How to shoot a riot

The Tamil protest going into its fifth day on Toronto’s busy University Avenue saw 15 people arrested yesterday. Tempers are starting to fray and based on yesterday,  I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw an escalation of the violence today. if this protest in front of the American Embassy goes into the weekend, we might see tens of thousand Tamils on the streets.

So how do you shoot a protest without getting yourself arrested or worse beaten up by protesters?

I covered lots of protests in my day and I can say that there were times when I questioned my own safety and then took actions to remove myself.

So here’s the drill.

Upon arriving keep your camera out of sight. It’s good to dress like you are a photojournalist and not an undercover cop.

If you can arrive before anything is happening. If the police seem reasonably friendly this is a good time to take a few shots. If you get friendly smiles (and you may) then hand out your business card and let the individual officers know that they can see their photos at your online site. (You have an online site right?) By being friendly, you might not get hit by a baton if things get out of hand. But of course you should never be within baton length of a working officer during a riot.

If you arrive in the midst of the action follow Dan Rather’s maxim that when in doubt take the high ground. In other words, find a vantage point and figure out what’s happening. Don’t charge in. Your behaviour should be reassuring and professional at all times.

Wait until there’s a moment of calm and if you can spot an obvious leader slowly approach them and identify yourself as a photographer. If you’re not working for anyone say that you’re working freelance. Give the organizer your business card and let him or her know that you’d be pleased to send them some photos of the protest via email. Let them know your images maybe helpful to them in the future and that you’re just here to do a job.

If all is going to plan, you and the organizer should be pals by now and you should ask if you can take their photo. Make certain that other protesters see that the leader is allowing you access. Then move along and photograph everyone as you go. These are not images you’re likely to keep. What you’re doing is establishing yourself as the “official” protest photographer. With any luck you should have free access from now on.

If you start to run into problems either make reference to the group leader saying it’s okay or go back to the leader and start the above all over again.

When it comes to dealing with the police, remember you do not need to be a recognized photojournalist to take images. You do have to obey all lawful police instruction. That especially includes instruction to move. You may not think you should, but now is not the time to argue. Move. Relocate at least 30 feet away from the action.

If a police action takes place, remove yourself from the front lines immediately. You can return if you think you can do so (A) safely and (B) without provoking police. This is why camera manufactures sell longer lenses. You don’t need to shoot a riot with a wide angle lens (although if you can safely and without getting arrested your images will be amazing). Don’t get caught in a situation where you are so far into the crowd that you can’t get out. Always have an avenue of escape to a safe place. Never run. Never get in the way of a police officer carrying out their sworn duty. That’s good for an instant arrest and a trip to a holding cell.

When it comes to accredited journalists, police often will allow them greater access but that courtesy doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone.

If you are shooting for publication, get your images out fast. It’s the first guys images that make the front page.

Once the incident is over, send a few flattering photos via email to the police (the police media or community services office would be best) or let them know that your images are available for individual officers to download at no expense or obligation. Do the same for the protest group.

Do this often enough and you’ll end up with one heck of a portfolio that you can use to find more work.

So if all this information is so good why am I not doing it? Well at 60 years old I did this 30 years ago. Got the coffee cup and the T-shirt. It’s time for someone younger to step in but don’t think I’m not tempted.


Why do you shoot images?

Ask Chris Rainier. Listen to his interview on his blog:

BTW, this guy was Ansel Adams’s assistant. Go through his portfolio. This is very very cool stuff. This is photography at its best. It can change history.

PhotographyBB online mag gives bad advice

I usually look forward to receiving my copy of the online magazine Photography BB out of Vancouver. Usually the articles and photos are first class. This edition: Not so much.

Now most of the photos are okay but nothing really knocked my socks off. Could be just me today. The readers’ photo page had some pretty good stuff. The articles, especially the hands-on Photoshop how-to article, were excellent. But the big disappointment came in an article about street photography.

