Slideshows and Photo Essays Part 2
In the first part of this feature on how to execute a picture story as a slideshow, we took an overview of how the dynamics of a screen-based presentation are very different from traditional print. You might question why take print as a starting point at all. There are two reasons: first, that the print experience still fills much of our lives in the form of magazines, newspapers and books, and second, that the photo essay matured in the medium of print, with the double-page spread as the main unit and an essay being built up over a sequence of spreads.
I’d like now to go into more detail, and this is going to take more than one part. Here in Part II, we’ll look at the editorial process, and then next month in Part III at the actual step by step procedures using slideshow software. In a way I’d rather not get into software details, but it’s unavoidable. Here I’ll show a specific example, a short slideshow developed from scratch. The slideshow software that I’m using is called Soundslides, and at the inevitable risk of seeming to promote one program over others, I’ve chosen it because it’s simple, straightforward, and dedicated to creating a show that can be immediately posted to the web. I’ll go into these technicalities in Part III.
Up until recently, I’ve been using Keynote, part of Apple’s iWork, to create shows, as I already use it for talks and presentations. It’s sophisticated and big, in that it has a huge number of features that allow almost any transition you can imagine, and many that you probably wouldn’t think of. But, in the same way that Photoshop has much more than any single user would want, Keynote seems to me rather too complicated for what we’re talking about here. It also fails in the key area of posting to the web, which is something I personally am not too confident about. HTML is a language too far for me, so I take any help offered. This is why I researched slideshow software that is aimed exactly at that. Hence Soundslides, which is quite popular among photojournalists. The New York Times, for example, uses it for its web slideshows. The software company is offering a student discount specially for OCA students, and this is the link:-
Step 1: Storyline
First we need to decide on the theme and storyline. The one I’ve chosen here came to mind when I re-visited Angkor in Cambodia just before Christmas. One of the basic principles in finding a story to shoot is to stand out from the crowd, and there are three broad ways of doing this. One is to find an original subject — or at least as close to original as possible — that hasn’t been shot before, or hardly. Two is to find a different angle or new hook to an old story. Three is to rely on the way you shoot it to make the difference. My short story here follows number two. It goes as follows.
When I first visited Angkor in 1989, the place was empty, and the ruins fully lived up to their reputation for tropical romance and mystery. You can read more about this over on the Observations page in Privileged access, for all. Now, frankly, its a zoo. But rather than just be disappointed, I set to thinking how would you now attempt a story in Angkor. One obvious way would be to focus on the mass tourism, which would probably result in a negative, critical story. Fine, but what else? As I happened to be with a group of Singaporean photographer friends, many of whom had not been before, this was a practical matter. What could they shoot that would meet expectations? One advantage I could use was that, after so many visits, I know the temples quite intimately, and that includes many hidden corners. Why not make this challenge the story? The title could be Hidden Angkor or Secret Angkor.
Step 2: Images
In my way of working, I would begin the design of a slideshow by assembling more than enough images – anything that might be useful to the theme. I’m skipping right over the planning and shooting; let’s assume that this has been done, and successfully. Here, from the shoot, we first make a broad selection of images, more than I expect to use. This is an initial selection of about 40 images, but my feeling is that this will be a slideshow that will take about two minutes to look through, and that would mean about 20 images at a ‘comfortable’ viewing rate of around 6 seconds each, including transitions.
I’ve concentrated on scenes that are mainly close-up, with a few medium shots that attempt to evoke ‘ruins-in-the-jungle’.
Step 3: Structure
In any photo essay, structure is everything. This is the framework within which you work to select images, order them into a sequence, and decide on transitions, captions, audio, and so on. For this step we need to develop the structure, and write captions where appropriate. My first idea is to open with a medium shot of an overgrown temple, then move in sequence closer and closer to the the final level of detail.
That’s fine, but is the theme of hidden corners coming across sufficiently strongly? Like most photographers, I would rather not rely heavily on text or captions. Nevertheless, the theme I decided on above needs to be established clearly. I decide that the stronger way with this story is to tell all of it, in the way I introduced it above: that mass tourism has changed the Angkor experience, but that one solution is to search for the hidden details.
