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Best Seat in the House

Photography, sports and life as seen through the lens of Seattle Times photographer Rod Mar.

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May 10, 2008 2:04 AM

Side-Tracked for Spot News

Posted by Rod Mar

One of the paradoxes of being a newspaper photographer comes when faced with shooting a spot news event. Often, these are tragic events with a human toll, which pulls at the heart of even the most cynical journalist. The paradox comes with the adrenalin rush that comes with covering spot news.

How can you be excited at an event in which someone has died? You're not excited in the sense we normally think of that word, but the adrenalin courses through you and every sense has to be sharp.

It's so complicated. You're racing against the clock in so many ways -- to get to the scene quickly, to size up what's going on so you can make a coherent report, and finally to get the photos back to the office so they can be posted on the web and also make the deadlines for the newspaper.

You have to have adrenalin and a clear head to news.

On Friday, I was driving to Sumner, WA to cover a high school track meet when I got an urgent email from the editors. A small plane had crashed into a house near the town of Covington. They didn't know anything else. Where was I, and could I get there quickly?

It just so happened that I was driving on Highway 167 southbound, which put me fairly close. I turned and headed for the general area, figuring more information would come. I turned on the news radio station and caught one of the traffic reporters describing the scene from his airplane. I looked up and found the airplane circling the scene and headed in the direction.

Soon, more info appeared on my Blackberry. The plane was experimental and had taken off from a small airfield before crashing just after takeoff into a nearby residence. The radio told me that the pilot had died, but luckily no one had been hurt in the residence.

At a stoplight, I booted up my laptop and examined a Google map of the area. The address the photo desk had sent was wrong -- they told me the "3400" block of a street when the actual area was the "30400" block. Good thing for radio reporters and laptops.

As I drove, I did a lot of quick thinking. I'd want two bodies, one with a wide-angle, and another with a 70-200mm/f2.8 zoom. The light was still decent so I would add the 1.4x extender to the zoom and also bring a 300mm/f2.8 in case our vantage point was far away.

I also thought about what I would see and what would be storytelling. That sounds so basic, but in the heat of the moment, it's easy to overlook the easiest things. I knew the basic elements were the plane and the wrecked house. If I could get an investigator looking at the crash that would lend an important human element.

We don't, as a general rule, want to show dead bodies, but I did want to find the surviving resident and get a photo of him or her if I could. At a long stoplight I grabbed the equipment from the back of my car and reformatted the compact flash cards. Selected an ISO for both cameras that would allow me to shoot in pretty low light (the radio had said, "down a ravine or hillside", and it was also getting close to sunset).Also got my laptop bag ready to go so I could transmit right from the scene.

It only took me about 15 minutes to find the right place. The road leading to the crash site was blocked off by a sheriff's deputy. He stopped me and I showed him my business card and media parking pass.

"Anyone can print those up", he barked. "Got anything with a photo?".

Really? Okay. He had every right to examine my credentials, but really, there were already two dozen neighbors milling around. Was his logic that someone would actually go to the trouble of printing up fake business cards, haul around thousands of dollars worth of camera gear just to drive an hour and a half into rural King County and walk to the scene of an hour-old plane crash?

I didn't have time to figure it out. I walked down the road to the scene ready to shoot the first thing that made a photo. In my experience, media is often corralled to one part of the scene across the street for safety purposes. Nothing wrong with that. But it's often not the best place to make a photo, so I was ready to literally shoot first and ask questions later.

From the road I could make out the wreckage of the plane with a sheriff's deputy standing nearby. Knowing that accident investigations can be stagnant while the proper authorities arrive (in this case, the sheriff's had secured the scene but were waiting on the medical examiner and also officials from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The scene had all the elements I had preplanned for, so I knelt and shot a couple of quick frames before reaching the assembled media and the public information officer on site.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens w/ EF 1.4x extender @ 185mm, ISO 200, 1/320 sec., f4.0)

It was only then that I introduced myself and got the basics of the story and where we were allowed to shoot from and where we weren't.

Not much was happening, so I got out my laptop and made a little office in the gravel next to the road and transmitted a photo quickly back to the paper for the website. I'd only been at the scene for less than 10 minutes.

Done transmitting, I reassessed the situation. A big tarp was hanging from some trees and blocked some of the scene. I assumed the deceased pilot was somewhere behind the tarp. Meanwhile, the editors asked for a photo that showed more of the house. I told them I would try, but that there were no people around the wreckage. Then, they moved a car out of the carport and I shot that as a backup.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 105mm, ISO 800, 1/160 sec., f8.0)

Finally, some more investigators showed up and I was able to put humans, the plane wreckage and the damaged house all in one frame.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 105mm, ISO 800, 1/400 sec., f6.3)

After a while, they removed the tarp (not sure what it was blocking, but a body was not visible, thankfully), and I was able to get a clearer shot of the damage to the house. Again, though, no human elements.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 85mm, ISO 800, 1/250 sec., f5.6)

Editors needed to make decisions for the print edition as it was now after 7pm. I told them I had a clearer view of the home, but no people. "Want or wait?" I emailed. They replied, "wait".

About 15 minutes later, one of the deputies went back over to the scene and I was able to tie everything together.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 100mm, ISO 800, 1/200 sec., f4.5)

I quickly moved this photo back in time for the print edition.

Lastly, I wanted to make a record photo that showed the whole scene, including the bank behind this home from which the plane had come over. The airfield is on top of that bank.

(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 16-35mm/f2.8 lens @ 24mm, ISO 800, 1/250 sec., f8.0)

As spot news goes, this wasn't visually spectacular, nor was it the biggest news in the world. But it got my adrenalin running and "news brain" chugging along again, which is good exercise for a journalist. If, heaven forbid, a large earthquake or other disaster were to happen, all those skills would have to be recalled quickly.

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