RGMP 12: Learn to shoot video

This is the 12th post in a series titled “Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency.” In the 11th post, I wrote about how to ensure that you have a story worth telling with photos and audio, and how to construct it, story-wise, to make it communicate effectively. In this post I’ll discuss how to translate those principles to video, and I’ll also go over shooting techniques for Web video.

First, let’s consider the story. Do you in fact have a story? It seems to me that a lot of journalism students (and even a surprising number of working journalists) wouldn’t know an interesting story if it fell on their head.

A Web video is not going to be interesting if it merely relates facts or information. The inverted pyramid (text) or news bulletin (radio and TV) are not story forms — even though in journalism, we call everything “a story.”

So make yourself remember what a story really is: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Aladdin and his lamp, the tortoise and the hare, the Iliad and the Odyssey. A story is not a relaying of facts — that’s a report, not a story.

Finding a story

What I learned from Ken Speake, who worked in TV news for almost 40 years, was that a reporter who follows his curiosity can find interesting stories everywhere. Ken has a way of seeing the world almost like a child — you know how little kids are always asking “Why?” They can drive you crazy — they ask about the most mundane things. How does it work? Why does it look like that? What does it do? Why is that man on a ladder? How did it get here? Where did it come from?

These questions can lead us into back alleys and backrooms, behind the scenes, into people’s hearts and into the hidden places in their souls. I would suggest that those places are where stories live, and you have to go there to find them.

To go there, you have to be curious — and you have to care. No one ever opens up the door to his inner sanctum if you’re sticking a camera in his face and pummeling him with questions.

Cultivate the ability to recognize a story

Last year a few of my students went to a tattoo parlor to make a story for an audio slideshow, and they missed a great chance to tell a fresh story. As all you journalism educators know, tattoo parlors are a favorite spot for students to go, seeking a story. Usually they don’t find one — they bring back a very dull interview with the owner of the shop, who tells us about his customers and shows us some of his designs. Yawn!

Why is that a boring non-story? There’s no hook. There’s nothing unusual, nothing we can’t assume ahead of time. The interview lacks an emotional connection, what Ira Glass calls the “moment of reflection.” This is the  reason for the story. This is what makes a story a story.

At the time when my students were inside the tattoo parlor, an 18-year-old girl was getting her first tattoo. The students brought back some nice photos of her tattoo in progress. They did a brief interview with her too. She said her dad had come to the same tattoo parlor a while back to get a tattoo, and she had watched. This was part of what made her want to get a tattoo herself.

My students had a photo of the dad chatting with one of the tattoo artists in the shop. “Did you interview the dad?” I asked. No. “Did you get a shot of his tattoo?” No. “Did you ask him to show you his tattoo?” No.

Like I said, some folks wouldn’t know an interesting story if it fell on their head.

But wait, there’s more. I was looking through their photos, and I saw one where the 18-year-old is on the table, the tattoo guy is leaning over her with the needle, and a 40-something woman is watching. “Who’s that woman?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s her mom.”

“The girl’s mom?” I squeaked. “Did you interview her?”


I’ll never tell my students they can’t go to a tattoo parlor to look for a story — there are fascinating stories in there, and maybe some student will find one, one of these days. But if you don’t approach the scene and the people there with genuine curiosity, and a willingness to discover something unexpected, you will fail to see the story that’s right in front of you.

Look for visually interesting material

When I took a four-day video workshop with Michael Rosenblum in 2007, he told us something that I have heard many print photojournalists say as well: First go in without your camera.

Walk around and look, with just your eyes. Talk to people. Ask questions. Don’t record anything, don’t stick a microphone in anyone’s face. You might take some handwritten notes about what you see or what you learn, but that’s all. What you’re looking for is the action and activity that will make interesting video images. Remember, this is not breaking news — this is a story. People will be doing these things later; it’s not a one-time action that you are going to miss without your camera.

Talk to people as much as possible, and ask a lot of “Why?” and “How?” questions. This is not the interview for tape. This is your legwork. This is the foundation of your story.

Before you go back to the car to get your camera, or take it out of the bag, you need to know what the story is.

Don’t expect the camera to find the story for you. It won’t.

Shoot first, interview after

I also learned this from Rosenblum, and I find that it runs against the grain for most TV reporters and many print journalists who have learned to shoot video. To me, however, the logic is simple: If you first shoot what’s interesting, then you’ll ask questions about it later in the interview. If you interview first, you’re likely to only go around “shooting to cover” — that is, you will point your camera at stuff your interview subject spoke about.

But your interview subject speaks about what you ask questions about.

If you allow your curiosity to be your true guide, you are more likely to ask unexpected questions — and thus to get interesting, revealing answers. If you have gathered the visuals with an innocent eye, an uninformed eye — the eye of a curious child who always asks “Why?” — you are more likely to have a fresh story, a memorable story, a story that’s worth watching.

Say you shot some footage of a boy at the farmers market, sitting on the ground behind the sales table, trimming the broccoli stalks with a knife. Then you interview his mom, who’s standing at the table, selling the vegetables. Knowing that you have some nice shots of the boy, you’re sure to ask about him. If you have no shots of him, you’re likely to be focused on just the woman and the table.

I’ve seen a dozen or more very boring stories about local farmers markets, where all I hear is completely expected stuff about being a farmer, coming to the market, selling produce. There’s no point in doing those stories if everything the audience sees and hears is exactly what they can already see and hear when they call up their own past impressions of and assumptions about farmers.

