Category Archives: Tech

Back in Burma with More Light: A Review of the Ice Light

We are working in an era where technology is fueling our passion to create powerful multimedia. However, the market is so saturated with constantly evolving technology that, in my short career, I’ve found that the gear purchases I make are often completely obsolete for me six months later and almost certainly one year later (here’s where you picture a club full of manufacturers smoking cigars and drinking scotch that I’ve paid for).

Today, I’m six months down the road from a purchase I made this year at NAB, and I’m just as excited about it today as I was then. It’s the Ice Light from Westcott.

Continue reading Back in Burma with More Light: A Review of the Ice Light

Robbing our subjects or helping our audience?

“In the end, we didn’t reach an agreement. They got violent and took me away from the villager’s home. They hit me in the head, slapped my face and pushed me down the stairs. Then they forced me into the car and kept hitting me … They Forced me to meet their leader. They took me there and pushed me out their car and I saw the office of their leader. I thought I would be safe, but it wasn’t true. I was pushed into the office and I saw him sitting behind the desk. He was just staring at me. Then the thugs poured hot tea on my face and body. He just started at me in silence.”

Getting quotes like these is very difficult in China, especially when it comes to land rights. It’s even more difficult to get people to say it on camera. If a subject says something like this to me, on camera, they are risking even more problems for themselves. But in the video above, you won’t actually hear the subject say this in Chinese; instead, you’ll hear a voice-over in English.

I often wonder who I am truly making videos for. Am I doing it for the subjects in the videos, to give them a voice? Is it for a cause that needs more awareness? Am I doing it for me?

Continue reading Robbing our subjects or helping our audience?

Petrol Practicality: A Review of Petrol Camera Bags

Jonah M. Kessel with Petrol's Digibag DSLR Camera Bag.

Year-to-year, month-to-month and sometimes even day-to-day, my opinions about gear and cinematography change. There are things I said a year ago, that I now completely disagree with. In part, this is due to evolving technology in a rapidly changing industry. Another part is personal growth as a filmmaker. The more mistakes you make, the more you learn. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and therefor feel a bit privlidged in having been able to learn so much.

One of the only constants in my never ending quest to grow as a filmmaker is the need for more bags. They are always needed and you can never have enough. Different situations, require different bags.

Last year, camera bag maker Petrol Bags sent me some samples to test out.

Continue reading Petrol Practicality: A Review of Petrol Camera Bags

Size Matters — My field test of the Canon C100 in Burma

C100 in the Palm of Your Hand.
The C100 (literarily) fits in the palm of your hand.

I went to Burma with a simple task: to investigate challenges to Myanmar’s nascent model of democracy using the mining industry as a device to talk about bigger issues. Wait … that wasn’t simple at all. In fact, that was very complicated. However, my second goal of the trip was simple: to field test Canon’s C100 in a large variety of environments in a real world context. This would be the opposite of a desk test.

When I first tried Canon’s C300 my DSLR was instantly jealous. However, at the $16,000 benchmark, I knew it wouldn’t be a game changer for most. It wasn’t till I got my hands on Canon’s C100 that the DSLR became outdated.

Continue reading Size Matters — My field test of the Canon C100 in Burma

The Coffee Pot Song Audio Test

The Coffee Pot Song Audio Test from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

DEAR MICROPHONE MANUFACTURERS, SCIENTISTS, AUDIO ENGINEERS and CAMERA GEEKS: In no way is this test completely scientific. The mics are in close proximity of each other, but not so close to be completely scientific. The results show circumstantial results of consumer level microphone performance in a (hopefuly) entertaining and slightly enlightening way. That is all.

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One of the questions I am most frequently asked by strangers is not “how are you?” but “how do you record audio?”

Ironically, when I look at the audio quality of videos I’ve made over the past two years, I find listening to some of the older samples fairly painful. However, over time I’ve gotten better, usually learning by trial and error. And those errors have included the purchasing of a lot of DSLR audio equipment.

This post is not designed to review those products or even talk about them in detail. Instead, I’ve made a video which simply stacks up 8 audio tracks in one video next to each other in what is The Coffee Pot Song Audio Test.

ABOUT THE TEST: Last week, photographers Peter Carney and James Wasserman and I rearranged my living room to film Kirk “Magic Fingers” Kenney play The Coffee Pot Song. We setup seven cameras all within one meters of each other, but all roughly the same distance away from subject. The idea was to see how some of the more common DSLR audio options recorded in a quiet room with soft and loud sounds. In post, I then switched the audio from one mic to the next so we could hear in real time what was changing in audio quality.

Kirk Kenney During Audio Test

The floor plan of this test worked out like this:

The top video shows all of these mics in sequence. The mics go through two rounds each followed by a final third quick round. Below is a single track of the audio which I thought was best.


The Coffee Pot Song from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

FIRST PLACE: The clear winner in this experiment was the 5D Mark III paired with the juicedlink Riggy preamp, mixed with the Rode NTG-2 and the Sony Lav. However, this audio setup is a significantly bigger investment. For all three pieces you’re looking at $1240 from B&H. While I was able to control the mix of this to the lav near his color and the NTG-2 Shotgun mounted on my cage, where you really hear the difference is in the noise level. Play particular attention to the areas where there is silence, such as at the end during the credit roll. While the Riggy cuts time away from post production by eliminating the syncing process, this example does show the very affordable preamp’s ability to diminish unnecessary noise.

SECOND PLACE: Looking at the three most common Rode options the results are more difficult to examen. Out of these three options I found the less expensive Rode Shotgun Mic ($149 from B&H) to have the lowest amount of noise. However, in scenarios where audio is not coming from a single direction, I’ve encountered great problems with this mic (see good example of this mic here and problematic example here). The Rode Stereo Mic ($299 from B&H) I found does the best job focusing in on what audio is important, minimizing possibly unwanted background sounds. However, this mic captures the most noise out of the three. This mic is also the smallest of the three, making it the easiest to transport safely and not interfere with your rig as much as the Shotgun or Compact Shotgun. But in general, as a scratch audio option or interview mic option, I find this mic to be far too noisy (see bad audio example of a video created solely from this microphone here. The Rode compact shotgun ($229 from B&H) I found to be a mix between the two, offering slightly less noise than the Stereo Mic, but not as deep a sound as the larger form Shotgun.