So go on over to Photography BB and have a look at the article called Know Your Photography Table Manners: Photography Etiquette by Kenneth Fagan. Now I don’t know Kenneth and this isn’t directed at him personally but his suggestions in the article about how to shoot in public places are just wrong. For example his statement that if someone in a public place objects to you taking a photograph where they may or may not appear you should delete it. Nuts. Worse is the next line: “If you are caught using someone’s photograph on the net without his or her permission you could get into serious trouble” is so wrong as to be frightening. And, I really object to the word “caught.” It suggests you’ve done something wrong and you’re trying to get away with it.

Remember I was a photojournalist for a long time. The law in most democratic countries is clear that you can take a photo of anything or anybody in public that you can see from a public place. Now you can’t stalk your subjects nor should your behaviour be so aggressive as to create an impression that you’re a public nuisance but you can take photos without permission for your personal, editorial or artistic use without permission. Period. (Note: Quebec which is governed under the Napoleonic Code is different. Don’t ask me how. It just is.)

Okay there are a couple of small exceptions in the rest of the free world. You can’t publish photos of juveniles under arrest but you photograph them as how can you know how old a kid is when you’re out in the street. You can’t publish images of people held under the mental health act. I’m not so clear on whether you can even take the photo and I would only if it was clearly in the public interest and the individual wasn’t readily identifiable. You can take photos of suicides but most of us don’t and just about nobody will publish them. Something about good taste. Finally you can’t interfere with a police officer in his or her duty. That doesn’t mean you have to stop taking photos just because some cop thinks you should. There’s nothing in the Canadian Criminal Code about not taking photos. Now some cops try to push the envelop by claiming you’re disregarded a lawful command. But that lawful command can not include not taking photos. It may lawful include telling you to disperse especially if your camera is inciting riotous behaviour in others but even that’s a stretch. It’s not lawful just because a cop says it’s lawful. Your best bet when confronted with an overly aggressive cop is back away. Get to higher ground and put on a longer lens and make certain you get a good identifiable image of the officer and file a complaint with his superior. Good police managers don’t want these kind of cop cowboys on the street. They give police services a bad rap. (I know this to be true as I worked for a very large police service for seven years in their media relations branch.)

Okay, let’s say you do snap a couple of shots of identifiable folks. No problem but you can’t use those photos for commercial (read you get paid for them) purposes. You’d be sued civilly and the plaintiffs would win. You can also be sued civilly if you go out of your way to take a photo that unnecessarily holds your subject up to ridicule or lessens their stature in the community. This is a tricky one and I’m not sure how you’d actually commit this kind of civil offense. Oh, BTW, anyone who has courted publicity such as a politician, musician or actor can’t suddenly turn off the publicity machinery to suit their whim. All of them are fair game for the paparazzi.

Now Kenneth is quite right that you should behave in public. That would make mum and dad proud but there’s no law that sets out standards of decorum. You get to be as big a jerk as you want so long as you don’t interfere with my rights in the process.

I’m afraid there’s a lot of this bad advice floating around the Internet. It’s as if we have to go, camera in hand, up to everyone we want to include in our image and ask “please sir.” Geez I’d feel like Oliver Twist with a camera.

And, as to the article in the magazine about cops in Britain stopping ordinary folks from taking images, it’s all too true. As amateurs it’s a lot easier to obey the nice policeman who was caught parking in a no parking spot in front of the deli at lunchtime but as a professional my answer was always forget it. Came to a head one day when a cop assaulted me (by pushing me hard) when I shot a photo of a suspect under arrest (a legal act in Canada). Funny thing was I got a shot off as the cop hit me (it was pretty out of focus but you could identify him) and I took it to his superintendent the next morning to lay a complaint. I had to as this was getting to be a regular occurrence. I’d show up at something and a cop would make his or her business to tell me to bugger off. Often these kind words were accompanied by a helpful hand directing me to my vehicle.

