Even though the two technologies exist side-by-side in virtually all digital cameras, most of us tend to think of still photos and video as separate mediums. Photographer Giulio Sciorio, however, is among a few pioneering photographers who have found an innovative and intensely creative way to blend these two formats into an entirely new creature known as hybrid photography. It’s a medium so new, in fact, that even many professional photographers have never seen the images before.
Unlike anything that has come before them, hybrid pictures are simultaneously both still and moving images. A single high-resolution frame is pulled from a video sequence and then merged with a segment of motion video. In one of Sciorio’s images, for example, a model poses in a frozen still image while waves of highlights roll across her hair. In another a breeze stirs a model’s earrings while she herself remains motionless. And in a third, a model’s hands move eerily, as if independent of the rest of her figure.
For the latest in MAP’s Master Series sponsored by Panasonic, Sciorio recently spoke to writer and photographer Jeff Wignall about this fascinating merged medium, how he creates him images and where he sees the future of hybrid images.
MAP: How did your photo career get started?
GS: I got into photography in the early 1990’s when a close friend of mine named Travis was killed in an automobile accident and I inherited his SLR. Photography was a hobby that he kept from me, so it was quite a surprise to learn he was into making pictures. In my mourning I discovered we never had a single photo of the two of us together, and it was then that I realized the power of an image.
MAP: Did you study photography in school?
GS: I had studied animation in school, but it was not until 2005 that realized that I’d had my fill of corporate America and took up photography full time. Because my focus in college was animation I also studied video, using it mainly as a way to learn about movement. I never wanted to be a filmmaker, but I always wanted to see my photography move.
MAP: You’re recognized as a pioneer of hybrid photography—can you please explain that term for photographers who may be new to the technique?
GS: Hybrid photography is a new genre of photography for the age of screens. Hybrid photography answers the question of how photographers can utilize the video and audio portions of their cameras in a way that expands the definition of photography itself. Hybrid photographers are not limited to just one technique. Rather, the hybrid photographer samples techniques from filmmaking, animation and audio design. For instance, on a shoot I can capture still photography, 4K video and HD audio. From those files I can create cinemagraphs, or “living” photography. I’m mixing and remixing the rich multimedia content I capture into something new. In essence, hybrid is for photography what rap and EDM is for music. It's bleeding edge, disruptive and operates without rules.
MAP: Where do you think this concept came from?
GS: Visual arts always follow what happens in the world of music. I’m not sure why, but it does. When I was a kid, rap was just starting. As an artist I was heavily influenced by acts such as Run DMC and the Beastie Boys—how they would sample other artists tracks, mix in their own beats, add vocals and make something new. That view of the world is very fresh to me and I see hybrid photography as a similar outlet for photographers.
We live in a world of multimedia. Smart phones can display still and motion and broadcast sound. And my Lumix cameras can capture still and motion and sound in a form that’s photographer-friendly, so it’s a perfect match. If I’m out shooting and I see a street performer making music, a still photo will only record a single dimension of what is happening; but if I capture audio and maybe some video, I can really capture what I experienced. Hybrid photography does not limit one’s vision to just a single form of media.
A still version of Sciorio's hybrid image highlighting a model's hair
MAP: When did you first begin experimenting with hybrid photography?
GS: I started developing the concept for hybrid photography long before it even had a name. In 2009, when the economy—and my business—was really slow, I thought that making my photographs move would be one way to stand out from every other photographer in the market.
MAP: How did that idea come about?
GS: I started with making vertical-format video portraits, music videos and fashion-narrative videos. Those projects started to move toward filmmaking, but that’s not what I wanted. I did get some work from them, because they had a unique look at the time. For instance my first music video, Gravity did not feature any performance pieces, and not many photographers were shooting fashion narratives. That said, I found more satisfaction in my vertical video portraits and thought at some point in the future, when we had more screens in the marketplace, that animated portraits could become a thing.
MAP: Did you know if other photographers were working with this technique at the time?
