Video and stills on the same assignment? Shooting more and being quicker with less

Guest post by Jonah Kessel:

Censorship Incites Protests in China from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

I was trying to remember how to pack my bag for a still assignment, when I decided I couldn’t do it. I go on some shoots where I need to be prepared for stills and video, but the large majority are video only. It had been a long time since I had been on a “still only” shoot.

The New York Times sent me to Southern China to go take some pictures at a protest over censorship. When I got the call I had a few hours to make a plane headed from Beijing to Guangzhou. While packing in a fury, I envisioned what the scenario might look like and just couldn’t help myself – I had to bring at least something to put a camera on to record video.

So I did what I normally avoid — I decided to shoot stills and video of a breaking news event, on a deadline in the opposite hemisphere.

Free speech and anti reformers clash in front of the Nanfang Media Group compound Tuesday.

This is pretty tricky because Eastern Standard Time deadlines are in the middle of the night for China folks. If you shoot into the evening or later hours of the day, edit and then transmit, it will likely be the next day for you (most likely at a time when you have to start working again).

To make things more tricky, transmitting video from China to anywhere is one of the more painful things one can do in life. We lack bandwidth like the desert lacks water. So if you are shooting breaking news, you need to allow a fairly large buffer time to transmit on deadline. Editing stills, writing captions and cutting a video on top of that is just not a wise decision, if you don’t want to sacrifice the quality of your work.

To make things as simple as possible given this tricky equation (and given the fact that I was only sent to shoot stills) — I brought only three items to shoot video with. A Manfrotto Video Monopod, a Rode VideoMic Pro Compact Shotgun Microphone and a Canon 24-105mm f/4 L.

Free speech advocates and communist party supporters clash in front of the Nanfang Media Group compound, Tuesday.

This was the smallest kit I’ve ever used to make a video, be it a small news clip.

With a Canon 5D Mark III attached to a Blackrapid’s RS-7 Strap on one side for stills and a Canon 5D Mark III mounted on the Manfrotto Monopod on the other side for video, I lost some sleep but was able to hit deadlines for the International Herald Tribune (which has Hong Kong deadlines) and The New York Times photo and video department (EST deadlines), filing photos three times and video once within 24 hours.

A group supporting the Communist Party of China confronts free speech activists. Fights amongst the politically polar idealogical groups continued on through Tuesday afternoon.

As I’ve been moving away from DSLRs, this was a good reminder of their versatility and utility for visual journalists. I feel that by making the decision to shoot both stills and video, I created a larger understanding of the situation for readers, but didn’t sacrifice so much quality of the photographs or video that I wasn’t happy with the product.

This exercise also helped remind me what our basic tools are actually for. In the video, my shutter speed never changes from 60 (NYT standard video is 30fps), but I didn’t use any NDs and therefore didn’t waste time changing them. While I love my cine primes, a Canon zoom works really well for docs on deadlines and I never had to change a lens. While I love the stability of having three legs, a monopod can really be nice if you are multitasking and need to move quickly and perform multiple tasks.

A free speech advocate wears a mask outside of Southern Weekend Tuesday afternoon. The mask shows the characters “Mo Yan” which is the name of China’s recent and scrutinized Nobel Prize winner. The characters can also be translated as “Don’t Talk” or “Keep Quiet.” In the middle of the mask, the symbol V, referencing the movie “V for Vendetta” which recently aired for the first time on Chinese state run television.

There are some scenarios where the product and the deadlines are more important than our desires as filmmakers. And this in many ways is the challenge of shooting video of breaking news: what you can achieve given limited time in an uncontrolled situation.

Its a fun challenge — and a tiring one.

You can see more stills from the 24-hour shoot at my blog here.

–- Jonah M. Kessel is a Beijing based freelance visual journalist working with the New York Times. See his web site here and follow him on Twitter here.

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