The Digital Journalist


by Jim Pickerell

One career change for the stock photographer to consider is video production. Many still photographers have ignored video in the past because it was not personal enough. The photographer is often only one member of a large crew, and usually not the controlling member. A crew might have a producer/director, correspondent, soundman, lighting technician and editor as well as the photographer. Most still photographers want more control over the end product.

Now, with recent developments in equipment and software all this is changing. A single person, with no outside help, can produce a television quality production. Evidence of this are David Turnley's piece on Kosovo and Dirck Halstead's piece on Dino Delaurentiis' 80th birthday, both of which appeared as 30 minute programs on ABC's Nightline in the past year.

These stories were shot on a Canon XL1. The photographers were the entire "crew" on each shoot. At the time, these photographers received some help with the editing, but with Apple's new Final Cut Pro the photographer could have easily edited the final piece as well. The quality of the video image in these productions was equal to anything currently seen on TV.

The personalness of this approach offers some unique advantages in story telling that could probably never be accomplished with a film camera crew. An example. Halstead had worked with Delaurentiis as a still photographer on various film productions over the years, and had become a friend. When Halstead got the assignment from Nightline to shoot the 80th birthday piece he was invited to stay at the Delaurentiis home. Halstead has one touching scene of the family around the breakfast table, and Dino talking to his 11 year old daughter Carolina about what she wants to do when she grows up. This situation would probably never have developed had Halstead not had the personal relationship that still photographers are often able to develop with their subjects.

David Turnley followed one family in their escape from Kosovo. Again, a large crew would have gotten in the way of the story rather than being able to record it in a personal way. Individual photographers doing stories will not replace film crews on the majority of major productions, but there are certain types of stories where the personal approach and the personal vision is an advantage.

You also need to consider where news photography is headed. According to Vin Alabiso, Associated Press Vice President and Director of Newsphotos Worldwide, "... technology will be perfected to the point that photographers will be able to simultaneously capture video and still frames, of the quality needed for newspaper and magazine reproduction, all with a single piece of equipment. We will see something in the next couple of years that will quickly bring us to the doorstep of a new way of working."

He continued, "We've been testing certain pieces of equipment, but there isn't any video equipment (right now) that maintains the level of quality in stills that we must have to insure the best reproduction in newspapers and magazines. The technology needs to evolve somewhat, but it is close."

Alabiso pointed out that currently there are people shooting both stills and video at a single event, but they are using two cameras - one still and one digital video.

"I don't think that's necessarily the best way to proceed. One way or the other you are going to miss the moment. The way I see it, photographers will not forsake one medium for the other," Alabiso said.

However, the photographer will be in control of the entire process and have a single piece of equipment. He or she will be able to shoot stills in the normal manner while capturing video, or shoot video and have the ability to switch over to stills when necessary.


Consider how demand for video is likely to explode. When there were only three major television networks there were 64,000 hours of air time to fill up each year. Sounds like a lot, but the networks easily staffed up to do it. Right now with the explosion of cable channels there are 2,500,000 hours of air time per year. That's a lot of re-runs.

But television is only one of the uses for video. The web is a video medium. Space for video on the web is unlimited.

In my opinion the exciting future of video story telling is not in commercial television, but on the web. The web will absorb and unlimited number of short one to five minute pieces produced for special interest groups, non-profits, associations, and corporations to tell small, focused stories.

With the relatively low equipment costs, and the potential growth in demand as bandwidth increases, lots of people from various backgrounds and experiences will explore digital video. Still photographers, particularly those who also have some writing skills, have some major advantages in this new field, but for most a lot of training and practice will be required to become fully competent. 

You have the choice to be an "early adopter" or wait until the demand is clearly established and then get left behind by the pack.

Your competitors won't just be photographers. News writers will try it but experience has shown they are often overwhelmed by technical aspects and the equipment needed to create good images. Radio reporters have a big advantage because they understand how important sound is in telling a story. They also know how to write a script that makes effective use of sound. The still photographer understands images. He or she knows framing and what makes a powerful picture. The photographer understands light, and how to use it. And those photographers who have written stories or books have a sense of sequence and story. They may be able to develop scripts without too much difficulty.

The transition to producing good, marketable video is not simply a matter of buying the equipment and walking out on your first paying job. There's a lot to learn and practice. Once you have learned to produce decent videos and have a good demo tape --"portfolio" --you'll need to explore new markets for this skill.

