The view from behind the lens: Working ENG camera

James Morrison-Collalto, an ENG camera for CityNews in Toronto, describes what it's like working behind the lens to get the story, and his path from the classroom to the big city streets.

James Morrison-Collalto, an ENG camera for CityNews in Toronto, describes what it's like working behind the lens to get the story, and his path from the classroom to the big city streets.

When I began contemplating this article, I was sitting in my large, black news truck with five scanners going off, blasting mostly inane and useless information, waiting for breaking news. Although waiting for a story is often a big component of a field camera's job, little else is predictable.

When I head to work, I never know exactly where I'll be, what I'll be doing, what will happen on the way there or when I arrive. Some days this is exciting, other days it makes you want to bang your head against the steering column repeatedly.

There was an incident recently when I was on the scene of a fire in Mississauga waiting for a clip from the Chief. He gave me the slip after I'd spent over two hours standing in the cold. It's never good to bring back a story without at least one interview, but since the owners of the house and their neighbours were, shall we say, less than happy to see me, I begrudgingly ticked off one in the loss column. Patience and deep breathing are valuable assets in my line of work.

Right now, however, I'm trying to siphon through the twenty or so conversations that are going on intermittently around me on the scanners, trying to pick out something that would qualify as "newsworthy". The relative calm is shattered by that all-too-familiar Blackberry ping that indicates I have a message from my assignment editor. Did I miss something?

Nope. It's not breaking news. I'm being assigned a story at the Sheraton Centre on the Special Olympics' gala that's being held there. Time to put on my reporter and public relations hats. My job isn't just taking pictures; sometimes I'm a producer, reporter, and camera all in one.

Before I continue, let me backtrack slightly and tell you how I got to this point.

I have worked for Citytv for almost four years now. In that time, I have gone from being "the overnight kid" to a trusted, full-time, dayside staff camera for a popular station in the largest market in Canada. I'm 27 and one of the youngest people in this city doing what I do.

When I graduated from journalism school, I took a job as the part-time weekend overnight camera. Coming from a smaller town, this prospect was terrifying. I had never seen a crime scene in person and with this gig I would be required to seek them out and cover them. I would need to do this all in a city I had never driven in by myself and was unfamiliar with as a whole.

In school, I was top dog at what I did…on the street, small potatoes. I really thought the transition wouldn't be that tough, and that I would succeed quickly. I was wrong.

Just about every mistake one could make I made: Bad white balances, awkward framing, crossing police lines and stepping on evidence, combing gain with a high neutral density filter at night, interviews with the microphone off. Yet somehow, I survived. How? Well, a very wise teacher once told me, "Everyone makes mistakes. It's expected. This only becomes an issue when you make the same mistake twice." I never forgot those words.

I was determined to make full-time. I further sacrificed sleep and my social life by volunteering the free time I had left to come in for on-the-street mentorships by members of the senior camera staff; seasoned journalists who offered their time to help me hone my skills. Every week that passed I got better and people began to trust me more and more. My persistence was noticed. 

I would love to tell you that there was a defining moment where I nailed a story and became the "go-to-guy". Not so. News is very much a, "What have you done for me today?" business. Seldom do people remember what you did yesterday, or even really care.

Don't get me wrong, I've had my share of gets and exclusives but that's not where a cameraperson's reputation comes from in the eyes of his or her peers and the industry as a whole, at least not entirely.

I am where I am today through hard fought, day-by-day victories and defeats. Slowly but surely I have proved–through countless breaking news stories, media scrums, sporting events, reporter standups and packages, serials, live hits, marches, unconventional parking jobs and driving, conversations and brain storming sessions–that I belong.

That being said, I'm still learning. And what I tell the classes I now speak to at my old alma mater, or the young camera hopefuls who occasionally follow me out on the road, is that this is a job you will never completely master. Every day out here is an adventure. Some days it's excruciatingly monotonous. Some days it's terrifying and sickening. Other days it makes you feel alive in the best possible way.

News, like the world it watches, is organic.  It ebbs and flows seemingly of its own accord. My job is to ride the waves and rely on the skills I have developed over time to navigate them safely–and, of course, get the shot.

James Morrison-Collalto is a full-time camera operator at Citytv/CityNews Toronto.  He is a graduate of the Journalism Broadcast Program at Sheridan Institute for Technology where he won the Don Neheli Award for Best ENG Camera in 2008.  James also works for Skyward Eye Media, a company he co-founded, as Project Manager, videographer and editor. You can follow James on Twitter @SkywardEyeMedia.