Just because a news photo makes you feel uncomfortable, does it mean it shouldn’t be published?

 

Sara Lavigne, right, and her mother, cancer patient Jana Lavigne, leave Deaconess Health and Education Center after witnessing a domestic shooting in the Rockwood Cancer Clinic, Tuesday, July 8, 2014, in Spokane, Wash. Initial reports indicate the gunman opened fire inside the clinic, killing his wife, then turned the weapon on himself. The wife reportedly worked at the clinic. Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review

Sara Lavigne, right, and her mother, cancer patient Jana Lavigne, leave Deaconess Health and Education Center after witnessing a domestic shooting in the Rockwood Cancer Clinic, Tuesday, July 8, 2014, in Spokane, Wash. Initial reports indicate the gunman opened fire inside the clinic, killing his wife, then turned the weapon on himself. The wife reportedly worked at the clinic. Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review

“EDITORS, TAKE THIS PHOTO DOWN NOW!” posted an online commenter after this image led our home page for most of the day.

Earlier, a police scanner call had come into the newsroom saying two people were shot in the Rockwood Cancer Treatment Center at Deaconess Hospital. I ran to my car and arrived at the scene a few minutes later.

Emergency personnel  scurryed about; ambulances stacked up outside the building.  I made as many overall scene shots as I could.

I spotted a TV cameraman interviewing two women in a car. As I walked up, S-R reporter Kip Hill joined me. With the TV interview completed, we tried to ask some questions about what happened and were meet by a panicked narrative of shots being fired, of fleeing, of disbelief of what had just occurred so close to them in another room. It was a one-minute interaction as a buildup of vehicles behind their car forcing them to move on. They quickly gave us their names and the passenger confirmed to me she was a cancer patient at the clinic.

I shot a dozen or so frames of the women. Soon after, the fire trucks and ambulances left and a press conference was called. It turned out to be a domestic murder-suicide. A man shot and killed his wife who worked in the cancer clinic. So why publish this dramatic photo?

Photojournalists sometimes take a lot of heat for the images they make. Capturing fleeting moments of life and people in my community is my job. Most days, my photography is mundane– an environmental portrait of an artist, a shot of a high school basketball game or a slice of life feature picture. Other days, photos, like this one, standout. They can make readers and viewers react negatively because of their shock value. Many times online commenters will use the word “sensationalism” when posting about a photo.

So why did we choose this one to publish? Because it best illustrates the shooting aftermath of what happened inside the clinic. It tells an emotional story without words– the panicked look on the driver’s face, her cancer patient mother in the passenger seat, distraught and uncomfortable. My other frames of police and firemen standing around could not illustrate what happened inside the building. So the editing choice: mundane or more storytelling. Storytelling wins every time, even if it makes you the reader feel someone else’s pain and discomfort.

Video editing breakdown: “Everyone needs a painting”

It’s not often a video story comes knocking at my door. A few weeks ago, Pat Adams, my next-door neighbor, came over to my house to ask me how she could get in contact with Dan Pelle, a co-worker of mine at The Spokesman-Review. Adams told me she had painted a picture of Pelle’s dog Koko, who died in a vicious pit bull attack last year, and wanted give the painting to him.

I learned Adams has been churning out dozens of oil paintings of people’s pets that have died, and that most of the painting recipients had never met her. When she told me she did the paintings free of charge, I knew I had a story.

I spent a few mornings shooting Adams as she painted. As you watch the video, take note of some of the production and editing techniques I used:

I start the story with a video title card with music. This short opener allows web viewers to adjust their audio. It also makes a great thumbnail for Vimeo, if that is where you upload to.

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I open the video with Adams painting at her kitchen saying: “I love to paint…”  I use a camera slider to add movement in the first two shots. It gives the video a cinematic feel and helps reveal my subject for the first time.

At 0.24 I introduce Adams with my opening narration. “For the past thirty years, artist Pat Adams has set up a painting easel and palette on her kitchen table…”  Yes, I could have told this story without narration, but I don’t think the storytelling would have been as efficient. In this video, I only narrate in places where the story needs definition or a transition of time or place.

