Photography 101: A video shooter’s guide to taking great photos

Still photography and videography are closely related fields. In fact, videography is just still photography at a clip of 30 times per second. But in concentrating on scenes rather than individual images, some of us get sloppy when putting videos together. Thinking of yourself as a still photographer making a series of beautiful images will help your final production be much better. To help promote that state of mind, here’s a little photography 101 to get you in the still-image spirit.

Still cameras vs. video cameras

Back in ye-olden days, movie cameras and still cameras had very little in common, apart from using the same 35mm film. As still photography cameras got smaller and smaller, professional film and video cameras remained enormous — requiring heavy tripods or sturdy operators to function. 

All of this started to change in 2008 when Nikon released the D90, the first digital SLR that was also an HD video camera. Today the distinction between pro video cameras and pro still cameras has shrunk to the point that cameras like Sony’s Alpha series can be found in the hands of either a pro videographer or a pro still shooter, packed with features to delight both.

It all starts with planning and focus

Just like you wouldn’t rent a bunch of gear, assemble a film crew and show up at a place with no idea what you’re going to make a movie of, still photography benefits from pre-planning and study. Photography is a really broad spectrum and the skills and equipment that are useful for landscapes might not translate into portraits, for example. And while you’re getting ready to begin your photographic adventure keep this in mind: the technical stuff is the least important. This may seem like a radical idea but it’s true. Ideas are more important than f-stops and being able to talk to people is more important than a really great tripod. Concentrate on your ideas and the technical skills will come — this is because you can learn the technical things from a book (or better yet, a bunch of YouTube videos). While you’re planning, ask yourself two questions:

  1. What do you want to photograph?
  2. Who photographs that already and does it well?

You might want to photograph people, or do behind the scenes stills for your video productions, or landscapes, or products against a white seamless backdrop, or you may want to add stills to your already existing wedding package. Once you’ve thought about this, start looking for people who are doing that type of photography really well already – great places to do this are Instagram and Flickr. Start collecting great photos (you can use Pinterest to keep folders of the most inspirational photos you find) and think about how the photographer executed them – where were they standing? Were they using wide lenses? Telephoto lenses? Did they light it themselves or use natural light? Check out books from your local library (the librarians would love to see you, it’s been a while since you’ve been there), go to gallery shows, trade books with your friends or buy things in bookstores. 

How to take good photos

Taking a good photo is more than having something nicely lit and sharply in focus. In fact, some of the most memorable and meaningful photos in history have been not perfectly lit and not perfectly in focus. A photograph is good because it is compelling to the eye – it doesn’t have to be beautiful, but it needs to reach out and grab the viewer inside. Your photos should strive for an emotional connection; they should reflect the emotion you feel when you take them and help people experience something they weren’t present for. 


As most directors will tell you, you can make a compelling story with very limited equipment – more equipment just makes it easier. The same is true with still photography. Many of the classic film photographs of the last 100 years were made with extremely modest equipment, certainly equipment that would slow down most of today’s working pros. 

It used to be that still photography cameras and video cameras were very different beasts, but over the past decade the two have merged to the extent that you can get one camera that’s very good for both shooting video and taking stills. If you’re in the market for new gear, be sure to take into consideration all of the things that you’ll use it for. Will you want to shoot 4k? Will you want a camera that has audio in? 

Don’t get the kit lens

When buying a camera (and this is true for both stills and video) camera companies often throw in a “kit” lens in a bundle that includes a bunch of stuff like a camera bag and lens tissues and whatnots. They do this because the markup on the camera itself is very low, but the markup on accessories is really high. The kit lens is usually a mid-range zoom that does a bunch of things decently but nothing really well. Get yourself a camera body and a single fast prime lens, two accessories that will vastly improve your shooting capabilities.

You can actually use your phone

This isn’t exactly a secret buried in our photography 101 tutorial, but the cameras in smartphones today are way better than a lot of the early professional digital cameras and they do extraordinarily impressive work. 


Just because you’re using a single frame instead of 30 frames per second doesn’t mean that you’re not still telling stories – it just means that you need to be much more careful about your framing because you only get one chance. 

With every photo ask yourself “what story am I telling with this photo?” Story examples might be “this place is beautiful”, “this moment is important” or “this thing needs to be recorded accurately.” From there, ask yourself “can I do something to tell the story of that last photo better?” Can you move yourself or your camera? Can you improve the lighting? Can you make it clearer? When you can’t think of anything else you could possibly do to improve that image, you’re done. 

Editing tools and tips

There are a few things that are essential parts of your final image. One of these is post processing. Sometimes you’ve done everything you can to capture the best possible frame, but there are still things you can do to make your image better. Almost no photo comes out of the camera the best that it can be, everything could benefit from a little TLC in the darkroom (or the modern digital equivalent). And, in fact, every photo starts its life with a wide range of futures before it. Like raw video footage before a LUT has been applied (and for more on LUT’s in video’s, check this out).

Every photo can look a myriad of different ways when it’s finished. The secret is not processing heavily, but processing properly. Local photo competitions around the world are packed with photos that started out mediocre and became terrible because their creator knew just enough about Adobe Photoshop to ruin them. When budgeting for your equipment, put some money, or at least time, aside to take a course on some photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom, which can teach you how to not only fix major problems, but also to do minor adjustments with exposure and color that can nudge your photos from good to great. 

Getting your photos seen

Taking a good photos is only half the battle, as you’ll know if you’ve seen John Maloof’s 2013 documentary “Finding Vivian Maier.” The film is about a gifted, prolific but heretofore anonymous street photographer whose amazing photographs sat unseen in a storage locker for decades before being discovered. 

It used to be that after you had a set of decent photographs you’d put together a portfolio and start sending it to art galleries, hoping that one of them would decide to show your work. Then, you would spend hundreds or thousands of dollars carefully framing your work, hang them in a beautiful gallery and, if you were lucky, a few hundred people would walk through and look at them. While that still happens, the internet has changed a lot of things. There are photographers on websites like Instagram who show their photos to tens or hundreds of thousands of people a day without ever having made a single print.

A website

The first thing that a serious photographer should have is a website. You can use a builder site like Wix or Squarespace, or you can hire a web designer. Your website should have your contact info and a collection of your best photos. People will judge your work by what they see, it’s better to have 10 great photos than 10 great photos and 20 mediocre ones.


A lot of photographers use Instagram as their primary method of displaying photos. There are advantages to this, like its incredibly high userbase, but there are disadvantages too. Namely, Instagram likes for things to be cropped square, although photographers have found creative ways around this by posting multiple photos in the same post. Instagram also allows you to use hashtags which people people searching for topics. Your photo of a terrific sunset might include the hashtags #photography, #sunsets and #mountains. Instagram’s organic discovery features allows people to gravitate to photographers they like if they’re using hashtags well.

Image hosting 

It used to be Flickr was the king of image-hosting websites and every photographer had one. Flickr’s still there, but a whole host of other image hosting sites like Smugmug and others are providing stiff competition. Image-hosting sites can not only let people look at your photos, but can help you sell them and provide printing services and be one-stop shopping. This makes things easy for photographers who do a lot of business in print sales — the ability to let your customers order directly from your website and not have to handle fulfilment is tremendously convenient.

Putting the concepts into practice

Like making videos, creating still photos is a difficult and rewarding art that benefits from study. Spend a lot of time looking at photos in the way you do films — what photographers do you like? And when you deconstruct their images, what is it that you like about them? Take the tools you find useful and turn them to the subjects that interest you and drive and compel you. 

Kyle Cassidy
Kyle Cassidy
Kyle Cassidy is a professional filmmaker, photographer and writer.

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