Surface Tension or just magic? I'm glad someone is showing off.

From a series of bubble photographs I took in Berlin last year. 

I've been wondering about something and I'm not sure there is an answer but I'm working on at least getting the question right. It's about video. But it's also about the New Dcoumentarians and it's about snap shots and Martin Parr and Henri Cartier Bresson. Here goes: How do you make wonderful small videos that feel like the images that we who love documentary photography grew up admiring and savoring? 

I look at the images above and I remember the warm day, the bright colors of the giant bubbles, the excitement of the kids as they played with the bubble magic and the general feeling of the moment. Short of making a pretentious three minute documentary about bubbles, why haven't we invented the video "snapshot" or the video "street photography" that so captivates us in the other media?

I'm not sure that every video needs to tell a story as much as some might just need to evoke a feeling. Have I missed a genre? Is my education sporting a blank spot in the artistic motion category or is this something that we need to get inventing?

There are so many times during the day that I want to capture a complete moment; whether it's the arch of an expression, a quick kiss on a cheek, the way someone moves through space or even the interplay of wind and fashion in the streets. How do we do this and how do we create a market for it?
I'm serious. I really want to know. Is all video condemned to be a linear story (even if it is sequenced out of linear time)? Does there have to be a beginning, middle and end? Can there be a short moment that's just right like the opening notes of A Stairway to Heaven? 

It's a new interest of mine and if you have something to share about it don't be shy about commenting at length....


Jim said...

I read somewhere a while back, I don't remember where, that still images are the closest equivalent to our memory. We typically remember moments, not spans of time (music is a probable exception to that). It is the still image, the single scent, the distinctive sound that triggers the feeling or memory of a person, place or event from the past. Even when recalling a movie, we tend to remember scenes as stills rather than as motion.

Dr. Oliver Sacks did some research on migraines in which he noted that people who suffer severe migraines often exhibit "stop action" memory, memories that consist of still frames a minute or more apart in time with blanks in between. That would seem to confirm that we record memories frame by frame like a movie camera but apparently we typically only recall individual frames one at a time.

Perhaps that is the appeal of the still image over video. Video can tell a story that evokes a feeling if skillfully done but the still frame is more akin to the way we remember.

Robert Roaldi said...

Great question. We'e not there yet, imo. There are shorts on Vimeo, I mean really short shorts, a minute or two max, and some of them come close. (Of course, I can't find one right now when I need to.) But I end up not watching most of the ones that seem to have the most promise because of the intros. The creators put in intro credits, branding I guess it's called, their names or production company names, and if there's any more than 10 seconds of that, I lose patience and stop viewing.

I'm not proud that I do this. Maybe it reflects poorly on my attention span, but sometimes I just want a quick view of something, like with a picture, and a 10 second intro is too much for me.

Maybe what you describe can't be done, I don't know, but then maybe someone will prove me wrong.

Scott said...

I'm not sure I'm understanding you correctly but there are some products like this. HTC phones have "zoes"--this captures and shares 3-second videos. It is always on when you have the camera app open so it saves the video from about a second before you touched the shutter button and for two seconds after. See here:


The Vine app for smartphones (now part of Twitter) takes and shares 6-second videos.

Instagram does the same thing with 15-second videos.

See here:


Is this the sort of thing that you meant?

Toby Martin said...

Ive wondered the same thing. Sometimes the story could exist in a short time span, so why belabor the viewer with excess when all it takes is seconds.

Jim, I have to disagree with you regarding the way MY memory works. I remember snippets, short segments of movement even when I look at stills. When I stare at a still photograph of my kids, it brings to life that moment in my mind, but with movement and sound, as my mind remembers it. I think the reason stills are powerful as they are when they capture the right moment is that the moment captured stirs the memory. In cases where the still is not of an event we have stored in our mind, it stimulates the mind to query, to imagine, to fill in the moments before and after the moment encapsulated.

Now back to the motion equivalent of the still, I think there is value in it for sequences where a single frame is incomplete. Where a bigger slice of the story can be told. In many cases, for instance a still photograph of the story it is intended to tell. Perhaps a short video, well shot, can tell it all without need of the caption.

Chris Pattison said...

