Five Ways Shooting Motion Will Make You a Better Still Photographer

I’ve been shooting both mediums – video and still photographs – for over a decade. Some may say that I was an early adaptor of motionForty Deuce burlesque club, Las Vegas, Nevada, but that’s now how I look at it. In a way, I’ve been a motion shooter ever since I became a still photographer – not in the literal sense – but in how I approach the craft of photography.

I’m a storyteller; in fact that’s why I made photography a huge part of my life. I want to utilize my craft to tell the stories that I feel compelled to tell. I think in terms of paginations, like pages in a magazine or scenes in a film and I realize now that I have always approached still photography like a cinematographer.

Here are some tips I learned from shooting motion that will make you a better still photographer:

  • Cover it – Get comprehensive coverage – a variety of perspectives, focal lengths (wide, medium, tight and close-ups.) When shooting video, you always need plenty of b-roll to work with when editing a story. My still photography clients enjoy getting the variations that I shoot. It gives them an abundance of choice and I benefit by making more money.
  • Get sequences – Get mini stories of people interacting within the whole story. When I’m shooting, I think about how my shots will come together as part of the whole video. I approach still photography stories the same way – in paginations. How will I connect the still images to make the whole?
  • Get storytelling images – With still photography I need to make sure that my independent shots (or moments in time) will also be able to stand on their own and tell the story. They can’t just be “wowy zowy” images as Bob Gilka (former Director of Photography of the National Geographic) used to say when I showed him eye catching, colorful photos that didn’t say anything.
  • Action/motion – make the images feel. I started exploring motion because there were times when I found it difficult to convey the feeling of motion that I was trying to express in a still image. I find it is easier to convey the feeling of movement in a still image now because my eye is trained to look for the opportunities.
  • Give the images sound – (like a hammer hammering). Natural sound gives a video the element of reality. It’s almost like it gives the video a well-needed extra layer or dimension. When I’m shooting stills, I look for images that will illustrate the sound of the environment.

I usually incorporate both video and still components when working on personal projects. For my current project, Like A Woman, I’m shooting still environmental portraits and short 2-4 min. films. And when I travel, I’ll always take a digital audio recorder and microphone to capture good sound.

I’m headed to Vietnam tomorrow to shoot stills primarily, but I’ll be shooting with the eye of a hybrid.


The Value of Personal Projects for Photographers

For as long as I can remember, in my professional life as a photographer, I’ve always had a personal project that I was working on. I’d either be thinking about an idea that I wanted to explore or I’d be actively producing and shooting something. I never felt that I had to do personal projects. I did them because I wanted to.

Taking/making photographs has never been just a job for me. It’s not something that I look forward to retiring from. It’s something that makes me feel like I am “on purpose” and living the life I am meant to live. It’s also how I communicate and connect with people. That brings me joy especially when my imagery creates awareness or provokes thought.

One summer, early in our careers, my husband/partner and I decided to photograph the Jersey Shore.

Jersey Shore
Wildwood, NJ   ©Kelly/Mooney

We shot every weekend that summer, from the perspective of a bicycle, as we peddled our way through different towns along the shore. We spent one memorable afternoon in Wildwood taking portraits of all sorts of people,  in front of the graphic facade of a fun house. Some of those images created decades ago, still resonate in a timeless way.

There are very few images that I am still drawn to decades after I shoot them. Most of the images with staying power were shot on personal projects. Those images came from a personal place, my unique way of seeing the world at that point in time.

Gail - NJ Shore
Gail – NJ Shore

Those are the images that still speak to me and resonate with others.

I’m not quite sure I could come up with an exact dollar value on the personal projects I have done. Many have been monetized in in a variety of ways.  But the true value goes far deeper than the pocketbook.

What am I working on now?  Check it out.

Opportunities for Self-Initiated Projects

There seems to be a prevailing attitude of doom and gloom. We have an economy that can’t seem to turn itself around and we’re bombarded by change that technology continues to thrust upon us. We’re scared to death of the unknown and nobody seems to know what to do next and how to make any money doing it.

Yet, I’ve never been more hopeful in my life. Why? Key of Life, Temple of Abu Simbel, Egypt Because I no longer need someone else to validate my ideas – and that is a powerful notion.  Those of us in the communication business seem to be particularly fearful. Some believe that the “news” business is dying because print publications – newspapers and magazines are folding every week.  But the “news” business is not dying – it’s just being delivered  in another way – electronically and globally.  There are no longer just a few gatekeepers with a lock on the playing field.

Human beings are social animals and we will always have the need to communicate with each other.  These days we can communicate with one another globally.  An idea or creation can be shared around the world in a matter of minutes.  Think of the power in that and think of how we can use that power and the opportunities it presents.  I could digress into a discussion on the ethics of this thought but I’d like to focus more on the reach and influence that each one of us has in creating awareness.

