Photography captures reality.
Or does it?
Yes, a high-quality photograph that follows my 25 rules of photo composition can be a major asset for your multimedia journalism report.
But a photograph is not necessarily objective reality. Why?
As you edit the photograph, you are making editorial decisions: What part of the photo is most important or newsworthy? (That is different than editing decisions based on attractiveness.)
Here are two examples: One benign, one politically charged.
I took the first photo in my final day on the White House beat, Sept. 2, 2013. It shows House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi speaking to a group of reporters outside the West Wing entrance (also known as “the Stakeout”). The second photo is a wedding snapshot featuring Bill and Hillary Clinton at Donald Trump’s most recent wedding.
The Trump-Clinton wedding photo is fraught with political overtones. Some of Trump’s 2016 Republican presidential campaign rivals would like to remind voters of his bipartisan past and his longtime coziness with the Clintons. The unedited photo is incontrovertible evidence that the two families were close enough that they were all smiles together in the not-so-distant past.
By focusing on Donald and Hillary, the photo editor chooses to highlight the 2016 rivalry, without the spouses. It’s Hillary vs. Donald. All smiles then. All insults now.
By editing out the Trumps, this is an unexceptional photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton smiling for the cameras. Little news value.
By editing out Donald and Hillary, the photo focuses on Bill Clinton with his arm around an attractive woman. Her left hand touches his, prompting the viewer to reach her/his own conclusion about the body chemistry.
The takeaway lesson: When you are editing photos for content, think about how your cropping decisions change the meaning of the image in the eyes of your audience. Are you sending the message you want to send? Are you fairly reflecting reality? Are you being fair to the subjects in the photo?
If you are a professional photo editor, the answer to all of the questions should be yes.
Every year, the Pulitzer Prizes celebrate some of the world’s best journalism. Just hours after the 2015 Pulitzer winners were announced, my Global Business Journalism Program was fortunate to play host to a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for photography. Larry C. Price, a University of Texas graduate who won the Pulitzer while working for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Philadelphia Inquirer, dazzled my Multimedia Reporting and Data Journalism students with tales from his latest project, a multi-year investigation into the use of child labor in gold mining. His work — entitled “Tarnished” — was published in eBook form by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.
Here are ten tips I culled from Larry’s lectures and the subsequent Q-and-A period. They are not a definitive list of “ten top tips.” They are just a collection of tips that I hope will be useful as you attempt to improve your photographic skills.
1. Always remember that you’re a storyteller.
Whatever publishing platform you’re on, and whatever visual medium you’re using, journalism is always about one thing. “It’s all about the stories,” Larry says. “Stories are as old as language. They’re everywhere. And journalism tells them.”
2. Look for something new — or a new take on an old image.
“Find something that hasn’t been done,” Larry says. “Or find a different spin on it.”
He says colleagues have sometimes discouraged him from shooting certain images, saying, “it’s been done.”
“My response is, ‘I haven’t done it,'” he says. “If somebody’s told the story, tell it differently.”
His example: a recent trip to Paris and a photo shoot at the Eiffel Tower.
3. Get up early. Stay late.
Larry doesn’t use artificial lighting. As a result, he is looking for the best natural light available. “If you want your multimedia productions to look good, shoot them early in the morning or a few minutes before sunset,” he says.
That means long days of work and short nights of sleep.
4. Get close.
Every photographer has her or his own signature. For Larry, it’s close-ups. “I love tight facial portraits,” he said. “Force yourself to get close.”
Another favorite subject for his close-ups: “Hands and feet. That’s what it’s all about.”
5. Get personal.
To make a subject comfortable with you — especially if you are going to shove your camera into their face — is to develop a personal relationship with them. “I spend a lot of time getting rapport established before I take out a camera,” Larry says. “I develop that rapport so it doesn’t get uncomfortable to your subject.”
Of course, you can’t always do this when news is breaking, but it can help improve your image if you have a bit of time to prepare.
6. Keep shooting.
“When I’m in the field, it’s constant activity,” Larry says. “Digital allows you to shoot, review, delete a lot.” Don’t let your guard down when you’re on duty: You never know when the next great photo opportunity might come. “You can’t ever relax,” he says. “It’s a never-ending cycle of feeling guilty.”
On his most recent trip to Burkina Faso, Larry returned with 37,000 frames. “I always have a lot of failures,” he notes. “I shoot a lot of pictures.”
7. Minimize your vertical shots.
Horizontal photographs work best on digital platforms, whether that’s a mobile device or a computer. And if you’re taking video, make sure it’s horizontal. “Never shoot vertical video,” warns Larry. “It’s useless. Half your space is wasted.” He rarely takes vertical stills, except for portraits. But he likes the square format popularized by Instagram. “Square is a very good portrait format — a little more artsy,” he says.
8. Stay natural.
Great photographers don’t cheat with editing programs that alter reality. “I don’t do a lot of Photoshop with my pictures,” he said. “I don’t exaggerate the colors or anything.”
9. Take good notes.
You need to have the spelling of names, correct ages and the locations of cities or villages. Larry always uses two notebooks. He also records the GPS coordinates of everything.
10. One old-fashioned photo composition rule.
“Don’t ever put people in the middle of the frame,” he says.