Do you still have your Nikon 1 V1 Kirk? Might it have what you are looking for?

Roger B. said...

What an interesting idea! I have some thoughts.

A still photograph lets you study the subject at length, seen at the moment the shutter was released. I seem to remember Cartier-Bresson saying that the trick is to compose the photo so that the viewer will pause, attracted by the composition, and then look closely at what is going on.

Commonly, you don't get a chance to do this with a video. The camera takes a brief look, then moves on. Either the camera moves, the lens zooms, or there is a cut.

When I look at a good still photograph, I study it, think about it, look at it again and think some more. The photograph does not change, while a typical video is constantly changing and requires my attention again and again.

So perhaps a video that quietly watches a scene or event for long enough for the subject to be studied would do the trick. Perhaps think 'spectator'. Or involved (part of the event) observer.

The only video that I can think of that gave me an impression of really being there was made in one long take of about seventeen and a half minutes, of a complete lap of the Isle of Man TT course.

The camera was mounted on the race bike, in a way fixed in viewpoint, while the action (the road going by) rapidly moved past.

Despite the scenery moving by at an average of 130 mph, the camera was quietly, or perhaps simply, studying the scene. A still shot would not give the same impression, no matter how much it was studied.

So the subject has to be right, like any branch of photography. There has to be some movement or it might as well just be a still photograph, but this could be camera movement. For example moving slowly around a three dimensional object to show its shape.

The finished video must allow the viewer to study the subject. I think that lenses in the slightly wide angle to short long focus range would work well, giving fairly normal perspective.

Mark Matheny said...

Like electricity, it's looking to be discovered instead of being invented. The life around the images of HCB or Frank Cappa, etc were always there, it took them to discover or understand that precise moment of value. And as identified in Hello Dolly, a moment is a fleeting point in time that is difficult to define. So the question is; is it possible to capture on video a couple of seconds in time, that are interesting and unique from all the other moments around them. I think the answer is yes, but just like shooting stills it will involve a great deal of practice, a great deal of attempts, and discovering a technique that works better than another.

Anonymous said...

For several years, a Minneapolis gallery, the Soap Factory, sponsored a Ten Second Film Festival. More details here:

Anonymous said...

There are cinemagrams - is that maybe what you have in mind? Personally I don't care for those and I'm not typically one for short videos either. I'd much rather look at a good photograph than a video. A photograph captures a single moment in time, whereas a video captures a series of moments. The photograph leaves more to my imagination - what led to this moment, what is the subject feeling? A video tends to tell the whole story and that may be appropriate in some instances but I personally like the challenge and mental engagement of interpreting an image. I tend to remember precise details of photographs - videos not so much.

Something else about video that I don't like is that in this age we are bombarded by visual stimulation that begs - no, demands our attention. When someone sends me a video clip the truth is I will rarely watch it. Nothing annoys me quite like giving up a minute or more of my life to a video that leaves me feeling cheated for having given it my time. A photo is less demanding me. If at a glance it is worthy of my further study I will linger in it. It doesn't make me wait, hoping there is a good part eventually.

Sure, there are some great short videos. Me, I'll take a good photo any day.

Anonymous said...

Photos have a unique advantage over videos.

With photos, since we only see a split second of a situation, we have the ability to romanticize the entire scene. We can pick out the exact moment at which things look beautiful/terrible/awful.

And I think our memory works in a way that alters situations so we remember things the way we want to. That means we can take a still photo and rebuild the scene around it in our heads afterwards in a way we want.

We can't really do this as easily with video because it's a frame by frame recording that shows things actually unfolding.

Take this scene of the giant bubbles. (we have this in NYC too) In a video, it's possible that the bubbles pop instantly. Or that the kids try 50 times before getting it right. In video, there's simply more time for things to make the frame look 'wrong' for lack of a better word.

But with a still photo, you can select the 1/250s that tells the story the way you want.

MartinP said...

It would need some considerable construction, but perhaps a showing of the same three or four seconds from different viewpoints would give an in-depth feel to a 'moment'. Something like a cinema flashback, but of the same moment in the same events, near, far, above, to the side, facial close-up, hand detail shot, etc. etc. All making the essence of the moment.

