Creating a Great AV Slide Show

The visual medium of photography has always lent itself to telling stories. From simple documentary photos of family and friends to a single image that sums up a dramatic situation or a comic take on a subject, to a much broader view that brings a larger understanding of our world, photographs by themselves are a powerful means of communication.

But it was discovered long ago that when visual media is combined with music it can create in the viewer an emotional response to the imagery beyond what is there. Images and music have been used together for centuries… from theatrical performances, to the enjoyment of artwork, to the modern mediums of motion pictures & television and the more recent digital media of today. All have one thing in common… to use music to heighten the "experience" of the viewer to the visuals presented.

My first encounter that made a lasting impression with how the visual medium can use music to “heighten” the visual experience was seeing the film 2001 A Space Odyssey. Director Stanley Kubrick used the Strauss waltz “Blue Danube” to accompany an unforgettable sequence of a spaceship docking with a giant rotating space station. It created such beautiful co-ordination between the music and the film sequence that it had the appearance of visual “ballet”.

Unlike the mediums of motion pictures and video the AV slide show at its heart uses still photographs.  But the same possibility exists, to bring more meaning to the images than would be possible with the photographs alone. This is why some photographers like myself gravitate towards the medium of the audio-visual slide show… to create a presentation that elevates the photographs beyond just “looking” at the images.

When creating an AV slide show it’s important to consider how that interplay between the two components is integrated. Today the technology allows for so many possibilities that sometimes that overall connection between the images and the audio gets lost in the translation.

First it’s important to have a structure for your show and an order for the images that makes sense for the overall presentation. A series of great individual photographs that goes back and forth between different subjects without any thought for how they work together can seem disjointed. Think of the images like links in a chain... one following another connected together in a sequence rather than just individual images that stand on their own.

You can avoid “image fatigue” that happens when using the same viewpoint over and over by mixing up the visual approach with different types of sequences (wide shots, medium shots, close-ups etc.). This will keep your audience visually interested in what’s coming up next rather than boring them with repetitive imagery.

Half the “experience” of an audio-visual show is the soundtrack that goes along with the images. It’s just as important that the audio work with the images as it is that the images work with each other. What music you select and how the images are placed in relation to it will affect the emotional response to the images and how the audience will “see” them. Music can add emotional weight and impact to the images as well as add structure to them that would not be evident with the images alone. Music can be used to link sequences together and can dictate the pacing of the images from one to another. So it’s necessary to put in just as much effort into music selection and how the soundtrack is constructed as you’ve put into taking and creating the photos.

There are many musical styles that can be used (classical, jazz, electronic, rock, new age, contemporary orchestral... just to name a few) but the key to remember is what music you put to your images will make a huge impact on how the audience will respond to those images. Although music selection is a very personal process (just like what photos you take and what composition you use) using a piece of music that doesn’t have the right “feel” or one that might be a mismatch for the kind of images presented can be harmful to your overall show.

Choosing music that’s appropriate for your images is important but how those images go to that music (the timing) is central to the overall cohesiveness. Many slide show programs today can be told to “automate” the timing between the images and music but this is like using the “auto” features in Photoshop to process your image files, it might be faster but you never get the best result. When constructing the soundtrack think of how the images will flow to the music. People always ask me “how long should a slide sit on the screen?” and my answer is “it depends on the rhythm and flow of the music”. Generally it’s best to use the music’s rhythm to determine how fast to change the slides... fast changes with fast music, slow changes with slow music. Use the changes within a piece of music as a way to go from one image sequence to another and think about using different pieces of music to divide the show up into different sections. Creating synchronization between images and music brings a much better harmony between the two.

Also today most slide show programs allow for countless transitional effects, image movements and animation. These are a great way to add dynamic points within the show that draw attention to a specific image or heighten the impact of a sequence. But the use of unusual transition effects can draw attention to the transitions themselves and sometimes overpower the images.  Using those transitional effects arbitrarily without any thought of how they’ll be perceived in the show’s overall structure will again create a disjointed presentation.

So finally creating a great AV show is more than just showing a bunch of impressive images with some background music. When images and music are paired together they affect each other (good or bad) with their interplay. And this interplay ultimately dictates how successful the show works and how good that final “experience” will be for the audience.

For examples of my AV work:


This article originally appeared in Canadian Camera Magazine, the official publication for the Canadian Association of Photographic Art.

© Paul Sparrow 2015