It was a dramatic moment the night rescue workers pulled two teens
through the final few yards of raging water to safety. An incredulous
Chuck Dennis shut down his Zenith VM 7070 camera, took one last
look at the rain-swollen creek and thought of the incredible event
that had unfolded before his eyes.

His efforts had paid off. As he had anticipated, no other camera
person had arrived on the scene to document the incident. The
rescue happened too quickly for any of the three local television
stations to respond. As the amateur videographer raced to the
local broadcast affiliate, he moved little bit closer to his goal
of becoming a professional news videographer.

As an anchor, reporter and photographer for that station, I’ve
watched Dennis transform himself into a valuable asset to our
station and I have no doubt he will achieve his goal. Although
I was skeptical of his abilities at first, my perception of him
soon changed from that of a pesky wannabe cameraperson to an excellent
spot news videographer with an instinct for being in the right
place at the right time. (In my experience, most good video-journalists
begin their careers with this dubious stigma, until their work
proves otherwise.) You may not have the same goal, but let me
show you how Dennis broke into the professional news business
and you’ll probably learn some helpful tips about working quickly
and unobtrusively on any video project.

On the Spot

Over the course of the past year, Dennis, a 41-year-old electrician
by trade, has provided us with tape of dozens of news events,
including fires, accidents and most recently, an officer-involved
shooting. At first, he offered his video skills for free. He is
now getting 25 dollars per story. Not bad for a station in a medium-sized
market, one that can’t really afford to pay exorbitant sums of
money, even for the most dramatic video.

Probably because of the exciting prospect of being a part of
television, as well as the age-old tradition of the barter system,
most people end up giving us exclusive video for free. Although
we can pay some money for especially important pictures, an offer
to give amateurs an on-air credit tends to satisfy them (see sidebar).

Right Place, Right Time

The three TV stations in our area don’t have the resources to
always be on the scene of a breaking event. Sometimes an incident
might take us 20 or 30 minutes to reach. If we can’t spare a camera
crew, or are committed to another story, a moderately newsworthy
event might not get covered, unless someone like Dennis is there
to help.

There are hundreds of other small- and medium-size TV stations
across the country that can’t afford an army of reporters and
videographers that can bolt out in helicopters and satellite-equipped
trucks to cover every accident, fire or crime. These stations
are ideal for amateur videographers seeking to take their hobby
to a higher level, or to become professionals.

Playing The Part

Dennis uses a Zenith full-size VHS camera with a two-speed 8:1
zoom lens, two-hour batteries and a standard Aztec light. But
the tool that really gives him the edge is his scanner.

Because he lives in an outlying area, he can pick up emergency
radio traffic that reporters in our area can’t receive. As a former
firefighter, he’s well versed in the codes and incident commands.
He often responds to fires dressed in the proper firefighting
attire, with camera gear in tow. "No video is worth getting
hurt for. You should be dressed appropriately and be prepared,
whether on a fire or in a delivery room," says Dennis.

Not only is it unsafe to cover a fire without protective clothing,
it may cost you an opportunity to shoot. I’ve seen authorities
turn away reporters and photographers from fire scenes because
they were dressed in street clothes instead of fire-protective
nomex pants, jackets and boots. The bright orange or yellow outfits
are cheap and easy to come by. Ask a firefighter you know, or
contact a fire safety supply company.


Tips From The Field

Now that he’s earned some experience, Dennis knows what we need
for broadcast. We don’t need 30 minutes of raw footage full of
snap zooms and boring video. We have taught him to shoot-to-edit.
In this case, it means a series of clean four-second shots that
we can air as is, followed by some longer ten-second shots in
case we have time to edit. The exception to this is an action
sequence. The rule of thumb with potentially exciting activity
is to "let it roll!"

Dennis is valuable to our station because we often don’t have
time to cover a late-breaking story. This means we may not have
time to edit out sloppy photography. Since we must dub Dennis’
standard VHS half-inch tape to three-quarter-inch tape for broadcast,
his video must be well focused and well lit. Luckily, the quality
of his tape is good, and we don’t lose much resolution after a
second or third generation.

A news photographer is also a journalist so great video will
be worthless without some information to back it up. In a breaking
story, the best and sometimes the only source of information is
at the scene. Our news anchors have learned to trust Dennis’ ability
to gather facts as well as video. Since we must verify the information,
he’s gotten into the habit of taping sound bites from emergency
personnel and witnesses. He also writes down names, addresses
and any other facts we might need.

Breaking In

No news team in the world can cover every breaking or newsworthy
event. There are many stories unfolding in our everyday lives
that never make it on the nightly news, simply because there is
no video available.

Television news is much like baseball. It can be tough just to
make it into the minor leagues, and nearly impossible to reach
the majors. Every day, our station, in the 128th largest market
in the U.S., receives several tapes and phone calls from job seekers.
They are hoping to get any position that will give them a foot
in the door, to gain the experience needed to become a television
videographer or reporter. But there are seldom any openings. It’s
tough to make it in this business–but if and when a position
opens up, Dennis will be more qualified than most.

Mike Donnelly has worked as a broadcast camera operator and
is a reporter for a CBS station affiliate.

SIDEBAR: How to Shoot News Video

Have you ever thought about what you would do if you actually
did shoot that once-in-a-lifetime video? Most people automatically
assume they’ll get a substantial payment from television stations
if they capture a dramatic event on tape. Here are some of the
realities, and some suggestions on how you might approach shooting
news video for broadcast.

First of all, the chances are very slim you will ever catch a
nationally newsworthy event. There are thousands of hard working,
full-time professional photographers around the world who have
never gotten a shot like the one an amateur captured just by looking
out his apartment window as police officers battered Rodney King.
Even so, you should be prepared to sell your video beforehand,
in the event an opportunity arises.

Contrary to what people think, television news people don’t make
a lot of money. Most have a love and passion for what they do
and get the most satisfaction from seeing their work on the air.
You might be able to enjoy the same sense of creativity and achievement
if you have the same principles.

Keep your eyes tuned for "small" news. Not every story
has to be a disaster. Most viewers appreciate seeing something
fresh and unique, which amateur videographers have just as much
a chance of capturing as the pros.

Most recently, a resident of our town went skydiving. The interesting
part was, he is totally blind. His friends videotaped the jump,
and then contacted our station. We aired the tape as an entertaining
and inspirational story.

In another case, a teacher at a nature camp caught an unusual
bird on tape. It turned out to be a completely new species, previously
undocumented by scientists. The resulting story we did on how
area children were part of this discovery would probably not have
been aired without that tape.

In both of these examples, the people involved received some
unique satisfaction from being recognized for events that make
their lives special and important.

If you feel you deserve some financial compensation for your
videotape, don’t sell yourself short. In many cases, I have been
prepared to authorize some payment for video. So far, in every
situation I have been able to save our company some money by getting
the person to let us use the tape for free. Don’t be overwhelmed
by the excitement of the event and the TV cameras. If you’re prepared
to walk away with the tape, I might offer you some money.

Also keep in mind that a fire, an accident or a similar incident
can seem a lot more important at the scene than a television viewer
might perceive it to be. At the same time, newspeople have experienced
many dramatic events and may believe your tape is not as significant
as you think it is.

The bottom line: your pictures may be worth more or less than
you think. Be prepared to make a sales pitch, and try to be understanding
if your videotape isn’t as groundbreaking as you thought it was.

–M.D.

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