The Complete Equipment Guide for Backpack Journalists
Whether you're driving across town to interview a zookeeper or flying to Alaska to interview a bear tracker, the basic equipment list is the same:
- Laptop computer loaded with Photoshop, Dreamweaver, iMovie or Pinnacle Studio 8 (or Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere if you're doing advanced video editing), Flash and a text editor such as Word.
- Video camera and accessories (lenses, filters, microphones, headphones, batteries, cables, tripod)
- Digital video tape (more than you think you'll need - tape's cheaper than missing the most important shot of the story)
- Lens cleaners (brush, tissues, solution -- clean your lens before every outing)
- Absorbent soft towel (for emergency lens cleaning)
- Duct tape (if some part of your camera breaks, as mine did in a Moscow subway station)
- Pocket knife (remember to put this in your checked luggage when traveling)
- Rubber bands (you never know)
- Extra batteries for microphones (replace these every few months)
- Camera and microphone manuals (unless you've memorized both)
- Plastic bags for camera (as emergency protection if you don't have a raincoat for your camera, or if you're moving between extremes of heat and cold and need the camera to adjust slowly)
- Plastic bags, small and zip-lock for used DV tapes
- Water bottle (for you)
- Power bars (for you -- you never know when you're going to skip a meal)
- Pens (if nothing else, to jot a quick ID on the tape you've just shot)
- Small notebook (of course, your camera is your reporter's notebook, but a small notebook is handy for writing down shots that you don't want to forget, especially if it's raining and you can't read what you've written on your hand)
- Backpack journalist vest with many pockets (you don't have to go the extreme of still photographers with their 87 pockets, but it's more efficient to have towel, batteries, DV tape, notebook, pen, knife and duct tape within easy reach)
All main equipment should fit in a camera/computer case that works for you, one that is configured as a backpack, preferably, especially if you also have to carry a satellite phone. If you're flying, never check your camera bag -- always carry it with you. You may have to check your tripod, so buy one that fits into your suitcase.
The Backpack Journalist at Work
Memorize your rough storyboard, or have a handy reference to it, before you start gathering information in the field. Always work with your storyboard in mind. Is this a part that's going into video for sure? If so, then shoot a series of sequences (see Sequences in the Shooting Tips tutorial). Is this a part that works better in still photos? If so, then pay more attention to framing and setting up the shot, with close-ups and extreme close-ups that will likely be used as still photos.
Consider doing interviews twice: once while the person is actually doing the action that will be depicted in video clips, and another in a quiet, controlled area to describe again the action and comment on the implications of the action. The reason is that the sound in the field may be contaminated with airplanes overhead, lawnmowers being used nearby, protestors, etc., that mask the words. You may get enough in the action shot for part of a pithy quote, and then overlay the audio from the controlled setting to explain the action.
Be flexible -- opportunities for unanticipated video, stills and other interview materials suitable for text are likely to pop up when you least expect them. Go for them -- don't hesitate. Tape is cheap. Visuals aren’t like print – if you miss the shot, you can’t use the phone to fill in the gaps. The only thing you can do is describe it in text, or put a talking head on camera to describe the action, neither of which is as effective as getting the real action, either in video or stills.
If you have to file multimedia stories daily:
- Review your tape and grab still photos and potential video clips as you go. Write detailed information on your tapes, such as the tape number, date of video, main subjects, important sequences, your name and phone number (in case you lose the tape).
- Make notes on the story elements as you go through your tape -- send a nut graph and rough storyboard to your editor, if necessary. Usually, if you're filing daily, you and your editor will have designed a couple of templates to choose from that will lay out some basic schemes for including video, photos and text on a Web page.
- Edit still photos and video clips in the field (rather than deferring to judgments of the editor back home).
- Send still photos (sending video clips from the field can still be dicey, so send photos, which take less bandwidth, first).
- Write accompanying text blocks and send them in.
- Send video clips (this often takes some time to process, so it's a good opportunity to prepare for the next day).
- Send appropriate graphics if available (scientists especially often work on their own laptops and may have information to give you).
If you're not on a daily deadline:
The strategy's a bit different if you don't have to file until you're back at your desk, especially if you're working on a longer feature story.
In the field:
- Review and label your tapes every night
- Transcribe interview material that's likely to go into text blocks or captions
- Make notes on the shots and information you need to get the next day
- Review your rough storyboard and make adjustments if necessary
Back in the office:
- Review your tape, grab obvious photos and video clips for later editing
- Do a detailed storyboard
- Gather the rest of the information you need for the story (graphics? maps?)
- Start assembling the content for the pages, rough text blocks first, then the visual elements. It's likely that you'll be working with your immediate editor and graphics editor at this point, so you may be doing some back-and-forth on photos and video clips
Above all, remember this: don't panic, and take a nap whenever the situation presents itself.
Example: Dancing Rocks of Death Valley
The fieldwork for this story took five days: one day of travel and four days in the field. Three days were with Dr. Messina on Racetrack Playa; one day with park rangers Dillenges and Forner.
Camera: Canon XL-1, comes with good shotgun microphone. Purchased separate wide-angle lens -- couldn't have done the story without it.
Additional microphone -- Lectrosonic remote lavalier
Mini DV tapes -- brought 10, used 4
Computer -- Sony VAIO (eventually switched to hardier iBook, and now have Powerbook G4)
View the Dancing Rocks site.