We’re Not Special Anymore

A Review of the Canon
XL1 Video Camera
by Larry Hatteberg

Nothing moves faster in television than time. One day we look out of the window of our news car and we're a 25-year-old invincible photojournalist. But, nature is subtle in its cruelty and time knows no honor. Our bodies age, and one day, the camera is too heavy. Our backs give out and our joy of making those precious images is in jeopardy. Our focus looks to the future and survival.

I am one of those for whom the world of digital photography has proved to be a "gift." In the television business now for 36 years, I gave up shooting a few years ago because my back would no longer tolerate the weight of the large cameras. So, for the past few years, I've let others do the shooting while I worked behind the anchor desk.

But, I missed the camera. I missed the art of video storytelling!

Then came the digital revolution and the Canon XL-1. I first saw the camera at the National Press Photographers Television News Video Workshop earlier this year and was impressed with its quality. Even more impressive was how it felt. It was light! Already my back was feeling better!

After talking with Dirck Halstead about the camera, the next decision came fairly easy---I bought one. Never in a million years did I ever think I would be purchasing my own broadcast TV camera. I did this for several reasons. First, the price was right, and second, if I wanted to continue to tell stories with a camera, this was the only choice. My television station is not going to go out on a limb and buy this camera for me. I don't expect them too. If they do that for me, they'd have to do it for everyone and I understand that. The camera was unproven. No station will take a chance with anything that doesn't have a reputation. So, after some research, hands-on testing, and a talk with the bank, I made the plunge. Now, I own my own camera, wireless, lights, tripod and other equipment for less than $10,000. I can do virtually anything anyone else on the staff does---but for far less money. Most important, I have the satisfaction of seeing my images once again on the TV screen. For me, that is priceless!

The bulk of my career is doing feature stories on Kansas people. Folks from all dimensions of life on the plains have filtered through my viewfinder. Since 1973, I've produced a weekly series called Hatteberg's People which is probably the one thing I'm known for on Kansas television.

Ordinary people living life out of the limelight, yet living in such a way that we can all learn from them has been the focus of my photojournalism. In that endeavor, I've learned how the camera affects people. More importantly, it's how the photojournalist uses the camera and his interaction with the subject that can make or break the story. In almost all cases, I find that the photojournalist must give part of himself to the subject before the subject will give themselves back to us on video tape.

In that vein, for many, the camera itself is intimidating. Loaded with battery, portable light and wireless mike, our news cameras can weigh as much as 35 pounds, some more, some less. Hoisted on the shoulder, the camera can be intrusive. So the question becomes: how do we bridge the gap between technology and simple human interacting that is so important in bringing out the "real" personality of people.

Part of it is due to the skill of the photojournalist. In addition to the technical side of the job, the photojournalist must become "at one" with the subject. A bit of psychology, sometimes luck, and the understanding that photojournalist must really love people, are some of the overriding goals that help foster a successful story.

In years past, one of the items that the photojournalist has had little control over is the size of his camera. Technology made the cameras what they were, and try as we might, they were still pretty large sized boxes that we carried. Just putting that "box" on our shoulder tended to intimidate our subjects. Plus, they didn't have access to this sort of technology so we became "special." It's almost as if we knew we were special  because only those of us in TV could be considered to be the purveyors of video storytelling. It was simply out of the hands of the ordinary citizen. These big cameras almost became a badge of honor, signifying the rift between photojournalists and the rest of the public.

Now, that's changed. The storytelling process has become democratic. Almost everyone has access to our art and craft. Our new digital cameras look like Uncle Fred's home video camera. All of a sudden, we're not special anymore.

The new digital cameras like the Canon XL-1 may take us off our pedestal, however, as we rethink our place in the world of communication, they may also make it easier for us to capture the "reality" that we've all been yearning for over the years.

