackerman: “Audio equipment including the lavalieres and shotgun mics.”

Whether photographers rent or own their biggest pieces of equipment depends on the types of jobs they shoot.

Tobias Hutzler: “I rent almost all of the gear for productions. I travel a lot for shoots within the U.S. or to Europe and Asia, and shipping would simply be too difficult. Renting also gives me the freedom to experiment, to use lights and setups I haven’t worked with before.”

Jared Moossy: “I tend to rent my gear as a lot of [technology] is changing so quickly.”

Jenn Ackerman: “We have always bought our equipment because we are often working on long-term personal projects that require that we have access to the same gear for long periods of time. “

Kyle Alexander: “I own a basic kit: C-stands, apple boxes, sandbags, tripod, and sound gear and mics. It’s just nice to have all you need at the drop of a hat to go shoot.”

Know What You Need: Budget and Crew

Photographers we interviewed have worked with crews ranging in size from two to 20. The bigger the budget, the more help you have on the set.

“What I’m seeing now is an unfortunate equation where clients want their cameraman to be an all-in-one because of budgets, and the work is suffering,” says Jared Moossy. “If you start spreading yourself too thin, then you can’t fully concentrate on your job.”

Bon Duke: “Make sure the concept you have, or the idea that the client has, is actually realistic within the budget. In the end, you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot with an amazing concept that cannot be pulled off because of budget restraints.”

Jared Moossy: “I sometimes run the audio myself, though I prefer there be someone to run that gauntlet … I think it is also really key to have an editor, because they are separate from the emotional ties of the project and can make the necessary and ruthless cutting choices … Plus, editing has its own set of skills and if you want high-quality work, you have to take the right steps.”

Check out videos by the photographers interviewed for this article below:

Trapped: Mental Illness in America’s Prisons from Ackerman + Gruber on Vimeo.

Reflections from Kyle Alexander Photography on Vimeo.

Tobias Hutzler – BALANCE from Tobias Hutzler on Vimeo.

Janie Taylor For Chloe By Bon Duke from Bon Duke on Vimeo.

Related Articles:

Frames Per Second: How Storyboarding Can Make Your Video More Cinematic
Frames Per Second: Pitching Video Storytelling
Frames Per Second: Making Interviews Sound Natural