Shoot action, emotion, and the third thing

The boy trimming broccoli stalks is action, activity. The woman standing at the table is not. Even when she’s selling, bagging vegetables, and taking cash from a customer, that’s pretty damned dull.

I recently saw some student footage of a woman choosing a cantaloupe in a supermarket. It was actually pretty interesting, because the camera position was very close to her hands as she wrapped them around one cantaloupe and then another. It was close to her face as she held a melon up to her ear and shook it a little. Then there was a high shot from behind her that gave us a good view of the array of piled-high cantaloupes. She appeared to be rather intent on her task too. Not bad.

I got this handy trio of things that work well in video from Angela Grant, who shot video for a newspaper in Texas for several years. She called them “lots of movement and action”; emotion; and “something people just want to see.” I like to call them “action or activity”; emotion; and “you’ve got to see it to believe it.” Angela is also the person who pointed me to the best example ever of the third category, from The Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, Washington: the paraplegic dog video, by Dan Pelle. In fact, that video is really a hat trick, because it’s got all three goals covered.

Choosing a cantaloupe at the supermarket is not very exciting action — but you can make it interesting, visually, if you shoot with care.

The five-shot method

So you’ve identified an activity that’s worth recording with video. Great! Now be sure to get five different shots of that one activity:

  1. Extreme close-up of action detail, e.g. hands fondling a cantaloupe
  2. Close-up of the face of the person doing the action
  3. Medium shot, face and action together
  4. Over-the-shoulder view of the action (point of view of the person doing the action)
  5. One more different angle — be creative!

It’s not that you will necessarily use all five shots in the final edit, but if you’ve got them, you’ll find that editing is immensely simplified. You always have enough shot variety to put together something decent. (See a BBC training video that illustrates the five-shot method.)

Colin Mulvany’s post about shooting sequences spells out why this method makes your video story better.

If you’re shooting one event, such as “Sarah buys ingredients for fruit salad” (part of a longer story, such as “Sarah takes fresh food to the homeless”), you will shoot several five-shot sequences. Cantaloupe is one; buying bananas might be another; loading the grocery sacks onto her bicycle might be another. Another event is making the fruit salad (peeling, chopping, assembling). A third event is taking the paper cups of fruit salad to where the homeless people congregate.

Camera movement

It’s quite important to frame the shot carefully before you press the Record button to start shooting. If you’re moving around, you’ll find the footage very hard to edit later. Train yourself to frame the action, then freeze solid. Press the button. Count silently to 10, at least (this ensures that you have enough to allow clean cutting) — and then press the Record button again to STOP RECORDING. Never swing the camera around to the next thing. Always stop the recording.

These rules are particularly important for Web video, but also, they are really good for helping a beginner to progress and learn how to shoot well. When you’re vastly experienced at shooting, then you can break the rules (because then you’ll know when it’s okay to do so).

  1. Don’t pan (don’t move the camera horizontally)
  2. Don’t tilt (don’t move the camera vertically)
  3. Don’t zoom
  4. Press the “Record Off” button — often

You can see an example of this shooting method (albeit with some camera movement) in this video from the Detroit Free Press: More than a mailman to struggling customers. Pay attention to how short the shots are and how much shot variety there is.

NEVER ask the subject to perform actions for you. You’ll need to learn how to anticipate the action and run ahead to get these shots.

How? Practice, practice, practice.

Previous posts in this series:

24 Comments on “RGMP 12: Learn to shoot video

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  3. Mindy:
    Forgive me if you’ve already posted the answer to this question, but will you be compiling these entries into a .pdf or something similar? Do you mind if I start working on building a .pdf — I have been emailing links out to my newsroom, but I think most of my colleagues are still too blog-phobic to check out this great resource you’ve built over the last 12 posts.

  4. @amanda determan – I will make a PDF when I finish the 15 installments I have planned. Only three more to go!

  5. Hey Mindy great roundup with video techniques. As a video journalist myself I wanted to just toss a few thoughts into the mix.

    – I like how you talked about walking in and looking around with your eyes, but most times if you’re not rolling the action you want to capture will take place. It’s important to not just find the action with the camera, but it’s just as important to always be shooting. Many times the shots that I end up using to grab viewers attention are random shots I didn’t know I had captured until hitting the editing room.

    – Just how good writers know how editors edit, it’s imperative video journalists understand post production. Shooting to edit is one of the most important things a videographer can do. It is essentially taking your five-shot method to the next level. Editing may seem intimidating at first, but it is a must. If a videographer understands how their footage can be used in the editing room they will shoot better footage and enhance their story.

    – Finally I find most times people learning to shoot video simply don’t take enough. When I shoot I figure I’ll use roughly 20-30% of the footage. This means I overshoot to make sure I (or the editor) has enough options to piece together a good story. There is no worse feeling then getting to the editing bay and finding out you have 5 minutes of raw footage for a 4 minute piece.

    Thanks for the series.

    – Tim

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  7. I think you need to add a sixth shot here. One should always have an establishing shot of the location. It really helps establish the location.

    Also maybe a coverage shot or safety. If you’re shooting an action that explains something, this will allow you to have something safe to fall back on in case you forgot to shoot part of the explanatory sequence.

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  21. This is great. I would modify: never pan unless you pan VERY SLOWLY. Watch concert videos to see how the pros do it, glacially – and European Diamond League track videos to see how the pros follow action. Finally: tripod, tripod, tripod.

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