As I shoot with the XL-1, I'm noticing a subtle difference in the way I'm perceived. The psychology of the subject changes as a result of the downsized video camera. I'm still evaluating it, but it seems to me that folks are more relaxed with the DV cameras. It's almost a sensation of "This isn't the guy from the TV station, this is my friend Larry who happens to have a video camera." The good news there is that people will tell things to a friend that they won't tell to a stranger. Being seen as a friend helps the photojournalist find the real personality of the subject. The smaller camera helps overcome the distance that is between the photojournalist and the subject by breaking down a barrier that has always been the "size" of the camera.

Life, though, is always a two-edged sword. As the camera evolves and becomes less obtrusive, the photojournalist must also be careful to make sure their thought process doesn't leave professionalism behind.

I've talked with several photojournalists about this and their words are worth repeating. By shooting a small DV camera, there is a tendency to do things that we wouldn't do with the larger cameras. Perhaps it's because we still think of the smaller cameras as a "home" camera so we can put all those things we learned as professionals aside when we shoot with it. That's not the case. We must actually use more professionalism now than ever before. Because the smaller cameras free our minds of technical "bulk" associated with larger formats, it doesn't mean we throw all the rules out the window and become zooming and panning maniacs. It means we can continue the thoughtful progression of storytelling on an entirely different level. A level that is complete with new styles of creativity and a heightened degree of professionalism. The camera and the format are now freeing us from many of the obstacles we had to cope with that always got in the way of the story. As we embrace the new technology, we must make sure that the new cameras get the benefit of "old" professionalism.

We may not be special anymore, but there is more to our art and craft than simply being able to buy a digital camera. Anyone can make that purchase, but there are still very few who can tell a "story" with any kind of new technology. That could change. As our secrets fall into the hands of a new generation, they may find what we do less of a challenge than the preceding generation.

Sarah Evetts is 73 years old and owns a 10 watt low-power TV station in Ethridge, Tennessee. In a recent edition of USA Today, she, perhaps, put the future in terms that anyone can understand: "Ain't nothing to this television crap. You just push the tape in, press play, and it goes all over the county."


Larry Hatteberg Biography:

For 36 years, Larry Hatteberg has brought a special kind of television to Kansas. His constant search for ordinary people whose stories illuminate larger issues, put him in a position to develop a personal relationship with Kansas viewers.

Throughout the nation, he is known as a video storyteller who can "touch" people with his television journalism.

His "Hatteberg's People" series is the longest running television feature in Kansas. His recently published book Larry Hatteberg's Kansas People, based on the television series, is a best-seller. It profiles 75 Kansans who make the state a unique place to live. His second book profiles 85 additional Kansas people and was published in 1994.

Larry's television career began at KAKE in 1963 when he started as a part-time film lab technician. He's been a photographer, chief photographer, assistant news director, executive news director and is now prime-time co-anchor of KAKE News At Five with co-anchor Susan Peters. He is also the co-host of the local segments of the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon.

As a past president of the National Press Photographers Association there are few major awards Larry hasn't won. He was named twice the prestigious "National Press Photographers Television News Cameraman of the Year." He is one of only a select few in the nation who have won that award twice.

He received three of the highest awards in photojournalism given by the National Press Photographers Association. The "Joseph Sprague Memorial Award," the highest award in photojournalism, was given for his leadership in national television Photojournalism. The "Joseph Costa Award" was given for outstanding initiative, leadership and service to the National Press Photographers Association, and the "Robin F. Garland Award for Education" granted for outstanding service as a photojournalism educator.

He was a national semi-finalist for NASA's "Journalist-in-Space" program out of 1,800 applicants.

Many Thanks to Grace Hiebert for converting the video frames - TDJ

Click here to read Mike Parker's Review of the
Canon XL1 and Panasonic LT75 Laptop Editor


Reviews of new equipment appearing in the Camera Corner of THE DIGITAL JOURNALIST are solely the opinion of the author. There is no compensation or pressure by the manufacturers considered in the evaluation of the products reviewed on these pages.

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