Going all academic on ya…

I like to challenge myself and do read the occasional academic paper. Just stumbled on a new one that explores an old and much loved theme: The Decisive Moment.

This concept was hammered into my teenage brain in community college by the great Edwin Schwyn, who rocked and ruled the photography department at San Joaquin Delta College in the 60s and 70s (and beyond). The Decisive Moment, first conceived of by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson,

Leaping deer

Leaping deer

is the peak moment in an image, where it all comes together. Stalking that decisive millisecond took patience, technical skills, and intuitive aesthetic abilities, all of which Schwyn rammed down our throats on a daily basis. As a result, I lived and dreamed in black and white and hopes of capturing images that would earn me a “well done” from my idol.

Now, 45 years later, Joshua Sarinana has explored this theme in depth in an article titled The Decisive Moment and the Brain.

When motor skills related to a specific task are learned, the motor cortex disengages, and the unconscious processing of the basal ganglia carries out the motor behaviors. What’s interesting is that once this motor skill is unconscious, trying to be conscious of the motor skill often impairs performance. Pretend that you’re walking. Now think about how you walk. Does your right hand move with your right leg, or does it move with the opposite leg? Simply being aware of this as you walk often trips people up. Basically, you don’t need to overthink what you already know.

This comes into the category of “I don’t know what I know”…things that are learned so well they recede into the background, even though they are used daily. Whenever anyone asks how to become a better videojournalist/videographer, I tell them, “Practice, practice, practice.” Learn the skills you need so well that your very body has memorized them and you can focus on what you need to do, what you need to see and capture.

This is a complex article on a simple subject and Sarinana takes the reader through the physiology of how capturing the Decisive Moment works in our brain and bodies. Well worth the struggle to get through it.

Parallel Light…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANews is a 24/7 kinda business and there will be times you’ll need something to light up the night or fill in faces of interviews during the day. The former requires something easy to use and portable – an on-camera light with enough punch to reach out into the dark. The latter can be kinder and gentler when you’re inside and want to banish unsightly shadows on interview subjects’ faces. There are a couple of ways to fill in those same shadows when out in full sunlight, some affordable and some not.

Our goals, as Videojournalists, are portability, ease of use, and affordability.

In the past tungsten lights were the portable light of choice. But they took power – lots of it. A 30w light could drain a battery belt or Anton Bauer camera battery in minutes. Those minutes varied from ten to maybe twenty if you were lucky.

Enter LED lights. Little consumer lights that run off of AAA batteries, advancing in size to larger lights that run off of AA batteries. And then even larger lights that use camera batteries or tap into the camera as a power source.

But there is a catch. While tungsten lights emit a full range on the color spectrum, LEDs don’t. This is not an issue if you’re using them for fill in daylight or (with a warming filter) as fill indoors. But light that puppy up in the deep dark of night as your sole light source and you’ll have chills at the results.

Your video will look as if it were shot in the Ice Age. Cool and blue.


You can see it slightly in this video. Using a Flolight 256 and Prolight (250w) with the camera set on automatic, shot indoors with a bit of fill from a lamp in the background, you can see the cooler appearance of the Flolight.


It is very apparent in this video. The primary light source was a set of cheap LED stage lights. Camera on automatic. Very blue.

The way to get around this issue is to carry warming cards. These are cards you white balance on which are tinted blue. So when you white balance, the spectrum shifts to the warm side.

BTW for those of you who don’t “do” manual white balance – here’s how dramatic that shift can be.

Other advantages of LEDs are that they don’t burn hot like tungstens. You can run them for hours and they only get a little bit warm and cool down quickly. That helps with break down time.

Of course they are noticeably higher in price than their tungsten counterparts. So there are trade-offs.

Keep on top of light this week by visiting our facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/thebasicsofvideojournalism.

Adendum 10/3/13
kollThere is a new pretender to the glowing throne of portable light. The Koll Solari line. Coming in three flavors, these LED lights have a fresnel insert that allows you to go from soft and broad to tight and spot light. Definitely gonna hafta get me one to check it out.

