Advanced Video Camera and Editing

Backpack Journalism

Not long ago, reporters were hired by news directors for their reporting skills. But today, news directors are hiring reporters who not only know how to report, but how to photograph and edit. Journalism students need to broaden their skills because they will find that many news directors want a reporter who can also be their own photographer and editor. You will likely be hired to do solo journalism, or sojo work, which are essentially one-man (or one-woman) bands, also known as video journalists, or VJ's.

But the term most people are acquainted with is the Backpack Journalist (BPJ). Using portable equipment that could easily fit within a backpack, the BPJ reports, shoots and edits their own story. They can then export the story and upload it to the station via wireless for use in the newscast or on the station website, or both.

One of the reasons why news directors are hiring more backpack journalists is the cost. The total cost of sending one person into the field is much lower than sending a crew. Cameras can also be of consumer quality and cheaper. The total configuration cost of a backpack journalism kit could be under $1,000, including camera, computer and editing software.

Many backpack journalists also work freelance, as stringers for local TV stations and for networks. Stringers sell their stories to the station mostly on the Internet, but sometimes they mail-in the edited story if the deadline isn't immediate. However, some stations might prefer to use the raw footage. If the story is spot news, BPJ's will likely just drive it to the station.

Shooting for the Web

Most of the content on TV News is mirrored on their website. Newspapers can cover more content, but TV news can produce multimedia stories more quickly. However, for ongoing coverage, more people tend to watch video on newspaper sites. A lot of newspaper sites, though, might also run what appears to be mostly raw footage or b-roll instead of packaging it with a reporter track.

It's important to point out that shooting video for the Web is not the same as shooting for TV. Many more close-up shots are necessary simply because people watch the stories on their computer, tablets or smart phones where the screen size is smaller. News websites have the strong advantage of using more interactive resources for stories. But all stories, whether made for TV or for the Web still need to have a beginning, middle and end.

Shooting and Editing tips for BPJ's

Other than a backpack, the basic tools consist of a DV camcorder, a lavalier microphone (wireless is especially useful), a tripod and a laptop with editing software. Among the tips:
  • Content determines the visuals - start with a focus statement, which informs you what visuals you need
  • Keep the shots steady. Shaky camera shots simply don't cut it. If you want news directors to buy your work, then it needs to be exemplary
  • Get acquainted with the gear, which can't be emphasised enough. Maintaining high standards of excellence depends on how well you know the gear. Get practice... practice, and more practice.
  • Get the best quality possible. Don't just settle for good enough. Mediocre efforts show. Pay attention to the finer details and get the most compelling shots, making sure they are editable in case they're used by other editors.
  • Don't rush unless you have to. Cutting corners, taking shortcuts might mean coming back with fewer usable shots for the story.
  • Shoot sequences! You need strong individual shots, but the shots need to be edited. Good sequences are essential to storytelling.
  • Avoid pans and zooms, or use them sparingly. Camera moves don't often cut well together, but also we don't see the world in pans, tilts and zooms.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings. When you start recording one part of the scene, look at the other parts.

Basics of shooting video

  • Compose the shot first and then record
  • Hold each shot for at least 10 seconds
  • Get a good opening and closing shot
  • Get a variety of angles, showing different perspectives of the same activity. You need to change the camera's position to get the angles, don't just rely on using the zoom.
  • Before and after camera moves like pans or tilts, hold a static shot for at least 10 seconds. When editing, you might choose the static over the moving shot 
  • Avoid the temptation of following your subject in motion. Let them leave the frame so you have an edit point.
  • Shoot a 10 to 1 ratio (10 shots for every one that gets edited). Don't limit yourself to a few shots here and there. Really work at getting several shots and varieties.
  • Keep the primary light source behind the camera. Make sure your subject is well lit and that the camera is properly exposed.
  • You especially want to avoid shooting your subjects in front of bright windows or lights, which will make them appear silhouetted.