When I started shooting with my Nikon D4 DSLR–a great low-light camera–I didn’t think I needed to light Adam’s kitchen. But the cool window light mixed with the warm incandescent light made it tough to get a clean white balance. Thankfully, I had a light kit at my house next door, and a few minutes later, I had two quartz halogen lights set up to bounce off the white kitchen ceiling. The white balance improved dramatically with the added warmer, softer light.

Audio. I love using a wireless mic on subjects. The audio is clean and dynamically full compared to using just a shotgun mic. It has one other huge benefit—it allows the subject to be more natural without having a big microphone pointed at them from a foot away. I can be across the room shooting wide shots and still be getting wonderful soundbites to use later in the edit. Where the wireless mic paid off in this story is when Adams would talk to the painting. Those parts were emotional gold when I assembled this story later in Final Cut Pro X.

In the first minute of the video, Adams reveals, as a young mother of a Down syndrome child, she had a small stroke. Her cardiologist told her she had to paint to relieve the stress. This is the first gold coin in the video. I don’t reveal the true direction of the story yet because I want to pull the viewer in and surprise them with the next revealing moment.

At 1.06, I say: “Adams put her brush to canvas. At this point in the video I use a super-tight shot of her brush dabbing the canvas with paint. This is one of my favorite clips in the video. I shot it with a 60mm macro lens. It helps hold viewer interest in the story because I am showing them something they can’t normally see.

The interview. I waited to do the interview until the second time I shot Adams painting. This allowed me to ask better questions. I kept a mental list to things Adams told me during the first shoot, which then helped me formulate better questions to ask her in the formal interview.

The next big gold coin comes at 1.47. Adams says: “I think the first animal I painted was Sage…” This is where the first emotional tug in the story comes. It reveals what the story is really about, and hopefully, keeps the viewer engaged in where the story is going.

Music. I learned a valuable lesson about how to use music after I posted the video asking for feedback on a Final Cut Pro X forum site. Professional editor Jeff Bartsch gave me this advice:

“Big sloppy rule of thumb: in much doc/reality/verite TV, you’ll find that most cues of music run between 30-60 seconds. Anything longer runs the risk of saying the same thing too many times or getting old. At the moment, the piece is 6 minutes and has only 2 cues of music that are pretty much the same, though the piece has multiple sections of exposition and progression of thought.”

What Bartsch helped me understand was I needed to use music as a transitional element. As the scenes, or tone of the story changed, so too should the music. I added in three more music tracks, each to fit the different tones of the story. It was a huge improvement (Thanks Jeff.)

At 2.15, I start showing some of Adam’s animal paintings. I used an out of focus photo of a painting palette as a colorful background. I use a drop shadow on the paintings to set them off a bit from the background.

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The one thing I kept telling myself as I shot Adams as she painted was to, “shoot wide, medium, tight, tight, tight.” The variety of the tight shots really made the editing job easier because I could use those shots as transitions between scenes.

The next story gold coin comes at 3.07 when Adams says: “What’s the scariest thing in handing someone a painting”? I cut to Adams walking out of her kitchen with a dog painting and giving it to a young couple in the living room. Adams voice over continues to talk about her fear of rejection, but at the same time, the couple tells her they love and are amazed by her generous gift. This is where understanding the power of the edit—how you can weave different threads of narrative and have it all work together to advance the story–is so important.

At 4.00 I take Adams out of the house and into her car to deliver the painting to Dan Pelle. Other than knowing that she is bringing him a painting of his dog Koko, they had not met until he opens his door. I just told Dan I was going to be there and to just ignore me during their interaction.

I shot some driving scenes on the way, and then a shot of Adam’s pulling into the driveway. This is where it starts to get technically messy. I switched to a traditional video camera for these scenes, because in run-and-gun situations, I find a DSLR is too slow to focus and make auto balance corrections on the fly. And because my video camera has two channels of audio (shotgun on the camera and a wireless on Adams) it gave me backup audio if one of the audio channels failed.

My favorite edit comes as Adams exits her car and shuts the door. I straight cut directly to Pelle opening his front door and greeting Adams. In one simple edit, I cut a whole bunch of time out of getting Adams from her car to the front door. I think it works, but it is a bit jarring.