Anyway, the next day I told the superintendent we intended on publishing (I was stretching the truth as I didn’t have authority to okay anything at the newspaper at that time) it if we didn’t receive an apology from the on-scene sergeant who ordered his officer to grab me and an assurance by the superintendent that it would never happen again. The superintendent asked me to wait and five minutes later a very red faced and angry sergeant walked into the superintendent’s office, apologized and walked out. It wasn’t very gracious but it was good enough. The superintendent said this wasn’t force policy. On the way out I told the superintendent that this was the last time this would happen without me suing. From then on whenever I arrived at the scene of a police action I was either ignored or more often than not got a thumbs up from officers on the scene. I never got touched again.

Remember: Photography isn’t a crime.

More than just pictures

Lots of my students are looking at how they can promote their growing photography businesses. Of course, first you need to get control of your equipment and the best place to do that is at Henry’s School of Imaging here in Ontario. Second thing you need to do is get your photographs seen by people who buy your kind of work. Doesn’t matter whether it’s sports, fashion, portraits or weddings. You need customers to see your work. Designing or purchasing a good website is key.

But have you ever thought of adding podcasting? Lots of professional photographers are producing their own podcasts. Most are…let’s be charitable…awful. A few are terrific and I never miss an episode. If you’ve got something to say about photography (who hasn’t?) and your work, then you should consider podcasting as a way to separate yourself from the mob.

Fortunately for those of you who live in southern Ontario, we’re blessed to have one of the best teachers on podcasting living in Hamilton. Victoria Fenner is a former CBC radio producer and journalist who has been offering her podcasting workshops for some years now and she’s giving a new one on Saturday, May 23 in Hamilton.

Even if you’ve never held a microphone, this is one workshop not to miss.

I took one of Victoria’s workshops a couple of years ago and it was by far one of the best workshops on any subject that I’ve ever taken! Listen, I still tell stories to my students based on this one workshop. That’s how good it is and at $85 it’s a huge bargain.

By the way, the information in this workshop is equally applicable to putting really great audio into your online slide shows. Many professional photographers are starting to add audio they recorded on the site of their photo shoot. It’s so much more effective than some dumb background music.

Right after I took Victoria’s course I ran out and bought myself a decent (you can get one for as little as $200 that will work) digital recorder and an external microphone. I use it all the time.

Check out Victoria’s new website at

Here’s the information on Victoria’s workshop. Go sign up. Do it right now because she only takes a limited number (10) into each workshop.

Podcasting and Beyond
An Introduction to Multimedia on the Internet

Saturday May 23 10 am – 4 pm

Community Centre for Media Arts,

3 Rebecca St., Hamilton Ontario

One of the easiest ways to get started in multimedia production is by doing a podcast.  It’s a great way to get comfortable with the technology, develop interview and voicing skills and putting together a production from start to finish.

Podcasting and Beyond is a one day workshop to introduce you to the basics of podcast productions.  We’ll focus mostly on audio, and also on how to create simple visual and sound productions such as slideshows with easy soundtracks.  We’ll also talk about getting good sound for video .. because everybody knows what it’s like to look at pictures without hearing what the person on the screen is saying.
This hands-on, day long workshop will focus on:
* simple audio production techniques – recording and editing
* turning your idea into a story, interview or feature
* combining pictures with still photos (audio slideshows)
* getting good sound from your video camera
* getting your production out to the world via social media
Date:    Saturday, May 23, 2009
    10 am – 4 pm
Location:  Community Centre for Media Arts, 3 Rebecca Street,  Hamilton Ontario
Cost:    $85.00
enrollment limited to 10 people
Workshop Presenter:  Victoria Fenner
Victoria is a podcaster, radio producer, journalist and composer.  She has worked in radio and television broadcasting for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in various capacities – on air writer/broadcaster, production technician and producer, and with community media organizations in both Canada and the United States. Victoria is also a practicing artist working in creative sound and documentary production who is recognized by the Canada Council for the Arts and The Ontario Arts Council.  Her company, Sound Out Media, produces multimedia for the internet and provides training for organizations and people who want to explore emerging opportunities to produce and distribute their audio and video works.
Her new podcast The Roaming Ear can be heard on the Rabble Podcast Network –

Contact: Victoria Fenner

Sound Out Media


Bokeh by Alien Skin

I mentioned Bokeh (sort of means fuzzy in Japanese) by the software company Alien Skin some weeks ago. I wanted to do a review but one of the guys at PhotoWalkPro blog site did such a great job I’m recommending you check out their review. Bokeh allows you to blur out the background of your photos. Now of course you can blur out backgrounds in Photoshop and many other photo editing software but Bokeh does something really special. It can create the same blur that super expensive “fast” (fast is a term for a lens which will allow a lot of light into the camera. Fast lenses when shot wide open create very beautiful out of focus blurring.) created. By blurring out the background whatever is in the foreground pops out of the picture.