If you think there is no demand for video shooters consider what one small cable station in Montgomery County, Maryland is doing to train future content providers. Montgomery Community Television runs an ten week video course (3 hours, one day a week) for $78.00. They supply all the equipment. There are eight 4 person teams -- two producers and two cameramen -- in each course. The course is always full and runs three times a year. Most of the people in the classes have no previous photographic or producing experience.

If MCT is doing it chances are local stations all over the country are doing it. Now is the time to start thinking about video. Now is the time to start learning about the opportunities and determine if it is a skill you want to develop. Or maybe you would rather make buggy whips for a living.

Looking To The Web

To get an idea of where web video is today go to Apple Computer's site at There you can link to a variety of sites that use quicktime to view video. One caution. If you don't already have quicktime on your computer, and if you're using a 56K modem, the downloading of the software can take a while. But, if you are thinking about producing video for the web you need to be aware of what the technology has to offer, today.

At the same time be aware that increased bandwidth will greatly improve the delivery of video on the web. If you are using a 56K modem you will get a small video image on your screen. With DSL, cable modems or T1 lines you not only get a larger image, but full motion without any breakup. Consider the potential when a high number of users will have access to these faster connections.

Learning to use the video equipment, building a portfolio and developing a list of potential customers takes time. My bet is that by the time most still photographers have developed their skills to a professional level the market will be there for digital video.

Advantages Of Motion And Sound

Motion and sound aren't necessary in all communications. In fact, some of the analysis pieces we get from talking heads on TV might better be communicated in text only. But, where still images are currently being used in communication, the combination of motion, sequence and sound will often do a better job of informing the viewer. This is possible on TV and the web. It will never be possible in newspapers, magazines or books.

I challenge you to begin looking at the stories you read and the still images you see. Ask yourself if the communication would have been more powerful if you could not only see, but hear, the participants, and if you could see sequences of what was happening, not single isolated moments. In a significant number of cases you will find that video and sound would greatly enhance the communication of the information being presented.

An example. The lead story in the Saturday, January 22nd San Jose Mercury News was entitled "Head Start-Up", "Fledgling entrepreneurs try their hand at making a pitch for funding."

The story was about 7th grade girls and what they were learning about starting a business. The 40 girls in the class had developed plans for nine different small businesses which sell various products such as pet rocks, snacks and T-shirts. They needed seed capital ranging from $65 to $370.

If this had been happening in Baltimore or Boise the natural way to get capital would be to hit up their parents for a loan. But this was "Silicon Valley" where half their parents are venture capitalists and the other half are writing business plans to get venture capital. So the story in the paper was about the night the girls presented their business plans to venture capitalists.

What is interesting for us as still photographers is the images that were used to illustrate this story. There were three images -- two on the front page and one on the back, where the story jumped.

The lead image was five girls around a podium frantically doing a last minute rehearsal of their pitch. There was also a picture of a girl using an overhead projector. On the back page was a shot of two women, one an attorney and one a venture capitalist sitting at a table reviewing business plans.

These images added very little to the understanding of the story, but in fairness to the still photographer there was not much more that could have been done with still images.

On the other hand, think about what could have been done with video and sound. You could have seen and heard nine girls present a summary sentence about their project. You could have seen girls making their pitch with cutaways to samples or diagrams of their products. You could have cut away to the audience and the VC's listening. You could have had the advisor explaining the rationale for the project. And all that could have been presented in a couple minutes -- less time than it takes to read the story in the newspaper. What has more impact? Now the pictures are an important element in telling the story.

Such a story placed on-line has more potential uses than one in a single edition of a newspaper that is available for 24 hours and used to wrap tomorrow's garbage. It could be linked to an educational web site designed to offer teachers ideas for programs they might use in their own classrooms. It could link to a student site designed for students to see what their peers around the world are doing. The piece might be sold outright to educational sites, or linked in such a way that users would pay a fee each time they viewed the video.

It could be one of a series of short segments on a TV program on trends in education. One of the problems with today's print journalism is that it is designed to be available to a small segment of readers at a single point in time. Much of what is written would be of value to a much broader group of readers over a much broader time span, if there was some way to efficiently deliver it when the readers were interested.

The web has the potential to deliver information in this manner, and it has tremendous efficiencies over print journalism. Major strides must be made in archiving, indexing and cataloging content before the web can be used efficiently in this area, but there is the potential.

