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ON STORYTELLING: IT’S NOT THE GEAR, IT’S YOUR SKILL

April 6th, 2012

With the release of the new Nikon D800 and the Canon 5D Mark III, both amateur and professional photographers have new tools at their disposal. Questions abound: Which camera is better? Should I upgrade? What will it let me do? Should I go pure-video like a Canon C300 or a Sony NEX-FS700?

I am appreciative of the Canon 5D Mark II; I own two, and these compact DSLR’s have allowed me to shoot more video for my clients and for my personal projects. I’m enjoying the medium and how the combination of video, audio, and stills gives me more tools for storytelling, in spite of the increased complexity and greater workload. Will I upgrade? In due time, when it makes financial sense and there’s a need. For me, my main concerns are better ergonomics, audio capture, rolling shutter and moire.

The thing is, it’s just gear, and without story you’ve got nothing.

Still, you might enjoy this crass, but technical, comparison of the D800 and the Mark III.

Last week I taught a storytelling workshop for Washington STEM, standing for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. They were a pretty technical bunch of teachers who’d received grants to explore new curricula and now are tasked with telling stories about their successes. Working with these educators, teasing out the stories they are living, was incredibly rewarding and inspiring. Everyone has a story; helping them discover it simply beautiful.

Their equipment isn’t the most high-end; some older flip cameras, Canon Powershot Elph cameras, Zoom H4n audio recorders, and wired lavalier microphones. They could be equipped with the latest HDSLR’s, but without the exploration of story, they would simply have a tool.

This piece, for Sky News, was mostly shot on an $800 dollar camera. Videographer Andy Portch gives a technical blow-by-blow review on the DLSR News Shooter blog, where he states in his summary:

“The DSLR revolution has not opened mainstream programme making to the masses. I’m not sure it ever will. Programme making is a craft and skill like any other…Composition is crucial no matter what camera you use.”

He also gives you some back story to the challenges faced in reporting the story. It’s worth a read.

“No lights, no tripod and no mucking about. That’s how we continued our coverage of the growing Tibetan unrest in Western China. Please be aware that our story ‘Nun self-immolation’ includes footage given to us of a protesting Tibetan nun setting herself on fire. The rest of the story is shot entirely with my Panasonic GH2 camera.”

Before you go out and buy a GH2, consider this piece by an undercover Al Jezeera reporter working in Syria. It was shot on a mobile phone, like a lot of the content coming out of Syria and from the Arab Spring in general.

Mashable writes:
“Given the circumstances the reporter is covering as well, a polished, glossy video simply would not make sense. In fact, it might take away from the understanding the documentary is trying to convey.
However, one thing that distinguishes this iPhone documentary from other mobile-captured footage on Syria is editing.”

Al Jazeera’s compression of the video is blocky, the video itself is shaky, and you’ll find that a lot of footage is reused throughout the 20 minute piece. However, at this point we’re used to seeing cell phone video in our Facebook and YouTube feeds. It’s the intimacy of some of the footage, the emphasis on song as story, and the context the journalist provides through narration (which, generally, I don’t like) that gives this story strength.

Cameras are just tools, but the skill of a good storyteller can take you anywhere in the world, even to the heart of a civil uprising.

“I can’t tell you my name. I’ve spent many months secretly in Syria for Al Jazeera,” begins the reporter. “I cannot show my face and my voice is disguised to conceal my identity, because I don’t want to endanger my contacts in Syria.”

Al Jazeera continues:
“With Al Jazeera cameras banned inside Syria, it was too difficult and dangerous to openly use a video camera, but he was able to use his mobile phone. With its tiny camera, filming secretly on street corners, through car windows and behind closed doors, he was able to gather images that reveal ordinary people showing extraordinary courage.”

(sorry, I could only find a flash embed)

On the lighter side, you can always get a prescription for Fauxtographor.

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