The Amateur vs. The Pro – can you tell which is which?

Posted on November 20th, by Michael Rosenblum in Videojournalism. 16 comments


The professional

Poynter, the professional journalism site based in Florida puts out a highly respected blog and website.

Yesterday, they posted the video above, along with this comment by Al Tompkins:

Over Veterans Day weekend I spotted a story shot and edited by my old friend Ali Ghanbari, a photojournalist at WJW-TV Cleveland. The piece is loaded with crisp sound and video sequences that you would expect from a pro. But there was one Wthing in the piece I could not figure out. How did he capture that closing shot?

Yes, the closing shot is nice, but I was more captured by the previous sentence:

The piece is loaded with crisp sound and video sequences that you would expect from a pro

What, exactly would you expect from a pro?

Well, crisp sound and video sequences.

Fair enough.

And I am sure that Ali Ghanbari is a great cameraman.

Here’s the bio on Ali Ghanbari:

Ali Ghanbari (born 1950 in Abadan, Iran) is an Iranian-American photojournalist at WJW-TV, Fox O&O in Cleveland, Ohio, USA since 1994.

From 1982 to 1994 he was at WKEF-TV, NBC in Dayton, Ohio. He has been recognized with over 400 awards from professional journalism organizations. Ghanbari won National Press Photographers Association 1996 national award for general news][1] He was named NPPA Region 4 POY runner-up in 2000 and 2003.

He is only six-time Ohio News Photographers Association POY [2] as well as three-time state Associated Press Best TV Photographer, three-time Society of Professional Journalist (Ohio) Best TV Photographer.[3] Ghanbari has been awarded nine local Emmys and honored for the best video and national sound packages. He served as a national speaker for the NPPA Airborne TV seminar in 1994. He was also a featured speaker for the NPPA 1995 Flying Short Course in Detroit, MI, the 1998 FSC in Cleveland, the 1998 National Short Course in Baltimore, MD. He was an NPPA 2001 national judge in St. Petersburg, Florida.[4] and the Eyes of History 2006 White House News Photographers Association in Washington, DC.[5]


So far, so good.

But I could not help but be intrigued by the piece he shot.

The tomb of the unknown soldier.

I have one of those in the files.

This one was shot and cut and produced and voiced and reported by Pat Lafferty.

Pat Lafferty is a high-ranking executive at McCann Erickson Worldgroup, the global ad agency.

Pat took one of our 4-day bootcamps.

Pat had never touched a camera or an edit before he took the 4-day course.

Here’s the very first piece he ever made.

The amateur

Now, you tell me.

Ali Ghanbari, thirty year veteran, multiple award winner.

Pat Lafferty.  First timer.

Is there that much difference?

Is there any?

(And Pat wrote and reported and tracked and edited the piece as well.)



16 thoughts on “The Amateur vs. The Pro – can you tell which is which?

  1. I would say Pat is a talented first-timer and as his teacher you should be proud. I would also say the two stories are miles apart in quality. Ali’s story has a narrative story, you see, feel and know. The details in the shots (stopping in the lens flare, the close, the natural sound of the changing of the guard, the interviews) are precise and perfect. Do casual viewers care, I can’t testify. But I do appreciate pros like Ali who after decades, pay attention to details and capture meaningful stories.

  2. Okay, I’ll be the first to take the bait…

    Mr. Lafferty’s first effort is a fine one. There’s no question in my mind that four days of training have given him some solid basics to build on and the piece he crafted on his first try is probably better than most first efforts by individuals who were once industry freshmen.

    The two pieces, however, are miles apart and I am not basing that simply on the closing shot that Mr. Tompkins found so intriguing. It is just a very small component of what places Mr. Ghanbari’s piece so far ahead of your student.

    There is, of course, a great deal of polish in Ghanbari’s piece. Shots are rock solid, in focus, well-composed and capture more of the essence Lafferty’s piece missed. Ghanbari’s opening sequence does not rely on a music bed, but on the rhythmic timing of all the available natural sound that was available in the prep room. It tends to grab your attention. A photojournalist shouldn’t rely on a music bed from start to finish unless the music is the story, and even then using it from start to finish is overkill. I’ve never heard “Amazing Grace” sung at Arlington. The music bed became an unnecessary distraction in Mr. Lafferty’s piece.

