What I learned from the online photojournalists

I spent the weekend at the NPPA National Summit in Tampa, Florida, and as I expected, there was a lot to learn. Much of it came from Richard Koci Hernandez, a photojournalist who works at the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News and produces the associated site MercuryNewsPhoto.com. Like Jen Friedberg, Seth Gitner, David Leeson, Brian Storm, Joe Weiss, and a few others, Richard is a standout leader in multimedia photojournalism.

So, the first thing I learned: Richard says the dilemma in carrying both a video camera and a still camera has been solved, period. The solution is to carry an HD video camera. The resolution of stills you grab from HD video is more than adequate for use in the print newspaper, he said. Wow!

“With high-definition video, you can literally take the feed and go frame-by-frame and pick whatever still you want. Don’t gasp — I know that’s horrible for still photographers! And you feel dirty doing it. You always get the ball in the right spot. You always get the person walking through the light at the right moment. It does feel dirty.” (This is a direct quote from Richard; I recorded his Friday morning session with his permission.)

Cameras: Sony HDR-FX1 (U.S. $3,700) | Sony HDR-HC3 (U.S. $1,500 — Richard said this one is totally fine, and we don’t need to invest the big bucks in the first one; at the Merc, he has used both models) | Note that the Canon XL H1, for example, sells for about U.S. $10,000 … Ricahrd did not mention that one!

Note that you’re NOT going to get decent still images from a video camera that is not HD. You’ll get stuff you can maybe use on the Web … but not for print.

If you have any video artifacts in the still image, you can run it through Noise Ninja from PictureCode.

Richard also showed us the Flash Video FAQ. This site is awesome! It compares (side by side) a bunch of different versions of the same video (all in Flash). If you’ve spent any time at all trying to figure out the best settings for exporting video for the Web, you will know why this is cool.

The photographers at the Mercury News use iMovie to edit all their video, and GarageBand to edit all their audio. Both of these are very easy to learn, and the Merc photographers all have Macs. (I think they will start using Final Cut Pro soon, but that’s just me guessing.)

I talked to one photojournalist who’s at a newspaper where all the photographers are required to use Windows computers (not Macs). Yikes! I heard the explanation, which makes perfect sense from a corporate point of view, but it seems such a pity that a whole staff of photojournalists is prevented from using the easy, intuitive tools that come with Macs today. (Then again, my j-school does not provide any Mac labs for photojournalism students, so …)

Richard made the world’s best argument for why any journalist should not stick his or her head in the sand and try to avoid learning multimedia skills:

“If someone in our photo departments doesn’t take control, and encourage someone who wants to do video to do it, someone else will take control — and they will hand you the Mona Lisa with all the numbers and a brush, and say, this is the way we want you to do it. And you’ll have to do it that way.” (This is also a direct quote from Richard, from my recording of his session.)

Because they took the lead — and some of them learned video, or Flash, or Dreamweaver (and they paid for hosting a site outside the Knight Ridder firewall, which had largely prevented the Merc from putting good multimedia and video online) — the photojournalists at the Mercury News now have the expertise to say whether a particular story lends itself to video.

Bottom line: The Merc photojournalists are not at the mercy of a print reporter or editor (who may know nothing about video) who says, “We want video with this story.” They have the authority to say, “No, video won’t work for that story.” How good is that?

It’s pretty darned important to understand that you get that kind of authority ONLY by first proving that you know how to do the thing — whether it’s video, audio, slideshows, Flash, or databases!

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15 Comments on “What I learned from the online photojournalists

  1. Hi Mindy,
    I posted this reply over at PDNedu’s blog where they linked to your post. I thought I’d throw it up here as well to get your thoughts. You should know I’m a Brooks VJ student, and I’m very enthusiastic about multimedia. I’m also the Webmaster for the Brooks NPPA chapter site where we do a lot of multimedia.

    “Okay, so this reply ended up going WAY longer than I intended. Sorry. For some reason this post really got me going.

    As much as I’m in favor of Visual Journalism, I just don’t see the video camera taking over for the still camera. While I’m certainly no expert on the subject, and this is all just my opinion… having done the kind of video that newspapers are starting to do, I can honestly say that I feel there’s a big part of “shooting” that a video camera doesn’t fill as well as a still camera. My quick reasons:

    1) Shutter speed. You’re always shooting at a 1/30 or 1/60 shutter speed, if you do otherwise the video looks funny. Sooooo.. do you really think a “camera” that only shoots at two speeds can take over the industry? I don’t. Yes, that $1500 HDR-HC3 shoots at 1/240.. great, you have 3 shutter speeds.

