Pictures Make TV: Tips For Hiring a Cameraman

TV picture-takers need to be good picture-takers. Television continues to be a visual medium, and it follows that some of the most important hires in television are the employees who capture those visuals.
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Those of us who are old enough can remember a lot of changes in television: from black and white to color, from film to tape for news, from analog to digital for darn near everything.

Having worked the before and after sides of each of those changes, I know one thing that hasn't changed: The TV picture-takers need to be good picture-takers. Television continues to be a visual medium, and it follows that some of the most important hires in television are the employees who capture those visuals.

When I first began as a newsfilm (yes film) photographer, the joke around the shop was that a perfect photog was a 25 year-old with 20 years of experience. The 25 year-old was necessary because we had to carry so much gear around, and the desire for 20 years experience is obvious. Doing the math says it's also obvious you're not likely to get both in one candidate.

But having been a film and videographer, when I moved to management and it came time for me to start hiring photographers, I put a lot of thought into what I wanted. And then I put a lot of thought into figuring out how to tell if the candidate had what I was after.


Since you can screen resumes and resume tapes a lot quicker than you can screen the candidates in person, you start with the resumes and tapes. Actually, I like to start with the tape first: I'm hiring a photographer after all, not a creative writer.

My initial pass through photographer resume tapes goes pretty fast because I want to see something right away that knocks my socks off! It only makes sense that the shooter is going to put the piece he or she likes best at the front of the tape. If what they think is good and what you think is good are two different things, the relationship between the two of you is going to start off in trouble. Hit the eject button and look at the next tape.

That's not to say that what I'm looking for is exactly what I would have shot. Heck, it should be better than that.But I can give you a list of things I want to see:

I think the piece I'm going to like is going to do something to me. Maybe there'll be a shot or sequence in it that makes me duck, or flinch, or laugh, or cry, or feel flush. Really, any effect it has on me is fine, other than to make me hold my nose.

And it should be interesting; I should learn something from it.

I would like it to be technically correct: properly exposed, in-focus, camera level (except where it shouldn't be level), camera steady (except when it shouldn't be steady), and the sound should be good and clear. In addition, I don't want to see any screen-direction violations, no crossing the action axis, no jump-cuts.

Beyond that, I want to see sequences. I want to see frame entrances and exits, action matched between cuts. (In the photog's defense, if he doesn't cut his own pieces you can have stories that are shot well and cut terribly. But you'd think a shooter would have one piece that was both shot and cut correctly.)

I like to see a lot of camera angles, and especially shots from views higher and lower than normal.


Now, what if the first piece is all of the above, but nothing like the work you're going to have the photographer do on your staff? Not to worry; at least that first piece tells you to go ahead and look at the rest of the tape.

(If it doesn't sound fair to you that the first piece is going to be the difference between watching more and hitting the eject button, you can always make that clear in the job posting.)

For the rest of the tape, my first rule is that nothing in the rest of the stories should be embarrassing. They should all still be good. Not just satisfactory; good! If I see something on the tape that's not good, it's time for the eject button.

It's probably best if all the other pieces on the tape are different from each other. Maybe one of them is pretty much talking heads. That's OK; a fair amount of television is talking heads. Are they lit and staged and framed well?

It would be great if at least one example on the tape was exactly the kind of thing you're going to have the new photographer shoot for you. If not, but if you're impressed with what you have seen on the tape, you can always ask the individual to send you an example of something closer to what you're after.

Okay, now I'm going to tell one on myself. Years ago we were looking for a feature photographer to shoot pieces for a kid-show the station was doing. We got a tape that had a knockout of a first story on it: exactly the kind of work we wanted done on our show. As I remember it (I've tried to forget!), the story was about a motocross motorbike race.

In particular, the piece had a real strong beginning, with lots of close-ups of the racers' eyes, hands, feet, exhaust pipes and so on, prior to the actual start of the race. It really built up the tension of the start. The photographer was hired.

We were never able to get that kind of work out of that employee. During one of my sessions with him, trying to get him to shoot and edit in the style we wanted, I brought up the example of that motocross piece on his tape.

"You know," he said, "I never really liked that piece, but everybody told me to put it on my tape. I only shot the wide-shot stuff of the race, and somebody else shot the close-ups and cut the story."

So you can learn from my poor example: Be sure to ask exactly what the candidate did on every piece on the resume tape. I got to a point where I asked candidates to tell me the story of how each piece on the tape was conceived, field-produced, edited and so forth. Who picked the music? I learned to have a more inquiring mind.

So after using the resume tape as the initial screening tool for hiring a video photographer, I have a number of next steps. But they'll have to wait for the next episode.