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Preparing for a New World of Journalism: Visual Storytelling

(Part Two of Four Parts)

ImageMaking pictures to support television news has changed dramatically over the past few years. From the medium's beginning in the 1950s until 1975, images were shot on 16mm motion picture film. First it was black and white and then color beginning in the late 1960s.

In 1975, film images began to be replaced by video--shot using a new generation of back-breaking "ENG" (for electronic news gathering) cameras and recorders. The discipline of film was lost with video. With film, the camera operator either got it right (exposure, lighting, precise film loading) or there were no images. With video, the process began to become much more fool-proof, though not necessarily good in terms of production value.

Today, news is transitioning from much smaller video camcorders to self-contained DSLRs. The reason is television news is not just for television anymore. It's now for web pages, smartphones and tablets, as well as the home TV. The people doing video news can be anyone--from newspapers to radio networks. In fact, one of the best video news organizations today is National Public Radio!

Those gathering images in the field today make use of both still and moving images. Often those images are made simultaneously. But more importantly, images are now made to tell a story. It is the job of the photographer (who is also the reporter) to be able to tell a compelling story using the multimedia elements of pictures (both moving and still), audio and words.

No wonder it is challenging to be a good reporter today. That person now has to do the job of at least three people in the past. Not only must that reporter get the story and gather the facts, but he or she must take the pictures, record the sound, write the copy and put it all together as the editor.

Despite what some so-called "news organizations" believe, taking good images is not something easily taught. Classes on how to use an iPhone camera are just that. How to make images with a phone. But the real trick is making great images, which usually has little to do with the camera being used.

Great photography, whether in journalism or not, begins with learning to "see." We've all seen the thousands of bad images non-professionals make and then spot that one spectacular shot that tells the story in a single image.  That person saw something the others did not.  Like it or not, journalists must aspire to being excellent photographers of both the still and moving image.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer who is the father of "street photography," called getting that essential shot "the decisive moment." Very often one still image--executed perfectly--is far more powerful than a clip of moving video.

As an example, think of the image of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, the historic photo made in 1945 by Joe Rosenthal. It depicts five United States Marines and a United States Navy corpsman raising an American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. 

That  photo won the Pulitzer Prize for photography. The scene has been memorialized in statutes and on film. Yet, never has any other media equaled the intense power of that single photograph. The scene was made for a single frame.

Nothing has changed over time. The image-making media a story is captured on is not as important as that media being used in a way to tell the story in a compelling way. All journalists today need to be good photographers. It is essential to the craft of storytelling in our visual age.

Do not confuse learning to use the gear of the journalistic trade with knowing how to make good images. The two are totally different things. One is operational. The other--your talent--is what makes you better than others.

If you want to be a reporter and are not a good photographer, spend the summer becoming one.  A great place is the Maine Media Workshops. Take a week long workshop with an expert.  A good place to begin is "Photographer's Eye," a class that teaches you to see. From there, build on your skills, with specific classes. I've taken these classes with top experts and can say they made a real difference in my skill level.

Another excellent series of classes are the Platypus Workshops, held around the world. They teach digital storytelling in a modern way--from finding the story to shooting it with a DSLR. You will get intensive instruction in all the necessary disciplines. Another good workshop is offered by MediaStorm in Brooklyn, NY. It also focuses on multimedia storytelling.

Regardless of where you study, the essential thing one must learn is how to see. That may sound overly simplistic, but believe me it is not. It is the essential difference that will make you a great visual journalist. You can learn to use any brand of gear, but the critical element is telling a story. "Seeing" is essential to doing that. 

In our next column, we'll focus on audio--usually the stepchild of the journalistic process.  But, guess what, it's just as important as pictures. Great images, without good sound, usually fail. Think about that.

Nobody said this would be easy!