While video is king in terms of content across social media and streaming services, the still image most assuredly has a place within video. Certainly if you’ve watched any documentaries on some of the main streaming platforms you will have seen how they employ still imagery to great effect in their documentary films. In fact a lot of the sequences are made up of stills with shots of the talking heads being interspersed throughout. In my experience as a viewer, this is most prevalent in the true crime docs where a lot of the photographic images are used to great effect as they let a shocking or intriguing image linger on screen.
It’s in our nature for our eyes to be drawn to and entertained by movement and this principle needs to be acknowledged even for using stills in film. There needs to be a balance as using too many still photographs or images can lead to a loss of attention in certain cases. Nevertheless, allowing time for a still image to hit its mark is a powerful tool for filmmakers and one that we’ll explore how to use to its full effect.
1 – 3D Images
With certain software tools, making a flat photograph into 3D is incredibly powerful in certain shots. It can add a new element that otherwise wouldn’t be there. This technique can also be applied and then have the camera explore certain parts of the still image, giving it more life as we’re shown more details in 3D. As you may have already noticed, 3D shots (and stills in general) in films are often used to give the audience backstory or further information that serves the film.
2 – Audio
To really weave still images into the fabric of your films it’s often a viable option to provide music or a voiceover that is edited to be in sync with the stills. While the actor’s voice describes something, bring up the relevant still photographs as they’re talked about. It’s a nice touch to develop the story and provide more context to what would otherwise be an interview-style talking head shot. Music too can be used depending on the nature of your film, it can be an effective tool when used correctly but it may not always be practical.
3 – Crop
While you will no doubt select the highest resolution available, remember that when cropping to fit in the video there may sometimes be a reduction in quality. If it needs resizing just be aware that the results may not look quite right on film. Having said this, there are websites and software to upscale images so if there is a loss of resolution, you may be able to upscale it in order to look good on video!
4 – Pan and Zoom
As touched on briefly earlier, there is a way to kind of cheat the use of a still image in your video and that is to zoom and pan. If you want to use a photograph for a long sequence it might be a good idea to zoom and pan on it, giving some kind of engaging motion for the audience to follow. You’ve probably already seen this technique used in history documentaries as there is often an abundance of photographic resources but maybe not always any video. By using the zoom and pan technique it doesn’t break with the continuity of the sequence as there is still motion on screen progressing the story and maintaining the audience’s attention.
5 – Multiple Stills
As we already know, us humans are drawn to movement and motion; by employing certain sequences that have a number of stills being brought into frame, it’s possible to give motion to a flat stationary picture. By ordering the images in which they appear (according to the chronology of the story for example) we can get a sense of the development of the story. You can also use pathways for the stills to follow, again giving ordered motion to pull the story along – or not! You could use many many stills to throw order out the window and provide fleeting images that may or may not be relevant to the story. As always there is total creative license when making films so experiment and discover what works for you.
6 – Filler
You may not like it but a still image can act as filler for when there may be restrictions (budget, travel, permits) to filming and a still image might be able to get around this in a creative way. Although this may not be the ideal scenario, don’t be dejected by any presumed limitations, try and use the opportunity to flex your creative muscles. Filmmaking is all about making it work no matter what the obstacle so use this article as a jumping off point from where you can further your imagination as filmmaker or content creator.
Charlie Jenkins is a filmmaker and content writer for Bounce Video in Oxford UK. Bounce specialises in capturing and telling emotive stories through carefully crafted and produced videos for a whole host of clients.