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How Photojournalists are Embracing Virtual Reality

Posted by on August 15, 2016 | Gear, Media

Excerpted from PDN, by Jon Blistein

Virtual reality is here, and for those looking to embark on a career in photojournalism, take note.

With smartphones and $15 Google Cardboard headsets, our parent publication PDN reports that VR is available to a wide audience and has become a viable new medium that has attracted news juggernauts like The GuardianThe New York Times and PBS’s Frontline. The journalistic possibilities virtual reality presents are monumental: not just to show viewers a story, but to place them in it.

PDN spoke with several news editors and photojournalists who are currently producing VR, and here are several key lessons they learned. 


Tyson Sadler Virtual Reality

Tyson Sadler, who co-directed “10 Shots Across the Border,” says that the presence of a person with a camera can influence the action, “but with VR, when the camera person leaves, a lot more natural action can take place.”

A New Frame of Mind

It starts with the 360-degree camera. Shooting in 360 forces filmmakers to stop thinking in terms of a traditional 16:9 frame that acts as a window into another world, says Tyson Sadler, a director for the AOL-owned VR company Ryot. VR, by contrast, is about finding a space that brings the viewer fully into the scene, though a photographer’s instinct can help when establishing what senior research fellow for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism Fergus Pitt calls the “natural forward”—the first shot the viewer sees when they put the headset on.

Where to Stand?

Jenna Pirog, The New York Times’ first VR editor recognizes that filmmakers and photojournalists stand behind the camera, close to their subjects; but in VR, most filmmakers set up their shots and hide off-camera while the action unfolds. The Times doesn’t forbid journalists from appearing on camera, but the current belief is that their presence would disrupt the immersion.


The Times recently added 360 audio to its VR app, meaning the onus is on the filmmakers to know what to listen for while placing mics in the field.

“You’re looking for things that represent that environment,” says Francesca Panetta, an audio specialist who led The Guardian’s first VR piece, “6×9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement.” The idea is to paint a mental picture of a place using only sounds. “For something like solitary confinement, it’s a wide range of sounds: Prison guards, the inmates next door, the food slot opening—all of that is part of the story.”

What’s Next?

For now, Pirog and others are focused on a more immediate goal: Figuring out the best way to tell a journalistic story in VR. Traditional filmmaking techniques like montage, quick cuts and talking head interviews don’t translate well in VR, so practitioners are still parsing this new medium’s narrative vernacular. Even the medium’s quintessential quality—immersion—raises thorny questions about the role of the journalist, and journalism itself.

“The biggest thing for us is veracity and truth,” says Frontline executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath. “We don’t like staged situations and sometimes in VR, situations are easier to stage because it helps the filmmaking. But it’s really important that our work is documentary in a journalistic sense, that we’re using these same ideas and the same strictness that we have in the linear space. And that’s hard sometimes, but in VR it’s important—it’s crucial and it’s mandatory.”

Learn more about VR’s impact on photojournalism by reading the full article at PDN

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