Photographer’s Q&A – Robin Rowland
This week’s Q&A is with Robin Rowland, journalist, author, and photo editor for CBC News. His web site is www.robinrowland.com.
A butterfly lands on an echinacea flower in my front garden, Toronto, summer 2007.
What were your first steps in the industry?
On my 17th birthday, my father gave me a Minolta SRT-101 SLR and a ticket to go to Montreal for Expo 67. (I actually used a couple of the colour photos I shot that summer for the 2007 anniversary photo gallery on CBC.ca because all the wire photos from 1967 were in black and white.)
Those were the days when the Toronto papers had “reps” in every high school to call in the scores. So that fall, I landed the gig with The Globe and Mail. I took my camera with me to the first football game for the fun of it and to try out sports photography. As I was shooting, I knew I wanted to be both a photographer and a reporter.
After high school graduation, I was part of L’Aventure Canadienne, one of Pierre Trudeau’s first experiments in bilingualism, in which English and French students travelled together across the country for the summer. We drove in two minivans from Montreal to Ottawa; from Ottawa to Vancouver; from Vancouver to Halifax; and then back to Montreal. I got to shoot Trudeau when he saw us off from Parliament Hill and kept shooting right across Canada.
At York University, I was both a reporter and a photographer for the student newspaper Excalibur. (Dave Cooper, (currently with the Toronto Star), was the main photographer at Excalibur when I was there and he was also working as a photographer for the Toronto Telegram).
When you were a student, what did you want to do after graduation, and are you now where you thought you would be?
I went to Carleton University for the one-year grad program and was lucky enough to be one of the students in Ted Grant’s photojournalism class. It was always interesting to get the contact sheets back from Ted, with the shots he liked framed in coloured grease pencil. Often, they were not the ones I expected and that made me think, “Why does Ted think this one is good?” – which is the best way to expand a student’s vision.
I was hired by the Sudbury Star as a reporter-photographer, mainly on the police beat. This probably gave me a wider variety of experience and more opportunity to shoot than if I had landed an entry-level job on a big daily.
When I was in university, I never dreamed that there would even be such a job as the still photo editor for CBC News. (That probably means that some of the most interesting jobs in future journalism will also be a surprise when they’re created.)
I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I have done lots of foreign travel but it hasn’t been as part of my work for either CBC or CTV. It was on my own, as I did research for the books I have written.
Six-year-old Jeffrey Versluis works the controls of a game called Verticon. The game is described as a battle system where air jets push lightweight balls into the air and the player tries to knock balls out of play. The game was rated one of the Hot Toys of 2007 by the Canadian Toy Association.
What or who are your biggest inspirations?
My inspiration is closer to that of an earlier generation of photographers. I grew up in Kitimat, British Columbia. The town was a bit out of the way, so it didn’t have television until I was about 12 or 13. That was quite a different media experience from others of my generation who grew up in big cities with access to both Canadian and American TV channels.
My windows on the world were Life and National Geographic magazines. The photographers I remember looking for each week included Larry Burrows, Gordon Parks, Alfred Eisenstaedt and David Douglas Duncan. As a kid, I bought every special edition of Life that came out and asked for National Geographic books for Christmas.
Do you have a mentor?
Apart from Ted Grant’s class, I was pretty much on my own.
What was a pivotal point in your career?
There were two pivotal points.
In 1980, I moved to London, hoping to follow the route of other Canadians by getting a job with one of the foreign bureaus. Instead, another path opened up. By working for Universal News Services (the, then, UK equivalent of Canada News Wire) which was using the British videotex system, Prestel, I got into computers long before most people knew what they were. I was lured back to Canada by the Southam videotex project. I then moved to the CBC teletext project which was killed by (then) Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s budget cuts.
Videotex was the first interactive news and information system. Text was retrieved over the telephone network from a mainframe computer.
Teletext used the same computer hardware and software but was broadcast over the Vertical Blanking Interval, which was that black bar at the bottom of the analog TV picture which people would see, in “ancient times”, when the TV set “went on the blink” or was about to fail.
By the way, Knight Ridder was the U.S. news organization in 1981-84 that experimented with videotex. Even then, the chain was facing questions whether this technology would kill newspapers. At the time, Knight Ridder produced a study that said online news would only be a supplement because people still preferred to hold a physical newspaper.
I then started writing books and worked for CTV, mostly as a writer for news anchor Lloyd Robertson. In 1994, I returned to CBC as a lineup editor for Newsworld.
In 1996, my old boss from the teletext project was the first senior manager of Newsworld Online. So, I became the third employee at CBC’s Newsworld Online.
I am an avid hiker and outdoors person. During those intervening years, I spent a lot of time shooting wilderness landscapes.
I started shooting the occasional picture for the Newsworld web site using the still function of my Sony digital video camera. I soon bought my first digital point-and-shoot and then shot more pictures for the web site.
The second pivotal point came when CBC signed a contract with Canadian Press Images. CBC then created the photo editor’s job which served both online and television news.
The job has grown over the past six years, mostly for two reasons: the television side came, more and more, to recognize the value of the still photo for TV News, and, as we expanded, I and other CBC staff got to go out and shoot.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May smiles and waves to the crowd while marching in the Toronto Pride Parade, June 29, 2008.
How important is multimedia to you?
Very important. It’s my main job. And here I am going to rant a little:
One thing I was told, in the early days of videotex/teletext by experts both in London and Toronto, was that it would take 20 years to create a personal computer. So, in the meantime, the cutting edge would be a keyboard connected to a TV connected to a mainframe via a phone line. What no one knew, at the time, was that there were all these geeks in California creating PCs in basements and garages. So it took only 18 months, not 20 years.
