Caught in a breaker…..

Sometimes you are stuck – stuff happens and you do what you have to do and grab what you can. Often this is when you are in the middle of a breaking story and running and gunning. Opportunities to set up the tripod and mike subjects just don’t happen in the middle of a forest fire, a building collapse, a police action. The visuals and sound aren’t going to wait for you – you have to roll and hope for the best. Here are a few hints to make it work like a pro. Please remember I worked in the field for 28 years and I always carried a press pass, made sure I wasn’t in the way or creating a problem, and watched my back so I wouldn’t get hurt. Breakers are not for amateurs. Period. Keep your distance and use a tripod if you have any doubts. That fire can outrace you and the fumes from the toxic leak can kill you. And the police can and will arrest you for obstructing if you get in the way.

First – get the shot/get the sound. If you take time to white balance, set up a mike or even compose, you will lose the shot. Just roll. Once your camera is on, you at the very least are getting something. (I keep my camera’s two manual white balance modes in daylight and tungston. If in doubt, keep it in auto white balance.)

Second – make some decisions – and they need to be fast decisions. Keep the camera rolling and pointed towards whatever is happening and then LOOK WITH BOTH EYES and in the nanosecond you have, decide what you need to do. Pick out part of the scene and stabilize on it. The camera should still be rolling….give it a ten or twenty count as you look around and choose your next scene. Now make your move WITHOUT TURNING OFF THE CAMERA. At this point you don’t even know what is happening, so do not turn the camera off. You may hear or see something and all you have to do is move over and stabilize on it.

Next – once you have a grip on what is happening, look for people/witnesses/expert interviews. Do NOT walk up and shove a camera in someone’s face at a breaker. You could become a target for their anger or shock. I either keep the camera on my shoulder and point it at the sky or else hold it in my hand, pointed backwards so they know I’m not on them…then I quickly explain who I am and what I need from them. I read body language, so I usually have my camera in position before they are through saying yes. Begin with a neutral question: What did you see? What happened here? Witnesses to traumatic events need to relive and explain what they witnessed…they need to clarify events and, if handled properly, can explain what they saw to you and you audience at the same time. I never force an interview…even if my competition does and gets the interview…I want to live with myself. This, by the way, is part of the code of ethics of many professional journalism organizations: do not traumatize a victim a second time.

There are exceptions – if you are running into a situation and someone runs up to you and starts talking, go ahead and roll. The camera is there and you have implied consent. They see the camera and it should be obvious you are rolling (make sure it is – look through the viewfinder and hold out a mike if you have one). Thank them when you are done if you have time.

Now look around for experts to interview – and at breakers this is usually fire, law enforcement, governmental representatives. Catch their eye and wave a mike or walk up and wait to be recognized. They have to deal with the emergency before they talk with you – although sometimes talking with the media is at the top of their list if they need to get warnings out to the public. At this point you should have your handheld/stick mike out, even if you don’t have the tripod. You need good sound – this will be the mainstay of your story. This is your information required to write the story and inform your audience. The eyewitnesses may be great sound and they were there when it happened…but the “expert” interview is an overview and brings in elements the eyewitnesses may not know about. Lob every question you can think of at this subject…you will probably get a fair number of “I don’t know” or “We’re still investigating” answers…live with them. You can’t expect all of the answers right away. Investigations do take time and you want factual answers – not speculation.

Whew…almost done. Now think back over everything you’ve shot. Were there some comments during interviews that focused on something you didn’t shoot? (Did an eyewitness talk about seeing a dog or some other object…a missing child?) Take a look see and pick up visuals that might tie in with what your interviews said. Make sure you get at least one wide shot at this time of the entire scene. You may not use it, but then again you might need it. Get closeups…details. Broken picture frames, stained with smoke. Closeups draw your audience into your story…they personalize it.

Here’s an example of how I’ve covered a breaking fire. Usually I’m on and rolling as I close the hatch to my vehicle. I keep all of my gear in order, so there is always a wireless mike receiver on the camera and I just grab the stick mike plugged into the wireless transmitter and stick it in my belt, with both turned on.
I run up, camera rolling and I’m looking at the same time. Unless I see victims running or being rolled away on guernys, I pause and get my establishing shot (ten seconds or more) while I check the scene out. Look for flames behind the smoke. Grab as much flames as I can (those pesky firefighters are good at their job, so flames disappear quickly), keeping an eye for any movement…people running, firefighters moving in. Get firefighers tuning on hoses…hacking into doors (I want natural sound to support the urgency). Find the white hats (captains in charge of the scene) shouting out orders on their radios. All the while looking for victims or heros…I grab shots of anyone who might fit either category…but I don’t interview them yet. I’ll remember them and save them for later. In my area the fire department knows me, so I can often go in with them if the scene is not out of control. I’ve run up to seventh floor fires (while five months pregnant) and stood feet away as they chopped into walls. They know I’ll leave if I’m in the way or causing a problem. I also took the time to take a fire safety class offered for photographers by the department and I know how to recognize the signs of impending danger…walls about the collapse, fire about to take off.
Now the activity has died down I’ll go back for my interviews…quietly approaching the eyewitnesses/victims/heros first and then the experts/fire captain.
One or two final cover shots (the dog house, the smokey photos, the survivors hugging) and I’m out of there, heading for the station.

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