    Editing is tighter in Ghanbari’s piece and all the action is within the frame of the shots.

    There is a more complete set of sequencing available in Ghanbari’s piece.

    Headshot interviews in Ghanbari’s piece are well lighted and in focus.

    The solemnity found at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is more completely captured in Ghanbari’s piece. He has several shots of the crowd and more varied angles of the view at the Tomb. More overall shot variety can be found in Ghanbari’s piece. He takes full advantage of repetitive action, using match-cut editing that can give the appearance of a multiple camera shoot.

    The closing shots–no comparison. I believe Ghanbari had the vision to lock his camera down and roll for a length of time that would allow him to take advantage of the precision of the soldier’s pacing and make it easy for him to seamlessly dissolve the shots as the sun went down and nightfall became dominant.

    The overall effort between the two pieces can be seen in the number of edits there are. To be fair, Ghanbari’s piece is 175 seconds in length (62 edits) versus Lafferty’s at 75 seconds (15 edits). On average, Ghanbari’s piece has a scene change nearly every three seconds; Lafferty every five seconds. Instead of lulling the viewer with a consistent pace in audio and with video, Ghanbari changes the tempo of the piece with shorter sequential edits that play off from natural sound, allowing a longer scene to follow. This breaks up visual monotony and is another method for grabbing the viewer’s attention.

    There is also one glaring visual gaffe of continuity in Mr. Lafferty’s presentation: It is a jump cut 34 seconds in as one of the detail soldiers takes a lighter to what must be some stray threads on the guard’s collar. The very next shot shows him doing the same thing to the guard’s hat. Lafferty could have avoided this with a close-up (tight) shot of the lighter, or of the guard’s face, or anything else that would have allowed him to use both medium shots seamlessly.

    Again, I am not here to bash anyone, but the question was asked if there was really that much difference between the two works and I unequivocally say it’s obvious that there is.

    A veteran professional such as Mr. Ghanbari is an excellent student of human behavior and a person of great experience. He knows how to anticipate action and looks to incorporate framing elements (such as the “Silence and Respect” sign about 1:04 in to the piece) to enhance his visuals and support the story. Mr. Lafferty did a great job finding some interesting angles as the guards prepped and he captured great interview sound to set the tone. I could hear natural sound in Mr. Lafferty’s piece, though it took a back seat to the ongoing music bed. I am not one who believes that everything should be shot on a tripod, but there were plenty of times when Mr. Lafferty could have used one–and should have. About 1:10 in to his piece, the horizon is cocked and it takes him more than 10 seconds to get the shot steadied and level. The precision of the shooting does not match the precision of the soldiers, further accentuating Mr. Ghanbari’s attention to detail and knowing when the use of a tripod is most appropriate.

    I understand you are not a supporter of support gear (tripods) because your mission is to teach aggressive videojournalism and tripods, you believe, slow a person down. You are correct if it’s breaking news, or a story with a lot of action or movement. This was a feature story where there was plenty of time to incorporate the use of a tripod and I’m all in favor of a good mix of rock-solid and handheld shots with movement.

    My hat is off to both men for putting forth an effort to turn out a good piece that highlights the reverence given to the forgotten men and women who have surrendered their lives for our country. Both pieces are airworthy and are a far cry from much of what is shown on TV on a daily basis in almost any given market. As our industry continues to evolve, in-depth pieces lasting longer than the normal buck-ten fare are becoming seemingly extinct. Thanks for sharing.

  3. The difference is night and day and you should know that. One is a representation of quality photojournalism the other is the product of a four-day video workshop.

    The first piece has pacing and a rhythm and a compelling natural sound narrative. The shots are steady and the transitions fluid. The second is better than average but it does not come close to the first. The audio quality is lacking, there is hardly a sequence to be found, the handheld footage is shaky, and the Stanley Brothers music track is straight out of left field.

    I urge you to watch the second piecde again and imagine it without the music (which may be considered a copyright violation unless it was licensed) you will see that it is a cheap trick to tie the whole thing together. Then watch the first and notice its use of natural sound, the way that the subjects narratives are weaved together to tell a nice story.

