Photojournalism: Beyond the Basic B-roll

One of the tenets of photojournalism is that it is learned in three steps: at first, it is hard, because it is something new; then, it becomes easy because the person feels s/he understands the basic fundamentals of the field and is completely qualified to begin; and finally, it becomes hard again because the person becomes such a perfectionist that s/he is never satisfied with the work. This is a process that is only furthered by experience in the field. The student enrolled in a broadcasting or radio-television course has a difficult time gaining such experience because of many elements which will be discussed in the following pages. Typical examples of student problems will be explained; corrections will be offered; and ideas on how to improve student photojournalism within an academic setting will be explored.

One of the biggest problems facing photojournalism instructors is the fact that, because of technological advances in equipment, millions of consumers who own and operate home market cameras (camcorders) consider themselves experts in photojournalism. The main reason for this is the simplicity of operating the equipment. Technological advances in photojournalism equipment have a profound impact on how many people view the profession. Most camcorders require little more than turning the camera on, loading the tape, and pushing the red record button. In addition, these camcorders possess automatic focusing and automatic iris components, so the operator merely points the camera at the desired shot, waits until the lens automatically focuses itself, and pushes the record button. These cameras also have built-in filter systems, so the camera operator is always assured of proper color balancing regardless of where the shooting takes place. Professional photojournalists know that proper color balancing, manual iris adjustment, and focusing ability are critical factors to creative photography. Of course, the camera professionals use are of a higher quality and are much more sensitive to lighting conditions, so the professional photojournalist is required to understand which filter will guarantee good color in certain lighting situations, how to adjust the iris to allow proper light into the lens, and how to gain correct focus on the subject. Colleges and universities do not buy the high-end cameras used by television stations and production companies because of the cost; therefore, it is very difficult to show students how to change filters on camcorders when the camcorders do not even have filters. Showing students how to adjust the iris on the lens is hard when the camera will adjust the iris automatically when the camera is pointed at the subject. Likewise, attempting to demonstrate focusing techniques is equally challenging because the lens on a camcorder is very small. Some camcorders have the ability to alter their settings so an intrepid student photojournalist could use different built-in filters, manually adjust the iris, and use a manual focus setting. But time constraints and lack of equipment usually interfere with such detail, so it is more prudent to give students the camcorders and get them out in the field shooting their assignments.

Lighting, or the lack of lighting, is another student problem. Most broadcasting or radio-television departments do not have a large amount of portable lighting equipment available, so students pay little or no attention to lighting their interview subjects. They also fail to recognize and use available light sources when they shoot: focusing more on getting to the assignment, shooting whatever is handy, and leaving. Many interviews are poorly lit or not lit at all, leaving the interview's face in partial or complete darkness. Camcorders possess a fold-out color viewfinder, so the photojournalist has an accurate picture of what the shot will look like on tape. While camcorders are able to shoot respectable pictures in many lighting situations, there is not enough attention paid to appropriate and minimum lighting standards.

Capturing audio is a constant student concern. Camcorders have built-in microphones, but they are designed to capture natural sound and not as substitutes for interview settings. The built-in microphones do not possess enough range to record an interview unless the interviewee is within three feet of the microphone and the interview area is fairly quiet. Unfortunately, students will arrive at an interview without a microphone and assume the built-in microphone in the camcorder will suffice. It almost always fails because the interviewee is too far from the camera; there is ambient noise in the interview setting; the interviewee speaks softly; or the interviewee moves during the interview, causing the audio to fade in and out.

Some of the student photojournalism problems can be quelled if students become more proactive in maintaining equipment. Abuse, misuse, and destruction of equipment are direct and indirect causes of student problems when they shoot their assignments. Students check out camcorders and batteries for a specified time; when they keep the equipment longer than their allotted time, it causes an immediate backlog of students who are not able to get the same equipment. Another problem is when students check out camcorders and batteries and leave them in their cars or car trunks or homes, thus exposing the equipment to weather conditions (heat can be especially damaging to batteries) and the possibility of theft. The misuse of battery chargers plays an enormous role in the equipment maintenance problem. A new camera battery will last more than two hours when properly charged. Batteries are designed to be used until completely drained, then recharged; this keeps the battery's memory constant. But when students shoot on a newly charged camera battery for 20 minutes, and put the battery on charge, the battery's memory slowly dissipates. Similar actions by other student photojournalists eventually cause the battery to lose its full memory, and a battery that once had a shooting span of two hours suddenly has a memory of only ten minutes. This misuse of a camera battery effectively renders the battery as practically useless. Rough handling of camcorders also results in equipment failure. Students fail to appreciate the down time when cameras need to be repaired or replaced. Camcorders that are bumped into walls, dropped onto the ground, or exposed to inclement weather almost always suffer some sort of damage: some of it permanent, and when these camcorders are taken out of student checkout rotation, it causes many student assignments to be delayed or postponed. The same fate awaits audio and video cables that are incorrectly wrapped. Students who wad and roll up cables into an unrecognizable mess also destroy the long-term effectiveness of recording audio and video. Wrapping cables properly might take longer to complete but will extend their usefulness.