THIRD PLACE: We also recorded with both the Zoom H1 ($88 from B&H) and Zoom H4N ($245 from B&H) audio recorders, however, in the process of recording 10 other audio sources, lost our H4N footage. The H1 footage is however, fairly remarkable for its price. I’ve had great luck with these small things and for its price — I don’t think much compares to it if you have the mic properly placed (check this link for a great example of its ability).

HONORABLE MENTION:Another big winner in this experiment was the iPhone 4. While the gain wasn’t great, compared to the Android there was no comparison. The iPhone’s footage follows the Zoom H1’s track and the difference is actually fairly small.

CONCLUSION: Like most things in life, and especially in the video world, you get what you pay for. More money means better audio. Saving a few bucks in this case, means more noise.

Products Making My Life Better: Sachtler Ace Tripod

Sachtler Ace Tripod System

As a group, photographers and filmmakers might spend more time thinking about the tools we use to do our job than almost any other profession. Every single job has a specific set of tools which will be the most effective tools for that job. Having the wrong tools can result in uncomfortable days and poor results. Given the amount of competition in the creative world, I try to stay away from having poor results. That’s not rocket science, but anything I can do to make my job easier and in turn produce better results, I do.

Before I go to a shoot there’s always this seemingly silly, but often anxious, thought process in trying to decide what I should bring and how I should bring it. Which camera, which lenses, which microphones, which stabilization devices, etc. But the questions don’t stop there. How many bags does it require to bring X amount of gear, previously decided on? How many of those bags can I hold without killing myself? If there’s a lot of bags, how many people does it take to carry them? Is the car big enough for a Pelican case six feet long? How do we get the tripods on the plane? Does that rig break down? Can we rent it there? And so on …

The questions build and over time the answers to those questions result in owning a lot of gear. This is necessary in order to do the best possible job in every possible scenario. However, in my arsenal of gear, certain products are becoming more universally relevant regardless of what I happen to be shooting. These products often have a huge impact on my life and in many ways — make life a little easier. I wanted to dedicate some space and time to thoughts to products who I feel are currently making my life a little better.

Sachtler Ace Tripod
Sachtler Ace Tripod

The first in this series being the Sachtler Ace tripod.

Coming from a still photography background, I owned a lot of tripods before I moved into the video world. And for the first year or so, those tripods worked ok.

However, over time as my ambition grew so did my need for proper video tripods. While I needed fluid movement ability, none of my cameras or rigs were actually that big that warranted 80% of the tripods I was using.

Jonah Kessel moving Jib.
Jonah Kessel moving a Jib too big for his camera.

For example, in this photo I’m using a jib with a fairly heavy tripod — but throughout the day I was using the tripod with a DSLR on it. The tripod probably weighed around 8-10 kg (it needed to be big enough to carry a 4 meter job). For cameramen with bigger payloads, this is necessary. However, as a DSLR shooter it was a bit over kill, even if my camera was completely rigged up.

For awhile I felt a bit stuck. I had to make the decision to either have a tripod that was too big or one that didn’t perform well enough. While it might be easy to say — simply take the one that’s too big, if you’re the person carrying that tripod around and you have a lot of air travel involved, this isn’t always the best option.

Then, I was approached by Sachtler — a German company making tripods outside of Munich. They told me about a new product called the Ace System — a tripod system made for DSLR or small HDV camcorders. They claimed the system would be light weight, but perform with functionality and ability of a much larger tripod. This summer I tested their claim working on the road in Mongolia, Italy and France.

A Changing Landscape from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

On all of these assignments, I consciously tried to push the tripod, shooting on uneven surfaces, small spaces and experimenting with the friction controls. The result of me pushing this tripod was quite a bit of pan and tilt movement throughout the videos. You can see the results above and below. But from the user side, I thought it was fantastic.

For DSLR shooters who travel a lot, often without big budgets, this tripod fits like a tailored suit.

One thing similar about all of these assignments: we had to move locations throughout the day, everyday. There was a schedule, but no shot list in terms of shooting. This meant I was frequently packing up my bags and unpacking them. In Paris, Italy and Mongolia, I was also on foot a tremendous amount of the time.

These are all attributes I would normally try to avoid: not planning, no shot list, frequent location changes … actually it sounds like a bit of a filming nightmare.

Jonah Kessel shooting during Can't Forget Italy.
Jonah Kessel shooting during Can't Forget Italy.

In these scenarios the Ace was perfect. It gave me enough support to have a my rig on it with fluid control, but it wasn’t big enough that it weighed me down. While my setup changed slightly from place-to-place, I was shooting with the Ace combined with a Canon 5D Mark III and Shane Hubert’s Master Cinema Series ManCam from Letus Direct. I used a full set of Canon glass with the heaviest lens being a 70-200 f/2.8 L USM. The cage also often had audio and external monitors on it.

A Stranger in Paris from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

As far as the construct of the tripod, the Ace system has a counterbalance dial as well as a 3-point drag controls for vertical and horizontal movements. At 3, on the drag control, the movement is fairly resistent and gives you the ability to easily follow a moving person or object. The system also is equipped with locking levers for vertical or horizontal movement.

Movement Controls - Ace Tripod.
Movement Controls - Ace Tripod.

The tripod weighs in at 4.4 kg (roughly 9 lb) with the fluid head weighing 1.7 kg (3.7 lb). This is great for air travel, when other tripods of similar ability can take up a high percentage of your legal weight limits. The tripod itself is built from a light weight aluminium while the fluid head built from a fiberglass reinforced composite.