The fastest way to open this storyline is to have a short text introduction, followed by two contrasting images of then and now, followed by introducing the idea of hidden corners, finally followed by the main body of the photo essay. In fact, once the introduction has been made, the selection of ‘Secret Angkor’ images can run happily by themselves without any captions or further text help.
This becomes an exercise in minimum text. What are the fewest words that can do the job, but reasonably elegantly? Here is what I decide on for the first intro slide:-
“In two decades, the temples of Angkor have gone from obscurity to one of the world’s top tourist destinations. From a few hundred visitors a year to over two million.”
After we’ve established the contrast between empty temples to noisy and crowded ones, here is a second short text to set up the main body of the essay:-
“But is it possible to recapture some of the mystery for which the ruins were famous? Perhaps, by exploring deeper into the detail.”
I next go to the archives, as well as the recent shoot, to find two contrasting long shots of well-known temples:-
Step 4: Select and caption
Now we’re ready to make the final selection, which is partly influenced by the sequence in which they will appear. Linear sequence introduces an essential and special visual element to a slideshow, especially with a crossfade, which is probably the most common transition. As one image is succeeded by the next, they superimpose to some degree in the viewer’s mind. The slower the crossfade, the stronger the superimposition, and you can use or misuse the succession to suggest a connection between them. As we’ll see in Step 5 below, a succession from overgrown temple to a bas-relief figure can be made to suggest strongly that the figure is inside.
This is why I’m starting the main body of the show with two overgrown temple views, then moving in to the figures. As it happens, most of the details that attracted me were devatas, or goddess figures, carved in bas-relief, and it’s logical to group them. The one with a delicate creeper growing down one side is a natural to follow the temple shot, as it has a hint of invading vegetation. Two figures are in a stream bed, so they go naturally together. The one long shot is of a stone gate with elephants, and I debated whether or not to include it at all. On the positive side, it’s a surprisingly hidden part of Angkor, but against it is the scale, because the rest of the imagery is close-up. I decided that using it as a closer would justify the difference in scale.
This is how it looks as a simple click-through slide show:-
Step 5: Refine
Not everyone will agree, but I would argue that there should always be a refining step. At the least, you should step back and review the slideshow that you created, ideally after being away from it for a while. In this case, I already had in mind to see what it would look like as a movie, with a music track. Not insistent music, and not at full volume, but given that the theme of the show is supposed to be evocative, a soundtrack should, in principle, help. One way would be to have tropical forest noises — a whirring cicada, some water drops, a strange birdcall. This kind of track, however, takes planning and effort, and I didn’t have the basic material. The other route is music, and here I had a recording of a traditional Cambodian instrument — one of the few that doesn’t screech or scratch. This is the result. The captions were made larger for easier reading, as the viewer has no control over the time between images.
Next, however, I wanted to see how I could reinforce the points already being made, by using some graphic devices movie techniques:-
Typography. One thing that can clearly be made more satisfying visually is the text. First, plain black is not very interesting, and second, the typography could be improved. I prepared another image to have a large dark area suitable for taking type. The intro text was then set in a warmer, more elegant font: Palatino. More than that, it was justified to flow up to the profile of the bas-relief face. With this new, more interesting text background to hand, I also added a title and a credit image at the beginning.
Pan and zoom. Although often over-used, this movement across and into a still image brings life, and can also reinforce a point. I already had the early Angkor Wat shot as a panorama, so decided to pan that left to right, so as to transition into the same shot with the words “…from silence”.A few frames further on, a succession of two zoom-ins to the overgrown temple scenes makes a considerable difference. Repeating the zoom creates the expectation of seeing something inside the temple, and indeed the following shot of a devata with a creeper fulfills that. Compare this sequence of three images with the straight version in the first movie. Much more effective now. A slow pan also came to mind as a way of ending the movie, and I selected a previously unused panoramic shot of a dark temple courtyard with a beam of sunlight playing on a devata.
Timing. Individual frames can be adjusted for timing. No major differences, just refinement.
And this is the final movie:-
In Part III I’ll go through the steps involved in using the software to create this result.