Know Your Camera, Know Yourself

Shooting for news is not the same as shooting a movie, let alone a home movie.

Your main goal is to quickly get the video and sound you need to tell the story. You’re not trying to look dramatic, you’re not trying to set a mood, and you’re not trying to win an Oscar. Get your shots, get good audio, and get back to the station to edit it all together. But you still need to know how to do more than point and click.

To do it well, you need a camera designed for it, and you need to know how to operate it.

My third day on the job in TV news, I was sent out the door to a car crash. I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know the area, and I didn’t know the protocol for what to do at the scene of the crash. What I did know was how to tell a story, and how to operate a news camera, so I wouldn’t waste time trying to figure out how to use it when the clock was ticking on my deadline. I mounted a wireless microphone on the camera, checked my settings, and when I arrived on scene, all I had to do was focus, hit record, and start shooting my story.

You learn very quickly as a reporter or photojournalist that you and camera soon become inseparable. Part of it is practical – there’s no one else to lug around your stuff. But part of it is that you don’t want them to. Your camera is your most important piece of equipment, and being a storyteller means knowing how to make it work. It becomes second nature, to the point where you know instinctively how to use it and meet your deadline.

That car crash wasn’t going to wait for me to say “hold on, I’ve got to figure out how to adjust the iris … and wait, I need to set up my separate audio recorder … and just a sec, I need to clap to sync this up.”

News waits for no one. So know how to operate your field camera to give you enough time to get your story in the can before 5 o’clock.

For this post, I enlisted some of the most talented photojournalists, photographers, and producers working in TV news today to share the cameras they use in their daily work. One of the main things they stressed to me is that students need to learn how to actually use them. Now how to set a white balance, know how to use your audio inputs, and know how to set it up so you can work quickly and efficiently. When you are out on breaking news, you won’t have time to grab extra pieces of equipment and expect to get the shot. And when you’re editing on a deadline, you won’t have time to try to sync audio with video captured on separate equipment.

The one thing I hear consistently from reporters fresh out of J-School is ‘What? I have to shoot, write and edit a story in 5 hours? Back in school I had a week to shoot and edit a story!'” said Matt Valladao, director and photojournalist for KTVL in Medford, Ore. “Speed and efficiency are key in real world news shooting situations.”

Your news camera is your all-in-one tool. Learn how to use it right.

JVC ProHD

For most reporters, multimedia journalists and one-man-bands, you’ll likely start on something smaller and a little easier to tote around. At KTVL in Medford, MMJs and photogs use these JVC ProHD cameras. They’re relatively lightweight, and they offer good control of your video and audio settings, like white balance, iris, neutral density, and two channels of audio. Most news cameras like this will allow you some flexibility when lighting a shot or recording audio. Most will have two audio inputs, allowing you to capture natural sound from the front mic while using a lavalier mic to record an interview.

Sony NX3

Bryan Navarro is the Director of Creative Video at St. Mary’s College, but he began his career as a reporter. During his time in Tuscon, he shot his stories on a Sony NX3 camera. He loved working with it so much, when he moved into a more creative video-driven job at St. Mary’s, he brought the same cameras with him. He now uses the camera to shoot sports, including pieces like the St. Mary’s Minute, and feature stories like the one below:

panasonic_ag_hpx600pjf_ag_hpx600_camcorder_with_ag_cvf15_906083

Panasonic AG-HPX600

Eric Carlton, photojournalist at CBS 46 in Atlanta, knows what it takes to shoot video in a variety of environments – from pouring rainstorms to dimly lit rooms. He also needs to shoot video for different purposes, whether it’s a package, VOSOT, or a reporter live shot. For his position, he shoots on cameras similar to this Panasonic AG-HPX600. The camera uses a P2 memory card to store video.

“It shoots great in low light,” he says. “I also think P2 is the best card format I’ve come across. They are bulletproof in my experience.”

Sony_PDW_F800_PDW_F800_XDCAM_HD422_2_3_627521

Sony PDW XDCAM

Eric has also shot on this Sony XDCAM, which has advantages and disadvantages from the Panasonic.