Sachtler Ace System

The two-stage tripod has a maximum height of 173 cm / 68.1 in with a minimum height of 57 cm / 22.4 in. In the height departement, looking at what could be improved with the tripod, I do wish the tripod went a bit lower. The minimum height is still a bit high in many scenarios.

Furthermore, while the tripod is good for lower payloads, if you are shooting on a C300, Sony F3 or larger traditional camera this probably isn’t the right tripod for you. The manufacturer says it maxes out at 8.8 lb (4 kg). However, for solo shooters with DSLRs and smaller cameras, this product is fantastic.

One of my big questions, was how it wold do traveling. Going in and out of 6 different countries this summer with it — its still functioning as it did when it was new.

Canon 5D Mark III on Sachtler Ace Tripod System.
Canon 5D Mark III on Sachtler Ace Tripod System.

And the real kicker is — the price.

Its cheap. I might even call it — real cheap.The head and tripod come together and are priced at $550 from B & H. There’s simply not so many (if any) options that function this well, at this price range.

For me, this is the right equation. The right balance between size, weight, functionality and price.

In short, this product is making my life a little better.

DISCLAIMER: Sachtler did supply me with this tripod for user feedback. However, I was not required to write this review, and was free to voice my own opinions.

What's Wrong with View: The False Analytics of Success

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NOTE FROM JONAH: This is Part II of a blog post looking at the viral video market. For Part I “Forgetting Italy” click here.

What’s Wrong with View?

Actually, nothing is wrong with you. But there is something wrong with views when measuring success in the so called viral video market.

About once a week or so, I get an email or call from someone who claims they want to make a “viral video.” So — what is a viral video? Our friends at Urban Dictionary tell us:

The term “viral video” refers to video clip content which gains widespread popularity through the process of Internet sharing, typically through email or instant messages, blogs, and other media-sharing websites, such as YouTube. Viral videos are often humorous in nature and may range from televised comedy sketches such as Saturday Night Live’s Lazy Sunday to unintentionally-released amateur video clips like Star Wars Kid.

“I posted this vid of me and my friends lighting off fireworks in our pants and its all over the web man”! his video has become a ‘viral video’

However, the term has become so common I believe it actually now transcends popularity into a genre of video. Much like the music label “Indie” which technically stands for “independent.” But we all know, the Shins or Strokes aren’t really “independent” from anyone. However, they have a sound we all know as Indie.

People now have a type of video in mind when they say a viral video.

A Stranger in Paris from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

But when businesses call asking for these things, rarely to they actually understand what they are requesting. Furthermore, I don’t believe many small businesses or companies without dedicated social media teams understand what’s actually happening in the viral market.

So what is actually happening here?

To break this down, viral videos can largely be broken down into two categories: the real kind and the fake kind, although the result is often the same.

Type one: the real kind. These videos are usually taken by amateurs and often had no intention by the creator of ever being shown to anyone outside of their friends and family, ala Star Wars Kid, above. We know these videos all to well. These videos often feature life’s most embarrassing moments.

Then, there’s type two: the fake kind. These are commercially shot videos that become internet sensations — however, they were made with the intention of becoming popular in this online venue. Sometimes these videos truly gain popularity out of the merit of the content, such as PSY’s Gangnam Style. But more of the time, the popularity behind these videos isn’t exactly what it seems.

What is commonly misunderstood about these type two viral videos is that there are massive teams behind the videos making sure they get popular. Whether its tens, hundreds or thousands of people or simply robots — digital armies embedded and link to the videos across the internet like a gardner plants vegetables across a field. The videos are scattered through the internet on blogs, forums and social media outlets. And just like a garden requires water and sun, these videos require maintenance to make sure they become popular.

After the videos are seeded, teams of people and bots are deployed to post comments, responses and to hit the tactically relevant ‘like’ button — because after all, popularity is contagious.

This creates the perception of popularity — which sadly enough, can create “real” popularity. However, more of the time than not, the views you see on these videos are simply not accurate. But this might not matter. Now, the social media teams and PR agencies carrying out these tactics can show their clients how popular their videos are. And if their client is happy, perhaps they have been successful.

But I always ask: Has the target audience been saturated with the message of these video? Its hard to say.

Sometimes I try to check. I see a video which has been shot to look like an amateur shot it. There are menacing corporate tactics going on here. Then I see a couple hundred thousands views, so I look further.

Funny enough, often, the geographic region of viewers seems to frequently come from Asia or Russia (sometimes from places where the site is even banned …). Then I find results like: interesting that 300,000 people from Russia thought this video was interesting but only 5,000 in America. Or more suspiciously, like in the case of the pepsi video above, the geographic stats are turned off from the public. So, how setup is the video above?

Only the creator and company funding it actually know. Are they using other bottles? Or do they really just use Pepsi bottles?

A quick Google search for “get more views” will show you a lot of ways consumers can get views, without the resources of big businesses.

Twenty dollars will get you a quick hundred thousand views. Or, a free download or signup to a web site can get you repeated viewing of videos clearing caches in between each click.

With so much shadiness and straight up inaccuracy surrounding the analytics of views, its hard to imagine using it as a measure of success. From a video creators perspective — it simply negates the actual merit of the video and encourages quantity over quality. In addition, we can assume that popular videos have been maintained, like a garden, and therefor the views don’t really equate to quality in any way.

If You Want to go Far, Go Together from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

However, at the same time if a client wants 100,000 views, and they don’t care if they are from robots or from a room full of ladies named Vladlena, then that is their business. However, if they are paying you to make the videos, it can become your business as well.

I participated in a project from Italy a few months ago whose aim was to get the most views.

Quickly, the program ran into problems when some videos were jumping in views in the tens of thousands over night. After much lamenting, the contest changed mid way, although still used views as a methodology of measuring success. That contest ends at the end of September. My video (at the top of this page) is supposed to have 7000 views.