Many of us get enamored with the latest devices that enable us to deliver and receive information with speed and ease. As technology’s exponential growth continues to change our lives in every way imaginable, we will constantly be incorporating and upgrading new gadgets and devices as part of our lives.  We need to be mindful that these “toys” are merely enablers and that each one of us can use these tools to create and distribute our words, images, designs and ideas across the planet.

I think that we as creative’s or journalists underestimate ourselves sometimes.  Perhaps because we chose professions that aren’t lucrative – at least in terms of money.  However, what one is paid doesn’t necessarily correlate with one’s worth. We live in a time now where we can use our creative skills to really make a difference and to tell the stories that we feel need to be told. Mass communication has been democratized. We no longer need the traditional gatekeepers to validate our ideas.

I never would have dreamed that I would be able to circumvent the globe, create a documentary with only one other person in my crew  – my daughter and then distribute it internationally. I never imagined that I would have the power to create awareness on a global level like I did when I uploaded my trailer to Vimeo.  In less than a month after it was uploaded, that trailer has been played in almost half the countries on the planet.  Staggering thought.

This was not a commissioned project by a network or a motion picture studio. If I had waited for that – it never would have happened. I assigned myself.  I was able to fund it by using my airline points, hotel rewards and doing trades with manufacturers for equipment.  I also successfully raised money via Kickstarter a crowd funding site  that made it possible for me to hire a professional editor. My daughter and I have been building an audience  since we started blogging about our journey. Our readers got more and more engaged as they followed us on our 99-day adventure around the world. They spread the word through Facebook and Twitter and via their own blogs and pretty soon word of our project spread virally. That was precisely our goal.  To use our tools and skills to create a film about the change makers of our world so that others would be inspired and motivated as to what they can do.

I often think about how things in my life and in history would have been different if we had the Internet when I was growing up.  For starters it would have had a huge effect on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and the Vietnam War.  But everything happens in its own time and when it is meant to happen.  Change can be scary or it can be embraced and sometimes both at the same time.

Never stop dreaming. Never stop learning. Always listen to that inner voice.  Then use the means and the tools of the day to do the dance you are meant to do.

Being Authentic

There are certain words and phrases that tend to become over used just because they seem to express the idea so well.  Ironically, the word authentic is becoming over used now in our culture and in a weird way is on the brink of becoming a contradiction to what it means.  So, I cautiously use the word “authentic” in the real sense to say – be who you are meant to be.  Be authentic.

When I returned from my round the world adventure this past Fall after completing the shooting aspect of a personal project, I discovered that people were responding to me in a different way. Perhaps they sensed there was something inside of me that they wanted to connect with.  It’s a very difficult thing to explain but I think what they were sensing, was my contentment.  I was content and feeling a sense of “satisfaction” because I was following “my purpose”, both personally and creatively and in the process I was discovering many other people,  all over the world, who were doing the same.

On the outside what may have seemed like just a very long, exotic “trip”, was really more of a journey.  It was a journey that I had begun a long time ago when I became an explorer, through my eyes and through my camera.  I use the word explorer in a literal and figurative sense. Throughout my life, in my never-ending nomadic need to explore the world and its peoples, I was finding my own vision and how I “saw” and I was sharing that with others.

Ethan G. Salwen expressed it beautifully in a recent post on his After Capture blog:

“We always say that learning photography is really learning to see, and this is true. But we tend to express this sentiment in relation to a very limited sense of seeing — the visual sense. Older photographers seem to continue to learn to see on a much deeper level, in terms of what it is to be a working artist and, most important, how this relates to their continual growth and satisfaction as an individual.”

I think Ethan nailed it by talking about “learning and seeing on a much deeper level and how this brings growth and satisfaction as an individual.”  I use the words “ being on purpose” to describe “satisfaction” within oneself.  I believe that as creative individuals, when we begin to find meaning in who we are and how that fits into the world, it will shine through our work.  Some use the word “vision” to describe that certain something that they see in someone’s creative work. Maybe that’s what was in the back of my mind when I came up with the title of my project and film, Opening Our Eyes.

In a way, I use my “eyes” and my camera to do what I do best – to share and connect with others.  When I travel, it is not to assimilate with a culture, but rather to learn and exchange our cultural uniqueness, embrace that and share it with others. When I’m being authentic and true to myself, that happens in a magical way.  When someone tells me that I’m the “real deal”, that is one of the highest compliments they can give me.

I think Susana Esmoris, one of the subjects of my documentary said it best.  “Live life intensely.  Wear the color that you want in life.  Dance what you want to dance.”

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Booking a Round the World Airline Ticket

I am embarking on a personal project with my daughter this summer. Our goal is to create a feature length documentary on “people who are making a difference”. Ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things. Ultimately we will end up with 7 stories on 7 continents – each story standing on its own as a 10 minute web video and becoming a part of the whole – a feature length film. I’ve set up a website just for the project: Opening Our Eyes. But I’ll probably talk about parts of this project on this blog as I proceed with the logistics – certainly the photographic/video filming logistics.

