Bill Gentile instructs students on story construction at one of several Backpack Journalism workshops held throughout the year.
#1: Hold the Camera Properly
To maximize the effectiveness of your backpack journalism tools, learn how to hold the camera properly. Use the left hand as a base upon which the camera rests. Keep your fingers of the left hand free to manipulate switches, buttons and focus/zoom rings. Grasp the camera firmly with the right hand.
#2: Make Your Body a Tripod
Backpack journalists use tripods on a limited basis, as this allows us greater mobility and less intrusiveness. So learn how to turn your body into a tripod. Turn your left hip toward your subject. With your left hand as a base holding the camera, tuck your left elbow into your left rib cage just above your hip. Grasp the camera with your right hand and hold your right elbow tight to your torso. Your body becomes a tripod. Now, take a look at yourself in a mirror. It might seem a bit uncomfortable at first but you can hold a camera in place like this all day long. Otherwise, if you stand there holding the camera in front of your face with your elbows flapping in the wind you’ll last about three minutes before your shoulder muscles start screaming.
#3: Don't Just Stand There
Point your left toe toward your subject and your right toe straight out in front of you. This is the way boxers and martial arts experts stand when confronting an opponent. Watch boxing or martial arts films to see what I’m talking about -- how to properly position your feet for maximum stability and maneuverability.
#4: Open Your Eyes
Get accustomed to using the eyepiece instead of the display screen. You’ll be better able to tell when your subject is in focus, especially when there’s a backlight, which is a big issue with many of these hand-held cameras. Keep both eyes open. Otherwise you lose peripheral vision on the entire left side. Also, this way you can maintain eye contact with your subject. He/she is talking to you, instead of the man on the moon, or somebody way out in left field. Backpack journalists normally work alone so you will need to keep both eyes open to navigate your surroundings.
#5: Shoot the Journey
Backpack journalists should document characters as they move from one scene to another. Always shoot the journey, be it by foot, car, plane or train. Shoot his/her feet hitting the pavement, hands on the steering wheel, face in the rear view mirror. Shoot through the windshield and out the window as the scenery passes by. If possible, shoot the character moving into frame and out of the frame. All this allows a smoother transition between scenes, and provides an opportunity to construct another dramatic arc. Before he/she leaves, ask, "Where are we going?" Upon arrival ask, "Where are we now?" Because you are carrying your gear in your backpack, you have the mobility to do this.
#6: Stay Connected. Use Headphones.
I can't tell you how many of my backpack journalism students lose critical visual and audio information because they are not connected to their characters with headphones. Once your character is out of eye sight and you are not listening to him/her over the wireless microphone, you've cut yourself off not only from what's happening right now but also from what's going to happen in the immediate future. You can't anticipate what you're going to shoot if you don't know what your character is going to do. Go out and buy a $12 pair of headphones that you insert into your ears. With these, as opposed to the large ear-covering headphones, you can stay connected with what your character is doing and you can retain peripheral hearing as well. These tiny ear plugs don't get in your way. And they don't make you look completely ridiculous.
#7: Keep it Clean!
Especially because we usually work alone, backpack journalists have to pay attention to every detail. There's nobody around to run through the check list with us. So every time you pull the camera out of the bag, clean the lens. I know it sounds silly, but we get so wrapped up in the big stuff -- tapes, time codes, batteries, not to mention the story itself, that we forget the small stuff. We come back from a shoot with smears or particles on our images that we failed to notice on the lens out there in the field. Get a little brush to clean off the heavy debris on the lens, and some good lens tissue for the smears and tiny particles. And use them.