Friday, August 8, 2014

Vacation Video Montage Hack

When I was a little girl, my Mom and both of my grandmothers kept photo albums that were rich with family history and cherished memories.  I started my own when I was in fifth grade, and while the first few weren't all that interesting, I built on that skill to make more engaging displays on the pages.  I never got so far as to do what is known as scrapbooking these days, but I had elements of scrapbooking in my photo albums.  I was an early adopter of digital photography, so my pictures were mostly printed, not developed.  After coming home from a whirlwind trip to China, the idea of printing all of my photos and piecing together another photo album was just utterly daunting, but I did it.  Shortly thereafter, however, I had exhausted my enthusiasm for photo albums.  With such a connected world, all my friends and family had seen the pictures on facebook, they had put their own mark on them via likes or comments, and the physical photo album just felt redundant.  But there is something missing from digital photo albums, and I think that hole can now be filled with video.  Movement, music, sound effects, timing, sequence all add to the effect of simple photos.  

I recently came back from Hawaii, and put together a video montage of my trip, using primarily photos and videos I had taken, and filling in the gaps with photos taken by others on our trip.  I used some of the music and artists we had heard while on the island.  I had done similar video montages for my trip to Alaska with my family, my birthday weekend, and my sister's graduation weekend.  Now, I'm no whiz with video or photography or mixing music.  I'm just a little bit of a nerd who likes capturing memories with pictures and video, and I've come up with some methods that have worked for me.  Inspired by a comment about someone else wanting a similar montage, I thought I would try to put down in words my thought process for making montages.  

Taking Pictures

Obviously, the quality of the montage will depend greatly on the material used.  So I want to make a few notes about the actual picture taking process for vacationers.

  1. Places, things, and animals are great, but people are better.  My Mom told me a story when I was little about how her and my Dad had gotten home from their Honeymoon and showed their pictures to her mother, who said that the pictures were all boring because they were of birds and trees and mountains, and she wanted to see THEM.  Selfies apparently were not big when my parents got married.  That story still resonates with me today.  I do break this rule sometimes for macro pictures like exotic flowers or birds, but I consider those "extras"; the majority of my pictures are about people.  So even when it's a tricky shot, I try to get a travel companion (or myself) into a picture with whatever I'm taking a picture of.  For example, on the train at Dole Plantation, it's probably obvious to turnaround and take a picture of the people behind you (assuming they are traveling with you and not complete strangers, of course).  What's not so obvious is, when the train is moving, try to take a picture of what everyone is looking at, but take it from a vantage point that shows your travel companions looking at it.  Larger or more recognizable places and things, I think, require more creativity.  For example, on the way to the Statue of Liberty, see if you can get a picture that looks like someone is holding her in his/her hand.  The key here is, the montage will be more fun if it shows the people, not just the places or things.  
  2. DON'T keep your distance.  I don't think pictures can really take the place of being there and seeing something, especially when you're talking about grand architecture or a vast landscape.  So as a rule of thumb, don't try to capture it all in one picture with someone as a tiny little figure in its midst.  I find it better to take more up-close, personal pictures; get just enough of the scenery that a person looking at the picture understands the beauty or the grandeur of it, but no more.  
  3. Take pictures of activities, not poses.  There is a time and place for poses, and posing, with your arms around each other is great, but watching pictures of poses gets old.  I like to take pictures of people doing something interesting.  My go-to is the jump picture.  Set your camera on action mode or sport mode, and tell your counterparts to jump.  If you time it right, you can get a fantastic series of pictures that can be animated like a flip book in the montage, ending with the final picture at the peak of the jump!  Even if the timing is off, using sport more helps capture enough pictures that at least one of them will hopefully look fantastic.  Even if you're not *up* for jumping, flinging your arms wide open, pointing and looking into the distance, showing your guns, or pretending to be a relevant animal, can all be easy go-to pictures that break the mold of the normal pose.  When life gives you a steering wheel, even if its fixed or you can't quite reach it, or really, anything that looks like a steering wheel, pretend to steer!  Statues of men look great with cute girls pretending to kiss them or guys giving them bunny ears.  Saguaro cacti are cool, especially if you imitate their poses.  Get the picture?  Okay I'll move on...
  4. Lighting, lighting, lighting.  Glare and being washed out or silhouetted can be a difficult problem to fix.  I know nothing about camera settings like exposure or whatever it is that good photographers mess with.  What I have found is that, even when its bright outside, the flash can help illuminate the people.  In fact, my favorite trick is to point the camera upwards towards the sky, so that it adjusts for the bright light, then I hold the trigger button half way down, and then point it at my subjects.  This "freezes" the brightness setting, so the people look like silhouettes, but then the flash captures them.  The ending result is a good photo of both the scenery and the people, in situations where you would normally lose one or the other.
  5. The Photoshopped selfie.  It's great to travel in big groups, because then you can have someone take pictures of smaller groupings of people.  But I do a lot of my traveling with just my honey, and while we've both pretty much mastered holding the camera up to take a selfie of the pair of us (always take it from above, not below, for the most flattering picture), sometimes that kind of picture just won't do justice for the thing we're trying to capture and there isn't always a ledge to place the camera on with a timer.  So, we take two pictures - I take one of him and then he takes one of me.  We take care to keep the camera in approximately the same spot and height, and also to position ourselves where we would if we were together.  Back at home, I can cut out just me or just him, and place that part of the image in the other photo, and its fairly difficult to notice - unless one of us makes a bad posing choice.  My favorite example is this picture of us from Disneyland - this was indeed two photos put together - can you see where my foot ends and his leg starts?  Yeah, bad pose choice, but hardly noticeable unless you're looking for it, and a fun picture overall I think.  
  6. The journey is 90% of the adventure!  So often, we take a ton of pictures at the top of something, or at the destination, but few pictures of how we got there.  I think it's important to take pictures along the way.  Take silly pictures of the driver (but warn him or her first, and don't use the flash), photograph going into the place you stopped to eat or grabbing your luggage at the airport.  On hikes, you have a lot of opportunity to take pictures of steep climbs and rocky ledges. 
  7. What's your sign?  I wouldn't recommend making your own signs too often, but if there's an ongoing inside joke or you just can't think of anything else funny to do, you might want to make a quick sign and pose with that.  It can add a comedic feel that a caption on the video just wouldn't accomplish later on.  Thought bubbles or speech bubbles can also be made pretty quickly if you have scissors or great folding skills.  
Shooting Video