Most of the problems previously discussed are more physical; in other words, they can be solved if and when students decide to take more responsibility for equipment they do not own and situations they can control. The following discussion is centered on the mental aspect of student photojournalism, which is the most obvious problem in student work because the edited story is the final product of their project and is visible to everyone.

As previously mentioned, technology has made so-called experts of almost everyone who buys a camcorder. The process of shooting video is practically foolproof because camcorders basically operate themselves. But professional photojournalists know and appreciate the fact that good photography is more mental than physical. This means thinking about what needs to be shot rather than just randomly capturing video. Student photojournalists often fail to "see" the story before shooting the accompanying video. Veteran photojournalists have an advantage in that many of them use prior experiences when thinking about the visual aspect of a story. This is a difficult process for beginners since their slates are relatively blank. But this is an important element in developing and training photojournalists. Students must understand that photojournalism can be a well-designed process that can be transferred from the creative mind to videotape. It is possible, if not necessary, to think out the visuals of a story before shooting the story. That means considering the establishing shot, or several possible shots, as a beginning point. It means thinking about getting the basic shots as well as delving into more creative aspects of video, and understanding that there is always room for improvisation. "Seeing the story before shooting the story" is an excellent training method for beginning photojournalists. Mentally visualizing the shots before shooting them not only helps the photojournalist understand the story, but it also serves as a sort of outline when creating the story. Following a mental outline also provides some discipline for the student photojournalist in that it helps keep the student from randomly shooting pointless video and thus saving time.

The ability to see the visual story also includes anticipating video. One example of this is student photojournalists failing to shoot cutaways. A common thread among student work during interviews is to not shoot video of the reporter or another shot of the interviewee, such as hands, that can be used as cutaways. The result is a series of jump cuts that is visually jarring to the viewer. It only takes a few seconds to re-position the camera behind the interviewee and shoot a shot of the reporter, or to shoot the interviewee from a different angle, such as a wide shot. Other potential cutaways are a nameplate on the desk, or the gesturing of hands. Student photojournalists need to recognize that these cutaways have to be shot on the scene; they cannot be shot after the interview is over.

Basic framing of video is another problem. Interviews that are shot with the interviewee's head improperly placed in the viewfinder is one example. The ideal placement is to put the interviewee's face slightly off-center but consistent with the screen direction of the interviewer. In other words, placing the interviewee's head slightly off-center and on the left side of the viewfinder gives the impression that the interviewee is looking at someone on the right side of the viewfinder. This technique is called nose room or looking room by photojournalists. Consequently, all reporter cutaways must be consistent with the declared screen direction; reporter cutaways should be positioned so that the reporter is looking right-to-left, as if s/he is looking at the interviewee. Failure to maintain consistent screen direction, or crossing the axis, is also a typical student photojournalist mistake.

Inconsistent shot composition is another error that creeps into student work. Students do not recognize the idea of filling the viewfinder with objects that mesh into some sort of visual symmetry; rather, the main focus is to get something on tape and leave. This mindset results in uncreative, boring, and questionable video that not only does not add to a story but sometimes distracts from it. Television is a visual medium, and student photojournalists need to spend more time thinking about what they are shooting. A visually boring story often tends to drag down the audio portion of the story because the idea is to combine both elements into a cohesive unit that enhance each other.

How, then, are these problems corrected? A lot of photojournalism mistakes derive from lack of experience; a misunderstanding of the profession is another contributor. Knowing that the art of photojournalism is more mental than physical is one step in the right direction. Good photojournalism is more than having technologically up-to-date cameras.