    The wonderful thing about increasing accessibility of digital video tools is that more people can capture, tell and share stories. The sad thing is that many people cannot tell the difference between these two pieces – some of them even hold executive positions in networks television.

    I was taught that you only notice bad audio and video. When it’s good, it’s deceptively simple and easy to miss. But there is a tremendous amount of work that goes into capturing and editing such a story.

    So to answer your question again – “The Amateur vs. The Pro – can you tell which is which?” – I think the two are night and day. I would like to believe it is an objective opinion based on the quality of the craftsmanship using the medium itself but you and others may find it to be subjective.

  4. poynter has been on the dancefloor ever since romenesko left. had a piece on it last week, and the comments/commenters are a pretty good fit for this comparison.

    keep dancin’!

  5. Hi Michael,

    I have to agree with you…the term professional gets thrown around to often sometimes. Not to take anything away from the efforts in the first piece. It was nice and had a few “gimmicks” in it which…I thought were clever and took some time.

    The second piece was very well done as well. A nit-pick from me about steady shots is the best I could muster as a negative.

    Between the two, I feel the second told the story in a concise, interesting manner and held my interest. The first…nice but too long to send basically the same message.

    A “professional” might have made sure to have a rock steady shot while what others might deem as “amateurs” would not be so consistent in their level of quality.

    In the case of these two stories…equal in quality when judged beginning to end.

    Both deserve that nebulous label “professional” in my book.

  6. What ‘value’ do these video’s provide to the viewer?

    The answer – I have found – after studying video journalism for decades – critiquing thousands of stories – and producing thousands of stories – can be found in Four C’s

    Content – Craft – Creativity – Commitment

    Each viewer might take away something different from either story, but overall…

    Content: Both are the same. Both are somewhat generic, I think. I believe the best stories – go deep. I like that football analogy – go deep. For some viewers, these stories might have taken them somewhere they’ve never seen before? For me, I have seen this story a ton, and so I look for something extra – a surprise – the story within the story – the unique angle, twist, etc…

    Craft: When two stories are in similar in content, then viewers look for something else. Craft is one of them. Ali is a skilled, experienced video craftsman, disciplined in shooting steady, sequened, natural sound sequences. His compositions – color – lighting – can be seen. Those provide value. Aesthetis have value. Look at any magazine, and you will stop to look at those “cool” colorful / beautiful / compositions. Art is in the eye of the beholder – and Ali’s craftsmanship – provided value. Craft makes a difference – especially when videos are viewed on a big high definition TV screen – and we all know that is where internet videos are going to be viewed – more and more – on the big screen. So do not minimize the value of quality Craft.

    Creativity: Was there anything creative in either piece? You can apply creativity to your Craft (shoot or edit or write creativily) You can apply creativity to your Content (wasn’t much creativity in this content.) You can apply Creativity to the Commitment.

    Commitment: Ali got up early, to capture the sunrise – which brought aesthetic value. These extra commitments in time, resources, add value if maximized. Ali has commited his life to learning, practicing, critiquing and being critiqued. That adds value to his product. That might be the difference between a pro and a first timer. However, Content trumps everything…and I do not want to diminish the value of the second story. Viewers get most value from Content.

    That’s my two cents worth, based on the Four C’s.

  7. This is a ridiculous comparison.

    The work of a photojournalist should take us there, make us feel like we are there, NATURAL SOUND, lighting, framing, editing, and subtle elements like facial expressions help help tell a complete story.

    To me Mr. Lafferty actually gets off to a horrible start. I would rather see a steady shot. Watching something that was hand held automatically makes me feel like I am watching someone showing me their family video of what they did on vacation. But because the writer is asking for a comparison I had every hope that it would get better. It doesn’t

    We are only :30 seconds in when the framing is so terrible you actually plainly see Lafferty in the mirror in the background. Framing! Detail! That is so horribly amateur when you intend your subject to be the foreground.

    There is absolutely no flow whatsoever to the next sequence of shots. In one we see someone removing lint from Hunt’s suit. Then we instantly jump to the same guy touching up his hat. Bad! Then we go to a shot where the same man isn’t anywere to be seen as we listen to Hunt talk. The problem here is that because he is so horribly out of focus during the interview my eyes, and so therefore my attention, are drawn away from him and to the background. I’m not even paying attention to what he’s saying because in my mind im wondering why anyone would use that shot in a piece they want other people to see.

