Thursday, July 6, 2006

From Digital Stills to Digifilm...

I've been racking my brain with the prospect of putting down my still cameras and picking up a high definition camcorder. I never really thought about it so much as I did when I faced the possibility of hanging up my stills, and I didn't like how it felt.

An old boss complained once, "You're taking away my photo soul," a number of years ago, when he was told that management shouldn't do the work of union workers. In a way, I felt like my photo soul was dying, as well.

But then, I came upon a PDN (Photo District News) article about high def camcorders being used as the still shooter's primary camera. At least two photographers have apparently been knocking out frame grabs (still frames saved as photo files from movie clips) and using the jpegs on newsprint. Even the Dallas Morning News, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo staff has at least one shooter doing just that, the article said.

I couldn't sleep after reading the article, because I was wound up with a fresh excitement of being one of the first to trailblaze high definition video by cross-platforming to photos. I had asked my boss about using frame grabs for the paper from the video I shot, but he nixed the idea. Now, it has viable credibility. And it's a no-brainer. Pulling me off the streets as a shooter would leave a hole in staffing. And I can shoot video and be able to use frames that can be run perhaps 10 inches in news print.

I like the idea.

But my boss is off for the week, and I have to wait to bring the suggestion to him. I've already left a copy of the article in his mail slot. Some people feel that shooting video cheapens the photographer as a way of making them look like video people with no concept of capturing images. Some feel that the art form would be removed. "I shoot for a newspaper, not a TV station," someone said once.

I understand the concerns, and I've grappled with them to understand and accept the fact that the movement to high def video frame grabs is INEVITABLE. The trend is there and will gain momentum as newspaper editors want photographers to capture two different media - photos for news print and movies for the web - as the years add up while circulation does down. Television is scrambling the same way as newspapers are, as both see their numbers dip, while online surfing explodes.

Newspapers are facing an extinction of sorts. They are morphing into something. Whatever they become, they won't ever be what they once were.

A battle exists if the news-gatherers don't want to adapt. We can adapt only if we concur that the change will take place. It's been happening for years, and we can't turn the clock back. It's simply called, "progress."

News artists were forced out as the primary eyes of history when the still photograph was finally incorporated into news print. Although the first photo was apparently printed in 1880, the consistent use of still photography took place with the launching of the New York Illustrated Daily News, according to the Library of Congress.

The cameras were huge for decades, and finally, a much lighter medium format camera was developed, making press cameras (the old speed graphics) obsolete (except for an alleged sighting of a large format camera at a Donald Rumsfeld press conference... in 2003).

After some time with the 2-1/4 format, the 35mm SLR came into play. For a while, 35mm, 2-1/4, and 4X5 cameras worked side by side, depending on the assignment. The medium format camera became the format for some as they wanted a faster and more compact alternative as photojournalism transformed into a more intimate form.

Meanwhile, telephoto Speed Graphics, known as "Big Bertha" cameras, had been used to capture sports from photo boxes after sports organizations began banning photographers from being on the playing field. The veteran Speed Graphic users squawked that the motorized 35mm camera removed the skill from the photographer. For a while, some veterans likened the young newcomers as "button pushers." (Even my father, years ago, used that exact phrase that when I told him about my decision to become a newspaper photographer.)

Another 2 decades, and the digital still camera broke ground, signalling the death of the 35mm film camera for news gathering. Those who resisted discovered the necessity to shoot digitally on September 11, 2001, when digital cameras wound up transmitting images of the terrorist attacks all over the world. Those still shooting with spools of Ilford or Kodak couldn't find an open processing lab to develop their film.

And now, high definition video has scored a direct hit right into the center of the market. This is the new wave of news-gathering around the world. The lines have been blurred between television and print, but it's now as clear as ever. When you have to option of shooting a camera at 30 frames per second, and you can shoot for two mediums in one clip, it's going to get done. Resist, and that photogrpaher may as well search for a new job. Editors want to hit print and web. They want to give people images and video to view what's unfolding in the world.

The thought was that I should shoot alongside the still shooter to capture digifilm as the photographer shoots the stills. But how long will that last in an era where companies look to streamline their workforces? I am no longer viewing myself as a photojournalist. I'm a multimedia journalist.

The interesting concept about shooting digital film is that it's easy to capture clips that look terrible.

So many videographers are out there on a daily basis, shooting video for television. But have you watched what footage they capture? It's less-than-inspiring. The problem with many local tv shooters (and a decent number of network camera operators) is that they can't think on their own. They have editors or producers speaking into their headphones, and even reporters they work with, telling the videographer how to frame the shot. That simply leaves little room for creativity, which harms the profession and the professional.

But photojournalists will capture some wonderful footage and still images through creative framing. You know, many still shooters scoff at the camcorder as something that cheapens the profession. But the challenge is actually greater to capture images and footage that is well-lit, thoughtfully composed, and creatively executed to let the viewer or reader feel as though he has been an actual eyewitness to an event or subject.

The HD camcorder is now another tool in news-gathering, just like the laptop, cellphone, pen, and paper. Anyone can be issued the gear, but the memorable images and digital film are captured by the ones who have the passion to exploit their gear to their limits.

We all have similar equipment, but only certain shooters seem to get the telling shot on a consistent basis. It has nothing to do with the equipment. It's all up to the one who uses the gear. Anyone can buy the most advanced cameras on the market, but a great photographer can make a quality image from a point -n- shoot. Many photographers blast the gear, but why don't they simply depend more on their talent? One person said they felt dirty by pulling frame grabs off a movie clip, as though it were a form of cheating. But if you shoot something in the right light and frame it, isn't it your shot? Why, then, should you feel "dirty"? Only feel dirty if you're cheating. Cheating is only done when you stage something, or when you claim something that isn't yours. Ultimately, however, our job as news gatherers is to capture images that tell the story fairly. If we are provided with HD cameras or Polaroid instant cameras, the core of our job never has changed.

I think that photographers are intimidated by high def cameras. Honestly, I am, as well. It will be a terrific challenge to capture images and movies that yield that intimate feeling like still cameras can yield. But in thinking back, the switch to digital cameras made it difficult to capture the subtle images and textures when they first were introduced. It took months for me to adjust and understand the new technology enough that I could finally master it.

I won't be able to do it overnight. But I'm learning, and I will master it some day.

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