From the Field Live

A live blog by CBC reporter Phonse Jessome

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  • Focus is critical when you are shooting in challenging conditions under extreme time constraints. And no I don't mean that kind of focus. In this high def big screen world picture focus is always critical. I'm talking about story focus.

    As a VJ you get closer to the action than any other reporter. You have to because you are carrying the viewer on your shoulder and today's viewer expects to be in the thick of it. Being in some of those locations can be distracting and you have to fight that.

    We do some amazing things in this job but if you want to do the job well you can't take the time to enjoy the experience. You have to stay focused on the camera and the story.

    Consider yesterday. I was tethered to a Hercules aircraft at ten thousand feet. I was at the end of the open ramp shooting with my foot dangling, my boot bouncing in the slipstream. Now as I sit here that sounds like fun.

    The truth is I wasn't even thinking about where I was. I was preoccupied with the challenges of the shoot. Eleven search and rescue techs were about the jump and I needed enough video to tell an entire story. You miss a shot in a situation like that there is no redoing it.

    I was worried about the extreme light challenges. Dark inside the plane, brilliant sunlight and haze outside. I needed to follow the jumpers down the ramp and out into the light. That was priority one. I played with the neutral density filters and iris settings as we approached the jump point until I found the best combination. Once they start jumping it's too late.

    Next the cache. The back of a Herc is rock concert loud so there was no way for the jumpers to tell me when we were close. I had to keep the camera pointed at the lead jumper and wait. The cache running meant I had his first movements even though I hit record a second after he started.

    While I was doing that I was anticipating the movements of the next jumpers and how I wanted to frame them as they came into the shot. That was critical because there was such a short gap between jumpers.

    All camera operators must be in the middle of the action but as a VJ you need to think differently. You need to think story. What shots do I need. What sequences will help me tell this story. You need to see those shots clearly before they happen.

    The key to success in any extreme scenario is focus and anticipation. Both begin on the drive to the shoot. I work out a mental story board and imagine how it will unfold in the edit suite.

    In this case I knew I needed shots of the techs jumping out and free falling. Great video but certainly not enough to tell a full story. I wanted shots of the techs getting ready inside the plane. Looking out the open back. Checking each other's gear. Stuff you can anticipate. I gathered all of that video as we climbed to altitude.

    I developed a trick years ago that really helps on shoots like this. We all know how rushed we feel when we know we only get one crack at it, especially in a physically challenging environment. Again this speaks to focus. Because I have storyboarded the item I have a basic script in my head. As I shoot these cutaways I read the line I expect to use over the shot silently in my mind. I force myself to do it slowly. Make the camera movement or action on screen fit the script.

    Actually I do that on almost every shoot. It really pays off in the edit suite. It also forces you to put your head in the story and helps eliminate distractions.
    Like a slip stream that unties your boot.

  • For a VJ in a fully integrated newsroom being on THE breaking story is a wild ride. We cover breaking news constantly but you can't do this job and not occasionally end up in the centre of a real storm.

    At 5am I was racing to the airport. A plane was inbound after the pilot reported an engine fire and declared a mayday. You can feel the slamming of the secondhand at times like that.

    The plane landed at the same time I did. I ran through the terminal to the upper level observation deck. The best spot to get a shot of anything happening out there. I spotted a slow moving airliner trailing a parade of fire trucks. Bingo. I set up the tripod and locked the camera in position.

    Now at this point I should be concentrating entirely on camerawork. If flames burst from the engine or passengers started sliding down the inflatable ramp I had to get broadcast quality shots.

    The horizon was hinting at pale blue, the field was mostly black, the aircraft was being painted by a strobe of multi coloured flashing lights. The distance and darkness were real issues as well. There are camera choices to be made.

    It's not a point and shoot gig. I chose auto white tracking, flicked on the double extender and popped the gain up to 24db to deal with the loss of light that causes.

    Once the camera is set I should be in the view finder following the action. But. By now I can hear the howling of the desk demons. They live in the desk and scream for content 24/7. Much louder if they smell a big meal like this. The demon keepers who ride the desk were already pinging my iPhone and begging for content. Right. The J in VJ is for journalist. I need to get information to feed the beasts.

    Here is the list. The radio editor needs a few lines of copy for heads and the 5:30 cast. The web editor needs a picture and even more information. Now. That's local demand. An airliner mayday and possible fire attracts the network radio and 24 hour TV desks as well. Our assignment editor was waking a backup camera operator but for now it was all mine.

    So. How do you juggle the demands of the all news all the time multi platform world we work in when your story is the one they want now?

    First. Your top priority is sitting on that tripod. Remember, if it didn't happen on camera it didn't happen. Ignore the desk. Let them have some of the adrenalin. Speaking of that. Be careful, time lies when you ride the A train.

    Slow yourself down. Take a series of long slow shots. Longer than you think you'll need. Writing in the viewfinder helps. Read a line of copy silently as you get the shot. See it on air not just in the black and white space in front of you. Force yourself to get cutaways. Shot of the tower across the airfield against the brightening sky. Couple of tights of fire trucks. The planes lined up at the terminal. Keep your left eye on the target plane as you get that done.