I spent the better part of last week on the phone with the airlines creating our round the world itinerary and ticket which wasn’t all that easy given the fact that there were two of us traveling and we were using airline miles – 160,000 miles each to be exact. As a side note – the fact that I had so many miles piled up is one small thing that prompted this trip, and when Erin became a part of this – Tom gave her his miles so she could come. That should tell you something about Tom – that he would do that for his wife and daughter.

Our initial plan was to depart from the US in mid-June, heading first to Namibia to visit a friend and then on to Uganda for our first story. Our first hurdle was that the Star Alliance airline partner that went from the US to Africa was South African Air and there were no award seats into or out of Johannesburg for the entire month of June – Johannesburg is hosting the World Cup and everything is sold out. I was told that we couldn’t connect through Europe on another carrier like Lufthansa because that would mean going back thru Europe after leaving Uganda and the rules didn’t allow this. I’m broken hearted that we can’t get to Namibia because it means that another opportunity is lost in connecting with my friend while she is living there – but it wasn’t meant to be.

The airline agent could get us to Entebbe, Uganda but in order to make that work, we had to move up our departure date to May 25th giving me a slight panic attack knowing how much I still needed to do before leaving for this journey – vaccinations, visas, lodging arrangements, not to mention getting my gear ready for filming. I’ll talk about my gear in another blog, but essentially since I want to shoot both stills and video – I’m opting to use a hybrid DSLR system because I need to pack light and can only bring one camera format. If it doesn’t fit on our backs – it’s not coming. But I digress.

Our next challenge in ticketing was going from Uganda to our next destination on the European continent. I was aiming for Warsaw or Moscow but we settled on flying from Entebbe, Uganda to Istanbul, Turkey. We’ll figure out how to go to Warsaw and Moscow on our own – that will be a piece of cake. Incidentally, there are a lot of rules on these round the world award tickets – you must keep going in the same direction (can’t backtrack) and you’re only allowed so many segments – I got answers anywhere from 12 to 16. And you can’t go back to a continent more than once – that came in handy going to Istanbul when the airline agent and I had a lively debate as to which continent Istanbul was on. I think the agent liked my creative way of solving the problem and gave me a little leeway.

In the end after many hours on the phone – we created an itinerary: NY > Entebbe, Uganda > Entebbe connecting in Cairo to Istanbul, Turkey > Istanbul connecting thru Frankfurt, Germany to Delhi, India (somehow that was ok) > Delhi to Bangkok, Thailand > Bangkok to Melbourne, Australia > Sydney connecting thru LAX to NY. The agent told me to call back the following day because all the carriers needed to make confirmations. She also told me our reservations would only be held for 48 hrs till they needed to be ticketed.

The next day, I called the airline and was told that there was a leg missing on Erin’s itinerary – Istanbul to Delhi – she corrected it and told me everything looked in order but to check back that afternoon. I did and found out that we were still waiting on Thai Air to confirm our flights from Delhi to Bangkok and then on to Australia. The agent said, “don’t worry – Thai Air is slow – call back tomorrow”. Being the worrier I am, I knew that “tomorrow” was the day the tickets needed to be purchased or our reservations would be dropped, so if there was a problem I needed at least to know about a plan B. So I asked what other airlines flew that route – Delhi>Bangkok>Melbourne. I was told that Singapore Air flew that route but connected through Singapore.

The next morning – the day the tickets needed to be purchased – I called the airlines and was told that all my Thai Air flights had been canceled but Erin’s had been confirmed. I didn’t freak out – instead I suggested that the agent route us using Singapore Air – which he did. He put a rush on the confirmation process and told me to call back that evening.

To cut to the end of the story – I literally purchased the tickets right down to the deadline hour. I didn’t get everything I wanted – but I did get what I needed. We’ll be leaving May 25th and returning August 3rd. We’ll have to purchase separate tickets to get us to and from our destination in South America sometime in August and we are still trying to nail down those story ideas and dates.

People ask me why I didn’t use a travel agent. I have been handling my travel logistics for over 30 years and my answer is – I’m the one who will be doing the flying and I want to have control over that. Even if it looks doable on paper to have a one-hour connection in Frankfurt when flying from NY to Lagos, Nigeria – even for an optimist like me – I know better than to tempt fate like that.

All total – flying 7 different airlines, 12 flight segments and traveling across 5 continents I managed to get us 2 tickets for $263.44 each – that’s for the taxes. Now I need to look into vaccinations and visas. Yesterday I discovered that my passport, which is still good for another 4 years, has only two pages left in it for visas – and India requires that you have two empty pages for their visa. Another thing to add to my “to do” list.

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