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.

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.

Mastering Multimedia useful tips roundup

Many of may old posts that deal with tips about how to do video storytelling and audio slideshows get linked on a lot of blogs used by college professors who teach digital media classes. Most of these posts are buried amongst my pontifications about the changes facing the newspaper industry. So for anyone interested,  here is a roundup of my best multimedia suggestions and useful tip posts in one place…

How to make your audio slideshows better

Great audio starts in the field

How best to approach a video story

Sequencing: The foundation of video storytelling

How to make your video editing easier

Get creative with your video camera

Opening your video: How not to lose viewers

Random Final Cut tip: Lower thirds titles

What we can learn from TV new shooters

Looking back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2009

It’s been a challenging year on the multimedia front. Many newspapers retrenched by refocusing their limited resources back on traditional print products and away from online innovation. This is in sharp contrast to the rush to develop online products so prevalent in 2008. Disturbing as it’s been, this trend is not wholly unexpected. Business model disruptions are historically messy. As publishers resisted the unfathomable idea that the era of the printing press is fading, precious time was wasted in preparing for their inevitable digital future. For the employees of these publications, the stress has been excruciating. Mass newspaper layoffs have hit visual and online staffs hard this year. Word people still control the tempo of most newsrooms. Seeing Washington Post master video storyteller Travis Fox shown the door is an example of this shortsighted trend.

Newspaper-produced video, once seen for its potential as an online revenue generator, was scaled back at many publications in 2009. Layoffs in photo departments left too few visual journalists with the time to do effective volume video storytelling. Just when the training curve knowledge was kicking in, many talented video journalists/photojournalists were sliced away from newspaper payrolls.

Newsroom innovation (beyond talk of pay walls) slowed too. Fear and uncertainty ruled many  newsrooms in 2009. A brain drain has left the few remaining innovators reluctant to stick their necks out for fear of having them cut off.

Still, multimedia workshops like the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion, Platypus and Knight Digital Media Center’s Multimedia Training continue to fill up with reporters, photojournalists and online folk who, many on their own dime, continue seeking out digital storytelling training.

Social media kicked in big time in 2009. The rise of Facebook and Twitter allowed everyone, including newspapers, to propagate their online content in the social media universe. Many, including myself, found new viewers for multimedia projects by posting links to social media sites.

University journalism programs got the multimedia religion in 2009. Curriculums are finally being rewritten in ways that reflect the new digital future of journalism. Students, hopefully, will now graduate with a skill set that will better prepare them for a multitasking future. As I’ve said many times before: “There can no longer be  ‘just reporters’ or ‘just photojournalists.’ We all need to be multimedia, multi-platform savvy.”

Video technology took a big leap forward with the introduction of  DSLR cameras capable of shooting high–def video. A visual journalist needs only one camera now to shoot stills and video. Though the technology and its clunky editing workflows are still in its infancy, the era of large, bulky video cameras for newspaper visual journalists is coming to an end.

Video delivery at newspapers improved dramatically in 2009. Many publications added full-screen modes to their players and improved video compression for stutter free viewing. Still, video seems like an afterthought at many newspaper websites.

In 2009, newspaper video storyteller’s experience and understanding of the craft improved, but a troubling gap in understanding basic video fundamentals, weakens the majority of videos produced at newspapers. The art of good storytelling is missing in many videos I’ve watched this year. I continue to gather inspiration from a few in TV journalism that are allowed the time to tell a great story. Learning to script and voice narration should be a goal for most newspaper video storytellers in the coming year.

For 2010, I see a bumpy road ahead as publishers continue working to bring expenses and revenues back in line. While they’re doing that, some interesting changes will begin to disrupt their plans and the print industry big time. Tablet computers will be released this year by not only Apple, but by a half-dozen other big manufactures. Digital content, expressly made for these devices, will start putting pressure on print products late in 2010. It will take some time for these enhanced digital readers to gain traction, but when they do, my prediction is that it might be game over for many struggling print newspapers. Whether the content these publications produce survives in a digital form will be dictated by how much publishers invest in transitioning advertisers and subscribers to digital delivery.