One more thing (12/10/13) – Just picked up a cheapie LED light on Amazon and will be testing it to see how the color holds up against my Flolights. How cheap? About $30…extra for battery and charger. Much lighter too – plastic rather than metal. But if it puts out a good light and doesn’t stray too far from the full spectrum that’s good enough for me. (Think of it as a throwaway light.)

Sans tripod…

This posting sprang out of a conversation begun over on the globalvjs facebook group. Someone asked which was the best camcorder for under $500 and I entered the discussion by showing off a video shot with my Kodak Playtouch. A simple P&S camera which I carry everywhere. No zoom, not much in the way of manual controls but it does have a mike input and decent quality.IMG_1191

The response to the video was not about the camera but about how smooth the video looked…

moving around with a camera – I have a cannon eos 603, without a bulky-tripod, brough this quality? the Kodak Seems smoother in movement.

So another “duh” moment on my part where I forget that I know what I know. My first thought was the built-in stabilization in the little play camera. But no – that wasn’t it.

My second thought was more right-on. It was me. Well, not me really. Decades of experience in being a human Steadicam. When you’re paid to beat the streets, shaky is not an option. News video MUST be rock steady or as near to that as possible. First option is always a tripod.

But there’s more, even with a tripod. Too many newbies place camera on tripod and then hug or hold tripod closely. Mistake #1. You live and breathe, therefore YOU are not a stable platform. And by giving your tripod the death hug, you transfer your jitters to the pod and the camera. So – once you hit that record button, un-hand the tripod and let it do its job.

Gotta pan or tilt? Please don’t, but if you have to, use a light touch. For pans just loosen the pan lock on the tripod head and literally push it along with one finger. But wait! There’s more! In addition to pushing with said finger, hold your upper arm against your body and using your hips as a swivel point, slowly move the tripod head in a pan. Even your arm can be shaky if held away from the body. (And yes, I will shoot some videos and get them up tomorrow to illustrate.)

Tilt is pretty much the same. Lock down the pan function. Hold the tripod grip/handle. Push gently for up, pull gently for down.

That’s it for Tripods 101.

Now for Human Tripod 200. As I told my students, you are alive and breathing. The only way you can hold a tripod rock solid steady is if you are not breathing – if you are dead. Not a good option.

But here are some good options. The best tripod ever: the planet Earth. Place your camera on a tree stump, a rock, a table, a wall. Get down and dirty and put it on the ground. You can pile up dirt or pebbles to achieve the framing you want.

Kathy Newell

Kathy Newell

Lean against a wall…use the weight of your body and wedge yourself in good and tight, holding the camera up against your head or chest. By extending your arms you are increasing the odds your shots will be shaky, so keep it up close and personal.

The Human Tripod pan and tilt head is your hips. Again, keep that camcorder close and personal by folding your arms to your side and creating a human tripod. Your two arms become two of the legs and by placing the camera up against your face (hopefully you have a viewfinder) there you have it. Human Tripod. Now swivel your hips slowly and you have the pan function. To tilt, bend gently up or down at the hips.

And finally: Human Steadicam 500 for advanced students. Way back in the dim dark reaches of my adventure in shooting news I stumbled upon a Tai Chi class held at daybreak in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The agonizingly slow movements of the participants intrigued me and pretty soon I was out getting my feet wet in the misty morning fog. I learned to stretch and slow down and lose my mind in the blank beauty of mindless movement. Oh – and I learned how to focus on centering my mind and body on my hips and hip movement.

Fact – the lower your center of gravity, the more stable you are. Center too high/walk with your head or shoulders and you bounce. Center too low/your feet and you drag. But center in that smooth jointed hip area and you glide. I learned over the months to walk without bouncing up and down…how to walk in a controlled smooth pace. It became a habit, so much that I still find myself slowing down and centering myself whenever I pick up a camera.

Those Tai Chi stretching movements lent themselves to jib-quality pans and tilts. Coupled with the lessons in Tripod 101 and Human Tripod 200, Human Steadicam completed my mastery of getting a stable shot.