At 4.30, Adams is invited into the house. It is technically challenging to go from outside daylight to inside incandescent mixed light. I put the camera into full-auto mode and hoped for the best. As I headed into the house, the camera was recording Adams and the Pelle’s as they introduced themselves. I can’t really shoot any cut-aways to cover the weird transition of white balance and exposure shift. Later, as I was editing this scene, I added a still photograph of the dog painting to cover of some of bad color shift. I always strive for perfection, but sometimes it just out of reach.

The next gold coin is the interaction between Dan Pelle and Adams during the painting hand off. It is emotional (for her) and yet what Dan Pelle tells Adams is heartfelt.

pelle_mm

So how to get out of this story? Ira Glass, producer of “This American Life” says that a good story has to have a moment of reflection to remind the viewer why it was worth spending their time watching your story. As I was reviewing my footage, I came across this audio gem: “Its wonderful to see them. It’s like having your pet back home. Everyone needs a painting,” said Adams. I knew this clip was going to be my ender, my moment of reflection in the story.

“Everyone needs a painting” has gotten a lot of positive feedback from viewers. “I’m bawling in front of my computer,” is one common comment on Facebook. Knowing that my edit instilled an emotional response, makes me feel confident I told a compelling story.

 

The change: Video storytelling and the rise of the DSLR

It happened so fast. The change. One day, photojournalists were just doing their thing. Shooting daily photos for their newspapers. Maybe even an odd photo story or two. A lucky day was getting a page or a double truck on Sunday to showcase all their hard work.

Video at newspapers was out there on the fringes. A few staffers braved the online world and embraced a new way to tell a visual story. Except this time, it was on the World Wide Web. No space restrictions here. Most traditional still shooters shrugged their shoulders and continued on with the status quo. Video cameras were for “TV types,” they said.

Then the layoffs hit hard. In 2009 and onwards, photo departments at many newspapers were gutted. Hundreds of staff photographers were tossed onto the streets to fend for themselves. To freelance.

In the midst of all this chaos, a new type of still camera was quietly released by Canon. The 5D Mark II had a little secret– it could shoot kick-ass HD video. A few brave photojournalists used the new technology to produce stunning imagery. Images unlike anything ever seen in the video camera world. Shallow depth-of-field shots and cinematic looks that mimicked film dropped many jaws along the way. The smart ones ran with it. Reinvented themselves and in doing so, reinvented the genre of documentary filmmaking. Overnight the doc film industry changed. Shooting with Film stock was done. Former still photojournalists, once resistant to shooting video, now embraced it.

The commercial still photography market tanked as a “billion of photojournalists” raised their iPhones and posted their snaps on Flickr.

Because the DSLR camera was familiar, still photojournalists could buy in without judgment. The taint of video, hidden in a tiny package of a pro DSLR camera gave courage to those that once scoffed at the idea. It did not matter that the DSLR was much harder to shoot with than a traditional video camera. What did they know? They had never shot with a Sony or Panasonic video camera with built-in stabilization and pro audio inputs.

The aftermarket kicked in with a plethora of accessories to make the 5D Mark II easier to focus and improve the bad audio the camera outputted.

Soon the former photojournalists were now calling themselves filmmakers. The old ideas of us (still) vs. them (TV) dissipated. “Us” became “them,” but in a different way.

Video storytelling changed. The entry point into the documentary film world flattened. An army of new filmmakers, not confined by the limitations and cost of film, were unleashed. Stories, some short, some long (most too long,) gave rise to publishing platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. No longer did you need a TV to showcase your vision. Shoot and edit your story yourself, then post it to the Web. Maybe even enter a film festival or two.

Former photojournalists, the ones newspapers turned their backs on, were the most creative with the new DSLR video medium. They brought a keen sense of composition, moment and storytelling to the table. But sometimes that was not enough. They needed to understand that great imagery did not a great story make. Each failure was a learning opportunity.

The unfortunate ones were the Nikon shooters. The Nikon D90 was the first DSLR to have video capabilities. But Nikon took a nap after that release. Canon became the de facto standard for DSLR video. The release of the Nikon D800 and D4 played catch up and now a lost generation of Nikon users are joining the fray of filmmaking.