Sadly, I don’t really like the video too much. However, trying to reach my quota and inflate popularity I’ve had to promote it. This experimental program sheds light on this new dilema filmmakers can find themselves in, if value is placed on views. Another downfall of the analytics of online success. A tool to make filmmakers promote things they don’t like?

While this is confusing, there are a couple things we do know:

  • (1) Views do not equate to actual people.
  • (2) A high view count does not mean you have reached your target audience.
  • (3) A high view count doesn’t mean you have made a good video.
  • (4) The count is never actually accurate. Ever.

Sadly, the nascent market is in a place where organizers, corporate decision makers and even worse — the audience, might not fully understand what’s going on behind the curtain.

This will change as audiences become more hip to advertisers goals and tactics. But in the meantime, its good to be at least aware of what’s going on with this false indicator of success.

The Strap that Changed My Life

Blackrapids RS-7 Side View

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I can break all reviews into two categories: those that are solicited, and those that are not. This is the latter. And I write this unsolicited review because I believe Blackrapid’s straps have changed my life in a significantly positive way.

Jonah Kessel with Blackrapid's RS-7

DSLR News Shooter is a great resource for finding out about new gear and user opinions of the most up to date technology. Looking at the past couple weeks there are reviews of new cameras, new sliders, new glass and even a new user medium. As technology (and our gear habits) advance its easy to forget about some of the most basic parts of our kit.

But its ok, Blackrapid has not. The relatively nascent company rethought the most basic element of our kit — the strap.

Here’s how it works:

Blackrapids RS-7 Screw

FasternR System: Each strap uses a small screw which attaches to your cameras tripod mount. Between the screw and the camera is a small rubber washer unit which both protects the camera from getting scratched as well as stops the screw from unintentional loosening. After two years of using the system — the screw has never become loose enough to which it came even close to following off. I’ve climbed mountains, crossed rivers and sat on the side of helicopters with cameras hanging from this screw.

Blackrapids RS-7 on Canon 60D

ConnectR System: On the other side of the camera mount is Blackrapid’s ConnectR System — which is essentially a carabiner that allows the FasternR to swivel. These two items together make an amazing combination because you can have the camera move at your side, without the strap moving — or without needing to adjusted your clothing as you move. The straps then sling either diagonally (RS models) across the chest or vertically down the torso (DR models), distributing weight across the entire body.

Blackrapids RS-7
Blackrapid Diagram

Comfort Level: The strap has done wonders for my physical health, but beyond general comfort Blackrapid has made a strap that is completely adjustable to any body type. On each strap — there are two “stoppers” which can be placed where the user wants the camera to either fall or stop when at desired shooting position. If you place these right, pulling your camera up from your side will be smooth and the camera will stop exactly where you feel comfortable shooting. In addition, Blackrapid make’s male and female models for … varying chest shapes.

Health: For years after work I had neck and back pain from using traditional camera straps that place a heavy weight across the neck. Within weeks of changing straps, I actually felt physically better. I was less soar, my posture improved and I even began to sleep better.

Crowded Street

Mobility: Here I am in sunny India. I often find myself shooting in crowded places. With Blackrapid’s straps, the camera hangs upside down, and you can rest the camera either on your hip or toward the small of your back. Either way, the camera is not sitting right under your face like a bullseye. This is great for a number of reasons. In a crowd like the one above you can sneak through protecting the camera with your body. Second, the straps allow you to hide the camera. In Bihar, India (where the average annual income is $350) you might stick out a bit being foreign and walking around with $10,000 around your neck. When using Blackrapid straps in dodgy places, you can keep the camera out of direct site, making it a little easier to blend in and possibly — a little bit safer.

The system also allows you to use your hands for other stuff, while still keeping the cameras safe. Below, I’m using a Blackrapid DR-1 Double Strap, moving a three meter jib with a Canon 60D on it, with a Canon 7D and Canon 5DMII safely at my sides.

Jonah Kessel with DR-1 Blackrapid's Double Strap

For video oriented DSLR photographers: These things are great. I hate shooting video with a strap attached to the camera. Blackrapid straps come instantly on and off. Since I normally have multiple cameras rolling the straps come in handy all the time when one camera becomes unneeded but I want to have either a lens or a camera on standby.

For still oriented photographers: These things are also great. Above, I’m at a Prada Show shooting a new collection of clothing. While its great to have 10 lenses with you, sometimes space is an issue and being nimble helps. With one Blackrapid DR-1 Double Strap I can shoot all night with two cameras, no bags and no accessories needed to tie around my waste. For fashion, news and wedding photographers two cameras and two lenses is often enough.

MODS: There’s also a ton of add-ons and modifications that work with these things. when shooting stills a Brad which helps stabilize the camera a little.

Normally, I’m not so head over heals, “ready to propose” about a product — but between the utility and the physical health benefit — this one definitely has me.

Photos of me using Blackrapid’s straps by Swedish photographer Jojje Olsson. See his site here.

Dissemination and the Art of Entrepreneurial Journalism

NOTE FROM JONAH: The following blog post is a guest lecture I am giving to the International Multimedia Journalism MA in Beijing, Wednesday night. The course is based in Beijing, and is a collaboration between the Beijing Foreign Studies University and the University of Bolton in the UK. The course leader is Dr DJ Clark.

DISCLAIMER 1: Dear Biel Calderon, Stephanie Thiedig, Mark Esplin, Joseph Djima, Dirk Claus, Jeff Kennel, Lui Chen, Tracey Shelton, Michela Orlandi, Yi Song, Lee Ryan Perkins, Chen Mai, DJ Clark, Sharon Lovell and BFSU social media and photography students,

In talking about online promotion for photographers, there is no correct answer. There are certainly best practices, things to avoid and techniques to help, but the information that follows this note is simply my quasi-guerilla (social) warfare technique that I employ to promote me, my photography and my business. The online atmosphere for #togs is constantly changing and in many ways, to stay up to date with the blogosphere, microblogosphere and visual communities — would be a full time job. While we have other full time jobs already, doing every step below, every day, is simply not always possible … but we can sure try.

