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June 16th, 2016

Want to Make Virtual Reality? 6 Rules for Starting Out

Jenna Pirog, virtual reality editor for The New York Times Magazine

Jenna Pirog, virtual reality editor for The New York Times Magazine.

Photographers and filmmakers may imagine that virtual reality is “the next big thing,” but Jenna Pirog, virtual reality editor for The New York Times Magazine, warns that the technology is best suited to certain types of stories. “I get many pitches for VR films and most of them all sound like really great 2d docs or photo essays,” Pirog told an audience at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph on Wednesday. Pirog  recommended one criteria to consider. “If you were bringing readers to this location to experience it first hand, would that help them understand it better? If the answer is no, then it might work better in other media.”

Pirog, speaking via Skype at a LOOK3 presentation on visual storytelling, offered her tips on what storytellers need to know to produce VR experiences. She says it took two months to make “The Displaced,” the first VR experience presented on The New York Times Magazine VR app in November. The experience took viewers to refugee camps in South Sudan, the Ukraine and Lebanon. The idea, she says, was to examine the issues facing the millions of displaced persons around the world by focusing on just three refugee children and using the technology of VR to help place viewers within the camps where the children are now living. Since the debut of “The Displaced,” the Times has produced eight VR experiences. “We managed to learn lessons along the way,” Pirog said. She presented the lessons as six rules for making successful VR.

Rule #1: You have to be into tech. Pirog said the equipment for making VR is ever changing. There are some cameras on the market that capture 360-degree images and are aimed at the consumer-level enthusiast (Pirog mentioned the Samsung Gear 360, priced at $350 ). Pirog said these cameras offered “a good place to start” to experiment, but noted that most VR is made with more expensive setups, usually using multiple GoPro cameras mounted on rigs to capture every angle on a scene. The post-production required to make seamless 360-footage is also labor-intensive, she noted. Currently, she said, most VR work is being done by production companies that have invested in or created their own rigs, and they are “hiring crews” to handle shooting and editing.

Rule # 2. Choose the right story. Pirog says that “The Displaced” was an attempt to give Times readers a more immersive and empathetic look at the lives of refugees than they could get through countless articles that had already been reported last year as waves of migrants fled conflicts around the world. In their VR production titled “Ten Shots Across the Border,” The Times used VR to go to the site on the Texas-Mexico border where a border patrol officer had shot and killed a teenager on the Mexico side of the fence. The VR experience allowed viewers to  look at the height and size of the border fence, and to consider allegations that the teenager had thrown rocks over the fence with the intent to harm border patrol officers. Pirog said this was “an attempt to use virtual reality in a more investigative way.”

Rule # 3. Place your camera and adjust your height to where your audience might stand. Pirog called this rule her “pet peeve.” In VR, the camera is a stand-in for the viewer’s eyes on the scene. “If it’s too high, readers feel like a seven-foot-tall giant.”

Rule #4. There is no longer a place for the filmmaker to stand. Pirog showed some behind-the-scenes footage of filmmakers setting up their camera rigs, turning the cameras on, then ducking, rolling or dashing to crouch behind the nearest sandbag, doorway or piece of furniture to avoid being caught on camera. “If there’s no place to hide, you become part of the story,” she noted.

Rule #5. Moving shots should be made with care and practice. In watching a VR experience, viewers move their heads to determine what they see. If the camera moves independently of the viewer, the effect can induce motion sickness. “I think it’s our responsibility not to make people sick watching our content,” said Pirog, who added that “If you can keep the camera very steady,” some panning shots can be used effectively without inducing nausea.

Rule #6. Audio is more important than the visual. Sounds alert the viewer where to turn to look for action. The Times is experimenting with 360-audio, which records live sounds from all around the environment where a camera is recording footage. The recording devices are expensive, and they are still experimenting to get the playback right, she said. “But done properly, it can feel very natural,” she added.

—by Holly Stuart Hughes


Should Photographers Jump on the Virtual Reality Bandwagon? (For PDN subscribers only.)