    Now. Lock the camera on the plane. This is where that cache feature I posted about earlier really pays off. I knew I didn't have to keep recording. I had six seconds to react if flames erupted from the engine or that ramp dropped.

    Second priority. Get a picture to the web and get content to the web and radio editors. Twitter can let you do both at once. I took an iPhone pic of the monitor on the side of my camera showing the locked off shot. Tweeted that with what I did know.

    I hadn't made a single call yet but that doesn't mean there was nothing to report. Just send the simple facts. I could see there was an emergency landing. That fire crews were surrounding the plane. I sent a few tweets describing what I could see. You'd be surprised how just a few facts can slow the demand. Give them something to chew on. It buys you time. You need time now to gather facts.

    Third. Chase hard with the phone so you can fill out the story. Always keeping an eye on the plane and your camera. This is where it really pays to have good contacts who you trust and who trust you. No one will officially comment while an incident is only minutes old. If they trust you they will talk. But that stuff is basic journalism and believe me if you want to be a VJ you better have the J side locked down because the camera is a task master.

    Final step. Connect to the control room with that handy iPhone app that gives broadcast quality audio and begin the live-hit parade.

    In this case no fire, no injuries and the demands fell off after an hour or so. Fine by me.

    Well, one more demon to feed. Post a blog.

  • There is a problem solved quickly. The webbed wonder on the fourth floor chased it down. Turns out the scribble app does not allow editing, even text editing, when there is video in the post. It does allow me to edit that same text from my desktop. Hmmm. Sort of defeats the whole From the Field purpose.
  • This clip shows the limitations of the iPhone camera and the challenges we face using it to get quick images up for the web.

    The cop was about to head into the shooting (gun) scene. I had just finished shooting (camera) a sequence with my TV cam. I wanted a fresh bit for the web editor to post with the latest copy so I opted for the phone.

    You can see as he walks into the darkness there is no definition in the shot. I tap the screen to chase the iris but it makes no real difference. There are couple of better camera apps I've tried but they all fall short.

    With my real camera I could have pushed to the officer as he walked keeping the light level and focus in normal ranges and taken the viewer inside the apartment as he opened the door and stepped in. Much better viewing and story telling experience.

    iPhone clips are fast. I love it and use it everyday for web stills and short video clips. It is not, and never will be, good enough to cover a story or event. I keep hearing people in our business saying it is replacing the traditional camera. That's silly. I'm thinking those people have never worked with a real camera.

    At best it offers us a wide, flat, through the window view of a moment. It can't get you close or give you real framing options. Not yet anyway.

    Still that brief moment with the cop at the crime scene is available to our web audience in seconds. That I love.

  • (Hmm. I'd like to say I know what I did to post that video upside down but I don't. I think I had the camera upside which points to the advantage of the two person crew mentioned below. It did load into the server at work properly)

    Reporting on road conditions is always a challenge for a VJ. Safety is a big concern.

    This is where the two person news crew has the real advantage. The reporter can drive while the camera operator shoots.

    Technology does help. I recorded this brief video with the iPhone on the GPS mount a few minutes ago near Windsor. The big problem is I can only take my hand off the wheel and reach over to hit the record button as conditions ahead clear so I can't record the worst of it.

    Still I can use this video in my TV item tonight and also send it now to the CBC.CA/NS editor for posting in news stories.

  • And so begins another broadcast day. Weather is often a story. Even when we know what to expect. We are Canadians and we love to talk about snow in winter and heat in summer. So when it's bad we report on it.

    On a day like this it's also a safety issue. Canadian winter or not, people with all season tires will drive too fast in this. I'll be shooting their ditched cars from the side of the highway later.

    Covering bad weather can be a challenge in this new social media news cycle. Last winter I would stop where conditions were bad and get shots with the TV camera for a report later in the day.
    With the instant deadlines we now serve that doesn't work. I place my iPhone on the GPS mount and randomly pull the trigger hoping for a decent picture to tweet when I stop. Most shots are useless but it's not like I'm using up film. Remember film.

  • And so begins another broadcast day. Weather is often a story. Even when we know what to expect. We are Canadians and we love to talk about snow in winter and heat in summer. So when it's bad we report on it.

    On a day like this it's also a safety issue. Canadian winter or not, people with all season tires will drive too fast in this. I'll be shooting their ditched cars from the side of the highway later.

    Covering bad weather can be a challenge in this new social media news cycle. Last winter I would stop where conditions were bad and get shots with the TV camera for a report later in the day.
    With the instant deadlines we now serve that doesn't work. I place my iPhone on the GPS mount on the wind shield and randomly pull the trigger hoping for a decent picture to tweet when I stop. Most shots are useless but it's not like I'm using up film. Remember film.

  • Light temperature is always a challenge. This picture shows why.

    Changing light is why we constantly white balance cameras out here.

    My rule of thumb is when the light source changes even a little try to find a white spot and have the camera read it. That resets its reference and keeps everything in line.