GS: Yeah there were a few using the RED camera system to make 4K video covers and movie posters. I was inspired most by Greg Williams and themovie poster he did for the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace.
MAP: How did your first experiments work out?
GS: Originally I was using the Canon 5D Mark II, which was groundbreaking for the time, but, boy, was it clunky for a photographer to shoot video. Needless to say, it took hours to make even a simple animated portrait. Because of that, it was expensive, time-wise, which made it a challenge to find clients with a budget that worked.
MAP: When did you begin shooting with the Lumix GH4? And are there any particular reasons that working in UHD is important to this particular process?
GS: I only started shooting 4K about a year ago, when I was working with a prototype GH4. Now, everything I shoot is 4K video. The advantages are huge, to say the least. It’s interesting, but 4K video is one of those technologies that you might not know you need it until you experience it. Being able to pull a still frame of 4K video for retouching or any other post-production work is nice. We’re talking 3840 x 2160 versus 1920 x 1080, which makes a world of difference.
MAP: What are some of the features of an ultra-high-definition camera like the GH4 that help in creating hybrid photos?
GS: Having the ability to shoot 4K is huge, but it’s not the most important part of the camera. What makes the GH4 special is how it works with 4K video. Because there’s a live viewfinder, I can shoot 4K video like a photographer. I see all my changes live, and when using a lens and AF mode optimized for the GH4, I get fast AF in video as well.
MAP: You’ve written and blogged a lot about small mirrorless cameras—have you used any of those in your hybrid work?
GS: I ditched my DLSR almost four years ago and today I’m shooting everything with small cameras. Not once have I ever got any pushback from clients on the images I’m making today. In fact, when I shoot now I often deliver JPEG’s straight out of the camera via my iPhone or iPad, and I’m done. If I’m doing some heavy video work, I’ll send the master out via Creative Cloud to Dropbox, but shooting publishable JPEG’s with a mirrorless camera is far easier than it ever was with DSLRs. I see my color or monochrome looks live in my viewfinder or screen, tweak as needed, and shoot. It’s honest photography in the age of screens.
MAP: What are the primary cameras that you are using day to day?
GS: The GH4 is my bread-and-butter camera. It’s a Swiss Army knife for hybrid photographers. It can be used equally well for both stills and video productions. Where it excels most, I think, is in the user interface, customizability, multi-aspect 4K video and killer still photography. Also, when I’m shooting and I don’t have a field recorder with me, I’ve been known to use the built-in mics to sample ambient sound.
I also use the Lumix FZ1000. It’s lightweight, easy to use and has an incredible lens, too. It’s my main camera for all my tutorial videos—I can set it up on a tripod and use my iPad as a wireless external monitor and to control the camera functions, including the zoom. Also, the footage from the FZ1000 mixes in very well with the GH4, as you can see in one of my videos.
I also just got my hands on the LX100. I’m loving how it uniquely uses 4K video for street work. With the 4K Photo mode and the multi-aspect sensor, I can capture 4K (2880 x 2880) square video, pull an 8-megapixel frame and still keep the video for use later in a hybrid piece.
MAP: Let’s talk a bit about the actual assembly of a hybrid image and how you combine still and video. How do you select which still frame to use as the anchor to which you will be adding the video? And is that still frame always taken from the contiguous video frames?
GS: The master frame is always taken from video. I just scrub the video back and fourth to find the sweet spot where what is moving is looping how I would like it and what is still is at its most static.
MAP: How does the ability to pull an 8-megapixel still from the GH4 video come into play in the creation of the final hybrid?
GS: While I’m not into the megapixel race with my stills, having four times the resolution is a big advantage with video. I can shoot an animated portrait, which is video based, then use the master frame for retouching and offer it as an individual still photograph. I get multiple deliverables from one capture.
MAP: In what ways do you think that the coming generation of 4K displays will benefit your work and others working in either hybrid or pure video shooting?