Five Technologies Shaping Photography and Filmmaking Today

GoPro’s Next Tricks: A Virtual Reality Rig and a Drone

June 15th, 2016

The Lives of Photography’s Early Pioneers

To paraphrase Henry Longfellow, the lives of historic figures “all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time.”

The task of bringing those footprints back to life for a modern audience has fallen to animator Drew Christie, who was recently commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to create several animated shorts exploring the lives of photography’s early pioneers.

First up is “Sun Pictures” which chronicles the life of Henry Fox Talbot, British inventor and creator of the photographic negative.

In “Slices of Time”, Christie explores the work of Eadweard Muybridge, another British inventor credited with developing motion picture projection.

Finally, landscape photographer Carleton Watkins gets his due in “Peaks and Perils.” Watkins is famous for, among other things, using images to help convince Congress to preserve Yosemite as a National Park.

Hat tip: ISO 2000

More Photo History

The Paper That Predicted Photography

Take a Walk Through Kodak’s Tech Vault

Hidden History of the Zoom Lens

A Brief History of Long-Lens Gotchas

May 23rd, 2016

What Huntington Witherill Can Teach You About Composition

Huntington Witherill has had a slew of notable photographic mentors, including Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Steve Crouch and Al Weber. His work is in a permanent collection at the U.S. State Department and several embassies around the world and he has taught photography at the University of California, the Center for Photographic Art, the Oklahoma Arts Institute, and the Ansel Adams Gallery.

He knows his stuff.

In this engaging conversation with Marc Silber, Witherill sheds some light on how he composes his award-winning images. Worth watching.

May 12th, 2016

Portrait of a Wet Plate Photographer

Ask photographers why they shoot film and you’ll invariably be told that they love how it forces them to slow down. While film photography may feel slow in the digital era, it’s positively breakneck compared to wet plate photography.

Few people are better acquainted with the original “slow photography” than David Rambow. A history buff, Rambow was exposed (if you will) to wet plate while working in a museum. His interest in the old photos drew him deeper into the history and process of wet plate–an interest that morphed from academic to practical. Today, he is one of the few active wet plate photographers in the country working with a custom built camera and a lens he bought on eBay. His work has been used in movies like True Grit and Cowboys and Aliens.

PBS just released this short documentary on Rambow and the history and process of wet plate photography that should be of interest to history and photo buffs alike.

Read More:

Lighting a Wet Plate Photo Shoot with 12,000 Watts (Subscriber)

Take a Walk Through Kodak’s Tech Vault

Hidden History of the Zoom Lens

A Brief History of Long-Lens Gotchas

May 11th, 2016

Pro Photographer vs. Actor: Can People Tell the Difference?

The following wouldn’t qualify as a rigorous scientific experiment, but it’s illuminating nonetheless.

Ben Lucas at NOM Creative set out to discover whether people could tell the difference between a portrait taken by a professional photographer and one taken by an actress posing as a pro.

Both Lucas and the actress had precisely the same lighting and backdrop and the camera was fixed to a tripod in both cases. The only difference was the interaction between subject and photographer.

Could people see the difference in the photos? See for yourself.

April 25th, 2016

Blackmagic’s Video Assist 4K is a More Approachable External Recorder


If you’ve been considering an external recorder for your filmmaking needs, but have been put off by the cost and complexity of some of the models on the market today, Blackmagic’s new Video Assist 4K, announced at NAB, might be worth a look.

It features a 7-inch touchscreen display (1900 x 1200) and connects to your camera via either an HDMI or SDI connection. It saves files to a pair of SD cards with an overflow function that automatically transfers recording from one card to another when the first card is maxed out. You’ll be saving a high quality 10-bit 422 file in either ProRes of DNxHD formats. It supports 4K resolutions at 24 or 30 fps.

In addition to video, it can also capture audio from external mics via a pair of mini XLR inputs with phantom power. Since the sound is captured with the video, you won’t have to mess with syncing separate source files in post.

The Video Assist is powered by a pair two standard LP-E6 battery slots that allow hot swapping of batteries while in use, and it can be powered using the 12V DC input. The batteries are discharged serially, so only one is used at a time. When there’s power, the batteries are charged in parallel.