    The toughest part of my gig is shooting outside at or just after sunrise. That's what I was dealing with on this frame. The sun was coming up fast but the street lights and the big lights on the outside of the courthouse were still the strongest source. At least I was betting on that still being the case when the suspect stepped out of the prisoner transport van.

    It's a juggling act because the sun keeps clawing its way over the horizon and at any second will become the dominant light source. There is no way to know for sure when a prisoner will step out. So you have to be ready. The camera has an auto white tracking mode. I just don't trust it enough.

    My colleague Craig Paisley shoots at the same time of day and has a sixth sense about light. I used his formula. Set the camera to 3200 for indoor light and flood the scene with the camera light to re-enforce what was coming from the pole and building lights.

    You can see by the prisoner's skin tone and jacket it was the right call. But look at the blue on the door behind and above him. The LED lights on the Sheriff transport van are natural daylight temperature around 5600.

    That's what his face will look like when the camera light and the pole lights are blown away by that rising sun. The sun always wins that battle.

    If I had to shoot the same thing two minutes later I'd have grabbed a daylight balance off the white van and kept my camera light out of the mix. I was having that argument with myself as the Sherriff unlocked the door.

    You never know if the choice you make is the right one until you see the pictures and by then It's too late.

  • Sometimes nature conspires against you. I waited all morning for the police to haul the exhibits out of a house they were searching. My only shot was from across a small lake. Of course the sun popped out the second they began to load the stuff into their truck. No way for me to get the big wide shot showing them moving from the house and then transition to the tighter follow shots. All I could do was push in tight and cut the sky out of the frame entirely. Shame the tranquil scene was a great story telling opportunity when contrasted with the crime and cops. Oh well, at least I knew they were going to be hauling stuff out of the place. I did get those shots.

  • Yep. That's crime scene tape sticking out of my truck. Obviously I've run into a cop with a sense of humour out here recently.

  • Just as I feared. Poor colour and too much grain. The colour I can chalk up to losing the ATW setting on shutdown without knowing it.

    The grain is another story. Should have seen it in the viewfinder. It is a black and white view finder so it wouldn't help the balance problem but grain shows.

    I set up the new camera with a lot of information available to me in the view finder and an enhanced peaking scheme. All that going on in front of my eye kept me from seeing the obvious. The shot was sub par at best.

    I know it's learning curve stuff with the new camera but I feel pretty lousy about screwing up in the field. This guy has a compelling story to tell and he agreed to share it. My job was to help him do that and I dropped the ball.

    Most of it will get fixed in the edit suite but not all.

  • Heading out for what I expect will be the final day with a trusted friend. The new XD 500 cameras are being rolled out and that means this beast goes to pasture.

    I've gone through three generations of ENG cameras now and the SX has been by far the toughest and most reliable.

    This one took some of the best shots of Hurricane Juan at its fiercest. I braced it against the side of anything that wasn't moving as wind and rain pounded us and it still recorded great images.

    You can still see some of them used in promos about storm coverage and emergency preparedness. The shot of the boat slamming the side of the building on the waterfront or the young woman blown off her feet on Barrington street stand out even today.

    I remember sliding along an ice covered highway using it like a curling stone to get a cool perspective of a bunch of wrecked cars. Again, worked like a charm.

    I was sure I busted it when I strapped into a pro rally car and held it headlock style while the driver tried to shake it loose. Shots were shaky but so was the ride. It held up.

    I did bust it once. Well, a drug hyped, oversized moron with a superiority complex did. He pulled the lens free of the bayonet mount. Seems he objected to our shooting his biker bros. That little exchange got us on the front page of the Daily News.

    You can be sure if you've watched the Nova Scotia news in the past decade you've seen some of the history it recorded on the fly.

    No matter what I got us into it never failed me. The new 500 has a tough tripod to fill.

    How do you nominate a camera for the ENG hall of fame.

  • The Sony XD 500's. These are the workhorses we will take into the field. They will replace the rockstar SX cams we've been using for more than a decade. They have a lot to live up to. We'll see.

  • This is the Sony XD 100. The new baby in the ENG family. The on board menus are amazing. They show it is capable of doing what the big brother can do. Its glass limits it in a big way. In the end it's all about the lens.

  • Hurry up and wait. Photographers wait for the premier at one gov. Everybody wants the same shot at events like this.

    Truth is the shot rarely gets used. Just a chance to get something inside the camera before the real work begins.

  • Things are changing fast in the field. It seems every day there is a new way to do what we do.

    This is veteran news photographer Tim Krochak on the job. Yesterday he added something called an eye-fi card to his traditional camera.

    Here he is using it to wirelessly transfer a shot of a firefighter taken at a fire scene into his iPhone. While we talked he uploaded the shot from his iPhone to the Herald web site.

    Great shot taken with a high end professional camera by a news photographer in the field and you have it to look at while we are still here.

    Of course, Tim is still shooting that scene now and I am putting him in the blog just as quickly.

    News on the fly indeed.

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