Back to Basics: Focusing an interview

I teach in a small school; currently, we’re under 500 students, and that means I’m working with brand-new students who are in production mode within a month into their journey in our program.

As a result, they need to get their hands on our DSLR cameras and into the field without a lot of experience. One way we do that is by using this video and a group vox pop assignment.

Here’s a simple breakdown of the instruction and process in my classroom:

  1. Define and identify the rule of thirds. I talk about the rule in terms of a tic tac toe box–when you’re lined up correctly, the subject’s eyes are on the intersection of the upper third line and either the left or right vertical line. The subject is looking into the empty space, and there’s a little headspace. We look at some back examples and good ones.
  2. Get out the cameras. They’ve already done one in-camera edit assignment, so they have the basic controls down. I point out where the magnify button on the back of the camera is and where the focus mode switch and focus ring are on the lens. Then, we watch this.
  3. We get out our wireless lav mics, plug them in and learn how to turn them on and test they’re working. Then, we do a test shot in the classroom. I rave about “seeing the sparkles” or the “super-spiky eyelashes” on well-focused shots as I move around the room. We iron out the problems and move on.
  4. I show an example vox pop video; you can use old ones from your publication archives or something you find on YouTube. We talk about placement (rule of thirds) and alternating the side the sources are lined up to give the final video some more interest.
  5. Then, they get the assignment. This year, it was based on something silly that had happened the day before: our biology teacher’s chinchilla had been missing for an hour or so, and–gasp–that was NEWS! So, the general question was, “What do you think happened to the chinchilla?” The students brainstormed some more questions to ask around that and were put into teams of three.
  6. Then, the kids go out and interview with these directions: “Independently, film a single vox pop interview with crisp, clear sound and sharp focus. It should use the rule of thirds and have headspace.”

We talk about filming their piece but helping each other with the equipment by giving advice and getting sources to the best interview locations.

When they come back, I have them turn in cameras, and I grab their footage from the cards to get them ready for warm/cool feedback at the beginning of the next class.

Aside from the feedback, the activity takes about 60 minutes–and it is fun for them! Usually, we’ll find a lot of errors and issues, but it’s the first step to helping them get comfortable with the DSLRs and begin growing as photographers.

Julie Tiedens

Julie Tiedens is a high school journalism and English teacher at Black River Falls High School, a school of 500 students in rural Wisconsin. She advises the student online newspaper, a daily announcements show, the yearbook and a PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs school site. Over the last two decades, one of her biggest goals has been to make her students better media consumers and creators. Another goal? Raise a son who loves the news just as much as she does.

Julie Tiedens has 15 posts and counting. See all posts by Julie Tiedens

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