Effective Use of Photographs in Video – Beyond the Ken Burns Effect

Ken Burns Effect
Illustration of the "Ken Burns Effect"

With the advent of “Fusion,” many photographers are adding video to their repertoire of services. There are few definitions for this term fusion. One of the primary ones is “the combination of stills and video.” (The irony is, filmmakers have been doing this for decades, but ever since HD DSLRs hit the scene, people are acting like it’s all the new rage.) This past Friday I shared with you some strong suggestions on how to improve the audio quality of your videos. Today I want to touch on some ways to effectively use photos in your videos.

Start with Why?

The very first thing you have to ask yourself is “Why is this photo in this video?” Is it adding to the story? Is it just to show of your photography set to motion and music? The answer to these questions will dictate some of the decisions you make as to how you manipulate the photos. With that, here are my tips and tricks:

  • Enhance the story: pick photos that enhance the story. If you’re cutting in photos from a bridal prep shoot combined with video, pick photos that complement the video shots you’re getting. Maybe there’s a different angle of a shot from the video. Maybe there’s a moment in time that passes by too quickly in the video that you want to focus on with a photo. Always be thinking: story.
  • Don’t be random: one problem I often see is a sort of randomness to photos added. It’s like the editor doesn’t really know where the photo should go, so he just throws it in anywhere. Again, go back to the why: “why am I choosing this photo and why am I putting it here?” Maybe it’s illustrating something we’re hearing in voice overs.
  • Add Cross Dissolve: If you’re switching from one photo to another, use cross dissolve transitions as opposed to hard transitions. That’s when photo 1 fades out as the subsequent photo fades in. (Consult your editing program’s manual to figure out how to do that. A short cut in Final Cut Pro is to place the cursor right over the spot where the two photos meet in the timeline, then when it turns into two opposing arrose, hit CTRL-click. That will bring  up a contextual menu where you can select “cross dissolve.”)
  • Cut on the motion: this is more of a subjective preference, but cut on the motion. Let me explain. We’re all familiar with the Ken Burns Effect (photos that push in and out to create dramatic effect). If you use a cross fade transition from one photo to another, make the transition such that both photos are always moving (as opposed to the next photo starting from a stopped position). If you’re using a professional non-linear editing (NLE) program like Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premier, you have to set key frames to create motion (there is no “Ken Burns Effect” feature like in iMovie). You set one key frame where you want the motion to start and one where it will stop. You then adjust the photo size and/or position accordingly (e.g. make the photo bigger at the start point and smaller at the stopping point and it will appear to zoom out as it gets smaller). Most people will set their key frame right at the beginning of the clip. When you do that, you’ll notice the photo starting from a stopped position in the cross fade. That’s because when you add a cross fade (most of which are 1-second long), the NLE adds 1/2 second of the photo at the beginning to create the fade transition. Since the key frame is right at the beginning of the photo, that’s where the motion starts. When you add the cross dissolve, you’re adding 1/2 second more before the start of the motion. To cut on the motion, after you’ve added the key frames and adjusted the size/position of the photo accordingly at each key frame, take the second photo, move it up one video layer so that it’s above the previous photo. Then move it backwards on the timeline 1/2 second. Then truncate 1/2 off the front of that clip so that it’s even again with the end of the subsequent clip. Bring the two clips together, add the cross dissolve, and voila, you’ve cut on the motion. (Whew! That was kinda long. I made a demo of it you can see at the bottom of this post). As usual, there are other ways you can do the same effect of cutting on the motion, this is just one.
  • Alternate the Movement: another thing I see often is the same movement placed on each subsequent photo (i.e. first photo grows, then that fades into a photo that grows, then that fades to a photo that grows, and so on). Alternate the movement. Have the first grow (zoom in) then the next shrink (zoom out). Have some move left, and some move right. Mix it up.
  • Photo Size: chances are you’re working with large photos, 4,000 pixels or more on the long side. Depending on the power of your machine and graphics card, working with photos of that size in your NLE could slow it down as well as significantly increase render time. “Regular” high definition is 1920×1080. So if you have a horizontal photo that is over 4,000 pixels wide, it’s more than twice the width it needs to be. It’s always to have photos that are bigger than the video dimensions, that way you can zoom in and out without losing quality. But, you may not need it to be that much larger. If you do find your system slowing down, just adjust the size. I like to use photos at about 2400 pixels on the long side. I’ll go bigger if I really have to. But too much more than that is over kill.

See it in Action

Here are a couple of promo videos we’ve produce for photographers where you can see some of these techniques in action.

Gabe McClintock of PerspectivEye in Calgary – “Making the Connection”

This was a unique project for me because it was the first time I had a photographer request I NOT add motion to the photos. Gabe also didn’t want any of the photos cropped. He wanted them to be seen in their full glory. When you do that, you inevitably will get spaces on either side of the photo. Per Gabe’s suggestion, I made the background white so that it would blend in with his site.

Click here if you can’t see this video in your RSS reader or e-mail.

Shawn Reeder: Yosemite and Sierra Photographer

It’s my philosophy when creating promo videos for photographers to not make it a slide show or montage. I typically don’t use a lot of photos because you can go to their site. The video is about them. However, I used more photos in this promo than I traditionally do because frankly, the video I had of Yosemite didn’t do it as much justice as Shawn’s amazing photography. I just had to use more of it. But you’ll see it still helps tell the story. The photos very much complement what Shawn is saying.

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Doug Menuez – “Menuez on Manhattan: Act 2”

In order to add to the documentary feel of this piece, instead of making the photos fill the screen, I kept them smaller than the full size of the screen. When I do this, I like to add a thin white border to give them a “photograph” look.

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You can see all my photography related fillms and videos on my F-Stop Beyond Vimeo Channel.

Cutting on the Motion – Demo

Here’s that demo I promised you.

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Wow. That was quite a post. When into way more detail than I expected. If you found it helpful, please share with your colleagues.

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