Whatever happens, 2010 is going to be an interesting year. Hold on tight…

Stretching the roles of traditional journalists

fairygirlsMM

Sunday’s Spokesman-Review was a bit like the newspaper of old. Writer, Kevin Graman’s story and my photos of the Fairy and Human Relation Congress, took up most of the front-page as well as two color pages inside. What was different about this story for us two veterans—one visual and one word oriented—was how we each stretched into the new roles of being modern newspaper journalists.

My visual multitasking role has been pretty much set in stone for some time. On this story, I not only shot the still photos for the newspaper, but I captured, edited and produced a video for online.

srx-fairymm3

Graman moved out of his traditional role of being a print reporter to now stretching into the multimedia world of writing words for video and doing voice-over work.

When I heard about this story of 200 people gathering in the wilds to worship fairies, I could think of no better journalist than Graman to do the story with.  We have worked on several other videos together. His innate ability to write to my video brings an authentic voice the story.

Most times I am fine with doing my own voiceover work. But on great stories like this one, having someone that can write and voice powerful words (check out the last minute of the fairy video) just makes all the difference.

In the end, I think we hit a grand slam. We gave the readers of our newspaper a great print story, with strong photos—and we gave our online viewers all that and more with the added value of the video that told a different story than print. This, to me, is the future of newspaper journalism, where traditional roles are stretched but not devalued.

In the Realm of Fairies

fairymm

My week (and brain) has been filled with fairies, orbs, healers, telepaths and more fairies. Last week, Spokesman-Review writer Kevin Graman and I, headed to a scenic meadow nestled at the foothills of the North Cascades Mountains in Washington state. Here, 250 people gathered for the 9th Annual Fairy and Human Relations Congress—a workshop driven event—dedicated to connecting the human world to the fairy realm. OK, before you scoff, I was amazed at the dedication these people have towards their new age beliefs. Over four days, Graman and I kept an open mind as we attend workshops on “Getting in touch with the fairy mind,” and another on how to telepathically communicate with animals. The best part though, was the festival atmosphere. On Saturday night a grand fairy costumed parade made its way through the meadow. It ended at a bonfire with participants dancing and chanting: “Release, release, release your sexy beast.” God, I love my job sometimes.

The congress gave me the creative release I’ve been looking for. I only had two days to turn my four hours of raw video into a story. Graman wrote and voiced the narration. He has such a great voice. I keep telling him he should do voiceover work professionally. You can see the finished video here.

Two approaches to daily newspaper video

 

Reflections Med Spas of Spokane host Botox parties to entice woman to use their cosmetic services.

Reflections Med Spas of Spokane host Botox parties to entice woman to use their cosmetic services.

The great thing about shooting video for newspapers is that you don’t have to fit the storytelling in a confined format like TV news does. The last two videos I have produced for Spokesman.com were done with totally different  storytelling approaches. The first video I did was on a local day spa that hosted a Botox party for women. Here, I let the subjects at the party tell the story. I shot it in one evening and then futzed around with the edit for couple of days in between daily still photo assignments. The other video was on a snowboarding competition held at a local college.  I tried a totally different approach with this video. A daily story planned for the page one, so I didn’t see the need to do the same print story in video. Time was tight and I really wanted to get home in time for dinner.

rail

Watch the thrills and the spills as snowboarders and skiers from around the region participate in the Cricket Wireless Campus Rail Jam Tour

 

The Botox story was all about people. Getting them to tell me why they felt the need to get Botox injections was key to my story. I did interviews with a doctor and the director of the spa, which gave me the narrative framework for my story. Then I just filled in my timeline with other quick-hit interviews. From a low angle, I did a fun interview with a woman who was face down in a chair getting a massage. With my raw video, I edited a story that was fairly linear. I opened with women socializing with wine and hors d’oeuvres as my beginning. Then moved on to them getting free massages and facials for the middle. Finally, I shot copious amounts of footage of several people getting facial Botox injections to lead me out of the story.