DISCLAIMER 2: Yes, I am promoting myself, by talking about promotion.


The first question we might ask before we get into how I go about promoting myself, might be — why should we promote ourselves?

We are currently living in an over-saturated photographic world. Nothing says this better than the latest iPhone update. While the phone has improved a small bit, the big push from Apple this round was a photographic update. For $399 mobile phone users now have an 8MP camera and a video camera shooting 1080P at 30 fps. Apple’s attention to this detail (over some more practical things) is certainly a testament to the world’s current obsession with photography.

Meatheads with an iPhone

Given that the average meathead has at least 8 MP in their pocket, and thousand of talented graduates come out of J-school, photography school or multimedia programs like yourselves every year, it becomes increasingly important that we as professionals not only separate ourselves from the general amateur photo community, but also within the professional community.

By promoting ourselves efficiently we gain two things. First and most importantly, we gain eyes on our work. Second and also most importantly, we gain income. While some will disagree, our work is heavily based on technology that is constantly changing and improving. To keep these toys in our hands, we need money. Increasing our revenues to keep up with technology is important (as is money to live comfortably while tackling this competitive world).

While no one will put a knife to your throat saying “promote!!!” there is a great risk in not promoting because everyone else will be doing it. This has a semi-swing effect for photographers who don’t have web sites, have no Google klout or place in online social communities. At least from the public perception and online eye, you could become buried under those who do. For some this is very tough. I have plenty of friends who truly dislike social media and online promotion — but who are great photographers. You can chose not to play the game, but given the online environment for #togs, you are walking a slippery line.


When I was going through J-school I was always told — if you are looking for money, you might want to try the business school across campus. Post univisity, in my first years as a staffer at newspapers I was paid the equivalent of peanuts by Swift Communications, a chain of newspapers in America’s west.

While you probably won’t become a millionaire by being a photojournalist, for the entrepreneurial journalist there is a world of financial opportunity out there. To get a piece of this, you need to think about your images, as your business.

Freelancers often think about themselves as independent contractors going from job to job. This is true. However, what you are really doing is creating a business. So whether you sell cupcakes, lemonade or photos — you should have a plan. Brand yourself as your business. Branding is essential to any business.

The first step to this branding, is creating a web site. And the first step in creating a web site is creating a name for your web site. I see a lot of questionable decisions at this early stage of the game.

Do you want to brand your name or some other abstract title? For example, you might have a portfolio site that has lots of breathtaking photos form Asia. You want a web site to show case this work and call it “” Now, let’s say this site becomes popular. The average person will now know instead of your name (.com). I see this very often with nascent production companies and individuals who chose a name which makes them look like companies. In the much more likely scenario that the business doesn’t succeed, you’ve also wasted time branding a business that doesn’t exist anymore, while you as a person, photographer and business — will always exist.

My first web site was called This site branded “Kessel Imaging” which was actually just me. After a couple years I decided to pull the plug and stop wasting time promoting an ephemeral brand, and instead brand me (a real person … I think) and moved my branding efforts to

• For more on entrepreneurial journalism check out Steve Buttry’s post “Jonah Kessel and Carmen Sisson discuss entrepreneurship and photojournalism” here.



The backbone to my online presence is my web site (not to be confused with my blog, photoblog, microblog, etc.). First, in no way does Facebook “cut it” as “your website”. Neither does Flickr, Picasa or some other photo sharing site.

I meet photographers almost daily who don’t have personal Web sites. Many of these folks will have Flickr pages or Facebook pages — but don’t be confused, these become largely invisible to the public eye, expanded social networks and bots who will be your friends in getting visitors, clients and eyes on your work.

While bots are increasingly indexing social media, by hosting your works on these sites, you end up promoting them, sometimes more than yourself. They gain traffic. They gain Google status. And perhaps worst off,they can gain the rights to your media. On an subconscious level or psychological level, hosting your content exclusively on a social media site such as Facebook or Flickr, can create an unprofessional association with your work.

BEST PRACTICES FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS CORE WEB SITES: The top five concerns I have with my site, and also the top four problems I see with other photographers’ sites are: usability, compatibility, search-ability, share-ability and load times. Let’s quickly go through these elements:

  • USABILITY: On a basic level, your web site should be easy to use. In fact, it should be so easy to use — an idiot should be able to navigate. For the busy client who is checking dozens of photographers’ sites, fancy and hidden buttons can turn mean a click off or closed tab.
  • COMPATIBILITY: Your web site should function not only across all browsers but all platforms — and for all users. may look like a flash built site, but there’s more than meets the eye backstage. Underneath the flash site is a mirror HTML site for users who don’t have flash as well as for bots who are indexing content. There is also a site for mobile users, a site for tablet users and another site for disabled users.
  • SEARCH-ABILITY: Photographers who simply have one flash built site lose a tremendous amount of traffic because bots can’t truly search the content of the site. Every image on has: (1) file names specifically labeled for SEO, keywords specifically labeled for SEO, titles specifically labeled for SEO. While this information is not contained in the flash built site, it is contained in the HTML site. When bots cruise the Web they see this information, index it and then make it available for users and potential clients browsing. Then when they click the link, the images forward to the flash built site. If your content is not searchable or findable, its almost as good as it not being there.
  • SHARE-ABILITY: I’m assuming you are all children of the 21st century and understand the power of sharing. A viral video or a photo can take off putting millions of eyes on your work. Let’s hope that content links back to you — but in the meantime, let’s make sure there is a sharing button accessible ALL OF THE TIME. By not having these buttons easily accessible, or accessible at all, you are simply loosing out to potential traffic, eyes and income.
  • LOAD TIMES: Unlike print journalists, our media unfortunately requires some space. It is critical to keep file sizes on videos and photos down to the smallest point possible. A long load time can be the difference between a click off and view. You could have the best content in the world, but if it takes too long to see it — no one will.

