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ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

Virtual Reality Like a Pro: Time to Start Experimenting

When I caught up with ASMP member Ami Vitale, she was about to speak at the Consumer Electronics Show on the topic of virtual reality (VR). She will tell you she’s just beginning to learn how to apply it but believes virtual reality is the ultimate tool to assist with empathetic storytelling. Her philosophy is to embrace every new technology as it comes out even if it’s terrifying.

Ami Vitale playing with the pandas

After years of covering conflicts and human rights issues for wire services, news agencies and magazines including Time and Newsweek, she got so burned out she needed to take some time off. Her plan was thwarted by a friend who introduced her to The Nature Conservancy and an opportunity to take on a ten month project traveling around the globe. That experience provided a powerful reminder of how much beauty there is in the world and how dependent we all are on our natural resources. In areas of conflict it’s often about natural resources too. Her work started to take on a theme of coexistence. “I believe we need to talk about the problems but we also need to talk about the solutions. I”m always looking for why things are working and what’s the difference. We need hope in our stories” says Vitale.

Developing Differentiators and a Body of Work

Her work with The Nature Conservancy turned into a five year traveling exhibit and a book titled Design for a Living World. All this got her thinking differently. She will tell you that she works to find assignments that pay the bills, but she’s always got two or three “heart projects” going on. “These heart projects become your calling card. It shows the world what you are capable of doing. It takes time to tell these unique stories and working without the pressure of editors and deadlines allows you to make your best work” says Vitale.

She will tell you her approach to commercializing a “heart project” is to develop a body of work around the topic to show people your unique perspective. Then when she’s ready, Vitale will start applying to photo contests, applying for grants and talking to editors. “Even at this point in my career, I have to clarify why my perspective is interesting” says Vitale. For example, one of her heart projects is about pandas. Vitale realized that most people weren’t aware that a minor miracle was being performed in breeding these animals in China. Her instincts were right-on because about a month after her story came out, the Pandas came off the Endangered Species List and it was big news.

She’s a big believer in using multiple channels to tell a story. For the panda story she provided live video feeds for the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, shot virtual reality so that people could simulate being right next to a panda, and she did daily Instagram posts with extensive and captions. Take a look at her amazing panda images on National Geographic and on Ami’s website.

Ami Vitale baby rhino

Ami Vitale and a baby rhino

It’s worth mentioning that Vitale has over 600,000 followers on Instagram which she’s cultivated over the last two to three years. She uses both images and video with great captions. “I tell a story with the captions so you’ll learn something about these places. I take things that people think they know about and I try to surprise them. In a world of 7 billion people, there really aren’t exclusive stories, just your unique perspective” says Vitale.

Shooting Virtual Reality

“At first I thought that VR was just another trendy, gadgety thing but it really is this ultimate tool for creating awareness and empathy. It’s not like traditional storytelling and I like to use it to tell natural history stories” says Vitale.

The challenge of shooting for VR is that you can’t frame your image the same way you would with still images. “You have to be very thoughtful about what you are framing and then run to get out of the picture. You have to imagine what the shot is going to be like and then just let it happen” says Vitale. When shooting VR for the panda project, baby panda cubs continuously tried to eat the cameras when she first mounted them so she had to change her approach to keep them safe.

Vitale thinks it such a perfect time to start experimenting because you can be on the cutting edge of this new wave. Full disclosure; she is a Nikon Ambassador but she spoke very highly of the Nikon KeyMission camera – especially for people who are trying to learn. “They cost under $500. They are tiny and super durable. I literally stuck this camera under the trunks of elephants to get this entirely new perspective. I also attached them to the sides of super cub airplanes and flew 120 mph and they were fine” says Vitale.

I asked Vitale if she did her own editing and while she thinks it’s important to try editing so you understand how to shoot, she partners with a great editor to leverage their specialized skills.

Vitale’s Tips for ASMP Members

  • Now is the best time to be a storyteller even if you are just starting out.
  • Go Deep. You don’t have to travel thousands of miles, it could be in your backyard. Reveal something unique that only you know because you’ve spent so much time on a topic.
  • Use all the publishing resources out there now – embrace all the things that scare you in terms of technology – including virtual reality!
  • Don’t do what everyone else has done or what other people have told you to do. Find your unique perspective. Listen to what’s outside of the headlines.

This article is part of a series featuring ASMP members who are doing cool things and have something to share. Search for other articles in this series by using search term “Like a Pro” on the ASMP site.

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