I don't shoot a lot of video, for a few reasons.  It takes up a lot of space on the memory card, and a lot of battery, to start.  But mainly, I find that video has one inherent problem, compared to a photograph:  a photograph captures a moment in one glance, whereas a video happens in real time.  So if you took video of an entire 2 1/2 hour performance, in order to watch it at normal speed, it would take 2 1/2 hours, and few people who weren't there care to watch 2 1/2 hours of something, and the people that were there probably don't need to see all 2 1/2 hours again.  Thus, I am very selective with what video I shoot, knowing that shooting too much will probably go to waste.  
  1. Take video of something specific.  My sister walking across the stage at graduation, for example, was video worthy.  Shooting the entire luau, on the other hand, would have been silly.  But I did shoot a short video of the MC explaining how to say, "Happy Birthday" in Hawaiian at the luau, since we were there to celebrate a birthday.  
  2. Lighting, lighting, lighting.  Video is different than photography in this respect - I have a decent camera with a hunk of a lens on it, and the lens can make dimly lit rooms appear like broad day light, because it captures so much light as it takes the picture.  It doesn't do that same thing for video.  In fact, something I see while shooting the video, if very dark, can be virtually invisible on the playback.  On the other hand, video is better suited for certain things.  The fire dance at the luau comes to mind; it was very difficult, even with sport mode, to capture a decent picture of the fire dancer; the best one was still blurry and the fire is smeared across the picture.  But the video of the fire dancer looks great!  You can even use snapshots from the video as pictures later on (I did this with the video of the Gypsy Jitterbugs performance, too, all my pictures came from the video).  So in summary, I guess I'd say that video is not a great idea in dark situations, unless the thing you're trying to shoot has fire or a light of its own, in which case, its a great thing to shoot video of.  
  3. Subtle video.  Quite to the contrary of number 1 in this list, I also shoot a little bit of what I call "idle" or "subtle" video; ten or fifteen seconds tops in each case.  Idle video is video of ambiance.  I use it to set the stage, usually with a title, to start the next section of a montage.  For example, heading into pictures from a long and historical train ride, I kicked it off with a video looking down at the tracks as they went by.  For Hawaii trips, video of a sweet little hula dancer is great for this.  For traveling through the woods, just take a video of the drive looking out towards the trees as they pass.  Video of waves crashing on the beach, a sky tram going up or down the mountain, the propeller of a helicopter spinning, and dogs panting, are all examples of idle or subtle video you can use as the backdrop for relevant title screens.  
  4. Portrait video.  Sometimes, video of people setting up for a picture can be more entertaining than the picture itself.  Just don't take a three minute video of such a set up.  
On to the Montage