    2) Ergonomics. Can anyone you know hold a video camera as comfortably and stably as a still camera? I can’t. I use a tripod for almost everything. Do you want to shoot all your assignments with a tripod?

    3) Speed of workflow. The new P2 cards aside, working with MiniDV tapes is a pain in the butt. Even with disc based recording there’s a big gap between the speed of editing a folder full of stills and video clip where you’re looking for the best still grab.

    4) Lens choice. Unless you’re looking at buying something like the Canon XL series, you don’t have the option of switching lenses on most of these cameras. While the optical zoom range is pretty large, can you really say that the quality of the lenses is up to par with L glass or the Nikkor glass? Ziess makes good glass, but do you really think you’re getting their best stuff in a pro-sumer $1500 camera? Probably not.

    Again, sorry that I seem to have gone off. It started to just flow once I got going.

    I love the video movement, and it’s cool to seem something new ruffle everyone’s feathers. I would imagine it separates those that really want to work for their jobs and those that are just in it to work. I just feel that there’s a lot of hype that’s freaking people out when it really shouldn’t.”

  2. Great response, Aaron, and I think you’re right. The still camera does all kinds of stuff that a video camera doesn’t do. I hope the still camera will never disappear, but who knows?

    I don’t mind using the MiniDV tapes, but I have a cute little editing deck, and that might make it easier than whatever you’re using.

    Tripod, I hear you. But image stabilization has come a long way. I can hold a video camera for a while.

    I think one of the biggest differences in shooting is in fact MOVEMENT. The shooter him/herself moves differently when holding a still camera than when holding a video camera. That means different shots, different angles.

    Lenses — again, every still shooter agrees with you on that. It’s a different tool. But if you MUST get both video and still (and sometimes, well, you must), then you might need to leave the still camera at home.

  3. Mindy,
    Yeah, having a deck definitely helps save wear and tear on the camera heads, still more time than zipping through a CF card in PhotoMechanic.

    You’ve got a great point about the movement when using the different types of cameras, I hadn’t heard that arguement before.

    It seems a shame that newspapers would compromise their photography because they forced their photographers to shoot both. I know I for one will be fighting to keep the disciplines separate wherever it is I end up.

    Another issue with video I’ve found is that people react differently to a video camera than a still camera. If a photographer is moving around with camera to eye it seems like people are never quite sure when the picture is done being taken. But with a video camera they know they’re always on.. or assume they are. It’d be cool to see what kind of images you’d get shooting video with a camera that looked like a still camera.

    Issues aside, I was dissapointed I couldn’t make it out for the summit, it sounds like it was quite the event.

  4. Isn’t there a distinct difference in the way, visually, a videographer tells a story from how a still photographer sees?

    I can understand how, in certain situations, good stills could be culled from video – sports for example.

    But I think of video as a time-based medium – with the camera person looking at sequences and time and transitions. While still photographers look for single moments, decisive or otherwise.

    I appreciate good video, and I produce a lot of multimedia using sound and stills. I just am unhappy at the notion of trying to do both simultaneously – though ultimately I think market forces will drive us in that direction.

  5. I agree that we are very likely to get different shots when we grab frames from video — it may threaten the end of great still photojournalism. But I hope we don’t lose sight of Richard’s strong point: The boss is going to make the photo desk shoot video. If not today, then soon.

    So if I’m a photojournalist, am I not better off to set my own terms for shooting video? Rather than dragging my feet and resisting, I need to learn more about when video is okay and when I need to stand up and say, “No. For this, I’m taking the still camera.”

  6. Much of this discussion, however fruitful, reminds me of the grumblings that I hear whenever people discuss “convergence.” We are busy trying to hold onto cherished ways of doing things instead of trying to find ways to do things in a new environment.

    Let me just take a couple of comments as illustrative:

    It seems a shame that newspapers would compromise their photography because they forced their photographers to shoot both. I know I for one will be fighting to keep the disciplines separate wherever it is I end up.

    Who says newspapers are “compromising” their photography? Could it be possible that newspapers are getting better photo*journalism* out of a video camera than a still camera? Is the goal of a newspaper to have pristine still photographs, Award-winning photographs, even? Or to tell the story?

