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Staying sharp: A veteran news shooter seeks new challenges
Saturday, April 15, 2006 | by Eamon Hickey

Jens Dresling has been a news photographer every working day of his life. He sold his first picture when he was 15, to his tiny hometown newspaper in Elsinore, Denmark, the same town where, centuries earlier, another young man, called Hamlet, had some family troubles.

Three years later, in 1979, the little Elsinore paper hired Dresling as an apprentice photographer, and soon he was a full-fledged staffer. In true Danish fashion, he rode a bicycle to and from his assignments in those days.

Dresling spent five years shooting for the Elsinore paper and then moved on to a 10-year stint at the Danish wire service, POLFOTO. Then, in 1994, he landed the job he still holds, as a staff photographer for the broadsheet daily, Politiken, Denmark's second largest newspaper.

If you shot the news for 25 years, as Dresling has, it seems inevitable that some assignments would start looking like a mind-deadening video loop - the same soccer match or press conference endlessly repeating. And in those long years of shooting you'd learn a thing or two about making publishable newspaper pictures, and the temptation to shoot each assignment the same old way, with the same bag of proven tricks, would naturally be very strong. The risk of burnout, in short, is high.

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Unmoved: Passing the time while a squatter's demonstration passes by in Copenhagen, 1987. Nikon F3, Nikkor 24mm f/2.8, Kodak Tri-X film. (Photo by Jens Dresling/POLFOTO)

Dresling is aware of that risk, and he takes conscious steps to avoid it. His tactics are straightforward. One is to actively seek out and embrace new technologies. Another is to continuously expand his shooting skills and techniques, and to put those new skills into regular use in his day-to-day assignments.

To actually make these things happen, Dresling has developed the habit of assigning himself a specific project for each year. One year, for example, the project was to learn how to use remote camera setups and find ways to incorporate them into his daily work. Another year he set out to improve his portraits for the newspaper by expanding his use of portable off-camera lighting equipment.

Dresling's practice of giving himself specific challenges goes back to the 1980s, when POLFOTO switched from black-and-white to color. It was clear that any photographer who didn't master color would be left behind.

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Then and Now: Jens Dresling in 1980 (left); Dresling today. (Photos by Lars Johannesen and Peter Hove Olesen/Politiken)

"You have to set a goal for yourself every year," Dresling says, explaining what that experience taught him. "I do it partly because it's fun, but also to keep myself on my toes because if you let everything roll over you, you'll be out of business in a short period of time."

For this year, Dresling's project is to learn how to produce finished slideshows - including the shooting, editing, and audio production - for Politiken's web site. The paper is still in the experimental stage with the shows, gauging reader interest, though Dresling has so far done eighteen of them. What he learns he will eventually teach to Politiken's other photographers.

He makes the shows with a Mac-only program called Soundslides, which accepts images and sound files as input, and then outputs a complete Macromedia Flash production in a single folder that contains all the Flash, HTML, sound, and picture files necessary to make the show run. Dresling learned of Soundslides at a photojournalism conference where he saw it demonstrated by Brian Peterson, a staff photographer and photo coach at the U.S. newspaper The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, MN.

"It was an eye-opener. What he did was really, really amazing," Dresling said last December. "Just half a year ago, when you looked at a Flash production you thought, 'How long had it taken the photographer to make that? A week or something?' Now [with Soundslides] you can make a Flash presentation that looks good in under an hour."

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Fancy Footwork: A national-level soccer match in Copenhagen, 2005. Canon EOS-1D Mark II, EF 400mm f/2.8L IS, ISO 1250. (Photo by Jens Dresling/Politiken)

Shooting and editing slideshows requires a different mindset and some new skills, Dresling says. For a story that will be in the print paper, he might need to produce one shot for the front page and then a horizontal and vertical image from which the page editor can pick one more shot for the inside page.

But for a slideshow, he's looking at putting together perhaps 15 images, and he needs sound of some kind, whether generic music, narration, or ambient sound gathered at the event (crowd noise at a soccer match, for example). The latter requires sound recording skills and equipment, a world he's just begun to explore with the purchase of a MicroTrack 24/96 mobile digital recorder from M-Audio.