The above is a single example. Start looking at the illustrated articles in your newspapers and magazines. Consider how many could be told more effectively with video, sound and narration in less time than it takes to read the article. Consider the multiple uses that could be made of information that tends to be lost after a single publication.

Think about the travel industry. Consider how travelers get information on the places they want to visit. What do the few single frames that they see in travel brochures, newspaper or magazine stories tell them about these places. What more could be done to promote these locations with short video pieces on the web. Consider the number of people who already use the web to book reservations for airlines and other travel activities.

In the past, many organizations were forced to reject video projects because of the costs, and the relatively limited ways in which they could be used. Now small focused projects will make more economic sense. The options are endless.

Providing Information

One of the exciting things about producing short video's for the web is that to date virtually nothing has been shot and edited as short, narrowly focused information pieces. The 30 minute story is the standard, but that volume of information may not always be necessary. In nearly all cases brand new content will need to be shot because nothing in the archives will work in its present format. A whole host of feature stories, informational pieces and certain types of advertising that have been produced with stills over the years, will now be candidates to be re-done in video. A huge amount of potential new work.

The downside. Once a video has been produced and made available in these new ways there will undoubtedly be less need to re-use those still images on the topic. If you think the availability of royalty free images was a disaster for stock photography, consider what digital video could do to the market for stills once an economic way is developed to pay for the initial video productions.

If our role as professionals is to provide information that will educate and entertain, we are doing a lousy job of it, if we insist on living in the past and ignore the new tools that are available.

There are those who argue that many people prefer print and don't want to get their information from the web? Re-consider everything I've said in "Your Next Career" Story 285. Then remember that this is exactly what people said about television fifty years ago. The only difference is that the web revolution will occur much more rapidly than the TV revolution.

How To Get Trained

An excellent place to get trained to shoot and produce video is at a Platypus Workshops operated by Dirck Halstead and friends. I attended a week long session in January at the Apple Computer headquarters in Cupertino, CA. Another will be held March 12-24, 2000 at the University of Oklahoma in Norman in conjunction with NPPA's annual TV NewsVideo Workshop. More will be announced and the best place to learn more about these workshops and keep up with developments in digital video is at

The focus of this workshop is toward news, but the skills learned will be very applicable in the commercial market.

What About Equipment?

The big breakthrough for still photographers is that quality camcorder equipment has come way down in price. Less than five years ago, a broadcast-quality video camera cost $30,000. Now you can get a Canon GL1 video camcorder for less than $2,400 or a Canon XL1 for $3,900.

You will probably want to upgrade the standard mike that comes with these cameras with a Sennheiser ME-66 Short Shotgun Mike for about $500. Before too long you will want a good wireless radio mike that will let you work away from your subject. The Telex UR12-L for about $350 is one option, but there are a great variety of options. You may want to rent and test out various options, and get some advice from a professional film soundman before you buy. Electosonics makes quality VHF and UHF mikes priced in the range of $1200 to $2000.

Depending on your subjects you may need additional lighting, but as a still photographer you already know about lighting and you may have a lot of the equipment you need. Everything is hot lights so your strobes aren't going to help you. The CCD chips are fast enough to record perfectly satisfactorily video in poor lighting conditions, so you don't necessarily need a lot of hot lights. The main reason to use lights is to compress the range between highlights and shadows because the CCD's have a narrower range from highlight to shadow than film. One light that may be useful is Canon's 10W on-camera light for under $100. It uses the same batteries as the camera.

Canon's BP941 L-ion batteries are good for about 150 minutes and cost $160. The Canon Dual CH900 Charger (charges two batteries at a time cost $230. Sixty minute digital tapes sell for $15 each.

There is a company called Videosmith in Philadelphia that is specializing in helping still photographers get started shooting video. You can find them on-line at They offer a Canon GL1 Platinum Package for $3,350 that is all you need to start shooting. (You may want to add certain features to this package as mentioned above.)


Before you (or someone working for you) begins the edit process you need to log every shot and prepare a script. Logging involves, at a minimum, listing the tape time-code and a brief description of each shot on the tape. If the shot was an interview or narration you need to type it verbatim. At first this seems like a lot of work, but it pays off in spades down the road.

If someone else is going to do the final edit you can prepare this log by playing the tape back through the camera. However, that's a real pain and hard on the camera equipment. I recommend using a Sony Mini DV player (about $700) for this purpose.

