Advice from a Life on the Road
Updated: May 15, 2018
Senior reporter for ITV Central spills the beans
I was one of the very first self-shooters in the ITV regional newsrooms - in the days when it was very much the exception and not the norm.
For example, I filmed myself in a kind of video diary as I spent six months training for a triathlon in a series called the Human Guinea Pig, some of which was filmed on top of the Austrian Alps. I filmed myself driving across Europe in a convoy of classic cars, sending edited items back each day on my laptop. With a self-shooting colleague, I filmed a week-long journey in a canoe along the River Severn. I self-shot on board a steam locomotive on the main line at 70 miles an hour. And still today (as an over-60) I am self-shooting most of my items.
How different it is now when compared to the days when I started at Central News in 1984. Back then you went out on a news story as part of a minimum crew of four people: reporter, cameraman, soundman and electrician.
Technological improvements have made the equipment much smaller and lighter and more light sensitive. Advancements in phone camera technology and in the development of miniature cameras have turned virtually every citizen of the world into a potential journalist self-shooter.
This is, on the one hand, brilliant news. It means that major breaking stories are often filmed from a multitude of different angles by people with phones and good connectivity. However, developments in technology should not be seen as an excuse for poorer standards, particularly at the professional level. In fact, it should be just the opposite. Technology is allowing us to do far more things and at a far higher standard - and that should be the aim of everyone in the broadcasting business.
For that reason, it is essential to have good training - to bring out the very best of what is available. It is also necessary for health and safety reasons, as self shooting can be a pretty dangerous business for those unaware of the pitfalls.
Even though our cameras now, compared to those of 30 years ago, can do much of the "thinking" for us, they can still produce appalling results in the wrong hands. Spending £6,000 (or more) on a camera and then using auto-focus, is like checking into a five star hotel and sleeping in the corridor. Similarly, using the auto-iris on a camera will be absolutely fine in many shooting situations but it can also be a disaster when the subject is back-lit, or when a big white van passes by...
And there is still something our very clever cameras cannot do (yet). And that is compose our pictures - choose what goes into the image. This is probably the most critical part of the whole business of using a camera. How should it be framed? How should it be lit? Where should the interviewee be looking?
HD has dramatically improved the quality of our images. But it has also meant we need to be much more careful to bring out the best in HD. An out-of-focus interviewee in HD will look just as bad as it ever did on 3rd generation VHS. You can have a lens worth £30,000 but if you don't know what you are doing the images you get with it will look like they have been taken through the bottom of a jam jar.
It would be impossible in a short blog (or even a very long one) to tell a trainee how to get brilliant shots and be a great success with a camera. It takes a lot of practice in the field and even those who've been doing it for a lifetime sometimes admit to a few shortcomings.
But here some tips that may help.
1. Have a look at the work of top stills photographers in books. They know better than anyone what makes a powerful image. It's often simple, to the point, relevant.
2. Try to avoid what I call clutter in the background - a highly distracting bright yellow bin, an irrelevant shop sign, a plant pot growing out of someone's head.
3. Unless it's for stylistic reasons (like everything is on the move and hand held to give a person's POV) always use a tripod for landscapes, buildings, railways, house interiors...)
4. Keep your lens clean at all times. Cover your lens when it's not in use. A dirty lens is a game changer. A wide angle shot of beautifully lit valley in the Lake District will be ruined forever if there is a little piece of muck on the lens.
5. Although correcting things in the edit is a possibility, never go out with that attitude. Try to get things right first time in the camera. The best software in the world can only go so far towards correcting an out-of-focus shot.
6. Give a lot of thought to recording sound. Use headphones whenever possible. There's an old joke among camera crews about recording sound: "You just point the mic at where the sound is coming from and keep the needle out of the red bit". Although, it's more complicated than that, they are the two most important things - and I have seen frequent cases where both these simple instructions have been ignored. Sound can make or break a news item. Remember this short sentence: Sound is just as important as pictures. Repeat this a few times: Sound is just as important as pictures.
There are times when there is nothing better than having a talented camera operator with you and working as a team. I am fortunate to have worked with some of the best in the business - and I have picked up a lot of things from them over the years.
Self-shooting should not become a phrase that means second-rate. In fact some of the very best camera operators are now themselves self-shooters, in other words going out on their own and doing a first class job.
Self-shooting is now commonplace - with newspapers, news agencies and the like sending out their journalists with cameras. This, in some cases, has given self-shooting a bad name due to inadequate equipment and a lack of training, and a lack of time with so many other things to do. It's up to all of us to try to raise the standards. One thing ITV did very well when it rolled out its self-shooting camera scheme was to provide top-notch kits and a high standard of training for its journalists.
Keith Wilkinson ITV News October 2017