    In a related vein, nobody seems to mention the readers/viewers when these discussions come up. Could it be that we’re more worried about the approval of our peers than the approval of the people who pay our rent? If anything, the web has shown us that TPFKATA (The People Formerly Known as the Audience, to use Jay Rosen’s term) are much less impressed by the photographic/artistic quality than they are with the power of the story told – even with cell phone cameras and choppy video (think New Orleans, the London bombing, the Tsunami, and, in an unrelated vein – YouTube).

    Another issue with video I’ve found is that people react differently to a video camera than a still camera. If a photographer is moving around with camera to eye it seems like people are never quite sure when the picture is done being taken. But with a video camera they know they’re always on.. or assume they are. It’d be cool to see what kind of images you’d get shooting video with a camera that looked like a still camera.

    I see people do amazingly stupid things on video all the time. Clearly they aren’t aware that the camera is filming. People are people, and some people will react to the camera, and some won’t. The size of the video camera also makes a difference. Are people reacting to huge TV-station video cameras, or mini-DV palm-size cameras?

    As to the camera that looks like a still camera, I’m sure that there will continue to be advancements in technology that shrink the size of the camera even further, and HD format will eventually end up in the little flip video cameras everyone carries these days (remember that HDTV format is supposed to be phasing in by 2009).

    Ultimately, fighting to keep the “disciplines” apart may be akin to fighting to keep the levees in New Orleans from overflowing during Katrina.

    Will Yurman writes:

    Isn’t there a distinct difference in the way, visually, a videographer tells a story from how a still photographer sees?

    Yes. There probably is. But why is it so? Because they were trained to see that way. If you meld the two, certainly, you can re-train a photographer/videographer to shoot in a different way, to see things both as “time-based” and as “frozen images.”

    Were I an enterprising young photojournalist, I’d be working hard to find new ways to work with that HD video camera that blend the best of videography with the best of still photography to create a new form and new methods.

    In short, what may happen is that the cross-pollination of video and still creates a new form of visual communicator.

    I’m sure those folks are out there. And they will be creating the future apart from their bean-counters.

    I’m stoked to see what the future holds. I began in this business with b/w darkrooms and hot wax and composition tables. Now, to give print journalists the chance to tell stories with audio and video … what an exciting time.

  7. I certainly don’t want to come across as a Luddite, afraid of what the future will bring.

    I think the future DOES offer opportunities. It IS an exciting time for print journalists and the possibilities that audio and video bring to the mix.

    And it’s probably true, as ‘Murley’ wrote that:

    [viewers] “…are much less impressed by the photographic/artistic quality than they are with the power of the story told.”

    But of course his examples, the subway bombings, Katrina, the tsunami, are not the bread and butter of most daily journalism. Sure great stories don’t require brilliant journalism – the stories can tell themselves. (Though great storytelling raises the bar for even those stories).

    But I don’t accept that there isn’t value in a story well-told. Compelling images, beautifully crafted language, strong audio or video DO make a difference.

    So then the question for me becomes, is that the direction that our industry is going, given all these opportunities? Does equipping Washington Post writers with video cameras at the same time that buyouts reduced the photography staff by 25% signal an industry that embraces the value of storytelling and quality.

    Sure, as ‘Murley’ writes:
    If you meld the two, certainly, you can re-train a photographer/videographer to shoot in a different way, to see things both as “time-based” and as “frozen images.”

    Yes, some people, maybe even most, can learn to shoot stills and video. But can anyone do it well at the same time?

    I think that it is lovely to talk about all the possibilities this brave new world presents. And of course it is going to happen in some way shape or form.

    But the bottom-line pressures from publishers and stockholders that will drive us to “Al Franken-style” satellite-dish-wearing video/still/audio-ographers should not be confused with what is really best for our viewers and readers or even the long-term bottom line.

  8. I want to thank mr. yurman for his thoughtful reply, and I’d further prod the discussion along by answering some of his (perhaps rhetorical) questions:

    But of course his examples, the subway bombings, Katrina, the tsunami, are not the bread and butter of most daily journalism. Sure great stories don’t require brilliant journalism – the stories can tell themselves. (Though great storytelling raises the bar for even those stories).

    But what is the bread and butter of most daily journalism (to turn it further, of most daily photojournalism)? I think the answer to that question would be that the “bread and butter” of most journalism doesn’t require all you seem to be putting into the equation.

    So then the question for me becomes, is that the direction that our industry is going, given all these opportunities? Does equipping Washington Post writers with video cameras at the same time that buyouts reduced the photography staff by 25% signal an industry that embraces the value of storytelling and quality.