Basic visuals

  • Interviews - must be composed properly, mostly as MCU's or CU's. Must have good audio
  • B-Roll- including compelling angles with sequences. The footage also includes cutaways and insert shots.
  • Focus - you need to learn the proper way to focus a telephoto lens. Zoom in all the way on your subject, focus, then zoom out and compose the shot

Shooting Interviews

  • Have the subject say and spell their name on camera, and have them suggest a title
  • You need to ask open-ended questions to avoid 'yes' and 'no' responses
  • Avoid 2-part questions
  • Ask background or general-information questions first
  • During the interview take notes about possible SOTs and possible B-roll that can go with what was said.
  • During the interview don't talk over the person, or utter 'uh-huhs' and make little remarks. 
  • Allow a pause after your subject finishes what they say. This pause allows for padding when you take the clip into post
  • Don't be afraid to stop the interview if you're not happy with the audio or the shot.
  • When composing the interview shot, make sure to use a 3/4 profile (we see both the person's eyes)
  • You need to include proper headroom and lead-space - see Rule of Thirds
  • Compose a MCU or a CU shot.
  • If you're using a hand microphone make sure it's not visible in the frame. Get it as close to the person as possible without it getting into the shot.
  • Avoid cluttered backgrounds. Keep the focus of attention on the person being interviewed.

Things to avoid during the shoot

  • Don't put the subject in front of bright lights or a window. The subject will appear backlit. You'll either need to move the subject or try to modify the lighting.
  • During interviews especially, make sure poles and tree branches don't appear to be growing out people's heads.
  • Never use the camera's shotgun microphone for recording interviews or stand-ups -- unless you're desperate, but even then the voice won't sound right. The shotgun mic makes voices sound more distant and they also pick up a lot of ambient noise, which might overwhelm the speaker's voice.
  • Don't try to zoom in on images while using the camera hand-held. Narrowing the field of view picks up every little vibration you make whilst holding onto the camera.
  • When editing, don't leave shots up for too long, causing eyes to linger. Use sequence to direct eyes to what's important in the shot.
  • Don't start recording and then search for shots. Otherwise, you're creating more work for yourself. Rather, frame the shot first and then record.
  • Avoid excessive empty space in the shot. Use the Rule of Thirds to make sure the composition feels balanced.
  • Don't shoot subjects in profile. We relate better with the person's eyes, not with their ear.
  • Vary the camera's height. Changing up the angles helps maintain viewer interest, but changing the height might help you find more depth to the shots. In other words, put the camera where our eyes don't usually go!
  • Avoid tracking your subject. If the subject is a person who starts walking in the shot, avoid the temptation of following them with the camera. Let the person leave the frame and then get another shot you can cut to.
  • Avoid Automatic Focus! The AF will ruin shots, especially if they're interviews. The AF doesn't know what you wnat to focus on. 

Tips for putting the story together

When you produce a news package the first thing you need before editing is a script.

  • Log the interviews - you can't write the script without knowing what sound bites you want to use. Work on finding SOTS that last between 7-12 seconds (they shouldn't be long!) If you keep your interviews down to about 5 minutes, then the logging won't take as long.
  • Write your script and include fully transcribed SOTS and descriptions of the video
  • Record the reporter track and lay down this audio in your timeline first.
  • Add the SOTS to your timeline in the order according to the script.
  • Add b-roll last
  • Make sure to open up the story with natural sounds so it's not wall-to-wall SOTS.
  • Fight the urge to use shots that don't move the story forward, even if you absolutely adore the shot.
  • Use mostly straight cuts for your transitions, and dissolves sparingly.
  • Rule of Thumb - a good edit goes unnoticed by the viewer.
  • Don't overly rely on cutting interviews and narration together to tell the story. Remember, you're working in a visual medium. Let the visuals create atmosphere and tone, paint a picture of what the event was like for people who weren't there. 

Posting to the Web

  • Convert your finished video into an MPEG4 or Quicktime file for downloading on the Web
  • Convert the finished video into an MPEG2 for broadcast quality
  • A high-speed Internet connection is a MUST!

Video Production Ethics

  • Rely on your intuition; trust your instincts
  • Don't mislead your subjects into thinking they're being interviewed for one subject when you decide to use it for another.
  • Don't 'borrow' other people's work. Respect copyright laws.
  • Don't hold your subject up to ridicule
  • Don't imply that people in your b-roll are criminals or inflicted with STD's or some ghastly disease or even a mental disorder
  • Don't show children's faces without parental or guardian consent
  • Don't trespass into areas that are clearly marked

Further Resources

National Press Photographers Association


Watch the videos below to learn more about backpack journalism. Bill Gentile, an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker teaching at American University in Washington, DC, discusses the advantages and disadvantages. Produced by IJNetVideo