I sit here now stewing, one of the first still photojournalists that embraced digital video storytelling at a newspaper. I was a change agent; embracing the idea that video was an important path to enhancing our online content. In those early days of 2004, our website was mostly text-based with a few postage stamp-sized photos sprinkled about.  I evangelized, I shared, and I taught video sequencing to anyone who wanted to learn. I produced hundreds of video and multimedia stories. I even survived 11 rounds of layoffs at my newspaper. But now I feel like the old man talking about the good old days. Many of my photojournalists friends who left newspapers unwillingly are doing incredible documentary video stories now.

Video storytelling is hard. It takes commitment to keep learning. To keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible with the tools available.

In the blink of an eye, things change. It comes down to how you respond to that change. Give up and you stagnate. Embrace and you risk failure. Fear is the great equalizer. I keep telling myself  “no fear, no fear.”

I really love video storytelling. Though now I feel the cool kids have taken the torch and somehow passed me by. I tell myself I still have knowledge and experience on my side.

Inside me is a storytelling machine waiting to be unleashed. My Nikon D4 beckons. The world is full of stories. The only one that keeps me from telling them is fear.  No fear. No fear. No fear.

The Nikon D3s is, like, WOW!

My new Nikon D3s arrived last Friday and I’m still kicking the tires.

This camera is one bad boy. Yesterday, I set my ISO at 4000 and left it there for three photo assignments. ISO 4000 looks like 800 did on my vintage Nikon D2h  of just a few years ago.

My newspaper has always been a Nikon shop. Though I was tempted by all the low-light Canon camera offerings of yore, management never blinked or gave my informed blathering much acknowledgement to make the switch. Now I’m glad they didn’t listen to me.  This camera kicks! In the past, when I needed to spin the ISO dial up to, say, ISO 3200, I would often regret the decision later. Noise in digital files looks horrible.

This camera easily handled 4000, and 6400 ISO. I haven’t needed to go higher on the account that I don’t need 500th of a second for an environmental portrait.

Take a look at this shot I did of my daughter Brenna, right, and her friend Shea.

I shot it on my living room floor with just lamplight at 6400 ISO in RAW. I tweaked the color to get the skin tones right and made just basic Adobe CS5 RAW converter adjustments. If I had shot this with my D2h, it would have noise the size of gravel.

This camera will open many new low-light avenues for me and any other shooter lucky enough to get their hands on one.  I had to go through Nikon Professional Services to find one. I’m told they are as elusive as unicorns.

The next thing for me to tackle is the whole DSLR video learning curve. I have shot video for five years. My Sony Z-1U and XDCAM EX-1 have served me well.  Lately, I’ve been feeling I’m on the outside looking in as the Canon 5D Mk II has dominated  the video gear spotlight.

Mostly, I suspect, for the look of the files coming out of these cameras. Shallow depth-of-field is all the rage, but at what cost? Audio is a DSLR camera’s Achilles heel. The contraptions DP’s and video producers are building to make these cameras work gives me pause.

If I was the subject of a story and someone came at me with a steering wheel contraption laden with mics, lights and other paraphernalia,  I’d probably freeze up like a deer in headlights.

So my toe dipping starts with the limited video capabilities of the D3s. It has been much maligned for not shooting in the higher resolution of 1920p that Canon cameras do. This doesn’t really concern me. The test files I’ve shot so far look better than anything that comes out of my XDCAM. The huge full-frame sensor in the D3s makes shooting in the dark a breeze. Its 720p file size is just about right for the web-based video storytelling I do.  I have to compress the hell out of the videos I shoot, so the huge files from a 5D Mk II will only slow my edit down. I’m not planning to shoot any Hollywood movies, so I’m cool with the Nikon’s smaller file size for now. Of course, in a few months, my camera will probably be rendered obsolete by the rumored Nikon D4. Such is life of a techno geek.

Big picture galleries gaining acceptance at newspapers

Newspaper websites historically have never been photo friendly. In the first five years of the active Internet, most photos were compressed to a postage-stamped size of around 15k -30k. They had to in those promising days of 28K modems, where one oversized graphic element would bring a homepage to a screeching halt.

I think many photojournalists gave the early Web a big thumbs down as a place to display their work. At my newspaper, us photojournalists’ collectively shrugged our shoulders when the “web guy” would say that he posted one of our photos online.  Later requests on my part, to up the size on our online pictures, was met by one photo manager’s insistence that the images would be downloaded (stolen) or mass-produced across the internet. At that moment I gave up trying and, instead, embraced video as my online medium of choice.

