Eric May – Media Consultant




What every reporter should know about their photographer

He’s been downstairs, waiting. Getting in his car, you notice it’s filled with tapes, cables, lights, batteries, a camera, a tripod or two, even emergency equipment like water, gloves, helmet, rain gear, boots and a flashlight. Two-way radios are squawking on the dashboard, and a police scanner is blinking. 

Without a word he starts the car, puts it in gear, turns to you and says, “What are we doing?” You tell him, and you’re wondering why he really needs all that stuff in back. All you need is a notebook, mobile phone, and a pen.

At the location your cameramen seems to be taking forever to get ready. Doesn’t he know we’re running late? He’s hauling in lots of equipment, setting up lights, putting colored plastic on them, looking for wall sockets, taping down cables, holding a white card in front of the camera, and checking the lights again.

Finally he hands you a microphone, takes you by the shoulders and pulls you next to the camera. What shots do we need now? he asks after the interview is over. You’ve got a few ideas but he’s already loading the gear back in the car.

At the new location he drags a different set of equipment out of the car, puts the camera on the tripod, and starts making shots. You stand off to the side and wait.

Back at the station, you put the tape in a viewing machine and start to go through it. There’s a distracting background behind the interview, the shots from the second location are too short, and worst of all there aren’t enough shots to cover the story. What went wrong? Why did you come to work today, anyway?

The problem started before you even left the station. The problem was communication between reporter and photographer. There was none. And that’s the result.

The cameraman had to guess what the reporter wanted; he had to guess what the story was about. He didn’t try very hard because the reporter wasn’t interested in the pictures. The reporter doesn’t even understand what he has to go through every day.

The first thing to understand about your photographer’s job is that it’s physical. He’s got to haul that heavy gear in and out of that car several times a day, at all hours and in all weather. He’s got to set up the gear, get it running, and make shots from high, low, and difficult to reach angles.

Many relatively young photographers develop chronic back, hand, and leg injuries because they are determined to get the best possible pictures, day after day, no matter what the cost to their body. Remember that you’ve only got to drag a notebook, mobile phone, and pen around.

The camera car should tell you something. The cameraman needs all that gear because he can’t go back to the station and get something he forgot. He’s got to be able to operate independently in the field, no matter what the location or what the weather.

The most basic thing you can do to show your photographer you understand his job is start carrying some of the gear. With one exception: never carry the camera. The camera can cost as much as a pair of Porsches. I wouldn’t want to be the one to drop it or bump the lens against a concrete parking lot pillar. The camera is the cameraman’s responsibility. Let him handle it.

But carry everything else you can- tripod, lights, cables, whatever is needed for the shot. And carry it back after the shot is made. Your cameraman will appreciate this. 

Etiquette requires that you put the gear down outside the vehicle. Let the photographer stow it inside. Most photographers a very particular about how their vehicle is packed. The reason is, they often need to get things out in a hurry and must know where to find something fast.

To understand your photographer better, show some patience. There’s a reason he’s taking a long time to set up the lights. Lighting a room properly takes time. If you’re the impatient type, grit your teeth and bear it. Chat up the interview partner, or better yet tell them you’ll be ready to start in twenty minutes.

If lighting is to be a value in your piece then it normally takes ten to twenty minutes to light a room properly. It can take an hour or more for more elaborate set-ups. It’s hard gritting your teeth while it’s happening, but you’ll be happy you did when you get back and start working with your tape.

A poorly lit interview not only looks bad, it’s a distraction and can even detract from what the interview subject is saying. That’s because viewers are now conditioned to seeing well-lit interviews. They don’t notice it, of course. Except when the lighting is bad. Then the viewers don’t notice anything else.

If necessary, organize yourself better. If you’ve got a half an hour set aside for the interview it’s better to set the lights for twenty minutes and do the interview in ten minutes. In the interview, discipline yourself to get to what you need for the story more quickly.

If your cameraman is taking time to set the lights properly it’s a sign he cares about the quality of the pictures. Let him do it. And don’t forget to help carry the gear down to the car afterwards. You won’t regret it when you sit in the edit booth. 

The most important thing you can do to work better with your cameraman is to communicate with each other. Get his ideas. Let him hear yours. Talk about the shots you’ll need on the way to the story, and while you’re shooting. On the way back ask each other: what was the best shot? What was the best sound? What was the best sequence? What’s the first image? What’s the last image?

In television news, your text is nothing without the cameraman’s pictures. The pictures often have more impact than your text. It’s in your interest to learn about the power of pictures and visual language, and how they advance your story. Your photographer already knows about that. It’s his job. Try to learn from him.

The next time you get in the car, communicate with your photographer as a journalist, friend, and partner. The finished story will show it.