    Moving on we see a guard, presumably Hunt marching past a long row of flowers. Impatients to be exact, I can tell because they are the most prominent thing in the whole shot. Pretty flowers, and not a bad shot if you are doing a story about gardening.

    And while the flowers are the most important visual element of that shot, in the very next one we jump to a reversal where they have suddenly vanished and there is nothing but granite there. Where’s the continuity? It’s not even good for an amateur.

    And, again, everything is wobbly. Details!

    Between 1:01 and 1:33 there are only two shots,that’s all. Ali Ghanbari’s piece takes us through a sequence of shots where the subject starts to actually reveal itself. This is a detail that he carefully calculates to keep our attention. The multiple edits make us feel like there are multiple cameras shooting this from all different angles and even though there are different people in the shots there is complete continuity. Look at the faces of the guards. Their expressions tell us how serious they are about what they are doing.

    In Lafferty’s piece I realize by now there is no real continuity between the story that is being told and the pictures that are being used to cover it. It is almost as if there are two stories airing simultaneously.

    Lafferty’s closing shot might be the best in the story, but that’s still not saying much. Like the flowers, his focus is on the plane and not on the subject of the story, although by now I actually feel like I missed the story. At least we finally get some good outdoor natural sound after the story is over.

    We missed a lot of the opportunities to help take us there because the natural sound is covered by music. In my mind the only time you need music is 1)as an element of the story if there is music at the time you are shooting it (because your job as a photojournalist is to make me feel like I am there) or 2) if your video and writing can’t carry the story so it becomes a cheap effect to weave in some artificual emotion. Why do you need a constant music bed under Lafferty’s story? Was it there?

    One of the things Ali Ghanbari does so masterfully in his complete body of work is to use natural sound to make us feel as though we are there.

    What this shows me is that you can’t teach masterful videography.

    I have known Ali Ghanbari’s work for years. I am honored to have collected an emmy along with him and believe him to be among an elite group of photojournaists, story tellers with a gift for being able to tell their story without narraration. It seems like the author here believes because Lafferty added narraration that makes his work all that much more admirable. I, on the other hand, believe strongly that telling the story well without narraration is remarkable.

    Something else you can’t teach in four days, four years, or for-ever. Ali’s stories are not shot and then hastily patched together. These are stories that he plans out in detail well before they are shot. They are a product of his creative mind and often include days, if not weeks of detailed effort. He is gifted and Every shot he gets is for a purpose.

    Lafferty can shoot and edit and narrarate.

    My oral surgeon can pull a tooth.

    I suppose I could put a pair of pliers into someone’s mouth and do the same thing. I hope you wouldn’t think that makes me a dentist.

  8. Kim, Great Critique! Really describes in detail what the differences are. (Hope all is well!)

    A couple things came to my mind while watching the stories.

    Precision. Dedication. Respect. Attention to Details.
    Those words describe the military guards.

    Yet those are the exact same words to describe Ali’s work.

    Ali – the skilled craftsman: was Precise in his shots, and edits. He was Dedicated – to spending whatever time it took – to visually tell the story. He showed Respect to the subject matter and to the craft of video journalism – by taking the time to light the interviews with care etc… And he paid great Attention to the Details.

    Viewers notice these things. Imagine an unprofessional, disrespectful, ragtag bunch of solidiers – who were not precise. That is another analogy.

    Of course… viewers, once again, are most interested in CONTENT. And whether or not something is shot well….viewers will gravitate towards content they are interested in watching. So…the second story, techincally not as perfect, certainly can communicate.

    Cake decorating contests: Some people REALLY know how to decorate a cake! And they might even win awards – be trained – and make it on “Cake Wars” TV show or something.

    But really, the vast majority of people…. LOVE to eat mom’s homemade – out of the box – cake made from a mix – with some canned frosting on it.

    Be careful – and we are – not to diminish the “value” of one story “over” another story. So both analogies work.

  9. This comment section has been a fine example of the NPPA mentality. There is some positive to that mentality. But…there is also a negative.