It’s also a great camera. It’s lighter than the Panasonic and has better black levels after adjusting the paint profile (out of the box it looks awful). The viewfinder is crap, but I loved it. Still prefer the P2 over XD cards though. Had the media corrupt more than once on XD. The battery on that Sony lasted crazy long. I could shoot for days on a single charge.

As you can see, you could encounter a variety of ENG or news cameras in your first jobs. But the key is to practice in college and know how to tell a story, which will help you no matter what field camera you are given.

Focus less on what type of camera you’re shooting with and focus more on how you use it,” said Adam Thompson, photojournalist for KOIN in Portland. “A more expensive camera never made anybody a better photographer.”

“I would tell the students not to expect anything new and emphasize that the camera really doesn’t matter. Shooters should concentrate on the frame, light and capturing good nats/audio,” said Brad Gowing, longtime editor and photojournalist in the Northwest. “What I learned pretty quickly was the need for tight shots. They can bail you out of the corner while editing.”

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Canon XL2

The cameras you practice on could be the cameras you use. Greg Talbott, sports anchor at KNDU, got his first job and realized his camera was the same Canon XL2 he was using at Gonzaga University.

“Exact same kind as GUTV, believe it or not,” he said.”

The other key for inexperienced reporters, MMJs and photojournalists is knowing what cameras work for the situation.

An example of a DSLR camera

Something I’ve started to see is people trying to re-purpose a DSLR digital camera for use shooting news video. While these are great for taking still photographs, I don’t want young photojournalists using it for shooting news video, because it’s not what you’ll encounter when you land a TV job.

Unlike news field cameras, there’s only one audio input, which means you can’t record natural sound and interview sound at the same time. And remember, in the field, you don’t have the time to lug around a separate audio recorder to try to sync your video in the editing room. You are severely handicapping yourself by giving yourself extra work. There’s also no headphone jack on a DSLR, so you can’t monitor your audio levels anyway.

Remember, you need to work quickly with a news camera. You need places to mount your wireless mic and top light and easy to access video/audio controls. A news or ENG camera is all-in-one; plug your microphones in, adjust your focus and iris rings, and get shooting! A DSLR is better used for projects without deadlines and when you have access to a studio filled with lights and other equipment.

“DSLR is great for promos, indie movies, online video and obviously photos. You still will have to figure out how to get the best audio by adding more to the rig,” said Scott Perry, photojournalist for KDRV in Medford.

DSLRs add to creativity and look pretty, but for most daily shooting situations I feel they would be impractical. Don’t even get me started for DSLRs as a replacement for studio cams… NO WAY!” Valladao said. “I use a DSLR for side projects. It has its benefits, but I find that I keep trying to make it more like a ENG camera, by adding rails and shoulder rests and counter weights. So after using both, I would say that for shooting news, a news style ENG camera is best. They are designed to be used in tough situations, hold up in the weather. Shooting in the snow and rain and the heat isn’t easy or always fun. DSLRs aren’t designed for shooting vid and in tough shooting situations you want to have ease of use to get to your camera controls, and you don’t have that when shooting vid on a DSLR.”

Once again, the key is to be efficient with your time. If you know how to use field and ENG cameras for shooting news, they give you the ability and advantages you need to meet your deadline.

One thing to remember is as a news outlet, you are telling the story … that is the meat … not how creative you can make a shot look with shallow depth of field, 24 frames per second, etc.,” said producer and editor Chris Plouhar. “If you want to be more creative, make documentaries. Otherwise, tell the story.”

Whatever news or sports job you end up getting, whether it’s in a small market in middle America or in a bigger station, knowledge of how to operate a camera is not only essential, it’s mandatory. As a reporter, MMJ or photojournalist, your video camera is your most important piece of equipment. You carry it with you everywhere, it becomes an extension of your body, and the sight of you and your camera is how people in the world will associate you and your job.

Your camera is you. Treat it with respect.

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