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Week Four – Photographing Events

“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

― William Carlos Williams


If you are in this course you expect something more from your photography than images to email to friends and family, post to your Flickr account or put on your refrigerator. Your aim is to photograph for a broader audience. In today’s publications, online and off, photographs do many things in addition to the editorial image or essay. They illustrate articles. They advertise products.  They also work as graphic cues to move the reader through pages in the form of teasers — small images that point to more content on a different page.

Editors want what they think readers want and Eyetrack research, studies that monitor how readers’ eyes move across a page, http://www.ojr.org/ojr/stories/070312ruel/ demonstrates that readers stay with images longer if they are colorful and graphically complex. These readers more often go on to read the caption, the headline and then the text. Studies show that readers prefer human interest (feature) pictures to news pictures. In other words, upbeat pictures of babies and fashion models are more popular than images of politician and protests. Celebrity and entertainment photography are an increasingly significant part of news coverage as well. The reality of the professional world of photography is that you need to keep this in mind while also pursuing stories of interest to you, which brings us to the next point.

For editorial purposes, I like to think of images as falling into three categories:

Thumbnails, teasers and graphics – These are all the non-editorial photographs that appear in publication. The small images that are displayed in the table of context in print. The thumbnails that appear as or with a link to another page/story on the web. They might also be images used as part of an infographic.
One-shot photos – As the name implies these single images that appear to illustrate a written story. We talked about it last week in the context of the photo essay as a signature photo, the one photo that best summaries the whole story. The majority of images published are one shot assignments. Of course, the photographer usually shoots many more, but one is selected based on image quality, space and a host of other factors. One shots might also be standalone photos. Photos that appear without an accompanying article (and sometimes with other photos shot by other photographers in a ‘photo of the week’ lineup).
The photo essay – Essays typically have anywhere from three to 16 images. These are editorial photo essays and what we will be talking about below.

Though we’re going to focus on the editorial essay it helps photographers to understand how images are used in a publication. We’ll talk more about this below when we talk about shooting for design/layout. For example TIME Magazine used to always run a thumbnail on it’s index page. I learned to always shoot an image that would serve this purpose. It had to make visual sense even though it would not appear a more than about 1.5 inches (less than 3cm) and it had to visually symbolize the core what the story was about.


As photographer you are a storyteller and you need to approach everything you shoot that way. Photographers need to inform themselves about the subjects and issues they photograph. This means be informed and do research: who are the experts on this issue and can contact them? what other photographers have addressed this theme? What hasn’t been covered? What can I do that is new or unique?

As a general assignment news photographer I often had to shoot subject I knew little about and in which I had little interest. The real pros cover topics unimportant to them with near the same level of performance as things they feel strongly about. However, photographers that feel strongly about they issues they shoot will do a better job. For example, the AP knew I liked education-related issues and sought to give me those stories when they came up.

You need to identify themes important to you and begin to build a body of work around those themes. Remember: the best editorial photography is an investigation. Meaning, shooting an issue should be a process of informed discovery. You go in with some ideas about your topic that you wish to communicate but the act of photographing it should take you — and the audience — beyond your initial assumptions.


The impact of a good photo can be magical but the process by which it is made and selected for publication is not magic. Photographers and photo editors need to think about their work in a very structured way. That structure begins with having a vocabulary with which to describe photographs. We’ve used many of the terms below already. I want to reiterate them here.

  • The rule of thirds:  The rule of thirds is a Medieval European painting concept. It divides a canvas into nine equal rectangles. A good painting (photo) uses ALL of the rectangles in its composition. Further, the strongest graphic elements of the picture often appear at the intersections of lines rather than in the center of the picture. The important thing to understand here is the idea of balance. Balance from top to bottom and from side to side. The importance of the horizon line. Your frame is a canvas and you need to use all nine rectangles of that frame in your composition.
  • Working the layers: Good photos make two dimensions work as three: foreground, middle-ground and background. Avoid flat, two-dimensional images. Photos should use the layers to illustrate different elements of the story, most commonly subject in the foreground, context in the background.
  • The decisive moment: Good photographs capitalize on drama. The decisive moment is the moment of peak action. Even a simple podium shot of a politician has a moment of peak action – when the politician is looking up at the audience, speaking and perhaps gesturing.
  • Patterns, color and perspective: At their most basic, news photos work on a narrative level – they tell a story. But photos also work on a graphic level, almost as abstract art. The viewer’s eye – and mind – will be drawn to a graphically powerful image. The visual strength of colors, shapes, patterns, and use of perspective in an image should all factor into whether or not an image selected for publication. Think about declining perspective. Think about angle of view. Think about natural frames and leading lines in your images.
  • Movement: Eyetrak studies confirm that stimulating image engage the visual cortex. Without getting too scientific, the idea is that compelling images move your eye around a lot within the image — push it from one compositional element to another without pushing it out of the frame. Photographers and editors will talk about movement in an image.


Good editorial photos tell a story. They grab the viewer’s through a combination of information, action, vivid color and solid composition. The world’s top photo editors are always looking for novelty in the photos they choose, photos with eye-popping appeal.

While no absolute equation for good photo editing exists, many photo editors use the hierarchy below as a basic measuring stick when selecting photos. The best editorial images have all four characteristics.

  1. Information: informative pictures are the “lowest common denominator” of the editorial photo hierarchy. They relay information about an event or issue on the most basic level: who, what, where, when. The best editorial photo does more than just document. It also expresses why the subject is interesting and important.
  2. Action/Drama: You want to move away from posed, static images. Human actions tells story. Think peak action – the moment at an event when the subject is most animated or demonstrative. Remember: interaction and reaction to an event can be as powerful as the even itself.
  3. Graphic Strength: A good photo works on a graphic level as well as a narrative level. Pictures with graphic strength are very appealing to the eye. Use color to drive your compositions. Make use of declining perspective, strong shapes, geometric balance  and color in how you compose your shot. Universal human empathy: The best photos have the hard-to-define quality of making the viewer feel close to event or people covered. These are the pictures that move us through their ability to get past the superficial and give us an intimate glimpse into an event.
  4. Universal Human Experience: The best photographs capture the universal experience of our shared humanity. These moments may be happy or sad, played out in public or privately, but the great photos cross cultural barriers and even time.

In recent years editor have begun to work with the assumption that the audience, especially online, has a higher degree of visual literacy than in the past. This means that photo editors are increasingly willing to take risks and be experimental in the kinds of images they run. In practice for the photographer this often mean that is OK to sacrifice a bit of the informative (1 above) value of a photo as well as some of the action/drama (2 above) in the interest of creating images that have more graphic strength (3 above) and human empathy( 4 above).