5 tips for teaching video skills to your newsroom

by Ravi Bajpai
Oct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics

How well you write is directly proportional to how well you know a given subject — it has little to do with the technology you use. The same principle applies to making videos. You could be using a high-end DSLR or the latest iPhone, but your video will only be as good as your understanding of the language of visuals; that is, the ways in which different types of shots, editing, and other film elements help tell your story. It’s only when you’re fluent in this visual language that the quality of your equipment adds any significant value.

Nevertheless, this simple fact is easily lost on newsroom editors when they begin to train their journalists in video. As a video trainer, I am often asked by editors to train journalists in mobile phone video. The conversation usually leans towards equipment and tools (phones, apps, tripods, etc.) and very rarely, if at all, does it include teaching filming basics.

This mindset can lead to more quantity and less quality. Newsrooms can dramatically improve their video quality by training journalists in these five key aspects of video production.

1. Light

To understand photography and videography is to understand light. Poor lighting can be a huge spoiler in a video, second only to bad audio. Most footage shot by non-visual journalists in traditional newsrooms (think print reporters) is rendered useless because of insufficient or unflattering lighting.

This can be resolved by teaching them about types of light sources (soft and hard) and the position of light sources, which is best taught through a simple three-point studio lighting setup. Here’s a brilliant tutorial that explains these concepts; and another good one on the general principles of using lights in visuals.

Reporters are more likely to shoot footage in the field than in a studio environment. At the very least, journalists should learn what NOT to do when it comes to basic lightning — for instance, not shooting under direct sunlight in the afternoon, or positioning your subject next to a door or a window when shooting indoors to get the best possible natural light.

2. Composition

You can get very creative with your video composition, but there are still some general guidelines that can help beginners. A few critical concepts are leading lines, patterns, the rule of thirds and depth, among others. You can learn more on these in this useful tutorial.

These rules apply to both photography and videography. These are good starting points for newbie video journalists because they provide a framework to start shooting. Ideally, teaching these concepts should go beyond just theory and include hands-on exercises for journalists, followed by a detailed review of their work.

3. Types of shots

Shots are the moving parts in a video, the sum of which comprises the whole. They are the building blocks for sequences (a concept described in further detail below), and as a filmmaker, they are your primary weapons to try and evoke a specific emotion in your viewer. Knowing how to use shots to evoke emotion can take your production from amateur to semi-professional.

Filmmaking has three basic types of shots: wide shot, mid-shot and close-up shot (also called tight shot), as well as a variation known as the extreme close-up (see this video for examples). Each shot lends itself to a specific perspective; for instance, a wide shot that shows the entire canvas in which a sequence takes place can establish your setting and offer visual context to viewers. That’s also why it’s called the establishing shot. A close-up can help amplify specific emotions; for example, a close-up shot of sweat trickling down a robber’s forehead can heighten the tension for a bank heist scene.

4. Sequencing

Just like you need to know the alphabet to string together a word, you need to learn the principles of sequencing to produce a video or film. To put it simply, sequencing is the art of arranging several shots, or footage, in a sequence to convey a thought or imply meaning. A sequence consists of a variety of shots — establishing shot, mid-shot, close-up and extreme close-up. This IJNet video tutorial will walk you through the basics.

Sequencing serves two critical purposes. As a filmmaker, it offers you control over the emotions and thoughts you want to evoke in the viewer. When arranged differently, the same set of shots can convey entirely different meanings and guide the narrative. Sequencing also helps you break down, say, a two-minute video into 15-second segments, each segment being a sequence about a specific action or idea. That way you are not lost trying to capture random visuals when you are out shooting.

5. Audio

Most newsrooms tend to teach journalists how to hook up a basic lav microphone to a mobile phone for an interview, and nothing else. That’s not enough. Video journalists must understand the relationship between the source of sound and microphone.

A microphone clipped to an interviewee’s collar inside a noisy room will capture much clearer audio than if the same mic was kept only five inches away from the sound source, in this case the interviewee’s mouth. This video illustrates the importance of proximity while recording audio.

Understanding this will also help journalists navigate unforeseen challenges. For instance, if they are caught unprepared without a mic to interview someone, they should know that moving the camera closer to the subject — much closer than they should if they were using a mic — will drastically improve audio quality.

Newbie video journalists must receive enough training so they can gauge their audio quality while shooting without having to listen to their playback several hours later to know what they got. Just two hours of dedicated audio training can build this proficiency.

Ravi Bajpai is a journalist with more than 10 years of experience in India's news industry. He specializes in DSLR/mobile phone news videos with a focus on narrative for digital audiences and has reported extensively on politics, urban governance, public health and development issues. Learn more about his work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via jsawkins.