Cops going encrypted? What to scan for stories?

   Are your area’s police now encrypting their radios - or about to?  Then will you still be able to chase the scanner for stories to shoot?
   Police nationwide have suddenly become scared of ambushes ever since last year’s anti-police “Black Lives Matter” riots and subsequent attacks on officers.  Even in small cities like here, they are scared; while that’s the last thing any cop would admit to, they do that when they ask City Hall for more paramilitary gear - including encrypted radios.  So can you still chase the scanner?
   Yes.  Face it, traffic stops - and 99% of police work - never made great news photos, anyway.  It’s the “other” stuff that did.  So put different channels in your scanner: the local volunteer fire departments, the ambulance channels, the local airport - and the ones that will get you most of the best cop-action photos anyhow: ham radio.  Put the local two-meter and UHF ham radio hangout channels in your scanner - not only the local repeaters, but also the nonrepeater channels locally favored.  Here, that’s 146.520 and 147.525; such channels are favored in power outages - and can guide you to operating gas stations in a power outage!
   After all, big fires, storm damage, and the occasional wrecked small plane make the best photos in most areas anyhow.

This inexpensive used Bearcat 800 XLT scanner gets this stuff here.

My great scanner

   My great scanner is in the next room.  It’s a Bearcat 800 XLT - receiving VHF-Low, VHF-High, UHF, and aircraft band.  I got it for $40-$50 from eBay.
   It scans either 20 or 40 channels - as chosen by user.  If you only are using 20 or less, it scans them faster if set for 20.
   I programmed it with the local police, volunteer fire, EMT - and local aircraft - channels.  I also put in area ham-radio frequencies - including the favored nonrepeater ones.  That worked fine - until the local police went to 800 MHz digital; though it receives 800 MHz, it doesn’t receive digital.  However, anything serious gets rapidly onto the ham-radio channels - sometimes before the “official” police channels.  It thus gets a lot that the scanner app on a smartphone can’t.
   I plugged it into a magnetic-mount antenna atop my “ground plane” - a radiator by the window.  Reception is great.
   Downside?  Well, the display is hard to read - unlike earlier Bearcat scanners which had displays you could read from anywhere in the room.  And squelch gets “buggy” at times - apparently when a storm is in the area.

Bearcat 800 XLT scanner.

The time I screwed up - learn from it

   Yes, I screwed up badly once early on - but I also learned from it very fast.
    When a college student, I got a Bearcat 210 scanner.  It was one of the two earliest scanners you entered channels by calculator-style keypad  I loved that thing.  10 channels - and being programmable kept the costs of adding channels nil.  I had it in the kitchen during the day - and took it upstairs to my bedroom at night.  I soon had all the area police, fire, and EMT channels in it - even the unpublicized police channels not in books of scanner frequencies.
   One day - while in the kitchen with my mother - there was something unusual on the scanner that I’d never heard anything up there with: a wrecked small plane at the tiny local airport.  I took my camera, shot photos, and sold the undeveloped film to the area daily for $30.
   The next day, it ran with credit.  Soon enough, the paper sent me the check - and a print along with negatives.  I just put the envelope with the print and negatives in a shoe box full of photos and negatives.
   I was thrilled with the payment and photo credit.  I therefore didn’t think of any orderly filing system for photos and negatives back in the film era.  And now neither I nor the Greensboro News & Record can find that photo - even though a plane with $250,000 damage to it from a botched taxi test taking it down a steep rocky slope at the end of the runway was a memorable story for the paper.
   Of course, I learned very fast.  Ever since going digital, I save all photos I upload - and all other “keepers” - in well-organized folders and subfolders and back that up off-site.
   Do you?

Another photo of Mitt Romney’s son Tagg campaigning for him ran atop three stories the day after - but I archived all photos of that campaign event, including this one that didn’t run.  Burlington, N.C., Oct. 17, 2012.

Shot for the Jumbotrons - Part I

   At any story I’m shooting - particularly anyone with possible future real prospects - I shoot at least some photo(s) shot for the Jumbotrons.  That means nil-depth-of-field for a movie-poster-style image emphasizing the subject and nobody else - and especially blurring any “inconvenient” other person(s) as much as possible.  This is especially my goal with any potential future political superstar.
   Such photos - of potential superstars back when they were “nobodies” - have the highest potential payoff, as very few shooters then were shooting them with any gear capable of producing images that could run a half-page of a magazine or a large photo in a daily newspaper.   Yes, you can find photos of a serious presidential contender back when he only was a high-school football star - but not that could run as Time’s front cover!
    My favored settings for this are shutter priority 1/6000, automatic exposure bracketing; this gives me my choice of the best of three nil-depth-of-field images by forcing maximum-possible-open aperture.
   Here’s an example.  After his father’s presidential campaign imploded in 2012, Tagg Romney was urged to run for Senate.  He’d campaigned for his father’s failing campaign - which is where I ended up covering him.  So far, however, he’s shunned any interest in politics.
   Note how the yard signs he’s autographing conveniently work as reflectors!