Final hint. You don’t get good without practice. Somewhere up there I mentioned months to learn the basics of Tai Chi. Decades of shooting. You need to handle that camera daily…and for more than minutes – for hours. You need to train your body to control itself and the camera, until the camera becomes an extension of your body – freeing you to see the story while operating the camera goes on in the back of your mind.

Think global…work local…

The VJ world is heating up, albeit primarily in the world’s hot spots.

With the ever shrinking network budgets and a growing need for accurate coverage in the nooks and crannies of our expanding world, videojournalists are becoming a prime commodity. Why? They work locally. They know their area and its politics. Most importantly, they know how to get around/work around what might be barriers to outsiders.

What I’ve noticed in viewing stories from abroad is that they seem to be more factual and more organic. The story is allowed to breathe and develop. Strange, because often they are not much longer than the standard minute thirty story here in the States.

And they travel lighter. Camera. Mike. Tripod. Computer. When I asked VJ Ruud Elmendorp about what kind of lights he used, his comment was that there is light everywhere. Makes sense when you’re traveling in a region of the world where electricity may not be the norm. Ruud is a Dutch VJ who (as his LinkedIn account states) is “reporting on conflict and development from the African continent.”

New York videojournalist Shaminder Dulai works with a DSLR, Canon G12, and even his iPhone in a pinch.

“This works for me because I usually do photo and video on the same assignments, so it’s easy for me to switch back and forth. And a note about why I used Canon, it’s only because I’ve already invested in Canon lenses. I firmly believe it’s not the gear but the eye that matters.”

Shaminder says he is bored by gear talk.

So many of us get absorbed by talking about bokah and video jelly, but I say: okay, we know about it, adapt and go tell a great story with what you have now, rather than whine about what you don’t have.”

(Side note: he has been robbed twice with most of his gear stolen.) His theme is backed by others.

Bud Wichers (Netherlands) says his goal is “to shoot a video that stays in peoples’ minds for at least 24 hours.” He diverges from Shaminder…Bud feels that “You can make poor shots, your sound can be terrible, and the lighting totally crap, but, if your story flows, you can still captivate your audience from start to finish.” His take on this comes from covering major breaking stories (including war zones)…which I know from experience may have you trying to watch your back to protect yourself while dodging whatever is thrown your way as you shoot. There is profound truth to his statement.

The Netherlands is a very VJ friendly country and Bud says he is often booked in advance, in addition to covering breaking news. If not booked often he will go to an assignment and shoot it, then sent it to his global list of clients, who often purchase it.

Jonah Kessel is accredited by the New York Times to work for them in China. And he, along with many of the other global VJs, is more than bi-lingual. Working in a multi-cultural world, they are often tri, quadra, multilingual. Since VJ-ing is all about communications, knowledge of the local language is essential.

Why does Jonah drive himself as a storyteller?

“The drive to tell important stories has been embedded in me for a long time. As an individual it’s hard to have much impact in the world. However, as a video journalist or cinematographer I do have the ability to reach mass audiences through my work. So my entire goal is to tell important stories and to help create better awareness of the world we live in. Without awareness, education, and information the world’s problems will only get worse.”

Being driven to tell stories and getting paid to tell them are two separate discussions. Ruud says there are several pathways to get assignments – the first being to find and produce stories and then offer them to a variety of organizations (TV stations and online sites). The second is working with organizations on smaller projects, which often lead to larger assignments. The third is based on spontaneous assignments based on his online presence.

Ruud is all over social media – and he uses it during shoots, “maintaining a series of tweets and posting on several platforms, and reply to comments. Really, at the end of the day you’re completely knackered.”

Arturo de la Pena (Multimedia Journalist with Heraldo Estado de Mexico) says his work is about 40% assignments and 60% covering whatever he wants to. He uses good old fashioned business cards when he meets people, and “starts asking questions. After I have something to build up, I ask some of those questions again, in front of the camera.”

Let’s take a look at the gear used by global VJs. The “Father of Videojournalism”, Michael Rosenblum, has trained thousands of VJs in the over 25 years and says, “the equipment has changed incredibly.”

With the advent of webcasting really surpassing broadcasting in terms of final platform for most of this stuff, we’re seeing that smaller, lighter and easier to use are the driving factors in gear. Pretty much everything shoots to HD.