There are about a thousand choices for web sites. For the past three years I have been a client of Livebooks, a company who makes web sites for photographers. For the most part, I’ve been very satisifed. The company has lots of options including custom options. Might site is custom built off of my own functionality and front end visual design. backend

The company allowed me to give them the blueprints of how everything should work and look, and then they build the back end. The back end (in screenshot above) has a graphic user interface that makes managing the web site extremely simply, easy and fast. When I update the GUI, it updates the site and all mirror sites (including mobile and tablet sites). While this isn’t free — I couldn’t imagine updating 6 web sites manually every time I make a small change. The money spent on the site surely is made up in productivity time later.

In my continued efforts to brand myself as a business, the details of the site will also cross into the upcoming topics. Fontography, color schemes, link functionality and logos will be cross-branded across all of my web sites. Although these are small details and are largely ignored, the subconscious effect of branding continued out over multiple platforms turns you as an individual — into a brand.

You can sell a brand. Selling yourself is much more difficult … or illegal (in most places).

Jonah Kessel's Blogs


After creating, my goal was to create a continued traffic stream to it. While there are a number of ways to do this, we can split it up to a couple key categories: the blogosphere, the microblogosphere and social media communities. By engaging in these three keys elements, you will bring direct traffic to your site, while creating a Google ranking that will bring clients to your doorstep.

  • BLOGOSPHERE: The site you are currently viewing is my blog, hosted by WordPress. This site, named “Nomadically Curious Visual Thoughts” (note visual branding/attention to over title in logo) is dedicated to long form blogging and details images I take from traveling, as well as commentary about work I do. The general topics are journalism, photography, technology, video, China and travel. In an active month I will update it eighth to ten times. In a inactive month (which probably means I’m too busy to even sleep) I will update it two or three times. Since I am always working or traveling — there is never a shortage of items to blog about.

    The WordPress community is often a more mature community and technically sound one, than some of its counterparts (i.e. Blogger, Tumblr, etc.). People who use WordPress generally know HTML (at least enough to update a blog) and in general, the professional blogosphere is found here.

    I also host a photo blog called “Good Light and Good Luck” hosted on Tumblr. The Tumblr environment is very very different to that of the WordPress community. In general demographics of users seem to be much younger. Narrowcasting seems to be much greater in the Tumblr environment as well. While in the WordPress arena we see blogs on China or technology for example, on Tumblr, topics are widdled down to a much more specific level. Some of my favorite examples of narrowcasting on Tumblr include Kim Jong-il Looking at Things, Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Beiber, Fuck Yeah Girls on Bikes and Awesome People Hanging out Together.

    I do believe a monkey could use Tumblr. Its extremely simply, extremely efficient and requires no knowledge of HTML. While I target a general audience with my WordPress, I am targeting a younger demographic with the Tumblr blog. However, my Tumblr account is linked directly to my Twitter account and Facebook account, and these are updated simultaneously to a Tumblr post.

    The photoblog I update (at least) every day. However, this process is automated. About once a month I will update the blog for the next 30 days. I program the system to release one picture a day that includes a large caption with some backstory about the photo. I initially started this blog as a simply traffic fishing device that required little effort; however, over time I have come to like the community and its ability to focus on very narrow subjects.

    My Google Analytic report for last year shows my WordPress blog as the eighth largest traffic generator toward my mane site, and Tumblr coming in at eleventh.

  • MICROBLOGOSPHERE: While my blogs rank eight and eleventh in traffic generators to my main site, microblogs are ranking much higher, coming in at third, only behind Google and direct traffic. When I talk about microblogging I am primarily talking about Twitter. I believe Twitter is the single greatest tool we have for promoting ourselves as photographers; however, without the assets listed above (site, blogs) it becomes a much different beast.

    Twitter is something that has become integrated not only into my work but my life. It is always on. While I have backed off a bit compared to where I was at about a year ago (in terms of time actually spent watching Twitter feeds), it is still an intrigal part of my life. It connects me people who see and view my work. It gives me the opportunity to let those people who do follow my work, do follow it as it develops.

    From posting cell phone photos during shoots, to talking about the process as it happens from shoot to edit, Twitter helps me create transparency in what I do. People ask me questions daily about photography, technology and the stories I am working on. As a journalist I believe transparency in our work creates exponential value to our content. When readers, viewers or users have a connection to both the content and journalist, this becomes a lot easier.

    Making Twitter an effective tool for promoting is not as simple as just placing a link to your content when it becomes available. In fact, per article you publish you might have a specific roll out plan just for Twitter in how to best promote your work. But first, you need an active community of followers and aggregators to help spread your links around. And this means actually being part of the community, helping to promote other journalists and photographers works and engaging in dialogue.

    If you have 100,000 followers, but you are not active with them — the tool will be much less powerful. However, 200 active followers can be a huge help in getting your work into their networks.

    Here’s a couple things I keep in mind when using Twitter to promote my work:

    • TIME ZONES: Your followers most likely follow many people, and probably exist in many time zones. Therefor, if you post something once at 9:00 am its probably unrealistic to think Sahid in Qatar, Jaques in France and Chen in China all see the link. This makes it necessary to post things for different audiences in different time zones. Now look at times during the day when people might most likely be online.

      Right before lunch, when desk employees are killing time before they can take off. Right after lunch, when people don’t want to do work cause they are tired and full. Maybe 45 minutes after people arrive at work and are finished checking their work emails and thinking about how long till lunch. 30 minutes before the end of the work day is another great time when the Twittesphere becomes very active.

      If you post during those times and based on different time zones, you’re sure to get a little more attention.

      However, if you post the exact same Tweet twice, or Tweet too often, you’re followers will likely be annoyed with you for clogging up streams with content they’ve already seen. There is a fine balance between tweeting often enough, but not too often to be annoying.

