Transferring photos to video is easy with the right tools and a little know-how.
If you’re starting out in videomaking, chances are you’ve got a still camera. It may be anything from a
point-and-shooter to a single lens reflex with all the trimmings. And where there’s a camera, there are
Or, more probably, prints: prints in envelopes, prints in albums, prints in folders, prints in
drawers, prints in shoe boxes–so many shoe boxes that your closet would make Imelda Marcos proud. And
you unpack all these prints and enjoy them on at least a weekly basis.
Suuuuure, you do.
So why not use your intriguing new camcorder to make these photos more accessible? Why not
turn them into video shows? Doing this is surprisingly simple, low-tech and cheap; and it shouldn’t take all
that much time either.
The first step is to organize the pictures you’ll be copying for your program.
Organizing Your Materials
When people look through a photo album they decide which pictures to look at and how long to study
each one. If a photo doesn’t interest them, they skip instantly to another. Moreover, they don’t expect to
find much organization beyond something like, Family Photos 1994-96. They’re content to page
backward and forward, pausing to study whatever might catch their eye.
A video program–any video program–is just the opposite:
- Viewers must look at everything presented to them, for as long as it sits on the screen (or else
endure the constant annoyance of fast-forwarding).
- Viewers expect the program to be about something: to have a subject presented with a
beginning, a middle, and an end. A video that just goes on and on gets mighty boring, mighty fast.
To create a program that works well on video, you need to start by organizing your photos. First,
select a topic, perhaps by thinking up a title for your show: “A month at the Shore,” “Fang: from Puppy to
Pit Bull,” “Lydia’s Seven Birthdays,” and “Adding the Bedroom Wing,” are examples of titles that do your
organizing for you. If you can’t settle on a good title, your subject is probably too diffuse to make an
With the title selected, prepare to insert it into your program. The easiest way is by finding a photo
that includes it, such as family posed around a sign reading “Grand Canyon” or the like. If you don’t have
that, you can produce a simple title yourself, say, by printing large type from a word processor to a sheet of
Now: edit, edit, edit, until you’ve selected your very best shots. If each photo will stay on screen
an average of 7.5 seconds (as we’ll see in a moment) then a ten minute show has room for only 80 images.
Why not make a fifteen or 20 minute show? Trust me: for this first project, ten minutes is plenty for you to
produce and for others to watch.
Next, put your photos in sequence. Many topics, like the ones suggested above, unfold over time,
so they suggest a natural order from beginning to end. As you lay out your show, look for visual variety.
Twelve successive panoramas of the Grand Canyon begin to look identical. Instead, try for a mix of long,
medium, and close-range shots.
With your show title created and your photos selected and sequenced, you’re ready to decide how
you will put your show together.
Basically, you have two choices:
- Create the program in the camera, shooting each photo in sequence, and for the exact length
of its intended screen time. The advantage is that you can complete a whole show in an afternoon with a
minimum of technicalities. The disadvantage is that you can’t second-guess the amount of time allotted to
- Edit the camera footage, shooting extra footage of each photo so that you can determine its
precise screen time when you copy it to the final tape. The pros are that you can group photos out of
sequence for easier shooting (say, all horizontal pictures, then all vertical ones). You can also adjust the screen times for your photos to achieve the best effect. The cons: you’re committing to considerable time and effort in post production to finish your show.
You’ll also need to determine how to handle the sound track of your program. If you’re editing in the camera, it will be fairly simple to lay down ad-lib narration as you record each photo. (Hint: for family subjects, get other members to add their comments.)
If you’re editing in post production, your approach to audio depends on whether your hardware
can dub picture and sound on separate passes:
- The “insert” function allows you to record a complete music track first, and then insert your
visuals, timing each photo to the rhythms of the music.
- The “audio dub” function lets you edit your photos to length (or use the tape you timed in-
camera) and then add narration, music, or even both in a second pass.
If you don’t have dub and insert functions, you can still narrate your show as you copy each photo
to the finished tape, but this stop-and-start method makes adding music impractical.
With your program loosely scripted and your production method determined, you’re ready to
move from pre-production to production, where the first task is to display your photos.
Displaying Your Pictures
To videotape your photos you have to hold them up–and hold them down too.
First, you need some kind of support, a backing of plywood, counter-top material, artist’s foam
core board, just about anything will do. (A cookie sheet works well, especially if you put the side with the
lip down so it will hold other components.) Prop it up with anything handy, at about a 25 degree angle (the
precise angle’s not important.) Secure it, maybe with duct tape, and use small nails to keep it from sliding
forward, as shown.
On top of the backing you need a background cloth, both to keep photos from slipping down this
slope, and to supply borders. Prints from most modern cameras
come in proportions of three to two (six by four inch prints are common) and some are horizontal while
others are vertical. The video frame, however, is always horizontal, and its proportions are four to three. So
unless you’re willing to cut off substantial areas of your photos, you’ll be centering them on a larger
In selecting this background, keep these hints in mind:
- Use cloth rather than paper. Its rougher texture holds prints better and looks nice, too.
- Don’t use a black background. It will not disappear completely and the result will be a muddy
dark gray. Instead, choose a rich, dark color like burgundy or navy blue.
- Try a heavy cloth texture such as burlap, corduroy, or monk’s cloth for a richer
Perhaps the quickest, cheapest way to get a nice looking background is to use a dinner table place
mat. The size and texture are perfect and you can get them in outlet stores for under a buck apiece.
