Craig Johnston /
12.11.2002
A Wider Look Can Be A Better Look
"His pictures look better than mine, they're more interesting," I kept thinking. They weren't better exposed, they weren't better focused or lit, and they weren't really framed better. But they looked better. What I learned may help you in critiquing videographers.

I was a news photographer with several years' experience under my belt. We were shooting 16 mm film back then, but pictures are pictures, and his looked better.

I could bore your shorts off for another ten paragraphs about the comparisons I made between the images we were shooting before I figured out what he was doing. I'll spare both of us.

He was getting closer to his subjects. And shooting wider.

If we both took a head and shoulders shot of an interview subject, he would be standing closer. To achieve the same head and shoulders shot, he'd have to use a wider-angle lens than I would.

The big difference was the background. In his shots, you could see a lot of background. In mine, using a longer lens, you would see just a narrow sliver of the background. All that extra background put his subject in visual context. It made his images more interesting. A more interesting shot equals a better shot.

An added benefit of his shooting with a wider-angle lens was the extra depth of field it yielded. Not only was he including a lot more background in his shots, but that background was in crisp focus as well. The background in my shots, what you could see of it, was usually out of focus because of the longer lens I was using.

HOW WIDE IS TOO WIDE?

Anybody who has spent much time around cameras knows that shooting a person's face with too wide a lens risks a ghoulish result. There's a fine line.

And there are times that you don't want to see what's in the background because it can distract. The graphic box over a news anchor's shoulder won't look as crisp if the background is detailed and crisply in focus.

But some shots on the news set can benefit from getting closer and shooting wider. Take that down-the-line shot you use from behind the weatherman when the news anchors hand off to him. Scoot the camera closer to his back and you'll see more of that set you paid a small fortune to have built.

Shooting that over-the-shoulder shot wider can also make the seating arrangement look more normal. A longer lens foreshortens the perspective, making the anchors appear to be sitting uncomfortably close together. A wider-angle shot can make that seating arrangement seem more natural.

Sports event telecasting seems to have taken the closer-and-wider shot lesson most seriously. Traditionally, sports events have had to be shot with long lenses because the cameras aren't allowed on the field of play. With the new miniature cameras, sports producers have found a way to smuggle the cameras on the field with participants or officials.

[INSERT NAME HERE] CAM

Pardon me if I slaughter the brand names here, but the CatcherCam in baseball and the UmpCam in football give you a wide look at the field from the middle of the action. The PitCams and In-The-Car Cams in NASCAR broadcasts are all close, very wide shots. Golf's CupCam may only show you the golfer reaching to retrieve his ball, but once or twice a day that can be an interesting shot.

Those Above-the-Rim cams behind the backboards at NBA games are also close and wide. Same for the GoalCams in hockey.

What all cameras do is to give you an idea what it looks like to play the game. And to my mind, none does that better than my favorite cam, ESPN Sunday Night Football's SkyCam.

The SkyCam can go anywhere over the football field, as well as beyond the end zones and behind the team benches. It can be dropped all the way down to the ground, though the fact that it could collide with players keeps it well above head-height during the plays. The key is that it gets close to the action and gives a wide angle of view.

During many plays from scrimmage, the camera is positioned above and behind the running back, pointed slightly down, the lens zoomed wide. Where I find it most effective is when the top of the frame is about at the crossbar of the goalpost. This gives an incredible view of the field, similar to what the back would see on a running play or the quarterback would see on a passing play; probably a better view.

As the camera follows the back through the hole, it really gets, well, cool. It reminds me of one of those video games where you just avoid one obstacle and another one is coming at you. The camera keeps weaving back and forth to stay behind the runner. This view also works great for kick runbacks, with the camera positioned behind the returner.

On a pass, the first reward the SkyCam gives you is what it's like for the quarterback to avoid the rush. A view from either the press box or above the end zone through a long lens doesn't give you a good idea of the spacing between players. The close and wide view from just behind the quarter back is perfect for that.

If it's a long pass, once the quarterback throws the ball the SkyCam shot breaks down because the camera can't follow the ball fast enough down the field. The director generally cuts to a game camera shot before the pass is thrown. The SkyCam shot is still a super replay angle, whether run back regular speed or slow motion.

In fact, the SkyCam gives its operator such a great view of the action he can easily see fakes or reverses that a defender might miss while trying to look through a mass of players trying to block him. Over a dozen years ago when I first saw the SkyCam used, the question occurred to me of whether a defender might watch where the SkyCam went to find the ball carrier.

I posed the question at that time to Gene Washington, former San Francisco great wide receiver who was doing color commentary for some games our station was producing. He told me I had no idea how fast and violent professional football really is. "If you looked anywhere but on the field, you'd get killed."

So I guess the players are getting their own up close-and-wide view down there at field level.

(By the way, Gene Washington is now the NFL's Director of Football Operations.)

Anyway, when you're trying to explain why a particular shot is interesting, you might look to see how wide and tight it is.


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