Skillset for success…

cropped-200-seamore-bear-intvw-2.jpgBeen doing some gigs with a local producer and on the road we often discuss the woes of the world with slant on video production. She tries to hire local and has worked with seasoned pros and local university students and has seen large gaps in what said students don’t know. So here’s a quick primer on the skillset you need to get started in video…be it production or news.

Attitude. This is one of the top concerns…the know-it-all newbie who has just acquired thousands of dollars worth of book learning but is lacking sadly in essential areas. Coming in to a job with attitude is a killer for the employer. Courteous and humble works oh so much better and will get you a return gig more than likely.

Speaking of schooling…all too often colleges are heavy on theory and light on reality. Skills such as shooting and editing can be taught but they must be fully assimilated in order for them to do any good. What that means is daily use of said skills…not a story or two in a semester. One skims the surface while the other drives knowledge into the very physical core of the student.

And shooting – please don’t go all artsy fartsey and say that you actually wanted the shots to be wavering and shaky because you “don’t do” tripods. Use. A. Tripod. For Every Shot. Until you learn how to glide like an eagle or use a steadicam, stick to the sticks.

Please understand how light works and how to work with light. Know the basic rules of composition…and when to break them. What else? Well – sharp focus and proper exposure.

Audio – just because you THINK you can hear it doesn’t mean it’s good. Use a real plug-in microphone. Not the on-cam mike. Use a headset to make sure you hear good audio. Then play it back as a final assurance you got it clean.

Sequencing. The crown jewel of video. How to tell a story in a series of connected shots…shots that segue and flow into each other when edited.

I can’t believe I’m writing this…everything thus far is so far down the food chain in what a shooter needs to know…but all of these were discussed while heading to a gig earlier today as the producer lamented the lack of skills she is seeing.

Oh – and final word of advice. When you put up your demo reel, keep it short and focused. Three or four minutes at most. (My current demo reel is 3:05.) If you’re bad that will be obvious seconds into the reel – and no producer is gonna sit thru bad for longer than that. If you’re good it takes just the same few seconds…so why ruin it and take the chance the producer may back away. Make sure you show the basics mentioned above: exposure, steady shooting, composition, lighting…

And about your attitude. You are being offered an opportunity when you get a job. Don’t make the person who hires you regret it by treating them poorly.

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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.)

Voices that inspire me…

…to get back to blogging.

Did a (fairly basic) lighting workshop yesterday for Voices of the Earth, a Bay area non-profit. They’re a bit out of the ordinary…a small group of passionate folks who have taught themselves an awful lot about video production and who want to move on to what they call “the next level.” For them, this meant learning how to use light properly, plus a bit about audio and sundry other items.

I say they are out of the ordinary because they learned and gave themselves feedback properly…before we even met up they knew to use a tripod, frame properly, and (wow!!!) get good solid audio with shotgun and clip-on mikes. Made my job awfully easy.

The end result is that their inspiration has now re-inspired me to write the occasional blog posting. So this will become an on-again/off-again thought-of-the-moment series of postings with tips. Until I’m enticed away to the next bright and shiny vision.

Today’s tip is tripods.

I noticed that both of VotE’s shooters had tripods – a good thing. What they need to do now is move up to video tripods that can handle the weight of their gear and allow them to do smooth camera movements. “V” was using a Canon Vixia and his tripod was okay for the weight of the camera…but for shooting video it was too light and shaky. “J’s” tripod was definitely way too light to hold her Panasonic three-chipper. Great little camera, but we had one near-disaster when it tipped forward due to weight.

Lesson #1 – there are two main parts to all tripods. The legs/sticks and the head. The latter would be the part you attach your camera to. Most low end tripods come with the two attached as one unit. As you move up the food chain you can purchase the legs and head separately, allowing you to choose specific qualities you want. (see this old posting for more details)

Lesson #2 – make sure your camera is rated for what you plan to load on it. And that would be more than just the camera. If you ever plan to add an on-camera light, shotgun mike or other accessories, the tripod has to bear that weight too.

Lesson #3 – there IS a difference between still and video tripods. A still tripod is mean to hold the camera steady while you take ONE shot or a series of shots. It is a platform to hold your gear and let you keep your hands free.
A video camera should have a fluid head…meaning you should be able to pan side to side and up and down evenly without any jerkiness. It should be heavy/solid enough so it doesn’t shake when someone walks by or if you’re out in the weather. AND if you can spring for the money, a ball head would be nice…allows you to level your camera without having to fiddle with the legs.

Thanks again VotE.

Story Idea 11/14/10

This is for you photogs out there – both the frozen in time types and sound and motion shooters. Do a photo essay on what is not there – try to shoot a series of shots of light and shade without substance.