Alright, so maybe you used some of my tips above, maybe you are using old photos or just found this blog after you've returned from your trip.  In any case, here are some tips to get you montaging!  
  1. I have a Windows computer, and Windows Live Movie Maker came installed.  It's probably not the best program out there, but it works for my purposes.  If you're just getting started, looking for some kind of free software like this; I don't think it's worthwhile to dive into some expensive software that will require training to use.  Start simple, and build up from there.  
  2. Sequence your videos and pictures in a logical order.  It doesn't have to be perfectly chronological, but if you change outfits in every picture, that might seem odd, so I would recommend following general chronology.  
  3. Set all the pictures of people to somewhere between 2.3 seconds and 4 seconds.  Depending on the mood of the montage and the music you plan to use, you may want to move faster or slower through the pictures.  Also, remember that the human mind can comprehend images fairly quickly, so you don't need to linger on pictures for too long, especially if you plan on showing this to people who weren't with you.  Think photo album, they want to flip through pictures, not admire every aspect and hear a story about every picture.  Use the pictures to tell the story.  You may also want to lengthen or shorten the time for all pictures based on the total length it ends up being.  
  4. Cut the video down to the best parts; you don't need to ramp up or the aftermath, just focus on the main part of the video and remove or speed up the rest.  
  5. Remove the sounds from the video unless its relevant and important.  For example, video from the luau goes well to its own music, but it also goes just fine to the music I used, and its much more cohesive if you use the same music for a period of time.  A big exception laughter, because laughter is contagious, even through a video.  
  6. Make the pictures move.  The software I use automatically does this with a little wand tool that randomly assigns a zoom & pan setting to each picture.  It doesn't get it right all the time, but most of the time it looks good, and I can adjust the animation for specific pictures.  
  7. Choose some music.  Generally, upbeat music will keep people interested and more excited (and awake), but it doesn't always fit the mood.  I like to have fun with my music, especially when lyrics from well-known (and perhaps overplayed) music fit the setting.  For example, the part of the Alaskan cruise montage in which we were ziplining through a rain forest, I used the song, "I Believe I Can Fly", and timed the entrance of the music so that the first line of chorus played right when my sister took off for the first time.  Other examples is the use of the "C'mon Ride the Train" song on the train pictures and "Who Let the Dogs Out?" for the dogsledding pictures.  Obvious?  Maybe, but still entertaining! Current music, if it fits, is also nice to use because it adds a historical record of what song was hot to the video memories you create.  
  8. Play the music with the timing, and you may find that the pictures should move faster or slower to fit the music.  You may also want to re-sequence the pictures so that a specific picture hits a specific lyric, or slow and speed up the pictures before that specific picture.  
  9. Some pictures you may want to move through faster than others, for example, all those pictures of non-people can move faster, so you can spend more time on the people pictures.  Also, if you used sport mode to capture a picture, you may want to use all of those sport mode pictures in rapid succession (like .2 seconds or faster) building up to the final picture, which then can last the 3 seconds or whatever you're using for the other people pictures.  
  10. Add captions to important artifacts, places to remember, etc.  You don't need to caption everything, but you may want to caption "Day 1" or what location you're at for each destination.  
  11. Blooper /outtakes reel.  Most of my montages are about doing amazing things and seeing breathtaking pictures, so throwing in something stupid or funny doesn't always fit in the mix.  I like to have a conclusion at the end of the video, give thanks to the people who made it great, etc., and then have something funny at the end.  

So there you have it, all of my best and favorite techniques to capturing and treasuring memories!  Here are some of my favorite montages that I've made!


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