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SOC BPJ boy with camera

Tools of the Trade

Below, we offer guidelines for equipment needed for the practice of the craft. Project Special Advisor Tom Kennedy has written a related article on the role of technology in backpack journalism.

Minimum Camera and Computer Suggestions for Backpack Journalists

Below is a list of suggestions, or parameters, regarding equipment one needs to learn and to practice the craft of backpack journalism. These are only suggestions. What’s important here is that the tools one selects work in conjunction with each other, and that the practitioner can make these tools capture what he/she sees and hears. One doesn't need the latest, best camera, or the most expensive computer, or the most comprehensive version of Final Cut Pro. Tools are only part of the craft.

We recommend hand-held digital cameras with manual controls for shutter speed, aperture and focus. We recommend high-definition cameras, as a greater number of outlets are demanding HD material. Also preferred are cameras with two XLR connections for separate channels of sound. Cameras with these features offer the best opportunity for learning and for capturing sound, sometimes described as “the heartbeat” of visual stories. Smaller “palmcorders” most often do not have the appropriate sound capabilities and are therefore not recommended.

For best results, we recommend using a “boom” microphone mounted atop the camera, as well as a wireless microphone that is placed on the character that's being followed or in the immediate vicinity of a conversation that one wants to record. Directional boom microphones mounted atop the camera generally provide better quality sound than the internal microphones that are built into most hand-held cameras.

We use tripods on a limited basis. Get one that is small and lightweight.

Below are some of the parameters for computers and software one will need. Again, these are suggestions:

  • 15" MacBook Pro.
  • Processor: 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo.
  • Memory: 2GB RAM 120 GB hard drive or larger (4GB preferred).
  • Hard Drive: 250GB.
  • DVD-RW SuperDrive.
  • Firewire and USB ports.
  • Wireless Internet.
  • Macintosh OS X.
  • Microsoft Office 2004 for Macintosh.
  • Quicktime Pro.
  • minimum 250 GB external hard drive with Firewire connection. 7200 RPM USB hard drives are not adequate for video.

Bill Gentile took four, 250GB external hard drives to Afghanistan during his May-June trip in 2008. He was able to store about 17 hours of HD material on each of these hard drives during that trip. He used the kind that operate without an external power source, but instead pull their power from the laptop computer. An external hard drive is essential. Video takes up an extraordinary amount of space, too much to fit onto a laptop computer.

Final Cut Pro is rapidly becoming the standard editing sofware for independent documentary makers and we recommend the most recent version available.

Please keep in mind that these are suggested guidelines, or parameters. Technology is important but our focus is on the craft of visual storytelling as opposed to the tools of the craft.