GS: What’s great about shooting 4K now is that when the bandwidth of ISP’s becomes appropriate for quality 4K streaming and the displays become standard 4K, then my work will instantly be upgraded in the eyes of the viewer, since it is already optimized for 4K displays. Also, seeing 1080p work on 4K displays often has the opposite effect—it looks soft, which will further play into the visual impact of my 4K work.
MAP: When you began experimenting with hybrid shooting, were you doing most of your post-production in Photoshop?
GS: Photoshop, After Effects and Premiere, mainly. I still use those tools. Adobe CC is industry standard for a reason. I have no limitations with Creative Cloud, but with all those options comes complexity. You have to balance what must be made in a complex manner and what must be kept simple and true.
MAP: You now do your post using Flixel Cinemagraph Pro, correct?
GS: I use Cinemagraph Pro for a lot of my animated photography, but not all. It’s a great tool for what it is, but the power of Flixel really comes into play when it’s combined with Creative Cloud, which is what I think the designers intended.
MAP: Briefly, what is the post-production workflow?
GS: I capture video with the camera stabilized on a tripod. The capture is about 15 to 20 seconds. From that capture I isolate about five seconds in which the stability of the subject and the fluidity of the motion is ideal. I then harvest a frame of video, which becomes my master frame. From that master frame I mask out what I want to come alive, showing the looping video underneath. I then export to the Flixel cloud and to my archive, and I’m done.
MAP: How much time is spent creating a hybrid in post?
GS: When I first started animating my photography I would spend about 12 to 14 hours in post. It was very time consuming. Now, because I can create most of my work in the Lumix GH4 and finish it off quickly with Flixel, my post work is about 20 minutes.
MAP: Are there special challenges to planning an image that will ultimately be used as a hybrid image? And in what ways does that complicate the planning for a shot?
GS: Every shoot requires it’s own special planning, but when it comes to making animated photography there are two things that really need to be considered—the type of animated image and where it’s going to live. If I’m making a cinemagraph, then we need to be sure to isolate certain areas of the movement while other areas need to be in fluid motion. If we are going to showcase the shine of hair, for instance, we can’t have the model moving, and we’ll need an assistant off-camera moving a light bar.
I would not say that creating a hybrid complicates things any more than any other shoot. I always work with the client and start with the end results in mind—the vision. From there we consider technical limitations, budget, timing and other production-related needs. The shoot is the fun part and the reward for the hard preparation.
MAP: When sharing a final image, what is the difference between sharing it as a video versus a GIF animation?
GS: The video is going to show millions of colors, so that creates challenges regarding where it can be shown. If you’re using a service like Flixel cloud, their player removes the play/pause head and loops so the image appears to be alive. If that same video is powered by YouTube, it will play once for about 10 seconds, show the play pause head, and the fantasy of a living image is ruined.
A GIF can be played about anywhere, but since you’re limited to 256 colors the definition of your photograph gets trashed. That said, there are places that need a GIF over video—for instance, an email campaign.
MAP: A lot of your hybrid photos are portraits—do you think the technique lends itself particularly well to portrait shooting?
GS: Animated photography can be done with anything. I’ve experimented with landscapes and still-life animated photography. Also, if you look around online you’ll see animated photography can also work well with food—steam from a hot dish works well, and I’ve seen syrup drip from French toast.
MAP: Where do you see hybrid images being used in the advertising world? Is it destined largely for the Internet?
GS: Any screen media can utilize hybrid photography. In fact, it’s been like this for years, but as an industry we’ve been kind of blind to it. As photographers, we tend to think that print is the only real medium, but at the same time when someone asks to see our work, we pull out a screen-based device, an iPhone or a tablet. There are over 1.6 billion smart phones on the market. That’s a much larger demographic than print media.
Since we’re in the age of screens, and those screens are connected to the web, hybrid photography will just become part of photography. It is photography for the modern age. It’s here and now, and if you have a photography business it’s profitable too.