Rosenblum is currently doing some training at the U.N. using iPhones…cutting on iMovie or FCPX. He emphasizes minimalist gear.

Never use lights. Too much to drag around. If essential, a small litepanel mounted on the camera, but try to avoid it. The rule here is small and as lightweight as possible. Likewise with tripods. simple simple simple.

Ruud travels light, with the basics of camera, mike, tripod, editing laptop. Arturo shoots with a Canon T4i and Sony NX30, edits with Premier Pro (no word on lights or mikes). Los Angeles (CA, USA) VJ Chrisy Wilcox (gotta love her) uses a Panasonic AG-HMC150 (my camera of choice), Canon Mark iii, Sennheiser wireles lav, Lowel light kit, Zoom H4N, Mac with Final Cut Pro as her basic kit. Also from LA is investigative VJ Paul Huebl who uses a JVC HM100U with Zoom H4n, Sennheiser wireless kit, iPad telepromter, lights and a Macbook Pro with Final Cut X. Bud smartly shops for used gear (you can get some great finds if you’re a careful shopper)…using a Sony JVR Z7 camera, Sony HVL-LBPA LED camera light, some Rode shotgun mikes, Electro Voicce stick mike (the choice of anyone traveling who wants a nearly unbreakable mike)…actually most of his list is audio gear. I’m not even getting into Jonah’s gear list – which is extensive (but he is forgiven).

Now I didn’t go into a lot of depth on their gear lists…trust me, there was more than shown above. But the basics are there. A solid working camera they trust. Generally a second camera for backup – and in some of the remote areas these folks hit, backup is essential. A tripod – they all have them. Audio gear. Right up there with a good camera. The basics. (Paul of course breaks the mold with a teleprompter, but hey – that’s Hollywood.)

And while some of these VJs have plenty of work, others are constantly looking. I suspect it is feast or famine in the global VJ community. Although Shaminder does work with Newsweek, he also funds some projects out of pocket and seeks grants to fund others. Paul works primarily for criminal defense lawyers (due, he says, to TV newsroom budgets being so tight these days). And poor Ruud – his problem is having too much work apparently, with clients asking why he isn’t pitching stories anymore. The choice seems to be to “Either say no to assignments (which I think is killing) or to hire assistants.” Not something he wants to do, but he is thinking about it.

I’d like to thank the VJs who contributed…and honesty they sent me so much material I see a second posting in the future. I also plan to do a bit of investigating from the other side – how does a media organization vet (verify) a global VJ they’ve never seen.

Pondering light…

Ever since I first hefted a camera onto my shoulder I’ve been using tungsten lights to fill in the dark areas and light up the night (as well as interviews). Tungsten seemed to be a fixture for both news and production…been around nearly forever.

But in the past twenty years there have been some pretenders and challengers…and one of them is serious enough that I’m considering bailing from my old standby and sliding over to the cool side of lighting.

Now my first thoughts of betrayal came with the introduction of fluorescent lights. Soft, portable. But I just couldn’t see the real advantages over tungsten. No real ability to control the light spread…really only good for flooding a scene.

Then LEDs came onto the scene…and I was cautious. I mean, they seemed kind of cute but not really a workhorse type of gear that I could use.

So I took the leap with a Flolight 256 and ran it through some tests. The light is bright and holds up against my Lowel Prolight with a 250w lamp pretty well. It’s daylight balanced, very light and runs for an hour or more on a Sony NP battery.

On the down side: not full color spectrum. Even with manual white balance the cast of human skin comes out bluish, so I did what any one with a bit of knowledge of the color wheel would do. I knew I wanted to warm up the image, so I experimented with some white cards with a bluish tint. Opposites do make for an attractive result – by white balancing with the LED light on the blue cards I was able to trick the camera into thinking it was pretty cool out there and the balance shifted to the warm side.

Voila!