The next level in our display sandwich is the photo itself, and on top of it a pane of glass to keep it
flat. Glass from an 8×10 picture frame works fine. Non-glare glass is great because it helps reduce
Now that you can display your photos, you need to set up your camcorder.
Mounting Your Camera
The simplest way to position your camcorder is on a tripod, as you can see in Figure 3. As you study
this illustration, note three things in particular:
- In order to aim 25 degrees from dead vertical, shorten the two front tripod legs and extend the
back one fully.
- Since this arrangement is somewhat unstable, weight the extended rear leg (or secure it with
- Make sure that the plane of the display stand is at a 90 degree angle to the lens axis, both
horizontally and vertically. This alignment makes the photos look like the rectangles they are, rather than like trapezoids.
What should the lens-to-photo distance be? It depends on your camera’s lens, and with small,
close subjects, setting focus and distance requires some fiddling around. As a general rule, determine the
greatest magnification available by starting with your focus at its closest setting and your camera very close
to the subject. Then physically pull the camera back until the object comes into focus.
If your lens has a macro (closeup) setting, enable it and, hand-holding the camera very close to a
vertical photo, move slowly back until the image is in focus. Can you see the entire photo? Are
you far enough back so that you don’t throw a shadow on the print? Then that’s where to set your
camcorder on its tripod.
You may find, however, that you get better results with the lens set at the extreme telephoto
position and the macro function disabled. If this setup allows a picture to fill the frame, you can shoot at a
greater and more comfortable distance from your artwork.
Instead of a tripod, you may want to use a film camera copy stand. For many video cameras,
however, the lens’s minimum focusing distance is greater than the height of the copy stand’s camera
support. But if a stand works with your camcorder, it may be most convenient way to transfer photos.
You can also build a simple custom camera support. If you decide to do this, you need to know
that most camcorders sold in North America have tripod sockets threaded for a “1/4-20X” bolt. This
designation means a quarter-inch-wide bolt with 20 threads per inch. Figure 4 shows the hardware you’ll
To use this rig, screw the bolt a few turns into the tripod socket (but not all the way, to
avoid freezing it). Then snug the wing nut firmly against its washer. This will hold the camcorder
With both pictures and camcorder well supported, you’re ready to light your shoot.
Lighting Your Copy Stand
If you want to take the trouble, you can use movie lights. Halogen work lights are very inexpensive,
they work just fine, and they’re obtainable at any discount building store.
But to keep things even cheaper and simpler, Figure 3 shows how to create outdoor lighting with
just a bedsheet and some clothesline. In addition to easy setup, this approach offers two big
- It provides absolutely shadowless, glare-free lighting.
- It permits your camcorder to work at a very high f-stop (small lens opening).
To see why a small lens opening is critical in shooting small objects at short distances, look at
figure 5. The ruler in 5a was videotaped in room light at a large lens opening. The ruler in 5b was taped in
much brighter light, which demanded a very small lens opening. Notice how little of the 5a ruler is sharp,
compared to 5b. To make sure your photos come out looking crisp, you need the extra depth of field
(sharpness) obtainable only in bright light.
But why rig this tent? Why not just set up your stand on the shady side of the house? Because the
outdoor color temperature setting of your camcorder is optimized for direct sunlight, so copies lit by
sunshine diffused through a sheet will display natural-looking colors. On the other hand, copies made in
the much cooler light of open shade will look too blue.
With copy support, camera and lighting under control, you’re ready to shoot. How you do this will
depend on which type of editing you’ve chosen, but some tips apply to both approaches.
First, shoot with a remote control if your camcorder has one. Because copying involves small,
unmoving objects at close distances, camera shake is a big hazard. With a remote, you can control the
camcorder without touching it.
Next, use an external monitor, if practical. Almost all camcorders have a video out jack that can
be patched directly to a TV set via a cable. A bigger screen will help you judge framing and focus.
Have an assistant, if available, change the photos while you handle the taping. The process will go
much faster that way.
Now let’s look at the two approaches to copying. Here’s the procedure if you’re creating the
finished show in the camera:
- Start by recording about a minute of blank (no picture or sound) and then go into
RECORD/PAUSE mode. Frame your first shot and decide how long to display it on screen. Five seconds is
about right for most images and ten seconds is close to the longest duration practical. If these times sound
short to you, try an experiment: stare fixedly at a magazine cover while you time ten seconds. You’ll see
that on screen, ten short seconds is an eternity.
- Remember that some camcorders take a second or two to get up to speed, and some back up a bit
after you stop recording. If your camcorder does either (or both), add a few seconds to the shooting time
for each photo.
- Take the camera off PAUSE to resume recording. If appropriate, ad-lib your narration while
taping, standing quite close to the on-camera microphone. At the end of the shot, press PAUSE again.
- Replace the photo and repeat the process.
If you are editing in the camera, it is essential to shuttle between RECORD and
RECORD/PAUSE, rather than pressing the STOP control. That way you can be sure that there will be no
blank intervals between photos.
If you are shooting to edit later, follow exactly the same procedure, but record every photo for at
least fifteen seconds. That will give you plenty of footage to work with when timing each shot in post
production. Incidentally, you can still lay down ad-lib narration as you shoot. Simply roll each shot about
ten seconds before speaking and ten second more after finishing. In editing, you can leave as much time
before and after the narration as you choose.
Even if you plan to lay down all your sound in editing, it’s a good idea to verbally identify each
shot as you make it, especially if you shoot your photos out of sequence.
So there you have it: a simple way to turn still photos into a video program. If you choose to do
post production, your video can be much more elaborate. But even the simplest approach can turn a stash
of unseen pictures into an effective video show.