    I think you are making engaging in some apples and oranges comparisons here. The fact that some WaPo writers are being given video cameras doesn’t necessarily correlate to the reduction of the photography staff. You’d also have to consider what other parts of the news operation may have increased (like, say, the online washingtonpost.com staff).

    Further, the suggestion that those two moves (supplying writers with vidcams and cutting photo staff) equate with a lack of commitment to story-telling or quality is an inference that I’m not yet willing to make.

    You seem to have this idea that writers can’t shoot video and record audio and make quality work, or that their storytelling will inevitably be less complete, less robust. I don’t accept that assertion.

    Yes, some people, maybe even most, can learn to shoot stills and video. But can anyone do it well at the same time?

    Yes. Richard Koci-Hernandez is already doing it at mercurynewsphoto.com. I suppose some of it depends on your definition of “well.”

    But the bottom-line pressures from publishers and stockholders that will drive us to “Al Franken-style” satellite-dish-wearing video/still/audio-ographers should not be confused with what is really best for our viewers and readers or even the long-term bottom line.

    I don’t believe I ever mentioned any bottom-line pressures. In fact, I think the pressures are entirely apart from budgetary pressures. Your viewers and readers expect more than your (well-composed, brilliantly lit) still photograph. They demand more than the written 20 inches of details about a city council meeting. Your viewers and readers are fed up with being told what’s “best” for them and are leaving the print edition for the wider pastures of the Internet, where there’s video, audio, Flash, and weblog authors with attitudes, and not a bunch of pompous “professionals” practicing yesterday’s cutting edge technology.

    BTW, your Al Franken-stein journalist? He’s already working for Yahoo – Kevin Sites. Welcome to the brave new world.

    I want to finally add that there seems to be this tone of false dichotomy within most discussions about new technology and journalism. Like you are either entirely pessimistic luddite or an entirely too optimistic pollyanna.

    I’m neither. I am incredibly optimistic about opportunities. But I’m somewhat pessimistic about the ability of current media companies to deliver on those opportunities. As Leonard Witt said a few weeks ago when I interviewed him:

    If the journalism institutions, including the journalism schools, don’t make the shift, something new will replace them. And if they follow the mode of disruptive technologies of the past in Clayton M. Christensen’s words, the new things will be “cheaper, simpler, smaller, and, frequently, more convenient to use.” So what’s wrong with that? Maybe the real paradigm shift is how can we produce quality journalism that is cheaper, simpler, smaller, and more convenient to use.

  9. This is a great discussion and I would like to jump in. I, like Richard, have transitioned from being a still photojournalist to producing multimedia fulltime for my newspaper’s website. Three years ago, I saw, as a mid-career photojournalist, that I needed to prepare myself professionally for the coming multimedia tsunami. It has finally arrived and now many newspapers are scrambling with how to implement these new workflows.

    Photo staffs that are just handed video cameras without training will struggle. Being told by word editors to produce a multimedia story and, by the way, capture a meaningful still photograph for the daily paper is really ridiculous, but it is happening. I have tried to do both and it is very tough to make it work. Shooting a video story is so different than shooting a still. With video you are using every sense you have. You are monitoring audio, while framing a shot and all the while, in your brain you are thinking, “how am I going to get from point A to point B” in my sequence. Not to mention, looking for B-roll, cut-a-aways and asking the right questions for your narrative.

    To do a three-minute video story right you have to have dozens of b-roll clips to cover the narrative. That means, unlike the still shooter, you have to find, compose and capture all those 5-10 second moments. Editing it all together can take a day, sometimes two if you really want to do a bang up job.

    I made it clear with my management at The Spokesman-Review that I didn’t want take on the video challenge if I had to stay a daily still shooter. I feel that I work much harder as a multimedia content producer than I ever did as a still shooter. A lot of times, like tonight, I was the first to arrive in the photo department and the last to leave. I am not complaining. Really. This new challenge has motivated me in so many new ways. I have gone from being a still shooter, a fly on the wall, waiting for a real moment to happen—to becoming a true journalist that interviews my subjects and creates a narrative story out of many moments. I consider myself a producer now; I edit my own video, audio and photos as well as maintain my vblog were most of my multimedia goes. Us early adopters are the ones that need to define this new medium. If not, outside forces with no clue about what it really takes to multimedia right, will lead photojournalists down a path to burnout.

  10. Thanks for adding your comment, Colin. It’s really helpful to hear your personal experience.

    Everybody, take a look at Colin’s work here.