I suspect that one might need a very competent set of models/actors and a large amount of time. That implies artificial lighting, to maintain the illusion throughout the changing natural light of filming and then . . what to do about sound?

Certainly more of a cinematography student project than a viable wedding-video, or event-video, technique. Or not?

Charles "Rain" Black said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles "Rain" Black said...

Kirk, there are already "amateurs" posting animated .gifs on a variety of social networking sites such as Pinterest or Tumblr (with links to Facebook). Right now they are mostly cute pet and kid animations, or skateboarders doing faceplants and such, ranging from 3 to 10 seconds in length. However, the foundation is being laid for people to have a growing expectation that such short animations become part of our visual vocabulary.

Of course, a growing aspect of video equipment is the ability to make still frame captures that rival those taken with dedicated stills cameras. I do a lot of concert and theater photography, and am giving considerable thought to the idea of capturing performances on video, then pulling the stills to use for website reviews and promotional venues.

In both artistic and journalism applications there is plenty of room for such short videos to become commonplace. There have long been performance art installations that do use a few seconds of video as part of the aesthetic.

In the not too distant future we will have electronic "paper" that will allow animated images to replace still images in newspapers, magazines, books and other print applications. Why not start learning to use the technology that will allow for this right now, instead of waiting until the tech "hits the streets"? Isn't waiting on such trends why so many pros have struggled to stay solvent the past few years?

davek said...

My personal opinion is the key to creating and marketing what you want to do is good titles - which really means you have a focus.

I have over 100K photos and over 300 hours of video (the oldest photo is of an ancestor who died in 1853 and it goes from there).

In order to make this collection accessible to others I have a project which is designed to bring the people in the archive to life.

The project consists of creating a set of pieces that combine stills and video to focus an specific personality traits or interests of the subjects.

The starting point for the project is the titles.

Title are things like:
"The secret Jeff", "Good at making excuses", "If you are calm and collected when everyone else is going nuts you don't understand the situation", "Dancing", "Eating raindeer", "Computer games".

The video and the stills are focused on implementing the title.

If you pick the right titles chronology is often unimportant as the goal is to understand who a person is/was. This means showing their personality and what they care about.

Ron Zack said...

I see great 15 to 30 second video moments like the ones you describe all the time: while watching the commercials in between my TV favorite shows.

Now of course most commercials aren't worthy of mention, but every once in a while you get those great moments where the marketing genius allows us to enjoy some very nice images as they dance across the screen, with only the slimmest of story lines holding them together. More than once when these type of commercials come on, I've even wondered out loud what it is they are trying to sell me.

So yes, It's being done, and obviously someone is making money at it. But it doesn't look easy, and I'm sure even the "random" images are heavily scripted and setup before a single frame is shot.

But then, that's not all that different from commercial studio photography, is it?

As a hobbyist I've been playing around with video trying, and failing (so far) to capture these moments like you describe, but it's been fun none-the-less.

Also, this is the sort of thing can be best realized with mirrorless system cameras like the micro 4/3 system; making quality video with those cameras is so easy, and even fun, that it makes experimenting with motion all the more compelling of an idea.

I would think a camera like the E-M1, with it's five-axis image stabilization, and relatively small size, might be the best platform currently available for these type of experiments.

Or an iPhone...

benedict said...

One way I have seen of capturing a "complete moment", but based on still photography rather than video, was a report from Iraqi Kurdistan by Ed Kashi a few years ago. Instead of single images it was presented as a series of "flip books" or mini-slideshows of photos taken around a particular moment. Sort of like a contact sheet in motion, a compromise between capturing individual moments and showing the evolution of a scene through time.

theaterculture said...

I'd contrarily suggest that it's precisely BECAUSE a still photograph doesn't capture the way we see and remember reality that it is often more impactful than video for this purpose. It's an enforced change of tempo, breaking you out of the flow of time and asking your visual system to do something different from what it normally does - sort out the details of a world in constant motion. The chance to bathe in a single frozen moment is often, for me, like putting your feet up after a long walk; the walk is lovely but it's the moment of punctuation that adds to its loveliness.

Dave said...

You're a creative. Seems like you've found something to explore. Lead the pack my friend!

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