The other major breakthrough in video production is Apple's Final Cut Pro editing software that works on a MAC G3 or higher. This software costs $950 and is easier to learn the PhotoShop. You need 256MB of Ram and lots of hard drive space if you are going to do pieces of any length. ATA Ultra EIDE drives in the 27GB to 36GB range are a good choice. You can put about 5 minutes of tape at high resolution on each gig so it is easy to see why you need a lot of hard drive space to edit a major piece. The people at the Platypus Workshop recommend the Quantum 27GB drive at about $350 each. You may want two or three.

This is the minimum you need to get you started assuming you already have a G3 or G4.

Based on my experience at the Platypus Workshop, I strongly recommend that you plan to do some editing even if you plan to eventually hire an editor to do most of the work for you. The toughest transition for a still photographer will be in understanding how to shoot what is called "B Roll" which are basically single shots or cutaways. They will be cut into a sequence. This is particularly true if the shots have to cut over the voice of a narrator, or an interview, to illustrate certain points.

There is no faster way to learn the necessary shooting techniques than to cut your own material and recognize what could have been done if you had shot some other cutaways or held a shot a little longer.

If you decide you want to do most of the editing yourself you will want a Sony NTSC Studio Monitor which delivers the image at 30 fps (29.97 frames to be exact). Normal computer monitors deliver images at 15fps. The 13" Studio Monitor (PVM-14M2U) from B&H will cost about $880. A second computer monitor may also be advisable so you can have your log records up on one monitor and Final Cut Pro on the second monitor.

For planning purposes it generally takes about a day to edit each minute of finished tape once a good log and script have been provided. Experienced editors can be hired for $500 a day, although ones with a lot of experience earn more than this. One seventeen minute piece took seven days to shoot, 20 days to edit and had a budget of $50,000.

Marketing Your Video

To begin marketing you need something to show just like you did when you started in still photography. You need to produce a demo reel. Depending on the kind of work you are going after the demo reel may be a series of short one to two minute pieces, or something longer. If you want to shoot a 30 minute story, you may need to produce a five minute, or so, "treatment" on the subject that will give the potential buyer a good idea of what will be included in the finished piece.

Such a treatment is going to require not only shooting, but editing time. Some potential buyers will look at raw footage to determine quality, but it is not a good idea to show raw footage any more than it is a good idea to show contact sheets when you're trying to get a still job. Edit your presentation.

We talked earlier about Montgomery Community Television offering to train cameramen and producers for a very reasonable amount of money. But they are not offering to pay these photographers anything, even when they are fully trained. The photographers will have to go out an find their own projects and their own sponsors for those projects. In exchange for the training MCT gets to run the finished four minute piece, on a non-exclusive basis, up to twice a month for three years -- free of charge.

Nevertheless, there will be companies and organizations who will want their story told in video. They will fund projects to get their message to the public. There will be a lot more demand than the current number of experienced skilled producers can supply. The trick will be in finding these people and letting them know you are available to do the work -- once you can demonstrate the necessary skills to do that work.

When wire service photographers start using cameras that shoot video and stills simultaneously AP will certainly be marketing the video content through their existing TV division. If AP is doing it other agencies will get into the video marketing business.

The industry will change, and there will be opportunities. Position yourself now to take advantage of the opportunities.

What About Stock Video Clips?

This generation of digital video equipment is probably going to be of little value in shooting stock video to sell for use in advertising. The resolution is fine for ads that will be used in the near term, but those who are building stock footage files still want the original to be shot on film. In most cases they want 35mm but in some cases they are willing to accept 16mm.

There is good logic for this. These marketers are looking ahead to HDTV which we're already seeing to some extent. HDTV is expected to have a significant share of the market by 2005. The current NTSC format resolves approximately 500 lines per inch. HDTV resolves in the range of 1700 lines per inch. The stock marketers want to be able to go back to a film original and re-capture it at a much higher digital resolution when it is appropriate. For that reason they are currently unwilling to put anything into the files that can not eventually be captured at HDTV resolutions.

If your goal is to produce stock footage for advertising, then film needs to be your final product. Currently that is a very expensive proposition. The Canon equipment recommended at the Platypus Workshops might be useful as a means of developing your skills in shooting video, and testing out certain ideas with your marketing house before renting or purchasing equipment to shoot film.


Jim Pickerell publishes Negotiating Stock Photo Prices, a guide to pricing stock photo uses with detailed pricing schedules, and Selling Stock, a subscription based on-line newsletter that provides stock photographers and agents with timely information on the business side of the stock photo industry.  For prices or other information e-mail: or call: 301-251-0720.

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