  11. I appreciate Colin’s and I guess it’s Richard’s comments. I find a lot to agree with in their posts. Yes, it’s an exciting time. And absolutely, grumbling about the good old days of tri-x and a tray of dektol is a waste of time.

    And yes, photo departments are better off trying to set standards and keep control rather than waiting for the future to roll over them.

    Where I differ I think, is in the level of optimism I have that what photo departments want really will matter in the end. Maybe that is a reflection of my pessimistic personality, or maybe it is the company I work for as compared to Colin.

    But I think market forces and profit motives will drive what happens. Right now it is an experiment, and publishers are happy to have any multimedia being produced.

    A quick aside – I was talking with my boss today about the quantity of multimedia we have produced in 2006 (I produce most of the audio slideshows, a couple of photographers have begun exploring video). His response was basically, ‘they’re going to want more next year.’ At some point, the desire for ‘more’ from publishers will butt heads with photo departments and their desire to retain control.

    Mindy wrote:
    “So if I’m a photojournalist, am I not better off to set my own terms for shooting video? Rather than dragging my feet and resisting, I need to learn more about when video is okay and when I need to stand up and say, “No. For this, I’m taking the still camera.”

    That strikes me as amazingly optimistic or naive. There will be exceptions, maybe Spokane is one, but most publications will, at some point, say, ‘get me video and a still from this assignment.’

    Richard wrote that
    “…the web has shown us that TPFKATA (The People Formerly Known as the Audience, to use Jay Rosen’s term) are much less impressed by the photographic/artistic quality than they are with the power of the story told – even with cell phone cameras and choppy video.”

    Maybe he’s right, and quality doesn’t matter. The market will decide that too. I believe or at least want to believe, that compelling journalism, told in a compelling way, does impress – but that could just be my ego talking 🙂

    But again, it’s the publishers and editors who will decide the priorities.

    As fun as these discussions are, the blog I really want to read, and probably the only one that matters is the publishersandbeancounters.blogspot.com site.

    I’ll keep producing audio slideshows for as long they’ll let me. Like Colin with video, I find gathering stills and audio challenging and rewarding. I don’t now if I’m more of a journalist, but it’s a different kind of journalism.

    My own guess is that slideshows with sound are just a transitional step to video for the industry.

    That still images are powerful and beautiful is a hard argument to sell, as these posts show 🙂

    My worry isn’t about the technology – those who want to will adapt. But rather about the increasing pressures to produce more with less. And that our readers/viewers won’t want or demand the kinds of stories that I want to tell – with a still camera, audio recorder, digital video camera or crayon.

  12. Are you shooting for movement or for moments?

    I have been working at the website of a large TV broadcaster and although I have loads of high quality videomaterial to my disposal, I am very happy I can get photos from AP and EPA. The video stills are crisp and snappy, but its not abaout the technical quality. It is about the story. And mostly, there’s no good story in the one frame I picked for a still. Obvious, because the story in video is told in several frames.

    Sadly, photographers are SLOW in bringing there materials to the world. I have video minutes after something happened – sometimes even live. And I need a pic to go along with the story. So I choose a video still – only to replace them with a photograph, which comes available sometimes hours after the event happened.

  13. One of the major issues here is the competition newspapers are now facing from television stations. Traditionally, tv stations and newspapers have not been direct competitors; they cater to separate audiences and had differing news cycles.

    But with news Web sites becoming more profitable than ever, many television stations are realizing that “news partnerships” in which they provide video to newspaper sites for cross-promotion are having a detrimental effect on their revenue.

    One way or the other, newspapers will need to exponentially ramp up their online video delivery if they hope to keep their sites competitive in the future.

    However, it should be a question of committing the resources, not eroding the quality of the photojournalism.

  14. Danny, in the Spokane, Wash. market, all three TV stations have invested heavily in their websites in the last 12 months. They are all converting their daily video for web distribution. Should newspapers join the fray or cut and run? I believe we need to have bunch on content that TV stations don’t have to compete. Blogs, audio slideshows, podcasts and, yes video stories to counteract their shallowness.

  15. Agreed that we can –and should– provide more in-depth content that TV stations don’t. But as we do that in newspapers, we also need to have the *capability* to do breaking news video for the big, visual stories: planes falling out of the sky, parts of the city on fire, etc. Should that be our only focus? Absolutely not. I totally agree we have to touch readers and tell stories in ways that TV stations can’t and won’t. We can make video that’s far better than the 30-second bites on TV. However, the ability and protocol to do breaking video news needs to be in place, or we will suffer for it in the long run.

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