One area where I think many photographers are failing is that they/we have too narrow a definition of “multimedia.” You ain’t seen nothing yet, folks.
What the people who say “video will replace photographs” are ignoring is how much, in the past half-dozen years, the major networks have embraced the still photo, not only online but on television and not just the CBC, but also BBC, CNN, ABC and others.
Everything is digital. So it’s so much easier today to drop a digital still photograph into digital video. On breaking news, quite often digital stills are ahead of satellite video feeds:
• We used the still photos of US president Barack Obama in Ottawa’s Byward Market that came in from AP/CP. The video didn’t move until at least 45 to 50 minutes later.
• On the Thai coup a few years ago, there were problems getting video out of Bangkok. On the other hand, the first AP still of the coup troops moved within a few minutes of the first “alert”. For almost two hours, which is an eternity in 24-hour cable news, all that was available was the AP stills (which kept coming).
These days, I routinely meet with documentary producers for The National who plan to use still photographs, not only when there isn’t video available but also when the stills can add variety and interest. These producers want the highest resolution images available, much higher resolution than HD, because there is so much more you can do with that kind of image, zooming in, for example, or mixing it with the video.
The still photo is going be around for a long time. It is not going to be replaced by video or even video frame grabs from HD.
The use of audio has barely been touched. With today’s software and some experience, a talented person can do an audio mix that would have required a full studio just a few years ago.
As I said on NPAC’s tech board a few weeks ago, a high quality microphone is absolutely essential. A good mic is the equivalent of a high-end prime lens for a photographer – and you won’t realize that until you listen to the end product through a good sound system.
Always imagine that your multimedia presentation is going to be seen — and heard — at the local multiplex, not through your computer speakers. If your multimedia project is up for an award, it may very well be played through a high-end theatre sound system. And in a few years, it might also end up playing in a multiplex.
I am pretty sure, especially given the meltdown in today’s job market, multimedia breakthroughs are not going to come from the established organizations, which are cutting back. But instead, from some computer-generation kid working in their basement or garage, who has skills in photography and video and audio, who has been playing with computers since age 4, and who knows he/she can do better than the stuff seen on YouTube.
How do you ensure you are progressing as a visual journalist?
I try to shoot at least a couple of frames every day, even if it’s just my back garden.
At work, because we are a 24-hour news cable network, I always have the CP/AP and Getty picture feeds open on my computer, constantly refreshing, so I see everything as it moves. If something interests me, if a shot grabs me, I open it up and ask myself why did this grab me? Or why don’t I like this shot? If you’re looking at rows and rows of thumbnails on a computer monitor, the great shots really leap off the screen, even at thumbnail size.
I always aim to take at least one workshop a year, two or more if possible and affordable, and to try something I haven’t done before.
Although few people know it, there is a core of still photographers at CBC whose work equals the major dailies. But because they work in other areas, as videographers, producers, reporters or technicians, they only occasionally get an opportunity to use those skills. So I learn when I see their work.
One example is Ed Middleton’s work from Afghanistan.
One of my jobs is coaching other CBC employees who are just starting to add photography to their skill set. You always learn when you teach others.
What are some of the must-see web sites you visit? Please include why you visit these sites (e.g. inspiration, guidance, information, education).
So many web sites, so little time! Most often, I go to a web site that someone on the NPAC board recommends. These days, there are even great links on Facebook.
Multimedia Muse is worth checking out since it’s actually an aggregation site for some of the best multimedia being produced. As a friend from AP told me, “let Multimedia Muse be your friend”.
Also, I like Rob Haggart’s A Photo Editor blog.
What is your favorite way to unwind?
The best way for me to unwind is to get as close to nature as I can. Not always possible in Toronto but I live close to the Leslie Street Spit (Tommy Thompson Park) which is, unfortunately, only accessible on weekends.
I try to get away on some kind of wilderness adventure every year. This year I hope to go back to the Kitimat area where I grew up. I also belong to a hiking club which gets me out of town from time to time.
I am also, very slowly, building a model railway in a spare bedroom.
Sunset, Lumsden Lake, Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario, August 1996
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?
“Practice your scales.”
When I was at CTV, Jim Mellanby, one of the best sports TV directors in the business, told me the story of the man who, according to Jim, was the best hockey cameraman in Canada. (Unfortunately, I can’t remember his name).
Jim said that every few games, this guy wouldn’t take a break between periods. Instead, he would stay with his camera, zoom in on one of the Zamboni wheels and then track that wheel with his camera, as the Zamboni did its circuit around the arena. The cameraman said it kept his skills fresh and it was his way of practising to follow the puck.
“It’s like practicing your scales on the piano,” Jim said.
A couple of years later, I came across similar advice in a National Geographic field guide. It recommended, as practice for photographers, shooting the same object over and over, in all kinds of light, at different times of day, on different times of the year, with different cameras (and that was back in the film era).
So when I switched to digital, I did just that. There’s a tree outside the window of my home office and I just kept shooting it whenever I could. When I started my blog, I called it “The Garret Tree” and used a Photoshopped graphic version of one of my tree shots as the blog’s theme image. I now have a couple thousand images of that tree on my hard drive, from all four seasons, all times of the day. I don’t shoot it as often as I used to, but every few weeks, I shoot the “garret tree” to keep in practice. On a wider basis, I also shoot my front and back garden as often as I can.