My evolution as a photographer and thoughts on the Chicago Sun-Times

Michael Penvose

Michael Penvose

This is Michael Penvose. In April he was arrested for allegedly stealing a thermometer. He claimed he needed the thermometer for his sick baby. A police officer bought the thermometer. When I heard about it, I thought it would make for a good story. The photo became the first photo of mine to win any kind of award. In this case, an NPPA monthly clip contest third place in general news.

The award — even just third in a monthly clip contest — is important to me because I take my photography seriously. My still photography.

Jeff Redband

Sophomore Jeff Redband goes up for a buzzer beating three-point shot to send Batavia to the state finals.

I want to say up front, I make no claim to be a great photographer. I’ve worked with great photographers, especially at the Ventura County Star, and I wouldn’t put myself in their class. But I think my experience with photography and the news business gives me a little perspective.

For those who don’t know or don’t remember, I was once the guy pushing the idea that every reporter should be carrying an inexpensive camera and shooting a little video.

My position pissed off a lot of NPPA members. The debate raged for a couple of years. Chuck Fadely and I debated the issue at an NPPA short course in Rochester in 2008.

As Stewart Pittman would frequently point out, I was all talk.

When I started The Batavian, it gave me a chance to put into practice a little more of what I had been preaching.

As time when on, I found readers responded more to the still photos I posted then videos. I started shooting more photos and producing fewer videos.

It should be noted, in all my pontificating I don’t believe I ever called for dumping photojournalists from the payroll. I don’t recall it ever crossing my mind that there wouldn’t be a place for highly skilled and trained and well equipped professional photojournalists.

accident

Deputy John Duyssen, with the Crash Management Team, glances at a vehicle involved in a fatal accident in Pembroke.

In the early days of my ownership of The Batavian, it dawned me — duh! — I don’t have a photography staff. There’s nobody here with a DSLR.

So, I sold a domain I owned and bought a Nikon D-90.

With a better camera, my still photos garnered even more kudos from readers. It was at this point, I pretty much totally abandoned video. For the same or less time than it took to shoot and produce a video, I could write a story and post a photo gallery and get more page views and more feedback from readers (either in comments or on the street).

The positive feedback from readers gave me a feeling that maybe I had a little talent I should try to improve on.  I became — and still am — obsessed with photography.

As I upgraded my lenses, I was able to do more. As I upgraded my lenses and did more, I got more positive feedback from readers.

When I upgraded my camera to a D-7000, with it’s better dynamic range, readers noticed. They didn’t know I bought a new camera. They just knew the photography improved.

When I bought a used 70-200mm 2.8 lens, again, readers noticed the pictures got better. People would  stop me on the street to compliment my photos.

When I upgraded that lens to something newer, readers noticed again.

This progression of events has underscored what many already know: readers care about quality still photos. They do notice a difference in quality and do enjoy stills.

No reader has ever asked me, “why don’t you shoot video?” or “you used to do video — what happened to your video?”  There seems to be no demand from my audience for video.

We’re more than five years removed from the great video debates. Technology has improved. Computers are faster. Bandwidth has increased. And — users are not flocking to video, except purely as entertainment.  I still hear from people at newspapers and views on the vast majority of newspaper-produced video remain too low to really justify the effort. If it hasn’t happened by now, it’s not going to happen.

DWI drill

Cindy Morgan, playing the part of a mother who’s daughter just died in a DWI accident, screams for paramedics to save her “daughter” during a DWI drill staged for the senior class at Elba HS.

Point-and-shoot, video, iPhone photography all has its place in the river of news, but so does the professionally produced stills and videos of those trained, skilled and properly equipped, and put in the right places, to shoot and edit.

Which brings us to the Chicago Sun-Times.

There’s an old saying in business, “you can’t cut your way to prosperity.”

There’s no indication that newspaper executives ever learned this fundamental rule of business.

The news business is all about content. Advertising is important (and it’s content, too), but without compelling, interesting stories and pictures, there is no news business.

There was a time I was hailed in the news industry as some sort of champion of citizen journalism. I never saw myself that way. I never saw Cit-J as anything other than a supplement to what professionals do.

Only professionals consistently and continually sit through boring meetings, develop sources, hone their skills and their knowledge, stick with the same story month-after-month, year-after-year, have the experience and knowledge that goes with proper news gathering techniques, and can repeatedly craft a torrent of information into coherent stories. And I mean on a consistent, ongoing basis.

It’s hard to fathom a news executive thinking he or she can can replace  professional staff with Cit-J and/or poorly equipped writers with inexpensive cameras and still remain viable as a news business. But that seems to be what is happening.