Shot for the Jumbotrons - Tagg Romney

Industry trends - the latest

   Recently, yet another major industry trend has become quite evident - “mini-APs” forming among dailies and magazines sharing common ownership.
   Gannett was first to do this - sharing inserted USA Today packaged content as a regular part of each of the other dailies it also owns.  More recently, Gannett openly names this the ”USA Today network” - with USA Today itself using content from the other dailies Gannett owns and all the associated dailies running each other’s content when appropriate.  For its part, Gannett is quite open that a main goal is to reduce costs.
   More recently, Warren Buffett’s chain of dailies Berkshire Hathaway more recently bought has done the same thing - with “BH Media” openly used as the byline on content from another BH daily or even possibly from BH corporate itself.  This has been quite visible in the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record.  BH Media now is a substantial chain of widely-scattered dailies - allowing each to stay quality even as BH Media continues downsizing large numbers very recently from its newsrooms.

Other stories to shoot - II

   Yet what other stories do you shoot when the election’s over, no “money sport” is playing, and when nobody’s doing big protests?
   You can shoot photos for the doctor’s offices and other business places.  Whether they will be zoomed-in-tight photos of wild animals or birds - or macros of flowers in bloom - they can sell to the many doctors who decorate their offices with all kinds of things.
   A look on Facebook finds many shooters seeming to specialize in wildlife photos or floral macros.  The wildlife photos obviously are shot with telephoto lenses or telephoto zooms; the floral macros are shot with more-general zooms.
   Such photos offer the prospect of paid work when the financially troubled newspaper industry now has largely quit giving on-assignment work - even on big stories.

Azaleas, Burlington, N.C.  Shot with Canon 24-70 f/2.8 “L” USM

Scanner on the cheap?

   Fortunately, yes it’s pretty possible.  While it may not have all the “secret” frequencies of local police that you have on your full-size scanner that cost you hundreds of dollars new, scanner apps for your smartphone can deliver amazing results - either free for tempter versions or for about $3 for the unlimited version.
   Trying a couple different apps here in Burlington, N.C. found major differences between different scanner apps.  Briefly, 5-0 Scanner Police Radio is far and away the best; its audio is great - unlike others I tried - and sounds as good as the Bearcat full-size one in the next room.
   You may have to use listed scanners other than those specifically designated for your city or county - as here, where some local police departments actually are dispatched on the radio system of a neighboring county.  Your results will depend on volunteers sending the feed from their full-size scanners.
   Downside?  Scanner apps eat battery charge fast if the channels scanned are active.  A photojournalist in NYC says he keeps his turned off except when something’s going on - to save the battery.
   But it’s a lot less expensive than the cigarette-pack-size handheld scanners Icom sells - even used - and about $100 less than Bearcat’s cheapest handheld scanners.

Smartphone with 5-0 Scanner Police Radio installed.
Smaller than any scanner - and $100 or more less expensive.

Other stories to shoot - I

   The politicians aren’t in town - and you’re not into shooting seasonal sports.  So what other stories are there to cover - especially now in the spring?
   This is the season of bad weather in many areas.  Bad weather producing damage that distant big-city newspapers will want photos of.  And producing small-plane wrecks for pilots who apparently never heard the saying that “there are no old bold pilots!”
   A severe storm here in the Burlington, N.C. area several years ago produced memorable photos for me to shoot - rather than a large tree limb on somebody’s roof.  One of best news photos I ever shot was of the top quarter of a utility pole - snapped off by high wind and left hanging by attached wires (below).  Power poles snapped a quarter of the way from the top and supported by attached wires were common from that storm - and one of such a pole standing in a major street I only couldn’t get a great photo of due to poor background.
   But the sky made a great background for photos of the broken-off tops of poles hanging by attached wires.

Top quarter of utility pole hangs by attached wires after severe storm, Burlington, N.C.

Aftermarket batteries for your dSLR?

   Aftermarket batteries for dSLRs - much less expensive, but are they good?  The right ones work as well as Canon’s - but how do you pick the right ones?  The bad ones are a bummer.
   Here’s my experience; go to Adorama’s online store - and read what prior buyers say.  You’ll fast learn - as I did before buying batteries for my Canon 7D - which aftermarket batteries are as good as Canon’s, and which only cost less.  And the differences are stark in terms of what prior buyers say.
   Adorama’s online store has detailed ratings from prior buyers for aftermarket batteries - and for all sorts of products, whether those of a big-name camera maker or aftermarket.
   Don’t bet on one brand of aftermarket batteries to work equally well for all cameras; so check aftermarket battery ratings for your particular camera before buying.  
   One thing is for sure; you really can save a lot of money by buying aftermarket batteries - if they’re the best ones.

Battery grips - worth it

   Battery grips for dSLRs - are they worth it?  Having used them for years, I say yes.  There are - at least - four things they can do for you:

1) Allow you more battery capacity - as they take two batteries at a time.  However, this rarely is an issue - since typical-size cards run out long before the battery.

2) Allow you to use ordinary batteries.  They typically come with an adapter for “AA” batteries - or it can be bought inexpensively; this can be essential if your story is in some area without power.  Sure, some chargers will run off your car’s cigarette lighter - but charging that battery pack will take an hour.

3) Balance.  They really do help a lot balancing a long or heavy lens - and in keeping it still.  It’s a lot easier to hold a 70-200 f/2.8 “L” IS USM steady when the dSLR has a battery grip on it.

4) Vertical photos.  Most - if not all - battery grips have a second shutter release positioned to make shooting vertical-format photos easy.  They also make shooting vertical photos steady - unlike the camera’s own shutter release.

   My recommendation - based on experience - is to buy one that the camera manufacturer sells.  Sure, it costs more - but they are available used in excellent condition from the used division of Adorama.