The Digital Journalist
Get Real(istic)!
April 2004

by James Colburn

A good friend of mine was at the American Film Institute a few years ago taking part in their director's program and invited me out to Los Angeles to do the stills on the film that was to be his final project. He had a good script, a good crew and a place for me to crash so it sounded like it'd be a fun couple of weeks in the sun. Since one of the scenes involved one of the main characters speaking to "the press" I would also get to be in the film the Photographer Wrangler......

I took my role of "wrangler" seriously and insisted on going over a few things with the extras that were going to play the part of the half-dozen or so still photographers that would crowd around during the "photo-op." I wanted it to look right and, evidently, my friend has been asked how he found all the "real" photographers to be in his film as they looked like they knew what they were doing.

When I insisted that they use on-camera flashes they looked stunned. When I showed them that the 20-35mm and 28-70mm zoom lenses that I'd brought, begged and borrowed would be the real lenses used during a scrum like the one in the movie they didn't quite believe me. When I explained how real photographers hold a camera and lens (the right hand holding the camera, the left supporting the lens from underneath) they didn't understand and it took them a half an hour of practice to get it right. When I draped an extra body and long zoom lens over their left shoulders and told them to just leave it there they asked why they had to carry more than one camera. These otherwise intelligent people had been so conditioned by years of watching television and films that they really believed that every professional photographer used a "potato masher" flash and took most of their pictures without actually looking through the viewfinder.

When was the last time you saw a real photographer use a "potato masher" flash? I figure that it's been about 20 years for me. I've just seen the opening scene of the latest episode of "The West Wing" and half of the "news" photographers had these big-ass flashes attached to the side of non-motorized camera bodies affixed with 50mm lenses. One guy was taking pictures in the White House's cabinet room (it's a 15 foot throw, tops) with what looked to be a 400mm lens. Everyone was holding their cameras with one hand on the left side of the camera and one hand on the right. Nobody seemed to be supporting the lens from underneath or, indeed, focusing or zooming their lenses.

Don't any of the writers do any research? Hey guys. You spend days or weeks researching the way cops hand-cuff a perp or how a soldier in Vietnam held his gun while crossing a river but you continue to let photographers look like idiots. Do us a favor and call someone. If you don't know a real photographer call up a newspaper and ask for some help. Heck, hire a photographer for a few days to help you. You'll spend less on him or her than you will on the croutons they'll supply for lunch.

© James Colburn
Contributing Writer