      To give your followers more than just your content its important to stagger tweets linking back to your content, with tweets leading elsewhere, or commentary on other people’s works. If I put out a big piece that I thought could really go viral, I would link out to it every four hours for a day, and in between link to other things. With an article that was not as important, I might do it twice in a day (once for the Eastern hemisphere and one for the West – usually separated by 12 hours exactly).

    • TIMED TWEETS: You may be thinking … well, that seems like a lot of work. And it is. However, you don’t need to be sitting next to a computer the entire day waiting for 4:30 to roll around in every time zone. Instead you can use tools to automate Twitter. For example, right now, I am talking to you; however, I have programmed Twitter to automatically send tweets out during this lecture every 10 minute pointed at one of your Web sites.

      Having a presence on Twitter during all time zones will create a bigger following in more places. So take advantage of technology and tweet while you are sleeping.

    • SEO: You only have 140 characters, and Google is watching, so make them count. Just like writing a good headline, writing a good Tweet will make be clip or pass over.
  • SOCIAL COMMUNITIES: Beyond Twitter and the microblogosphere, other online social communities are critical in creating traffic to your sites. Last year, Facebook ranked fourth (only behind direct traffic, Google and Twitter) in generating traffic to In the last six months of this year, Vimeo ranked eight, with stumbleupon, YouTube, Google+ all also ranking in the top 20.

    Social communities can build your profile independently of your web sites as well. Today (November 23, 1:52pm), I had 2,300 views on Vimeo alone. This doesn’t count YouTube, Youku and Toudu where I also host videos.


So far, we’ve discussed the basics of online promotion. This is the bare minimum. However, if you want to excel I believe with each article or project you produce you can have a promotion plan and weasel your content into more places. Let’s take a couple examples, going from simple to some more complicated methods.

THE TEASER: If movies can have teasers, why can’t you? As cinematic journalism increases you’ll probably see more of this. I’m currently working on a project for Save the Children documenting disabled people around China. On December 1 a series of six videos will release on a new channel on Youku to promote the NGO and the channel. The videos are funded by the European Union as well as Save the Children.

The client requested a teaser to help promote their screening as well as the upcoming online dissemination. This can be a great money maker because, hey, its easy. Most of the content will already be ready to go: edited, color graded, codec-ed, etc.

THE REEL: In the past, it was normally just cinematographers, cameraman and movie people making reels. However, in the realm of cinematic journalism putting images with music can create a great self promotional tool. Having a reel ready, also opens up the doors to working outside of the traditional journalism fields. While I am largely video based now, in the past I would still make an annual reel made up of still images.

Creating a reel can be effective and fun. However, there are many things to think about when creating one. See this post “The Science of the Reel” for more thoughts on journalists using a reel as a promotional tool.

THE GUEST BLOG: Alright, so you have a blog, a photo blog, a microblog — now its time to guest blog. I guest blog on a number of different sites, one of my favorite being DSLR News Shooter. This community is mostly film makers and visual journalists, but plenty of audience members too. The video above, which was made mostly for the fun of it — has received over 5000 views, just on this site. For taking 20 minutes out of my day to write a blog post, I would say this is worth it.

Guest blogging also opens up the door for community members of that blog, to find your blog, increasing your core audience. On all major articles I produce I try to write at least one guest blog talking about what went into the production or some type of backstory, on top of creating content for my own blog. Here’s a couple examples:


PRODUCT REVIEWS: Reviewing products can benefit more than just a manufacturer. When reviewing gear, you can use your own work as an example of what can be done with the kit. By speaking out on your experience with gear and kit, you can help create dialogue for both users of technology and the creators.

In this example, I combine a product review of Kessler Crane’s Pocket Dolly, with a promotion for my own work. Guest blog post here: KESSEL ON KESSLERCRANE – JONAH KESSEL REVIEWS THE KESSLERCRANE POCKETDOLLY V2.0

PEOPLE HAVE QUESTIONS, YOU HAVE ANSWERS: People are curious. That’s a universal truth. One of my favorite new sites (which admittedly I had more time to use) is called Quora. Its a social media based Q&A site with an excellent community of experts on various subjects. As journalists we’re always (at least attempting to) answering questions. Often when I have a new story I think about what question it might be answering. For more on Quora and its potential see this post “Curious on Quora.”

In the example above, I created a video on censorship. I searched Quota for questions relating to censorship and China and found a couple that it related to. For example, one user had asked “When will China’s web censorship stop and the government’s attitude change?” While my video didn’t exactly answer this question, I did have an unused quote that I added to the conversation. I then gave some links to help push viewers from this site to my content in other places.

UTILIZING YOUR ASSETS: Often I see great content with short legs. This means, I see a great article but I don’t think the journalist (if its a freelancer) necessarily got all they could out of it. If you can promote your content efficiently, you will have the capability to make more money while getting more eyes on your content.

This means one project can have many different lives. In the fall of 2011, journalist Kit Gillet and myself created a project called “The Fate of Old Beijing.” This was an interactive project funded by the Asia Society and included three videos, a digital tour and two photo essays. You can see the project in that form here. However, we wanted more eyes on the content.

While we had an audience in the nonprofit sector, we then found a home for the video package in the editorial, or news sector. We sold the package to Global Post, who published all three videos in a series called Beijing’s vanishing act. You can see those videos here.

After a nonprofit and online newspaper — we moved to television and sold the rights to the Archeology Channel, where the videos were shown in the summer of 2011. Their posting about the series here.

Using our own contacts in the media, we started offering interviews and screenings of the films. This might seem like an obvious thing to do, but you will gain a greater audience by simply making yourself available to other journalists. Here’s some links of some of the places I interviewed, blogged or helped promote my material:

Beyond online media, we had enough content on this one to flip it around into a print article. As DSLR shooters, you always have the option to shoot stills and video. I often grab a still shot before I shoot video, to examen the frame. This gives me still photographs of most subjects and places I go. When video is rolling, you are grabbing quotes. So the only thing left is to fill in the details of the story where the quotes leave off.

