From the first time he saw an old black and white photo of people in his hometown in Ontario, Canada, Story & Heart filmmaker Brent Foster knew he wanted to spend his days telling stories with images.
During his 14 years as a photojournalist for some of the most respected newspapers and magazines around the world, Brent became fascinated with video storytelling. He began producing short documentaries for newspapers in 2003. Then, after more than a decade of cinematic storytelling, Brent started Foster Visuals, a collective committed to high-quality storytelling.
Brent's path continues to evolve in new ways, and he hasn't regretted his transition to video for a minute. But how did he pull it off?
We sat down with Brent to talk about how he transitioned from a career in still photography to a career in moving images, and what he’s learned along the way.
Here are six takeaways on making the jump from photo to video.
Don’t assume that because you know your way around a DSLR that you'll be able to seamlessly transition to video.
When he first started out, Brent convinced the newspaper he worked for to let him give video a try. They gave him what he describes as “a big funky video camera." He dove into shooting without a knowledge of video fundamentals.
It was like everything he had learned about composition through photography went out the window when he hit the record button. Initially, he saw the video camera as just a tool to help gather audio and fill in some of the gaps for the photo/audio slideshows he was creating. He had quite a few misconceptions about filmmaking and quickly realized he had a lot to learn.
“I thought a video camera was something you just followed everybody around with,” he said.
"Video is much more challenging than still photography when it comes to telling a story from beginning to end."
“One of the biggest things that I've learned is that video has a totally different learning curve compared to still photography,” Brent told us, explaining that still photography is more forgiving.
“I think photography allows you to hide more technical errors. I'm a firm believer in getting everything right in camera as much as possible, but with that being said, there's a ton of forgiveness in what you can do as a still photographer. You can push through that assignment that didn't go so well, and you can pull something out of it. When it comes to storytelling and video in particular, you can't get away with that. I think that's one of the things that you learn the hard way as you move from photo to video. Your work needs to be consistent and cohesive, and you need to constantly be thinking about the overall arch of the story. ”
If you're a photographer, you know composition. You know light. You can turn your camera into video mode and be a filmmaker. Right? It’s not that easy.
“When I first started to make the switch to video I thought it would come easily because I had worked so hard to train my eye as a photojournalist," said Brent. "I figured, I can already make those pictures and that's all that’s going to matter in filmmaking. It's the composition, and I'm going to be able to look at it differently than a traditional filmmaker because I've spent my whole life just looking at the visuals and coming at it from a different perspective.”
But soon he realized that was not the case at all. He found lighting, for example, to be more challenging in video than in stills. “I think it's more challenging overall to create the look and feel you have in your mind and apply it on set,” he explained.
And of course, unlike still photography, filmmaking relies on audio.
At first, Brent said, “I didn't discipline myself enough to master audio, and didn’t spend enough time planning stories in pre-production. The overall approach was, if I can create compelling visuals and make them powerful, then that's enough, that’s what matters to the story." As he continued making videos, Brent realized that the visuals are just one part of a much bigger picture.
For instance, when he first started out, Brent said he neglected audio as a storytelling aid. “I put a microphone on top of the camera and wasn't thinking about how audio can be such a powerful tool,” he said. It wasn't until his editor at the Los Angeles Times gave him a helpful suggestion that he began to understand the essential role audio plays in filmmaking.
“He had me go out and tell stories just with audio,” said Brent. “He saw my photography background and really wanted to push me to drive the storytelling side further, so that was huge. It wasn’t until then that I learned the true power of audio.”
“I could be a much better filmmaker if I had a team of amazing people around me and I would learn so much more from them than I could ever do just on my own.”
In filmmaking, it takes a great team to make great work. As a photojournalist, Brent was used to working solo, taking “a fly-on-the-wall” approach.
He explained, “Photojournalists work hard to become invisible, to make a subject comfortable and really become a fly on the wall to the best of their abilities. When you move into video, it’s such a different world.”
It took Brent a few years to recognize that he would benefit from collaboration. “I realized that I could be a much better filmmaker if I had a team of amazing people around me, and I would learn so much more from them than I could ever do just on my own,” he said.
There’s more directing involved in filmmaking; it takes time to learn that the rules of photojournalism don’t apply to commercial filmmaking.
“With my background as a photojournalist, it took me a long time to bring my own control of a scene into any of my films,” Brent explained. “I’m always like, ‘Oh man, that would be so cool if they'd just walk out this door, but I'm not going to ask them to walk out that door because it's unethical.’
Commercial filmmaking requires you to take that control in many situations. It gives you the chance to tell a story differently than the way a documentarian approaches a story. You just have to battle your instincts, and 'unlearn' what’s been embedded in you for years. Even to this day I battle that.”
For photographers who want to make the jump to video, Brent advises them to consider that they’ll need to learn how to direct. “Solid direction is key to the success of your film. There’s many ways to go about it, but there needs to be someone accounting for every decision on set. If you pre-produce properly, then hopefully you're going to be ahead of the story, but you’re still going to need to step in and direct,” he said.
There are so many different ways to tell a story. Learn as much as you can about all aspects of filmmaking apart from visuals. What would Brent say to himself if he was just getting started? “Put your camera down and try to capture that story in a different way. Look at all these other elements that you can bring into a story that aren't the visuals, and learn how to do those on their own, and try to know as much about them as you do the visuals.”
And don’t be afraid of failure. “Fail a million times over and don't be afraid to,” he said. "That’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received from a mentor along the way."
“Fail a million times over and don’t be afraid to.”
You don’t. And making the transition to video isn’t the right choice for every photographer.
“I think most photographers believe that they can transition to video easily and then when they really start to dig into it a lot of them realize that it's not for them. In my opinion, it’s a much more technical and grueling process that requires a very multidisciplinary skill-set.”
And here's a bonus pro-tip...It’s worth the effort.
Jumping from photography to video is incredibly rewarding.
“To me, stories are so much stronger when you can shut up and let subjects tell the story for themselves,” said Brent. “That's what I really love about filmmaking. When you hear someone's voice you get to sense that authenticity and you get to listen to their story from their perspective. I think that's such a powerful way for viewers to take in a story.”
Have you made the leap from still photography to video? What advice do you have for others hoping to make the transition?