With the snowboarder story, I ditched all my normal storytelling conventions. My Sony EX-1 video camera has the ability to over crank video for ultra smooth slow motion. This was the first time I have experimented with this feature and I am mesmerized by it.  My video is two minutes of snowboarders riding the rails. A music track is my only audio. Many boarders fell on their butts and heads, which the slow motion effect made it fun to watch. I think there is lots of room left to experiment with different storytelling methods. My two daily videos will probably not win any awards, but I hopw the viewers, who took the time to watch, were at least entertained by what they saw.

The Digital Journalist dedicates issue to video journalism

This month’s issue of The Digital Journalist is dedicated to newspaper video journalism. Publisher Dirck Halstead called me a month ago and asked me to write a story about how I transitioned from being a still photographer to becoming a multimedia producer at my newspaper. Writing about my journey, I’ve found, has been mildly therapeutic.  My last five years as a visual journalist have been an intense and challenging. Through it all, I remain confident that video storytelling at newspapers will survive and flourish.

hallway

This issue was guest edited by Ken Kobre and Jerry Lazar, who did  fantastic job of touching on all the video journalism bases. Stories include:  “How to Build an Emmy-Winning Videojournalism Department” by Kathy Kieliszewski of the Detroit Free Press, to a look at how Erik Olsen, a former ABC TV cameraman, transitioned to being a one-man band video journalist for The New York Times. Also check out “Ken Kobre’s 10 Tips for Dramatically Improving Your Videojournalism Stories.” Halstead also wanted me to upload about 30 of my favorite still photos I’ve taken over my career. You can check out that gallery here. This is one Digital Journalist issue you won’t want to miss.

Are newspapers losing their multimedia mojo?

Around the multimedia blogosphere, the January doldrums seem to have kicked in. My usual inspirational haunts like Newsvideographer.com, Teaching Online Journalism, Multimediashooter.com have all slowed their publishing cycles. Even my own blog is in need of a New Year’s kick-start. With all the newspaper layoffs last year, over 8,000 from one count, I’m sensing a definite decrease in the multimedia mojo I felt just a year ago. Even the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest I run had the lowest amount of entries ever this month.

I’m not saying there’s not good work being produced. There is. I just feel the recession and layoffs have forced the pace of newsroom innovation to slow to a crawl. I fear the brain drain at many newspapers, including my own, has left them frozen in place. Many papers simply do not have the staff or resources left to be competitive on two, let alone, three platforms anymore.

In the last round of layoffs at my newspaper, we lost many of the multimedia journalists who embraced the idea that the web would eventually become our main publishing platform. Talk of innovation has pretty much ceased at the grass roots level. Now, most in editorial are waiting for direction from higher powers to see what comes next.

As I sit in my supply closet video editing suite, surrounded by shelves of unused gear from laid off former co-workers, I wonder if the last five years of training myself to break the chains of legacy storytelling was all for naught. If tomorrow, I stopped shooting video, stopped being a cheerleader for multimedia, stopped asking for new features on our website, would anybody at my paper care? Would it be more of a relief to some that I was not challenging them to try new ways of storytelling? Perhaps. I’m sure some acquaint our former push to be web-centric as a cancer that has gone into remission. Me? I am constantly fighting the forces of negativity from an industry that seems to be in an endless tailspin of turmoil. I don’t brandish terms like “the printed newspaper is dead,” anymore. That just gets me eye rolls.  Most in our newsroom have retreated to focusing on our traditional print product that thankfully, for now, still pays our salaries.

I went from being part of one of the most innovative, forward thinking newsrooms in the country, to now taking a back seat in my out-of-sight supply closet. I feel frustration that mine and most other newspapers are not doing more to prepare for their digital futures. When I started this blog a year ago, I was so full of hope. Now that hope too, has been forced into unwelcome remission. Not totally gone mind you. I’m just going to wait this downturn out. You see, if I can survive the next future round of layoffs, I believe the need for innovative people and ideas will flow once again.  If not, I’m sure what ever rises from the ashes will need a visual journalist who can do it all.