As things now stand, Dresling produces the pieces from end-to-end, conceiving, shooting, editing, compiling, and outputting the shows on location. He sends them via FTP directly to technicians in the paper's web division who simply post them online. "That's the nice thing about it," Dresling says. "No editors. It's my project."

The slideshows, though they may seem like a relatively small technology project, are actually part of a much larger galaxy of changes to Dresling's job brought on by Politiken's efforts to adapt itself to the Internet age.

Founded in 1884, Politiken is one of five national newspapers in Denmark. It's published by the Danish media conglomerate, JP/Politikens Hus, and makes its headquarters in downtown Copenhagen. The photo staff includes eight full-fledged staff photographers, three trainee, or apprentice, photographers, three assignment editors, and a Picture Editor-in-Chief. The paper covers a mix of local and international news typical of a big-city broadsheet, and over the years it has sent Dresling to cover stories in the U.K., Greece, Finland, Hungary, The Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Germany, north Africa, and the U.S., among other places.
 
As is true of traditional newspapers in much of the world, Politiken's print circulation is declining. From a high of about 175,000 just after World War II, average weekday circulation fell to 140,000 in 2000 and declined further to just over 127,000 by the beginning of this year. In the face of this trend, the paper - again in common with many of its brethren - is searching for ways to maintain its audience and, more to the point, its advertising revenue base. The result has been greater focus on the paper's web site and shifts in the printed edition's content and emphasis, says Dresling.

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Looking Up: An example of Dresling's strobe work, 2005. Canon EOS-1D Mark II, EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM, Canon Speedlite 580EX set to manual output and triggered by a pair of PocketWizard MultiMAX units. (Photo by Jens Dresling/Politiken)

"The Internet has taken over a lot of the spot news reporting that the paper used to do in the old days," he explains. The print paper, in turn, is moving more towards deeper background stories and analysis, as well as lifestyle subjects like food, recreation, and entertainment.

More and more, Dresling finds himself shooting portraits or illustrating a concept rather than recording a breaking news event - "trying to get the best out of something that's not really a picture" in some cases, he says.

His increasing number of portrait assignments led Dresling to take up the specific project he gave himself last year - mastering and using more advanced lighting gear and techniques.

"Instead of your on-camera flash, you challenge yourself to give that extra ten percent and bring the two lightstands and the two flashes and a softbox, and you can make a much better picture," he says. "You can just see afterwards that it gets used more."

Dresling uses two basic lighting kits. The first is very portable, comprising two Canon 580EX Speedlites, two lightstands (Manfrotto's 156BL and 001 Nano models), and one of two softboxes, either the very small Westcott Micro Apollo or the somewhat larger Chimera Mini Lightbank. He triggers the flashes with PocketWizard MultiMAX transceivers (he has ten PocketWizard units in all, which are a mix of Classic, Plus and MultiMAX).

Lately, he's also become enamored of a 72 x 41-inch oval collapsible reflector/diffuser panel from RedWing called the Multidisc. He attaches the two Canon flashes to one lighstand and fires them through the RedWing, which has its translucent diffusion fabric installed and is mounted to the other lighstand. He sets his ambient exposure for the background and uses the diffused flashes as main light.

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Big Light: The RedWing Multidisc in action. (Photo by Jens Dresling)

"If you're shooting outdoors, and you're far from power, and you still want a lot of light," he says, "it gives fantastic light [quality]. You can make really nice pictures like that."

The second kit, used mostly indoors and when he has reasonable setup time, comprises the same two lightstands with an Elinchrom Style 600S monolight, the two Canon flashes where needed, and a Photoflex Medium LiteDome Q39 softbox with fabric grid attachment.

In his ongoing effort to sharpen his skills, Dresling attends a lot of workshops, and his lighting technique greatly benefited from a 2003 trip to Rich Clarkson's Sports Photography Workshop, held each summer in the U.S., where Dresling learned a great deal from portrait lighting guru Joey Terrill.

"I'm getting better," he says, "but you're never satisfied." Sophisticated lighting is becoming more common among Danish news photographers, he adds, and they notice a colleague's nicely lit portrait. But he's more pleased when the paper's readers occasionally take note.

"That's when it really stands out, I think. But even if nobody responds to it, it's still okay, because I'm learning every time I try something. Today, for example, I [tried experiments] on three assignments. It was not a success. But I learned something."

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