Backpack journalism toolkit

When you work alone as a backpack journalist, you need lightweight, reliable gear and an efficient process for getting the job done.  In the 14 months she’s been working as NBC’s “digital journalist,” Maria Schiavocampo has figured out through trial and error what works best for her.

Schiavocampo tells the Nieman Foundation that she now travels with a 30-pound rolling backpack filled with $10,000 worth of gear–about one fifth of the cost of a full size Sony digital Betacam. Her camera, the $3,000 Sony HVR-V1U, shoots on DV tape, which she prefers over newer, tapeless models that use expensive memory cards and offer less recording time.  She writes and edits on a MacBook pro.

Her workflow centers around her video camera, which also serves as her still camera and notebook.  “I’m very scaled down–it’s just bare bones for me,” she says.  Among her guidelines for working fast:

  • When on a tight deadline, shoot sparingly; when time allows, shoot generously.
  • Plot out sequences (shoot wide, medium, tight from different angles).
  • Hold your shots, and then hold some more. “If you’re going to do a move, hold at the top, do your move, hold at the tail.”

While Schiavocampo mostly works alone, she always has a fixer or guide for overseas assignments.  And if there’s danger involved, she travels with an NBC crew, a luxury not afforded to most backpack journalists.

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10 Comments

  1. Fascinating to hear her say she does not take notes – because it is all captured on camera. I shoot digital photos and am just dipping into video. With print journalism background, hard for me to imagine being a written-notes free journalist. Great post and video. Thanks.

  2. I’m not at all sure about the “no notes” policy, myself. As photojournalist Rich Murphy always says: “A camera is not a notebook.” He believes that taking notes is essential to make editing go faster because you don’t have to screen everything you’ve shot. The trouble is, it’s almost physically impossible to take notes while shooting active interviews solo. My compromise: shoot first, take notes immediately after while it’s all still fresh in your mind.

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  5. No notes: Scotch the notepad. No time. Not enough hands. I shoot name tags, ID badges, and desk placards to visually slate subjects… or I say and spell names and critical facts out loud on tape. Additional key facts, important numbers — I say out loud on ch-2 audio as video notes at end of interviews or during events — as long as ch 1 is hot on subject.. When turning lives for as many as 4 shows on a tough day, plus updating to web — notes are a luxury I often must do without.

    PS. Don’t even think about wasting time on tape with long narratives and information overload by interview subjects. Your shooting news — not a NOVA doc. If its not leading up to a usable bite — don’t hit REC. Use a tripod, shoot competent tight sequences — get your bites and get out. Only way to survive.

  6. wow. i shoot with the same camera is this journo, and i can’t imagine using it with TAPE and NO NOTES. at my newsroom, we’ve got 60 gig external harddrives that connect to the camera via firewire. while i’m filming, everytime i hit REC, a new .avi file is created. if it’s usable, i jot down the handy dandy file name as it’s displayed on the harddrive. any shoot that i go on where i’m unable to take notes like that — the editing process afterwards takes twice as long. in my video training sessions, shotlogs are a MUST.

  7. Pingback: Backpack journalism (video) | Westmedia Multimedia Training

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