What brought this on? Waking up the past few weeks the sun has cast shadows on my closet door…that move from high to low, from focused to wide. Almost minimalist in style.

Ties in with a video I shot while in Portland this past spring. Shadow of train and man in window on wall. Mesmerizing. Rhythmic. Compelling.

Story idea: shoot what ISN’T there…

Here’s an example…on a recent vacation up the coast of California I visited all 21 of the missions that established Spanish dominance here. Ducking through a door in the Carmel mission I saw and snapped a photo of a shadow on the wall.

It looked strangely like an angel, with wings unfurling. Then, as I fully emerged into the hallway, I saw what cast the shadow – a workman on a ladder with a shop light behind him.

The image impressed me and even after seeing that it had a real-world basis, stayed with me.


Here’s a couple more, shot at a 50th wedding anniversary party. The obvious shadow of photographer on wall…and then the repetitive pattern of balcony railing mirrored with its own shadow.

In these days of decreasing light and lengthening shadows, see what you can find. At my former high school it was the long shadows cast by students walking at daybreak to their gym classes. Leaves dancing an intricate flurry on a wall or the ground. Maybe even a dog trying to catch a shadow.

Asides from the aesthetics of shooting shadows…there is a real world application in shadowing those who prefer to remain anonymous…adding intrigue to portrait photography…and mystery to movement.

The When and Where of Light…

Well, I didn’t get out the door to shoot the sun on the day of the spring equinox yesterday…seemed like it was off a bit and besides I was already in downtime mode. I did it the night after instead…and this is another lesson on light. To really be good, you need to know when the light will be where you want it to be.

No – you can’t tell the sun to appear at the certain point on a certain day…but if you’re aware of where the sun (or moon) falls at different times of year, you can anticipate and prepare your shoots. Some of you with less than the required amount of news ethics may ask, so what – I can Photoshop whatever I want where I want. You can stop reading and skip to another blog right now. For those of you WITH news ethics…think about visions you’ve had of certain locations with light falling from the north or south…and what time of year/time of day might be best to revisit and shoot that site?

Too many times we work with the light that is there. At times we supplement it. At times we create our own lighting. But sometimes just letting nature take over results in some stunning images.

When I worked my one year as a production manager for a cable TV company, I’d mention waiting until a certain time or month to shoot local sites/businesses and get “the look.” That look said it all – hey, just go out now and shoot the sucker. If we needed it then and there, fine. But if we were archiving or working a few weeks/months out – I’d wait.

In the winter, the sun shines on the south sides of buildings. In the summer it hits the north side. Morning is sunnyside up for the east and evening is sunnyside for the west.

Example – the storage silos at the Port of Stockton sit right on the water. The shot looks kinda crappy in the winter…with the silos backlit. In the summer the sun shines on them across the water for a much more pleasant view.

So take a look around and get your directions straight and consider the seasons and when you can be there for that one single perfect moment.

Light and air…

moody day in the valley

When I first started shooting (film circa 1974) I noticed something strange I hadn’t really noticed when shooting stills. The quality of light seemed different as I travelled. And at the time I thought it had something to do with air…which makes sense in an “I’m not a scientist” type of way.

My career with weighty news cameras began in California’s great Central Valley…hot and flat in the summer and a prehistoric rainy bog in the cooler months. Then (oh great day) I got sent to Mecca (every photog’s dream city of San Francisco) one day for a quickie and the air was…well, not like the flatlands. It seemed cooler, heavier, cleaner.

Over the past umpety-ump years I’ve been all over and sensed the same thing. Now part of this can be attributed to actual climate conditions. The air is cooler near the ocean…thus my perception that my film seemed cooler. The air in Oklahoma City seemed charged (and that was one charged story on Ground Zero of the Murroh Building). Not to mention the checker board weather that week. The air in Australia seems relaxed and mellow. The air at the top of Mt. Whitney in summer is thin and sharp (so was my video). The air in Moscow heavy.

Moods come with location…but terrain and how light bounces has part in this mystery.

The Central Valley in summer is hot (mid-90’s to 110). The land is flat and light bounces right back up at you. We were inside a giant nature-made umbrella with little in the way of shade. As progress (and a kazilliion developments, malls, buildings) has moved in, the quality of light has changed.

San Francisco is surrounded by water…which reflects and bounces in a different manner. Cooler, yes because the water is not the flat land of the valley. There are tall hills and taller buildings. There are cool vales. There is fog and there are clouds.

Each location has its own personality and light and air which contributes to the mystic (or not). It affects the visualization…how you see and shoot. What should you learn from this? Don’t take preconceptions with you. Breathe in the air, look at the light before shooting. And let the mood, like little cats’ feet, become part of you.

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