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|| News Item: Posted 2007-05-23

The Pitchman: Frame Grabs
David Leeson says it's time to move forward. This is our chance to rise up and lead the world.

By David Leeson, Dallas Morning News

Photo by David Leeson / Dallas Morning News

Photo by David Leeson / Dallas Morning News

A self portrait made with a Sony HVR-V1U HDV camera. The V1U is an HDV camera capable of shooting 720p (1280x720, 24 frames per second) and 1080i (1920 x 1080 at 30 or 60 interleaved fps). The clips were imported with Final Cut Studio.
Want to know a simple truth regarding me? I'm sick of talking about frame grabs.

I can almost hear the cheers nationwide from die-hard 35mm users, who have grumbled about my support of using high definition video cameras to obtain frame grabs. I think the problem I've faced as I've presented my views about video and stills is that it's easy to ignore. After all, most of you are using still cameras on assignments.

So, when I hold up an HDV camera in front of an audience and say, "This is the future of photojournalism," it's not too hard to dismiss me as a lunatic. You can easily turn your nose up at HDV, pick up your 35mm and say "This is made specifically for stills and the other is for video. Since I shoot stills, video doesn't apply to me."

Unfortunately, not only does it apply to you, it could likely help us save an industry threatened by the overwhelming demand for rich online content. It could also save your job during rounds of massive layoffs spreading like a cancer through our newsrooms and it could become one of the greatest technological developments for our profession since the 35mm rangefinder slowly replaced large formats. The use of quality frame grabs from moderately priced high definition video cameras is a no-brainer in a world demanding rich multimedia content.

So, why am I sick of talking about it? I never thought it would be such a tough "sell." I've always believed that everyone in my profession was pretty much like me, joined in the belief that the power of the still image is not in the means it is made but rather the substance of the image. I've always known there were a few out there who cared more about their technically perfect pictures than the subjects within them but I figured they were a sub-group of a sub-group.

I was also not prepared for what would happen when I began suggesting that the 35mm would slowly fade from daily use in our photo departments. That's when the ire began. God help the soul who would try to remove a still camera from your hands. I love my 35mm too. In fact, I've been known, throughout the years to kiss my camera lovingly. Recently I presented a passionate argument to the Director of Photography at The Dallas Morning News, Leslie White, after I had been asked to return my company issued Canon EOS1D Mark II.

I had fallen in love with "her." I said, "I'm not just giving back my camera to you. I am saying goodbye to a lover." Five minutes later, as I was eloquently expressing my deep adoration for my camera, she interrupted me and said, "Just keep it."

Photo by David Leeson / Dallas Morning News

Photo by David Leeson / Dallas Morning News

A self portrait made with a Sony HVR-V1U HDV camera. The clips were imported with Final Cut Studio and selected using a frame grab tool created at The Dallas Morning News to produce a 61.5 MB image.
So, yes, I understand the attraction to the tool but I am more concerned with what the tool can do. If the tool matters more, then we would be better off as commercial photographers. You'll make a lot more money and avoid the story-telling power of video intruding on your life as a photojournalist. Because, over the last five years, video has been slowly working its way into our visual lexicon. Frame grabs are the perfect solution to combining the need for stills with the needs for motion and sound.

An HDV camera provides us with the ultimate photojournalistic reporting device. With one camera I can produce powerful still images while at the same time combining my efforts to produce storytelling sound and motion. Entire stories could be told in motion alone. Add sound to it and a layer of information never available to us before is ready to bring your still images to a new platform of power.

But, these days, I'm more than a little dismayed. I am beginning to feel like one of those guys demonstrating a new slicer-dicer at a county fair. Perhaps if I offered a set of free steak knives, more of you would listen. But, that's probably a bad idea. I've seen some folks get so heated about frame grabs, if I gave them a knife, they'd probably throw it at me.

I didn't create this scenario. I am not responsible for the fact that people aren't reading our newspapers as much anymore. Blame the Internet. Blame Al Gore. Blame whomever you wish but don't blame me. I've sacrificed some of the best years of my still photography career to hopefully establish a tradition of ethical reporting with video using traditional still photojournalism practices.

All of this reminds me of the days when color first arrived on the newspaper scene and we struggled with decisions about which camera to use - the one loaded with Kodacolor or the one with Tri-X. Strangely, none of us seemed to grasp the idea that we could have made black and white prints from our color negatives. I suppose we were so attached to black and white that color was the stepchild we ignored for as long as we could. We begrudgingly loaded our cameras with color and tried to find something colorful. "Oh look! That kid is wearing a red sweater!" Sigh. Doesn't that sound familiar to how some people are using video today?

Video, in particular the ugly "FG word," is not the death of the still image. It's just the opposite. It might just create a new world of still photography. How many of you own a Holga? Isn't it interesting how we'll embrace new ideas in still photography as long as the camera doesn't shoot faster than 10-frames per second?

Photo by

The Sony HVR-V1U HDV camera
Which leads to one of the most common complaints about frame grabs other than the camera itself. Some say shooting video at 24-30 frames per second and pulling a frame grab from the footage is "cheating." "It takes all of the skill out of it." Sure it does. It's sort of like the way automatic transmissions took the skill out of driving or how the computer took all the skill out of writing on a typewriter. Of course the ink and quill approach in Shakespeare's day had long since trashed the grand skill of cave drawings.

I usually smile like the pitchman at the fair answering the question, "Can it dice tomatoes?" I wish I could refer you to some news photographer from decades ago, on assignment with his flash bulb and a Speed Graphic. How do you think he would look at your motor drive and fancy TTL dedicated strobe? You think it's possible he might say you were cheating?

But the real answer, throughout history, is that technology cannot substitute for the heart, mind and soul of the artist. Nor can any increased frame per second assure you of capturing a powerful moment. Nor can video grant you better composition or lighting. Actually, the video camera is nothing more than a camera and it is the same as it has always been - useless to photojournalistic reporting without a compassionate and sensitive soul bearing it.

When did we begin caring more about these things more than the moment? I'll take one solid, kickass moment over any perfectly, lit, composed, mega-megapixel, pretty picture any day. Fact is, one of my most popular photos from Iraq is back-focused but the power of the moment trumped technical weakness. Give me a great moment and I don't care what camera you use to make it. All I care is that it moves me to feel something. Even better is if your image makes me move into action to do something about my world.

Thus, I think video frame grabs could be a resurrection of a profession at stake. Perhaps you have noticed that visual imagery is the leading force behind the shift from our print editions to news and information organizations on the web. We are needed now more than ever. Clinging to your 35mm and dismissing the merits of an image obtained by a frame grab is not serving our profession well. It's time to move forward. This is our chance to rise up and lead the world.

(David Leeson is the Executive Producer - Video and New Media at the Dallas Morning News. To see his work, check his personal website at:

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