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Is Stills Photography A Dying Art Form?

April 15, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

A couple recent articles/podcasts have gotten me thinking about whether stills photography is a dying art form. The first was the latest episode of the This Week in Photo podcast, during which the discussion turned to 4K video becoming more widely available and the affect that might have on stills photography. The basic idea was that if you could pull a frame from a 4K video, would that make a "good enough" image, rendering stills cameras obsolete. The basic premise behind that thinking is that you would no longer have to worry about capturing "the definitive moment" but rather could capture all the moments and then decide later which was just the right moment. The next data point was the recent Kirk Tuck article over at his much-read blog which questioned whether print was dead. He morphed that question a bit into wondering whether stills photography would die off if people no longer printed photos.

So with that context in mind, here is my take on this. First I should say that I'm going to try to answer this from a realistic perspective rather than one of wishful thinking. One thing that is vitally important up front is to recognize that there is not one stills photography market. The two sources I reference for this post tend to take a pro photographer perspective. This is especially true for Kirk Tuck, who is a commercial photographer in Austin, Texas. Now, I am not a commercial photographer, but it does seem to me that the commercial photography market is shifting heavily toward video. If you think about it, commercial photography is a means of communicating your message to potential customers through their preferred media channels. There is no doubt that media consumption is shifting to video from printed paper. I recently was browsing the magazine racks at Barnes and Noble looking for magazines with good advertising examples that I could use in a church school lesson I was preparing. I was amazed at how few magazines had a significant number of ads. It seems that unless you are in the high-end fashion or luxury good markets, print advertising is going the way of the dodo bird.

Is it a natural follow-on then that as video begins to ascend and video resolution increases, stills photography will die off? I don't think so. First, let's talk technical realities. Most stills cameras capture resolutions in the range of 16mp to 36mp. Certainly video cameras will keep pushing resolution upwards from the 4K level, but the devices that the videos are viewed on will also need to follow that march. That is going to take some time. If you're like me, you wait until the latest television technology has been out for some time before upgrading. I'm quite certain I won't be buying a 4K LED TV for several years. Heck, I just bought my 40-inch Samsung LED TV. To view photos and movies at home I use an Epson 1080p home cinema projector viewed on an 80-inch wall mounted screen from Da-Lite. I can only imagine the initial cost for a 4K home cinema projector or an 80-inch 4K LED TV. I'm not saying that I don't think 4K video is the real deal. I just don't think it's a stills photography replacement.

Next there is the issue of shutter speed. Typical video shutter speeds are 1/50th and 1/60th of a second. This has to do with rendering realistic looking motion in video. If you want to see what moving images look like when captured at much higher shutter speeds, just watch the D-Day scenes in Saving Private Ryan. To our eyes, they look hyper-jumpy. When photographing a subject that is moving at all, if you use a shutter speed of 1/50th or 1/60th you will get motion blur. The videos may look great, but if you try to pull a single frame out you will see motion blur. For event photography, I usually stick with at least 1/100th of a second for shutter speed. For fast moving sports I go wtih 1/1000th. Certainly for my nature work, I don't need fast shutter speeds, but then again, I don't need moving images either, because nothing is moving.

Another technical reality is the quality and size of the file captured. I can capture 36 megapixel 14-bit RAW images all day on my Nikon D800 and never have to change out a 32 GB memory card. Yes, you can capture RAW video files, but the workflow is arduous and the file size will be humungous. Typically, to capture RAW video you must read it straight out of the camera via an HDMI cable to some sort of video recorder device. Then, just imagine trying to sift through tons of video footage to find the one frame that captures the moment. That's a huge amount of overhead for having the ultimate spray and pray ability in capturing a still frame. If you've done any amount of video post processing, you know that it takes tons of time...way more than stills photography.

Now let's move onto the artistic side of things, which frankly for me, is the most important. I suppose I should have put this paragraph first, but this post is a bit of a stream of consciousness, so I'm just going to leave it here and let it ride. I am a stills photographer in my heart. I've dabbled in video and expect to do more of that dabbling, but I'm a stills shooter at my core. When I am out shooting, I am seeking to capture a moment, a scene, a feeling. I look in every corner of the viewfinder, shifting the composition every so slightly, seeking just the right balance in the frame. Time slows down and all my attention gets focused in on what I'm seeing in that viewfinder. The times I've been out shooting video, I have found that I have to shift my brain into a different space. I have to think about the eventual story that I want to tell with the video. I suppose with practice I will get better at that and it will become more natural, but for now, I find that I can't easily shift between shooting video and then shooting stills. With my stills photography, I try to go out with an open mind and let the story unfold as the shoot progresses. I am not a big fan of shot lists. I'd rather go with what the scene presents me. With video, it's as if you're capturing the raw material (i.e. footage) that you will use in eventually telling your story. Of course, sound is a huge component of that. As any video shooter will tell you, bad video you can recover from, bad audio will kill you.

So where does that leave us? If I were your average commercial photographer and was concerned about staying competitive, I'd be learning video real fast. I think those that figure out how to do video on a budget with lean production teams will win out. Kirk Tuck is on the right track with this. For the rest of us who don't make a living from our photography, I'd take the lens cap off and go out and shoot. Stills photography is going to be around for a long time, and as an art form, photographic prints are here to stay. Sure, the 4 x 6 snapshots of 20 years ago have been replaced by photos on our smartphones, but that's no great loss for humanity in my book. The cameras of today are incredible feats of technology. We are able to capture images of a quality level that we would have given our right arm for in film days. Let's stop obsessing and get out shooting.


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