The Fate of Old Beijing - print

This video appeared as a print article in UK based Geographical magazine in November of 2011, nearly six months after its first publication at the Asia Society, again — bringing in more revenue while getting more eyes on our content.

THE WIDE WIDE WORLD: You may have noticed a great variety of places mentioned above. Geographic variation can be another great asset to your content. When I publish an article, often times I think — “Ok, its published in China. Where’s next?” While publications like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal won’t make this possible, other publications have looser rules surrounding the issue.

Hong Kong - Underground Beijing

In many instances this can be a great asset to you and publications. For example, it is unlikely a reader in India will read a newspaper in Hong Kong. Above, you can see an article titled “Tunnel Vision” which appear in South China Morning Post in May.

Beijing - Underground City

Three months later, a slighter shorter version appeared in That’s Beijing’s August edition. The article would again be printed in Caravan, an Indian magazine. And of course, a blog post. Looking at your content as dynamic assets will get more eyes on your content while at the same time raising your profile and your income.

RE-EDIT/RE-SELL: Keeping control of the rights to your content is perhaps the most important thing you can do in repackaging and reselling. While NGO’s and the nonprofit sector don’t necessarily pay well, its usually pretty easy to control the rights to your content while helping out a good cause. Most NGOs are very happy in this scenario as it creates greater awareness of their cause. Here’s an example:

I support a couple different NGO’s, one being Shanghai Roots & Shoots. In the fall of 2011 I helped create a series of twelve, two-minute videos detailing one of their projects called “The Million Tree Project.”

The NGO paid for my expenses to travel to Inner Mongolia and film their volunteers planting trees in the desert. While there I grabbed more content that I knew would not be needed for their films, but might be useful for an additional program. In the end, I had enough content to create their videos as well as another long form piece here:

I find the nonprofit and NGO sector to be a great resource in doing ethical work while gaining assets that would otherwise be expensive and hard to find. In my experience, its pretty rare to encounter newspapers and magazines that will pay freelancers expenses (lodging, flights, food, fixers, translators). However, NGOs can do this — and as long as you can keep yourself separated as a journalist from their agenda, you can put yourself in a great position to gather unique and sellable content.


If the above plan sounds daunting, it is. On good days, I can get it all done. On days where hundred of emails are stacking up and the clock clicks away toward deadline, this can become tough. However, I have found the effect of my dissemination and promotional plan to be invaluable to both my career and content.

Now … Any questions? Those of you in class, ask away, those of you not in Beijing, feel free to write in questions in the comment section below or email me.

Kessel on Kessler Crane

NOTE FROM JONAH: This post was originally written for Dan Chung’s DSLR News shooter blog.

Frequently I’ve been doing more and more solo shoots.

No assistants or colleagues to help setup shoots, sound, light or mitigate the weight of my kit. The problem is, creating cinematic journalism requires some kit. So for me – when it comes to solo video production, its all about “bang for your buck.” Or in DSLR terms, how to create the greatest visual impact, with the smallest amount of kit.

For news videos I want to mix some type of mechanical movement, with natural movement, with stationary shots. This means I need a tripod, a shoulder rig and one more device for mechanical movement. After a recent assignment, someone in an email wrote to me:

“Really nice shooting on the piece. Did you lay down track for those slow dolly shots, use a jib, or use some new toy I don’t know about?”

And thus lies my answer to achieving mechanical movement for the solo shooter — the Kessler Pocket Dolly v2.0, Traveller size. What people are doing with this product is truly amazing. There are countless examples of beautiful work with this dolly; however, on a run-and-gun shoot that doesn’t allow much possibility for planning, this tool is excellent. In a matter of 30 seconds you can be setup and ready to shoot in any environment.

Here’s Kessler’s Pocket Dolly v2.0 Traveler Size a week earlier during a shoot in the deserts of Inner Mongolia. This product is simply amazing. The length of this slider (26.5″) fits perfectly on the side of my F-Stop Gear Satori bag (or inside of the bag if you need to).

The slider itself weights 5 lbs. and balances quite nicely with a Manfrotto 190Cx Carbon Fibre Q90 4-section Tripod (weighing in at 3 lbs.) – which is the smallest/lightest tripod I can find that will support the weight of the Kessler’s slider and a Canon 5D Mark II with a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 lens on it.

Kessler Pocket Dolly, Manfrotto Tripod, and F-Stop Satori Bag

When you have the slider and tripod on the side of the bag the weight balances out well and you can continue to shoot stills if you need. Here I am a couple months ago shooting stills in India with both tools on the side my F-Stop bag. So … its portable, useful — and guess what, you can even break it.

Ok, so you don’t want to ever break a piece of gear, but in case you do, this might be the product to break – because it was designed for people like me who might shoot in some less than controlled environments.

I just finished a film for the Asia Society called At the Desert’s Edge. The short film documents the trials and tentative successes of a collaborative effort between locals, governmental initiatives and NGOs fighting to combat China’s growing deserts by planting vast barriers of trees.

However, while shooting and traveling my slider got a couple nicks in the rails. Shooting in sand storms, traveling in less than comfortable conditions and constantly moving — things like this are bound to happen.

Nick in Kessler Crane Pocket Dolly

Although these nicks don’t look so bad they will effect your shots. The above photograph is taken with a Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Lens at about 4x — so this nick is almost invisible to the naked eye. But Kessler’s dolly was made with insertable rails which in a recent email they told me, is: “one of the reasons we went to the insert, so dings like this could be repaired.”

Kessler’s labor costs are very reasonable, and for about $35 dollars my slider is being repaired. Other sliders I’ve seen would need to be completely replaced in the case of a dent or nick.

By no means – are Kessler’s products “breakable” or even easy to break. However, the reality of video journalism is that that you can’t control your environment, the people around you — or how airport security handles your kit. So beyond the beautiful movement you can achieve with the slider, the versatility in build is a huge bonus.