Then, several years ago, Boston.com’s The Big Picture blog rocked my world when it launched.  Here, finally, was a large format online gallery that showcased photojournalism the way it should be. The images were displayed in a format that also didn’t frustrate the viewer with slow page loads. The minute I saw it, I knew we had to have something like it for Spokesman.com. Unfortunately our web team was in middle of developing a ground-up overhaul of our CMS, and it never made the priority list.

While I waited, other newspapers around the country embraced the idea of increasing the format size of their photo galleries. The New York Times Lens Blog, Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and many others started big picture galleries.

A few months ago, Ryan Pitts, Spokesman.com’s online director, who was damned tired of my whining, came to me with a surprise. “ I built you a big picture gallery,” he said. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I took a look at what he built.

I was nothin’ but smiles the rest of the day. He gave me the keys, so to speak, to a beautiful Corvette. Behind the scenes, the gallery is really nothing more than a tool that I can access through our web-based Django admin page. I just upload my photos, paste in the captions, add some intro text and a headline, hit save and, drum roll please, instant big picture gallery. The nice thing is, because it is a web-based tool, I can create a gallery from anywhere in the field.

What I like best about our gallery is its clean design. For a long time I pushed the idea of a black background for photos, but our gallery is white and I am fine with that. In fact, I think it is easier on the eyes. I also like how I can pop in drop quotes in between the photos. I am pushing to have commenting on the gallery, which I hope will be enabled soon.

Update: here is some more  links to big picture galleries: Tampabay.com’s All Eyes, SacBee’s The Frame Any more? Send links my way…

Update Two: KobreChannel blog take on this post.

I do have the coolest job ever!

A slap upside the head always comes when you least expect it.

“You have the coolest job ever,” said a hockey fan standing behind me admiring one of my photos at the Spokane Arena last night.  I was on deadline preparing to transmit my pictures of a blowout Spokane Chiefs hockey game back to the paper when those six words stopped me cold.

“You have the coolest job ever.”

Up until that utterance, I’d beg to differ.  It had been a long 14-hour day and I was tired. I started in the morning shooting a freelance job. I take extra work now whenever I can.  It helps make up for the furlough days and pay cuts I have endured over the past year.

The economic trauma and turmoil facing my and every other newspaper in the country weighs heavily on my shoulders at times. When someone asks me why I entered the newspaper biz, I tell them it’s because I have a passion for telling stories.  Like any good photojournalist, I see the world a bit differently from most people. There is a creative energy that burns inside me.  When I put a camera up to my eye, life becomes my palette.  I felt it when I bought my first professional camera in high school and I still feel it today…well most days.

“You have the coolest job ever.”

As I sat there hunched over my laptop, awareness washed over me. Here I was at a hockey game that I didn’t have to pay to get in, surrounded by the best cameras, lenses and laptop that I didn’t have to buy. The only thing missing was a cold beer by my side.

Looking back over the past seven days at some of what I have produced for the readers of my newspaper and viewers of our website, I realize that I can’t let the uncertainty of the future kill my creativity. Today, I put a sticky note on my computer monitor that simply says, “Try Harder.” It is my little reminder  that  (slap upside the head)  I do have the coolest job ever!

These are some of the highlights of my past week– a mix of multimedia and stills.

Several dozen great blue herons were perched on pilings in the Pend Oreille River at Usk, Washington Tuesday, March 2, 2010. Area birding enthusiasts said this is the time of year large groups of the giant birds can be seen migrating and resting in certain areas, such as the Pack River Delta along Lake Pend Oreille. Soon they will disperse in smaller groups to nesting rookeries in cottonwoods or other woodlands near water.COLIN MULVANY colinm@spokesman.com

Tim Michaels, who lost part of his leg in a grain elevator accident holds a wooden foot carving a relative brought him during his stay at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash.

Videos: Click image to view.

The king of Cat Tales Zoological Training Center gets a root canal.

In the Kalispel Tribal Language Program, new Salish speakers immerse themselves in daily conversation with elders and then teach what they have learned in nearby public schools.

Will the touch tablet save professional journalism?