This is way cool stuff. BTW there are a bunch of places where you can get a 10 per off promo code on Alien Skin software. I’ve got one and if you’re interested, send me an email and I’ll send it to you. E-mail:

Mostly Lisa – Mostly Okay

Some of my students are getting ready to get into photography in a more professional manner. Some want to become wedding photographers, some fine artists and a few, bless them, photojournalists like I was way back when in another time in another galaxy. And, the big question for all of them is how do I get work?

Well, first you’ve got to be a better than average professional photographer. The good news is this is easier than it looks. For every mega-star celebrity photographer like Jasmine Starr (who works damn hard at keeping her photos in the public view using a lot of social media like her website) there are 100 or maybe a thousand photographers that nobody is every going to hear about let alone hire. These are the guys and gals who charge $800 for a wedding shoot and think they’re doing well to get that much. That’s a far cry from guys like Gary Fong (celebrity photographer and investor of the Lightsphere) who charge over $100,000 for big shoots and are worth every penny.

So how do you separate yourself from the crowd. Lisa Bettnay is a good example. Lisa, who uses the brand name, Mostly Lisa (clever but a bit dipsy but don’t go changing it now)  is a really good photographer out of Vancouver. She’s really smart with a degree in I think linguistics and big-time model-pretty in an early 30ish sort of way. She’s been a featured guest on one of the blogosphere’s most popular podcast This Week In Technology episode 191 hosted by Leo Laporte.

On TWIT Lisa said something to the effect that she was having problems creating a place for herself in the world of photography/social media/TV personality/contributor to a local Vancouver newspaper. Leo had suggested earlier that she tone down the wacky “Lisa” stuff she had on her website and she did.

Big mistake in my opinion. Lisa was blessed with not good but great looks. (They may prove over time to be both a blessing and a curse my dear.) She obviously wants to be known as someone with a brain as well as beauty. Fair enough. But Lisa go with the beauty first. We all buy stuff that’s attractive. We keep it (or buy more) because it proves to be useful. Become the personality that you are and then become the contributor that we want to thank and call our friend.

For me, I still say that as a photojournalist my job was to take “pretty pictures.” Sometimes the images are horrific (I won some awards way back when for photos taken at one of the first high school shootings in North America where three died and 17 were wounded.) but they were awfully good images. Go see the 2009 winning image of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News. (The Globe and Mail has the photo reproduced full-page size in today’s paper. It’s awful and beautiful in the same moment.)

My point: You’ve got to get their attention before you can get their business.

If I was as good looking as Lisa (and if I was half my age and not so ugly), I’d paste my good looking puss all over the Internet and I’d be shooting photos day and night posting them and talking about them and loving them like my own children.

And then I’d wait for folks to find out (a) how good a photographer I am (And btw Lisa I don’t remember you talking about your photography at all on TWIT so, for me, it came across for me a little bit like you were just a talking head like Shira Lazar who I found annoying as she chattered on somewhat vacuously. I guess cute doesn’t cut it for me anymore. I’ve seen way too much cute over the years for it to leave a lasting impression.) and (b) how smart I am (and Lisa there’s no doubt in my mind that you’re smart as heck. I loved your self parodies. I thought they were clever and not cute but that’s just me.)

And yes for the junior psychologists out there (remember I was trained in Solution-Focused Counselling at the University of Toronto) I can see that I am talking to myself and that’s it’s time to stop typing and get out shooting even though as Leonard Cohen says I ache in the places I used to play. Lisa, get out there. The next 30 years will go by in the blink of a pretty girl’s eye.