It’s available now for $895.

April 19th, 2016

3DR Makes Solo Drone Smarter with Software

Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 3.07.21 PM

3DR will make its Solo smart drone smarter with a new software update announced at NAB.

The software tackles a number of functions designed to make the drone safer to fly and more functional. Here’s what’s coming:

Software-based Scene Awareness: This will help pilots avoid obstacles. According to 3DR, the software is a more effective and safer alternative to hardware-based avoidance systems.

Custom Geofencing: The Solo app also now supports geo-fencing, so you draw a virtual fence on your screen to delineate the furthest the drone can fly from you. The Solo drone won’t be able to escape the fence. The geo-fence can be drawn before take off or when the drone is in the air.

Rewind: This feature will command the Solo drone to retrace its exact path for the last 60 feet of its flight (you can alter the distance it will retrace in the app). The idea behind Rewind is that if a “return to home” route has potential obstructions or obstacles, Rewind is a safer path for the Solo to fly.


3DR has also added several new “smart shot” modes, which are computer-assisted modes that help users execute difficult shots in the air. Among the new modes are Pano to create aerial panoramic, and Zipline, which lets users set a line in the direction the camera is facing. The Solo will then fly up and down that line. Zipline also has a “spot lock” to help flyby shots — simply press the spot lock on the app in Zipline mode and the Solo will keep the camera fixed on the spot before and after it whizzes by.

Also new is Leash mode. In this mode, the Solo will follow directly behind the operator. If you use the app on an iPhone 6 or above, the Solo will also be able to accommodate any changes in altitude of its leashed subject. Finally, there’s Boat mode, which enables the Solo to take off from a moving platform.

The premise behind the Solo is to build a drone that can be continually updated rather than forcing users to buy a new one.

But the Solo is also an open source project and as such, can be modified by users and other companies looking to build out specific functionality for the drone. At NAB, several modified versions of the Solo were on display, including a 150-foot tethering solution that connects the Solo to an AC-DC converter to give the drone hours of a flight time. Other modifications included a pair of 360-degree cameras for aerial virtual reality and a reusable parachute that will deploy and safely land the drone in an event of engine failure.

April 15th, 2016

Instagram Dives Deeper Into Video


Another day, another feature update at Instagram.

Today it’s video. Specifically, Instagram is updating the Explore tab in its app to promote videos. After you update the app, you’ll find a personalized “Videos You Might Like” channel that curates videos from across Instagram into a single location.

The Explore tab will also now have “Featured” channels with content grouped by specific topics. When you click on a video channel it will autoplay all the videos without looping, so you can binge watch one after the other without ever having to tire out your finger with excessive swiping.

Instagram’s Explore tab works a bit like Pandora, the Internet radio station. You “train” Explore by expressing preferences for the content being displayed and it’s a chance to be exposed to Instagram content even if you don’t follow the creator.

Don’t Miss:

How Many Hashtags Should You Use on Instagram?

How Photographers With Huge Followings Grew Their Social Networks

This Is the Most Liked Photo on Instagram

The Colors Prized By Instagram’s Top Photographers

April 8th, 2016

Video Pick: What Does It Mean to Be a Conservation Photographer?

The International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) recently launched a YouTube channel with three educational videos that provide insights into how conservation photographers approach their work: “What is Conservation Photography?”, “On being a “Conservation Photographer,” and “Conservation Photography and Science.” ILCP will also post videos of talks at their conservation photography symposium, WiLDSPEAK, to the channel.

In the three-minute video “On Being a Conservation Photographer,” iLCP fellows talk about the importance of connecting with the science community and working with conservation scientists in the field; about how aspiring conservation photographers can start by telling stories close to home; and about the value of dedication and long-term commitment to a particular subject. Here’s what the iLCP fellows say about their work:

We Are Animals: Nick Brandt’s Unique Approach to Photographing Wildlife Habitat Destruction
Gary Braasch, Climate Change Photographer, Dies While Snorkeling on Great Barrier Reef
How Ami Vitale Built Support for Her Long-Term Photo Project (PDN Subscriber login required)