Someone should just put a deadbolt on my laptop lid. When I peruse my Twitter feed I see nothing but scary newspaper industry news, which flows like a river of red ink across my pixels. Reading too much of it makes me think a prescription for Prozac might be in my future. I’ve begun to notice even journalism pundits have started to turn on each other by criticizing the need for yet another conference on “Envisioning the Newspaper of Future.”

Truth be told, no one really knows when printing presses will grind to a halt and news delivery boys and girls will be forced to hang up their logoed paper bags for good.

I had to laugh,  last week in Portland, Oregon, my former newspaper editor Steve A. Smith was the keynote speaker at “We Make the Media“A conference held to develop real-world plans for new media organizations to fill the journalism gaps left by shrinking news staffs at legacy media organizations.” As Smith was speaking about the need to save “professional” journalism, back in the corner of the room were a bunch of self-proclaimed snarky bloggers and citizen journalists who took offense to the notion professional journalism should be saved. Of course they twittered their opinions of Smith’s speech in real time. This, I guess, is the new digital divide, where any journalist older than thirty is viewed with mistrust. Hmmm, where have I heard that before?

It does seem the pace of handwringing is accelerating. The print folk, locked in their silos, are defending their turf as they make their last stand. Online departments are taking the brunt of the next wave of job cuts. If newspapers can’t hold the line on circulation and revenue, it will soon be curtains for the rest of us still drawing a paycheck. Or so I’m told. I hope I can last a bit longer, only because I truly believe, if we can make this digital transition, the future will not be as dismal as I was once led to believe.

Here’s my vision of how I see it playing out in the near future:

  • A new breed of touch tablet readers hits the market in 2010-2011. Newspaper publishers at first shun the devices. Then one gutsy newspaper chain embraces them. They form a partnership with the tablet maker to subsidize the cost for the consumer. The more publications a consumer subscribes to, the less they have to pay for the reader. Others soon follow…
  • A newspaper’s survival will be based on how many current subscribers can be converted to the digital replica of the newspaper. Replica is the key here. A newspaper’s digital future starts with making the transition simple (familiar) for  print consumers to make. It’s the newspaper, only better…
  • What will sell the tablet service is all the new things subscribers will be able to do with their wireless digital newspapers. Pictures will come alive with video and audio, graphics become interactive with a tap of a finger, Text can be set to be read aloud. Subscribers should easily be able to customize the paper to fit their needs. Want the sports page as your front page? No problem. Want more stories about your favorite pro baseball team? You bet!
  • The value to the tablet subscriber has to be so huge that they be crazy not to plunk down their cash.  The same goes for advertisers, whose ads will now have added value. Tap on an ad for a big-screen TV at Best Buy and get more info about the product. Tap a grocery store coupon to print it out.
  • Advertisers should be allowed to update their ads in real-time. Think about it. Let’s say you’re a local shoe store looking to move 1000 pairs of shoes. You place the ad in the morning showing the shoes at 20% off. By 2 p.m. you have 500 left and you want to sell them faster, you log into your account and update the ad yourself, dropping the price to 30% off. Don’t you think a whole bunch of those types of ads would draw traffic to a digital newspaper?  How about subscriber-only deals? Advertising will be targeted to subscriber’s tastes and talents.
  • Everyone talks about how they can’t make any money in online. The simple truth is most newspaper Web sites are not easy to navigate. They can’t display ads as effectively as a print newspaper. If newspapers are going to make this digital transition successful, then making the viewing experience for former print subscribers and advertisers as elegant as possible is paramount.

Finally, a few words about content. Our journalism is what’s most important and will no doubt have to be upgraded. Words and multimedia will need to work better together. The strength in the touch tablet is in its multimedia capabilities. Visuals like photo galleries, graphics, and hi-def video, will add value. Like your current Web site, the front page of the digital newspaper will change as stories are updated throughout the day. The page design will slowly change to integrate new content features.

Once this happens,  the true digital media revolution will begin to take place. Yes, the presses will eventually stop, which will only strengthen digital media’s position. Freed of the cost of printing and distribution, more resources will go to content creators. This is when the fun really starts. True innovation will kick in with each new tablet version. New types of devices will drive even more innovation and hopefully a super-renaissance of journalism. My vision may be utopia to some, but the internal optimist in me really believes there is a future in professional journalism.