I’ve upped my game and have three Flolights now – two 256s and a 128, all powered by battery. They’ve changed my workflow for sure. I no longer have to worry about cables snaking across the floor and can re-position lights in a snap. Using Blackwrap (heat-resistant heavy-duty photographic aluminum foil) I can even create snoots and other handy ways to control the light. And packing it all in at the end of the day…well, no wait time for the light heads to cool down. These little heads barely get warm after hours of use.

So LED lights: I thank you. But the talent and interview subjects I work with in these hot summer days thank you even more for making them the coolest things around.

It’s all in the mind of the shooter…

I keep hearing it. “I could shoot better video if only I had (name the) camera. My life would be so much better if… People would hire me if only…

Hate to break it to ya bro, but that ain’t it. It’s not your gear, unless you’re still trying to keep between the lines with your Crayolas. Then maybe it IS the gear.

What may be lacking is your vision, your talent, your technical chops…

I mean – if you’re bad. You’re BAD. No one wants bad.

Why this rant? Kids who come up to me and think if they had my cam or a better one they could be better than me instantly.

Hah.

Worst story ever. Mom at the school I used to work with came up to ask me about the exorbitant cost of gear. He son was applying for one of those fancy schmancy art school that guarantee you’ll be the next Ford Coppola…or at the very least be rolling in bucks once you graduate (and that’s a rant I’ll reserve for later). I told her that until he got into school a plain ole three or four hundred dollar camera would do to teach him the basics and let him get hands on. So a few weeks later I hear the kid got the (then) camera of his dreams, most likely draining the family savings to boot. All this so he could make an application video to get into the school. We’ll kinda sashay past the fact this was a family that didn’t do college and this was their first kid heading down that path…they had no idea what was expected.

My take when I talked to mom again was astonishment. Explained to her that the school was looking for his ideas…how his mind flowed…his RAW talent. The fine tuning and technical skills were why he wanted to go there.

A tool in the wrong hands does not produce craftsman quality work. It just produces high quality crap.

Now I’m no Emmy winner…always been a meat and potatoes kind of shooter. I know the basics and know how to use whatever tool I have on hand to get the story done. So here’s my third stab at proving a point. (The first stab being Wyoming Cattle Drive and the second Absailing. The former shot with an $80 ebay acquisition/Canon ZR60 and the latter a cheapie still camera with video ability/Exilim Z75.)

It ain’t the cost of the gear…it is the mind behind the grind…the wisdom whispering to the beast…that makes for good shooting AND editing.

Case in point: Refurbished Kodak Playtouch purchased on ebay for $59. Edited on one of my local library’s computers using Final Cut Pro X (and I could have done just as well with iMovie or Moviemaker). There was no zoom, so I zoomed with my legs. Used macro and wide shot settings. Kept fingers crossed and got decent white balance most of the time. Got up close and personal with my interview subject to get more or less clean audio.

So quitcha bitchin and come to terms with your bank account. If you can’t get good with a basic camera, basically you are not gonna get good at all.

Freelance VJ sites

The blessing and bane of being a VJ is getting paid to do what you love. If you’re lucky, you have a staff job with an understanding news director or editor who knows that you will give your all if s/he treats you right. That means a living wage and a reasonable amount of time to do stories you love mixed in with the day-to-day assignments.

But that’s not the reality for most current and aspiring VJs. Love is one thing. Earning an income is another.

I’ve been checking out some sites that purport to channel VJ videos into potential cash flows. Although most cater to breaking news, there is room for other types of stories too. Read carefully and check each out yourself before leaping on board.

And while you’re checking out the organizations, also be aware that some charge a commission – a flat fee or percentage – on your sales while others pay a flat rate to you and others may have different ways to make money.

Cont3nt.com_First up is cont3nt.com. Founded by former National Geographic employee Anton Gelman, cont3nt.com is the new kid on the block. Like most of the sites below, its emphasis is on breaking news…getting your just-shot breakers up on the site and out marketed to a global market. He has a variety of contracts from short-term limited to total buyout. Nice part is that if you have current clients he won’t horn in on them…but he does open up new market potential. All business is transacted directly by the freelancer and the client…cont3nt.com does not get involved in anything beyond providing the platform and collecting a small fee per transaction. They do require (as most do) that you sign an ethics statement. cont3nt.com also has a ratings system for their VJs…the more experience you have and the more and higher quality stories you provide, the higher your ranking.