Without audience, you will lose advertising, and readers and viewers want news that they find compelling and engaging. If they don’t get it from you, they will go elsewhere, and if there’s no satisfactory alternative, they’ll just watch laughing babies and tumbling cats on YouTube.  Purposefully diminishing the quality of the news product is no way to retain your audience.

My experience on the business side of the business and on the content side of the business tells me this was a really dumb business decision.

Eugene Jankowski

Retired police lieutenant Eugene Jankowski rides his restored police Harley in Batavia’s Memorial Day Parade.

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  • Darren Hillock

    You often see articles that say video is the next big thing for the web. That people will demand video. I don’t see it. Our experience at westofthei.com is similar to Howard’s as far as stills versus video. I have not advanced my photography as far as Howard has, but we use much less video. I still capture some things on video that scream for it. Bands in parades. Tractor pulls at the county fair. Bagpipes and Taps at a law enforcement memorial ceremony. But there has to be a compelling action/sound reason for us to run video now. We largely don’t cover an event strictly with an edited video of any length. We typically run pretty raw video to allow someone to experience something such as the above examples. As to the S-T, any move that is so lacking in nuance is probably ill-advised. In the modern big time newsroom do photographers need to contribute in ways beyond just capturing images? Yes. I just covered an event where the local daily newspaper (my former employer) also covered with a photographer and reporter. The reporter was arriving later. The photographer told the event organizer “I don’t do quotes,” when the organizer tried to pass on some info. And this is at a paper much smaller than the S-t. That kind of thing just isn’t acceptable anymore.

  • Patrick Thornton

    Well said Howard.

    Part of what makes photography so powerful for news organizations, particularly good photography, is that people like to look at and share photos, even if the event or what is in them doesn’t mean much to them. I find many of the photos you take for The Batavian interesting, even though I live in DC. That would never be true with video.

    This is even more true today with social media. People love to share photos, and the Facebook algorithm in particular weights photos above everything else. Sharing photography is a good way to get new fans for a local site such as yours, something that I don’t think video would do quite as well.

    People like video too, but I find that people tend to like news video that directly impacts or interests them. People are less likely to watch video for the sake of looking at something interesting like they are with photos. Good news video also takes a lot of planning and editing, and I think a lot of people have gotten used to seeing poor news video on the Web and are turned off by it. Broadcast outlets produce strong videos and podcasts for the Web, but many newspapers have produced low-production quality audio and video that is much weaker than their own photography.

    There is definitely a place for writing, photos, video, data and more for news organizations. I strongly disagree, however, with the Sun-Times decision to throw photography out the window to do more Web video.

    For what it’s worth, I think you’ve become a very strong photographer in the last few years.

    I’m thinking of getting a D7000 or D7100 myself. What other lenses do you use besides the 70-200mm?

    • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

      Thanks, Patrick. I doubled down on the 7000 when the 7100 came out because outside of the larger sensor, there wasn’t much difference for the price. File size is important to me because I take so many photos and need to work quickly, so I saved a few bucks on the smaller sensor (which is still I think is a very fine sensor).

      The 70-200mm is part of Nikon’s magic trio. I wish I had all three lenses. http://www.nikonguides.com/triolens.html

      It’s definitely worth the money to buy professional grade glass if you can afford it.

      • Patrick Thornton

        I’ll have to look into the magic trio. I hadn’t heard of it before.

        I definitely want to spend money on glass before I upgrade my D40 body (I use a D3200 at work). I mostly shoot the Nikon 35mm 1.8 prime, which I really like. I prefer primes for their light weight and sharpness. I also want to get the 85mm 1.8 prime. But that leaves me with a big hole at the wide angle side of things, as the DX bodies make the 35mm into a 53mm.

        Do you have the 14-24mm? I’d be very interested in that. If I one day do more sports shooting again, I’d definitely look long and hard at the 70-200mm.

        • http://howardowens.com Howard Owens

          I have a 35mm 1.8 prime and a 55mm 1.4 prime and an 18mm 3.5 prime (came with a film camera in a box I bought at an auction). Yes, primes have superior image quality, especially over the consumer-grade zooms, but my 70-200mm is pretty awesome. For photojournalism work, zooms provide more flexibility.

  • http://www.billysuratt.com/ Billy Suratt

    Every knowledgeable newspaper staffer I’ve known who’s shared facts about video use and demand at their paper has said stills consistently outperform video online. Video shouldn’t be ignored for sure, and it’s a visual journalism skill set all photojournalists should adopt, but I don’t see still photography going away anytime soon.

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