    I looked at both stories again. There is a huge difference between the two of them. I’m not talking about steady rock solid shots. The big difference is honest emotion.

    The highly edited story is full of the NPPA formula, Benihana nat sound editing. Of course the die hard NPPA folks love it. But they put a much longer story on the air that lacked real emotion.

    The second story had the emotion so missing in the first.

    All of the interviews in the “professional” story were stiff. People who sounded like they were reading from a script and not speaking from their heart. Why is that? Was it because of the size of the camera and all the lights? A debatable point. But the end result is obvious when you listen to the interviews of the soldiers in both stories.

    Ask yourself…which ones sound like they really care?

    It sure wasn’t evident in the first, highly edited, formula story.

    That’s what will touch viewers. Not an over the top job of editing for an award instead of the goal of keeping the average viewers interest. 😉

  10. So sad that we settle for mediocrity and then justify it by trying to convince ourselves that the audience doesn’t care.

    We may be communicating with a smaller audience but why should we drive those who are still tuning in by offering them amateur video and then saying that’s the best we can do? Really? What business will succeed (read: survive) by doing that.

    We might get by in the short run, and then convince ourselves that the reason people are moving away from broadcast journalism is because of their gadgets, but why should they tune in at all if we don’t give them something worth watching.

    Lafferty’s piece may tell a story, but if that is the best we can do then I have hundreds of other channels of something to watch.

    Viewers may still have only a 6th grade reading level, but I believe they do know good production because they pay to see the work of Favreau, Lucas and Cameron.

    The video and lighting and editing is equally as important an element of effectively telling a story as are the words.

    Mr. Ghanbari’s work is far more appealing to me as a viewer. Perod.

    When we settle for mediocrity and then justify it to convince ourselves the audience doesn’t know the difference we become our own worst enemy and losing viewers becomes a self imposed consequence.

    Of course then those who predict the demise of broadcast journalism, inflict this ‘new reality’ on us because of it will pound their chests and say they were right.

  11. “The video and lighting and editing is equally as important an element of effectively telling a story as are the words.”

    Important, yes, but not more important.

    Style over substance is no replacement for honest emotion.

  12. Thanks for noticing that I did write “equally as important” John. Glad you got my point. Your distain for the NPPA aside I find it difficult to agree with you that there is any real comparison between the “professionalism” of these two stories.

    I just find it hard to believe there are people who insist on going down the road of mediocrity in this industry and convince others that it is what the viewers want to see.

    Maybe, sadly, because we have accepted and excuse the work of amateurs it is what the viewers have come to ‘expect’.

    Ultimately I believe the newsrooms that will survive are those that choose not to be the lemmings and insist on giving viewers something worth watching. The pie may be getting smaller so why not do everything to get the largest piece, rather than join the race to the bottom.

    A jack of all trades is a master of none.

  13. High quality produced video – that has boring Content – will lose money and viewers. (many Hollywood movies lose a ton of money.) Poor quality video that has interesting Content – will attrack viewers. (Amercias Funniest Home Videos / Youtube)

    Craft is secondary to Content. Content is King. So look for unique content. But when your Content is not “unique” then Craft / Creativity and Commitment make a difference.

    NBC recently made a billion dollar mistake. The president – former president Jeff Zucker (I believe) decided to cut production costs a few years ago – (produce cheap reality and game shows for primetime). Well… CBS Entertainment decided to do the opposite – to produce high quality shows. NBC ratings tanked. Their cheap product got lost in the sea of offerings. And, these cheap NBC shows could not be sold in syndication – it was called the Billion Dollar Mistake. He lost his job. CBS secured its place as number one – strong. Stock price is up. Syndication hot.

    The lesson there – do not think that quality craftsmanship, creativity, commitment is not that important. It is.

    The NPPA was (and is) a great place – to learn, watch, get mentored, get critiqued, compare, etc… It has been in the video journalism business for about 50 years or so. Long before the internet existed. There is a rich history of high quality visual storytelling there.

    Internet publishing and cheap video production costs – mean competition for viewers. Content is and always will be King. But do not discount those other things.

  14. I’m glad there is healthy and intelligent discussion taking place here!!!! Hopefully could help our profession, but I would like to mention there is a place for both stories in society which we live…….You be the judge.

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