Producing a story is generally a team effort, but some journalists may choose to fly solo. A “backpack journalist” is, in the words of Poynter’s Michelle Michael, “tasked with producing a video [or] story from A to Z all by themselves.” That includes researching, interviewing, and producing all the elements necessary for a professional, polished piece of journalism.
Of course, the most important attribute of any backpack journalist is determination, grit, and the willingness to work really hard for sometimes minimal rewards. But that being said, a lot of technology exists today that can make your life a lot easier.
I’ve been steadily acquiring gear for the past few years that I find incredibly useful when I go out as a backpack journalist. I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to purchase a lot of my equipment myself, as well as a couple of pieces that were kindly purchased for me (thanks mom and dad and other family members!). Since I work on a very limited budget and don’t purchase new gear very often, I have to get as many miles out of my gear as possible. Here’s what’s in my backpack; I’ve listed the pros and cons of each item, if applicable, to help you make an informed decision when you start filling up your backpack!
Obviously an essential item for a backpack journalist. I do have a regular backpack that I use for schoolbooks and such, but when I’m doing stories I like to use this camera bag that I got from AmazonBasics. It’s compartmentalized inside and you can move the dividers around as you see fit to accommodate all your stuff. I’ve found it to be a very affordable and versatile bag for all my needs. (The one con: it’s not big enough to fit my laptop, but if you use a netbook or a tablet there’s a chance it could fit in there.)
Camera: Canon Rebel t4i
DSLRs (digital single-lens reflex cameras), particularly Canons, are among the most versatile tools I’ve used for taking video and pictures. I use a Canon t4i Rebel that I bought brand-new in 2014 for around $700, making it the most expensive (but also by far the most used) item in my bag. These days there are many brands out there you can get for less than that (the Nikon D32000 springs to mind), but the t4i had some distinct advantages and cool extra features, such as a touchscreen, that drew me to it at the time. It’s served me well for the past few years and I hope to get many more years out of it.
- Takes great pictures and HD video
- Pretty durable and has survived knocks, bumps, and extreme weather like a champ
- The flip-out screen is very useful for tight spaces
- Has a mic input for plugging in external or lavalier microphones
- Lenses can be switched out and changed for a wide range of possible shots
- Long battery life; I can get several hours of continuous video shooting out of it, and entire days worth of photography. The batteries are rechargeable and easy to switch out.
- Kit lens that comes with the camera isn’t the best (it doesn’t zoom very far, for one thing), and new lenses can be pretty pricy
- The built-in microphone audio is pretty crummy
- It generally splits large video files after recording continuously for 10 minutes
- I usually turn off the touchscreen function because when I’m wearing the camera around my neck, it tends to bump against my chest and press buttons
Camera 2: GoPro Hero4 Silver
The versatility and durability of the GoPro makes it a very useful storytelling tool to have, if not an essential one. This is the only GoPro I’ve ever owned, but I chose it because of its handy features such as a rear LCD screen- very handy for setting up your shots- which is also a touchscreen. The battery life isn’t great, but as long as you don’t leave the wireless on, you should get several hours of use out of it on a single charge.
Computer: Asus PC
Some of my fellow journalists may balk at the fact that I use a PC (it always seems as though I’m a minority in a sea of Mac users), but the fact is that it simply fit my needs better than say, a Macbook Pro would, and for less money- I got it at Best Buy for almost an even $1000, whereas a Macbook would have set me back $1,200 or more and boasted fewer useful features. It also helps that I use Adobe Suite for all my software needs, so I don’t have to rely on iMovie, Final Cut, or other Mac-specific programs. If you’re a beginner, though, and can afford it, a Mac may be for you- some of the programs that come standard with Macs can be handy for beginners to try out. Like my DSLR, I’ve had this computer since 2014 and hopefully it’ll serve me well for a few more years yet.
- 1 terabyte of storage
- 8 GB of RAM means it can handle Adobe programs pretty smoothly
- HDMI output
- CD/DVD drive (many new computers [especially Macs] don’t have this anymore)
- SD card slot
- Durable design
- Poor battery life; 2-3 hours max. Performance also slows down when it’s not plugged in
- It doesn’t have separate mic and headphone jacks, just one that functions as both, or rather doesn’t function as it should…
- Pretty terrible quality webcam
Storage: Toshiba Flashair, Sandisk Wireless Connect Stick and Sandisk Cruzer mini USB (and Dropbox)
Filming lots of video is going to take up a lot of storage space. Thankfully I have a lot of space on my computer and on my external hard drive, but when I need to transfer files on the go, these are my go-to items. I’ll breeze through each of them quickly.
The Flashair is an 32GB SD card that produces its own Wi-fi network, which allow you to connect to it and download your pictures straight from the card onto your phone. This is super handy if you’re out and about, shooting photos or videos with your DSLR, and you need to share them quickly and you don’t have your computer with you.
In a similar way, the Sandisk Connect is an ordinary flash drive that also generates a Wi-fi network, so you can connect to the stick and upload, download, or stream from it with a computer or cell phone. You can set it to automatically back up the camera roll on your phone as well if you’re using that for shooting or taking photos.
One of the simplest and handiest gadgets I own is my tiny flash drive that is small enough to remain plugged into my computer constantly, so I can pull it out whenever I need it, but also has 16GB of storage. These days you can get ones that have at least 128GB on them.
This one isn’t all that impressive, because it’s just a simple directional mic that I bought for around $30, but it works pretty well. It plugs directly into my DSLR and provides pretty crisp audio that is indeed very directional, which can come in handy especially if you’re using it to shoot interviews.
I also have a USB mic (also an inexpensive Amazon purchase) that is great for podcasting or for getting supplemental audio.
- DSLR remote- I have a little remote control that allows me to turn my DSLR on and off remotely. Yet another cheap Amazon purchase
- Multi-tool- From Walmart I believe, a simple gadget with screwdrivers and pliers and such really comes in handy
- Mouse and mousepad- for editing on your laptop on the go, I can’t stand to edit using a trackpad
- Backup USB battery back and all kinds of cords– self-explanatory
Hope you find these helpful and best of luck becoming a backpack journalist!