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CrowdMedia specializes in sifting through twitter feeds, looking for photographs at news events and venues. You can’t apply – and rates are low by professional standards unless the event is major (see below).

CEO Martin Roldan has this to say about his site:

Our marketplace is only for photos right now. Contact is made through our platform directly, with images coming from Twitter. Direct upload will be open as soon as our unique “Authenticity Detection” will be fully operational. This is to make sure we only get photos depicting real events and that people uploading them are the rightful owners.

Since we are focusing on the value of real-time events, images are at a fixed rate of $20 during the first 48 hours and $5 after that time. A photo of a major event could be purchased more than 1000 times.

ELANCE-NEW-LOGO eLance seems to be a meeting place on steroids for those seeking temporary workers and freelancers of all ilks, not just videographers. Potential employers post a job then view the matched freelancers. They have to deposit the full amount of the quote from the freelancer plus the commission to eLance…freelancer paid either when the job is done or when milestones are reached. Not just a VJ site though you may find the occasional gig there.

emphasis empahs.is is a crowdfunding platform for visual journalists. You have to provide the usual: a short proposal of two or three sentences, one page proposal outlining the scope/relevance of said project, your personal (short) bio, links to your work and a video pitch. Offhand this looks more like a still visual storyteller site…but check it out and let us know what you find out.

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gothamist-logo Geothamist serves hyperlocal major metropolitan areas around the world…if you live in or near one of those listed there may be opportunities for you.

Newsmodo, again, has a similar platform to most of the others.

According to Managing Editor Ryan Jones, Newsmodo is a free global platform for freelance journalists. newsmodo He says, “We offer journalists around the world the opportunity to work for big and small international media companies. They set assignments for you to pitch to OR you pitch unsolicited and they commission.”

305549_980 reportersunited is not just for the word folks…it’s actually targeting VJs. Like cont3nt.com it seeks breaking stories, but also wants good factual features. And I’ve worked with their team just enough to know they will seek clients if you have a good idea…and they act as an intermediary between VJ and client to ensure the story fits the need. What else you need to know: independent video news agency, adherence to journalism standards of facts/conduct/ethics, global distribution (all of these sites provide that).

storyhunter5 storyhunter was founded by VJs and although you can provide story ideas, they also provide assignments you can sign up for. They do screen, so no newbies here. Their emphasis is serious work and breakers for working VJs.

ttm_tumblr_profile transterramedia is another global site that accepts pitches from VJs and matches them up with clients. They do breaking news but accept hard-hitting general news and features. They do screen before allowing VJs on board and do work closely with their contributors (this from experience).

vourno_logo Vourno is fresh off the press…came out less than two weeks ago. It is a crowdsourcing platform aimed at “Vournos” or video journos. They solicit “pubs” to provide support and funding for projects you propose. The VJ owns the rights to their work…what Vourno does is provide exposure for VJs and their story ideas to a public willing to pay to see a story through. This is not an income stream where you are paid to work…your story is funded for what it will cost to produce and then you are free to market it to clients once it has appeared on the Vourno site for a specified amount of time.

Realize that I’ve vastly condensed the information and approach each of the above sites is taking…but the bottom line is they are potential money-makers if you have the skills, ideas, and commitment to follow through and provide what you promised.

In addition to these there are job/gig websites, including staffmeup, productionhub, mandy, mediamatch, journalismjobs. You can find others by doing a web search with the type of job you’re interested in and “job board.” These offer short and long-term gigs and even full-time jobs. Pay ranges from (what else) free to union scale. (I’ll be updating this list and adding urls over the next few months.)

And Facebook has opened up some possibilities, although with disclaimers. Many gigs are in conflict zones on pages like “Find a journalist…around the world.” Other sites are mainly for discussion with the occasional gig – videojournalist, Global VJs and TV Freelancers. In many cases you have to ask to be added because they are closed groups and you may even be screened to ensure you are a professional.

So as bleak as the full-time staff market may be…if you are enterprising and industrious you may be able to make your passion a paying profession.