Reporter's Toolbox: A Newbie's Advice on Getting Started with Video

January 15, 2010

By ROBERT McCLURE

Video? Me? Shooting video? Me editing video? Just shoot me now, huh?

© Peter Thomson (left), environmental editor for the BBC's The World at WGBH in Boston, and Sara Shipley Hiles (center), a freelancer and part-time journalism faculty member at Western Kentucky University, absorb fast-paced editing instruction from the one-day video production workshop preceding SEJ’s annual conference in Madison, Wis. last October. Photo by Emily J. Gertz.

That describes my initial reaction to the idea that I, a print guy for three decades, would soon join the broadcast brethren for whom I'd often held out reporter's notebooks to help with their "white balance." (It was always so mysterious ... what is this white balance of which you speak? And …why are all your questions so short?)

Video was an intimidating prospect, I have to tell you.

But now that I'm shooting and beginning to edit video, I'm seeing that it's simply another form of storytelling with different equipment and different rules. No doubt we'll have future Toolbox authors offer in-depth, expert opinion about how to take on this increasingly in-demand skill. But for this issue I thought I'd give my fellow video newbies the real basics, as seen by another neophyte.

Believe me, it isn't that hard. Now, producing really high-quality, award-winning stuff is something that will take years to master, I'm sure. But as many of us learned at the daylong SEJ video workshop at SEJ's 2009 annual conference, today's technology is sophisticated enough that even beginners can put together a credible broadcast report.

Here are some of the real basics:

  1. Get good audio. Since photographer-turned videographer Rob Sheppard did such a thorough job on this in the last SEJournal's Reporter's Toolbox , I won't go into that. But it's key. The audio will become the spine of your story. Use an external microphone. Do not rely on the one in the camera if you can help it. (That said, the audio I've been getting from a Flip camera is pretty good.)
  2. Use a tripod. There's a bit of a debate about whether news video as shaky as the Blair Witch Project is OK for the web. But why do that? Why not go for a professional look that at least could go broadcast? A tripod is essential. At InvestigateWest we dropped $300 on a Manfrotto tripod that allows smooth panning and up-down-and-around movement.
  3. Think of shooting a scene much the way your brain would work as you walk into a room (or a field or a stadium or whatever) and get your bearings: First get the big, broad shot that takes in the whole scene. Next, take a medium shot of the part of scene you're interested in. Then focus in on the subject you will feature.
  4. Before you start an interview, tell the person to look at you, not at the camera. Also ask the person not to say things like, "As I mentioned earlier …"
  5. This one's really hard: If you're a longtime print person like me, you're in the habit of encouraging your interview subject, often saying "yes," and "uh-huh," and "I bet!" DON'T DO IT. Just nod vigorously. And smile.
  6. Ask open-ended questions. Then shut up.
  7. Same as print: Interview only one person at a time.
  8. You need to think about whether to do a "pre-interview" and then follow up with a shorter and more focused exchange on camera, or whether to just start rolling from the get-go. On an early assignment for InvestigateWest, I gathered great stuff in my notebook from a guy I met at a campground in Oklahoma. But the spark wasn't there when photographer Paul Brown and I returned the next day with a video camera. On the other hand, you probably don't want to edit down an hour-long interview with a scientist. You want to hear what she has to say and then, in a 10-minute follow-up interview, ask her to focus on what's likely to make it into the finished product. If you're doing both print and video, as we are, you may want to do an off-camera interview to make sure you fully understand the subject, then do an on-camera interview to cover just the best stuff.
  9. Be aware of what your subject is doing, not just what she's saying. A woman I interviewed in Michigan constantly fidgeted with her keys, which she kept in her hands as we made various stops around town. I didn't notice how distracting those keys were until I watched the video. Similarly, if there is an annoying noise that's not relevant to the story, such as a squeaky chair, eliminate it. Put the person in a different chair, for example.
  10. Listen for possibly distracting noises while you're shooting "b-roll," or video which is intended to be used with a voiceover. Shoot b-roll for 15 seconds going into a shot and 15 seconds coming out, if you can. And shoot standalone b-roll. It's what will go between the interviews with a voiceover.
  11. Minimize pans and zooms, particularly if you're shooting for the web, because they take a lot of bandwidth. If you're going to do them, start with the camera stationary for a good four or five seconds and then pan or zoom slowly. And evenly. Then at the end, hold the camera steady for another four or five seconds. Both pans and zooms are much better shot from a tripod.
  12. The rules about light that you know from still photography also apply with video. Try to avoid shooting at midday in harsh light. The "magic hour" or "golden hour" at sunrise and sundown is gorgeous. Also, be aware of the glare that fluorescent lights can produce in an office. Shoot with natural light when possible. (If you do have to shoot in harsh sunlight, try holding your hand over the top edge of the lens to help the camera adjust better to the lighting conditions.) Similarly, try to shoot with the sun behind you. Don't have the sun or a harsh white wall or a snowbank behind your subject.
  13. Similarly, as with still photography, remember the "rule of thirds." Don't put your subject in the middle of the frame. Imagine the frame sliced into 12 equal-sized pieces, with two lines running horizontally through the frame at the one-third and two-thirds marks, and two running vertically through the frame at the one-third and two-thirds marks. Try to have your subject intersect with one or more of these lines.

Well, there's a lot more I could say, but these will help you get started in what I'm finding is an exciting new way for me to tell stories. Just shoot me now? Nah. I'll just go do some shooting now.

Robert McClure is chief environmental correspondent for InvestigateWest, a non-profit, multi-platform journalism studio offering in-depth coverage of the environment, public health and social-justice issues in western North America. He thanks for information presented here Erik Olsen of The New York Times; Sue Robinson and Pat Hastings of the University of Wisconsin; Amol Pavangadkar of Michigan State University; Christine Umayam of Q13 FOX News in Seattle; and the Western Washington Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Not to mention SEJ, of course!

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Winter, 2009-10 issue