Starter Kit for your Bag of Tricks

[Editor's note: In the fall of 2000, NPPA Director Bradley Wilson asked me to write up my best 10 tips for new tv news photographers. This was printed in the Winter 2000 edition of Journalism Education Today.]

Starter Kit for your Bag of Tricks
By Kevin Johnson

Every television news photographer carries a gear bag. Something to lug around their tapes, batteries, lights and microphones. Most of them also carry another bag that’s a little less visible. It’s their bag of tricks; filled with all of the skills, knowledge and intuition that years of experience have taught them. A heaping bag of tricks doesn’t come quickly. It takes a lot of trial and error to figure it all out, and, to be honest, we learn more from the errors.

Having shot television news for 9 years, I’ve seen many different situations. I still learn new things every day and file them away in my bag of tricks. The best tip I learned came during my first internship. A production photographer simply taught me never to say, “I know.” As soon as you say, “I know,” everyone will assume you do, and they’ll stop sharing knowledge with you. Always keep your mind open to information.

For those of you beginning the career of a photog, here are a few tips to help you start filling your bag of tricks… And here’s hoping that your bag is never full.

* 1. White Balance: White Balancing is not merely pointing your camera at something white and pushing a button. The placement and angle of that white surface is very important. Where is your primary light coming from? The fluorescent lights above or the sunlight through the window. Adjust the location of your white balance accordingly. Slight changes in how and where you white balance can completely change the outcome of your image.
* 2. Use a Tripod: There are those that believe that a video camera should not be rolling if it is not sitting on a steady set of sticks. On the other hand, some feel the freedom and movement of a hand held camera is what “motion pictures” is all about. There is a happy medium. If you are not going to move the camera (pan, tilt, walk or run) there is no reason for the camera not to be on a stable platform (sticks, steady bag, table or floor).
* 3. Listen for Natural Sound: Television is as much about sound as it is images. Follow the interesting nat sound, and normally that is where the most interesting pictures can be found.
* 4. Hold your Shots: Make sure you hold your shot steady long enough to edit. Set a good shot and count to 10 before moving on to the next shot.
* 5. Don’t Shoot Shots – Shoot Sequences: Don’t think in terms of individual images, but rather visual moments flowing together. Capture a scene with wide, medium and tight shots. Let people walk in and out of frame. Try to make your edits invisible. Make the viewers feel they are part of the action.
* 6. Zoom with Your Feet, Not with Your Lens: The human eye does not zoom, so your camera shot should not. Physically move the camera closer to the subject instead of zooming into it.
* 7. Avoid Using Your Camera Light at All Cost: The worst lighting for a subject is direct light coming from the same angle as the lens. It flattens out features and makes the subject too bright in relation to its background. Simply move the light a little to one side and you’ll see amazing results. Also use natural light whenever possible. You don’t need to setup a heavy three head light kit to have well lit subjects.
* 8. Compose Your Interviews: Take a little time to put your subject in the right environment. Pull them away from walls. Have some foreground and background in your shot for depth. Frame your subjects to the right or left, alternating so back to back interviews don’t appear on the same side of the screen.
* 9. Know The Story And Listen To Your Interviews: Talk with your reporter so you know the direction they see the story going. Feel free to offer your suggestions on ways to make it better. Listen to your interview subjects and try to find the sound bites. Make sure you have pictures to cover items that the subject discusses. Cover all your bases, and be prepared for anything.
* 10. Don’t Be Afraid To Be Creative: The part I love about being a TV news photog is I show people the world in a way they’ve never seen it before. Once you get your safety shots, don’t be afraid to try a strange angle or interesting move. Ride the elephant at the circus or do a dog P.O.V. shot from inside a doghouse. Whatever you do, don’t forget to have fun!

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