Every Picture Is A Lie

What is included determines what is remembered.

Every time I take a photo or a video, I am lying.

It might seem that, unless I add some sort of filter or object in front of my lens, I am producing the most accurate truth I can. I am capturing an image, the very visual appearance of the scene in front of me. I can’t think of a bit of evidence that would hold up better in court than a photograph. However, because of how an image is captured, I have to leave something out. I frame my shot to include only what I want to include, and then hit record. My choice of lens, the settings I use, and the location and angle at which I place the camera determine how you will remember my subject.

Of course, this brief process of deciding what I think is important has to happen simply because of how photography works; the camera can only record a limited area in front of it, although some new cameras, such as the Bublcam, are able to record in a full 360 degrees. But even then, you’re dealing with the extreme distortion and depth inherent in such a wide field of view. Photographers generally accept that, on a full-frame camera, a 50mm lens gives the most “normal” image, meaning that it most closely mimics how we see things with our eyes. Wider-angled lenses typically evoke more of an energetic feeling, while longer lenses often feel more private or personal. I can capture a darker image, or one with a more greenish tone. I can add more motion blur or increase my shutter speed and make the movement feel sharper. There are so many things I can do as a photographer to alter and narrow down how an image looks, so much so that when the final product comes out for all to see, it is only a sliver of the total reality that was in front of me.

I’m speaking more as a videographer than as a filmmaker, since that is what I know more. I have made scripted narrative promo videos and little short films, and those are very specifically planned out and shot. Many times there’s a set, and that set is dressed specifically for certain camera shots. If it’s not going to be on camera, why bother dressing it up? So in those cases, there actually isn’t much of a reality beyond the scope of what you see. But when I’m shooting a wedding or getting unscripted B-roll of someone working in a shop, I have the entire world open to me. Yes, there are some logical restrictions that narrow down what may be relevant to the event I’m shooting, but in reality, the whole world is a set. Very rarely will I stage anything in a wedding film, for example. About 98% of what you see is natural action, naturally captured. But how I have captured it will dictate how you feel about it. If I add a lot of motion and use wide lenses, the film will probably be more energetic and youthful. If I use longer lenses and static shots, or shots with more minimal, organic movement, it will feel more intimate, like you’re on the outside of the action looking in. Peeking over the fence at a scene, instead of on the yard running around with the characters.

What all of this means, practically, is that, because decisions need to be made about what to capture, and not everything CAN be captured, you need to decide quickly what is important. You need to know your subject beforehand so that, when the day comes and you’re suddenly hit with a literally endless supply of angles, textures, and details to choose from, you will be able to get the shots that tell your story best. I totally get that off-the-cuff moments happen and beautiful, serendipitous interactions may just pop up and you want more than anything at that moment to capture them, and you should. But in general, I feel that you should go into a project, whatever it is, knowing the kind of story you want to tell. You should know if this couple is lively and funny, or if they’re mature and reserved, and then choose your shots to complement that. I’m very much still learning how to implement this way of thinking into my work, and I often get caught up in the moment and revert back to how I’ve shot so many things. I can almost always get a pretty shot, but I want to take my work beyond simply “pretty” and mold it into “beautifully appropriate”. I wouldn’t run around a funeral with a steadicam rig, even though it may give me a dramatic and “beautiful” shot of the building, because that kind of shot probably isn’t appropriate for a funeral video! Have I ever done a funeral video? No. But if I did, I wouldn’t run around with a steadicam. :)

My point is, figure out what the vibe of your story is, the emotion that you want your viewers to leave with, and then do your best to get THAT across. Be selective and intentional about what you shoot. And just keep doing that. When I shoot a wedding, I’m almost never resting. I am either getting a shot, looking at light and what’s in the space to see where I should shoot, or watching people to gauge their emotions and try to anticipate what’s coming up next. You’d be surprised how accurately you can get in position for a shot when you take the time to notice patterns.

Every picture is a lie by virtue of omission, and it is your job (and mine) to intelligently decide what part of the bigger picture becomes recorded as the “truth” of that event.

Like I said, I’m still learning this, and it can be hard to do, especially when time is of the essence (and really, when is time NOT of the essence?) You can still get your wides, mediums, and tights and keep to a style of shooting, so the next time you get the chance, try it out! I hope you’ll start to see more intention in my work, and I would love to see some of yours! Cheers!

~Tim

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