Some suggestions:

  • 1. More emphasis on shot composition. Consider the viewfinder as a canvas and concentrate on filling that canvas with objects. Avoid dead space within the viewfinder. When shooting a building, put the building in the middle of the viewfinder to avoid a lot of dead space above or below the building. When shooting someone who is moving, place the person in the opposite side of the frame and give him/her "walking space." (If the person is walking left-to-right, place the person on the left side of the frame so s/he walks across the viewfinder.) If you are shooting a news conference, concentrate on shooting close-ups of persons in the audience, then work on medium shots of the audience, and conclude with several wide shots of the room.
  • 2. Avoid shooting every shot from the same angle. When shooting children, shoot them from their perspective; kneel or get on the ground and shoot them at their level instead of standing over them and shooting downward. As a creative component, shooting upward conveys a feeling of superiority or excessive height; shooting downward can show inferiority or smallness.
  • 3. Change locations when shooting. Take the camera off the tripod and move around the shooting area.
  • 4. Think about wide, medium, and tight shots (close-ups) when shooting.
  • 5. Hold each shot at least ten seconds. Many editing problems can be solved if photojournalists would shoot longer shots.
  • 6. Use a tripod whenever possible. If there is no tripod, be creative and use whatever is available (a desktop, a chair, or the ground if shooting wide shots of buildings or large groups of people).
  • 7. Avoid pans and zooms whenever possible. Nothing is more visually jarring than unnecessary panning of inanimate objects. Buildings do not move; neither should video of buildings. The human eye can not zoom in and out; humans move closer or farther away from the object. Consider moving closer to or farther away from an object in most video situations. Too many student photojournalists get zoom-happy with their video. The result is a series of zoom-ins and zoom-outs that can not be logically edited together and does not present a clear picture of the object in the video.
  • 8. Think about natural sequencing when shooting video. If the story is on home construction, for example, a photojournalist could shoot a wide shot of a worker who is hammering nails, go to a medium shot of the worker's face, and cut to a tight shot of the hammer striking the nail. This sequence can be accomplished in very little time or movement by the photojournalist. It can also make editing a faster process since sequenced video, when shot in natural order, is easy to find and edit together.
  • 9. Always shoot cutaways during interviews to avoid jump cuts. Shoot reverse angle shots of the reporter, keeping screen direction in mind. If the interviewee is positioned screen left, the reporter cutaways should be positioned screen right. Shoot medium and wide shots of the interviewee after the interview is over. If the interviewee talks with his/her hands, shoot tight shots of the gesturing hands. Look for alternative shots that do not include the interviewee in them to avoid jump cuts.
  • 10. Emphasize audio. Never leave the building without a working microphone. Do not conduct an interview without a microphone. Do not rely on the built-in camera microphone. When shooting video, consider natural or ambient sound elements for the story that can be incorporated into the story itself. Crowd noise at a sporting event, laughing children on a playground, or noise at a construction site are examples of various audio components that can become part of the story as natural sound pops or inserts.
  • 11. Always check equipment before leaving the building. Make sure all batteries work. Take enough videotapes. Test everything before leaving for the shoot.
  • 12. Be aware of lighting conditions. Always take lights when available. If not, use whatever light situation is suitable. Avoid the common mistake of shooting someone who is sitting behind a sunlit window. This usually causes an unwanted silhouette effect on the individual's face if the camera is set on an automatic iris. Ask the person to close the curtains or blinds so the sun is not a factor, or ask the person to move to another location. If shooting someone who wears a hat, ask that person to remove the hat or tilt the brim of the hat upward to avoid facial shadowing. Pay attention to shadows in all situations. Sunlight is not always an ideal shooting light. If the subject is facing the sun, s/he will probably squint. Consider moving the subject at an angle from the sun that illuminates the face but avoids the squinting effect.
  • 13. In the classroom: tape local and national newscasts and use them as examples of good and bad photojournalism. Discuss possible ways of improving the quality of video.
  • 14. Bring professional photojournalists from the area to class to talk about their ideas, values, and experiences in the field. If willing, have the professionals evaluate and critique student work.

Student photojournalism is an evolving process, just like the professional world of photojournalism. Many techniques that enhance the profession are universal and learned through experience. Some techniques are unique to the individual. Students and viewers should realize that good photojournalism is a mental process where the creators constantly strive for perfection. The art of photojournalism, like the good photojournalist, should not be taken for granted.

From: Tommy G. Booras

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