So you’re suddenly a photographer: a field guide

Editor’s note: Ben Brody, GroundTruth’s director of photography, shared some of the insights he  learned during his time as a combat photographer and in his work back in the U.S. in a recent edition of Navigator. Those lessons, along with other practical advice was condensed in a field guide for our incoming class of Report for America corps members, which we share here:

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Excellent, informative visuals accompanying your piece will make your work stronger, while weak visuals will have the opposite effect.  Of course pointing a camera at something and pushing the shutter button is really easy, but making a picture that stands up to the same scrutiny that your main piece does takes significant thought, effort and time.  The purpose of this guide is to help you make pictures that rise to professional standards and add value to your news package.

Get your head in a visual space

News photography on its face may seem like a very literal and unfiltered representation of reality, but it’s just as much of an abstraction as writing.  Reality is moving, photographs are still.  Reality has depth and dimension, photographs are flat. A photographer’s biases, expertise, ignorance and intentions are always evident in the pictures they make.

A camera records how light describes surface, so observe what direction the light is coming from and where the shadows are.  The descriptives qualities of light are heavily influenced by the size and intensity of the light source.  For example, direct sunlight comes from a tiny, intense light source, which produces deep shadows and etches tiny details.  Conversely, on an overcast day, the light source is the size of the entire sky, so shadowing is quite subtle and details are softened.  Indoor lighting falls somewhere between these two extremes.  Bright indirect light coming through a window is often a flattering light for portraits.

Observing mood and gesture

When you are going to take a photograph for your story, take a moment to think about what the tone and mood of your story is.  What details or gestures do you see around you that convey that mood?  Light coming through a lace curtain, a mounted deer head on a wall, the grimace of a frustrated town selectman.

It’s important to try and make these observations as unobtrusively as possible.  People react to being photographed, so pre-position yourself in a spot with good light, observe and anticipate the moment you want to capture and make the picture quickly using smooth, unhurried movements.  Practice makes perfect.

Space and distance

A good film is not just made up of close-ups of the performers’ faces – the distance between the camera and the subject varies to create an engaging visual rhythm.  Most amateur photographers keep a “middle distance” of about 6-10 feet between them and their subject at all times – try to break out of that habit.  Get close to show details, then stand back to show a sense of space and atmosphere.  Think of still-life paintings and landscapes, or if you’re like me, think of literary description – look for paintings or literature you recognize in your surroundings.

Wide angle lenses exaggerate space and make distances between objects appear greater, while telephoto lenses compresses space and make things seem closer together.  Smartphones typically have relatively wide lenses.  A GoPro has an extremely wide lens.  Many camera lenses allow you to zoom between wide and telephoto perspectives.  A “normal” lens approximates the human eye’s perspective and is the best lens for a beginner (or often an expert!) to use – you can avoid a lot of rookie mistakes if you stay away from wide and telephoto lenses.  Zoom with your feet instead.

Planning and time management

As mentioned before, good photography takes time and you probably don’t have very much of it!  This is especially true if you’re also doing interviews, recording audio and taking notes.  Planning your strategy to make pictures ahead of time is the best way to make the most of your time.  Who or what is your subject and what is relevant to show about them?  Are you going to make a window-lit portrait?  What exterior/landscape pictures would be useful and can you get them ahead of time when the light is nice? What details might illuminate the atmosphere or mood that you’re trying to convey?  Planning ahead and making a checklist can be really useful.

Be sure your camera is set up to record pictures at maximum resolution, your batteries are charged and there is a memory card with sufficient free space inserted.  Learn how to operate the basic functions of the camera you’re using – YouTube has tons of tutorials.  Even if you’re just using a cellphone, there are advanced settings and capabilities you might want to learn about.  Always test your equipment before you head out!

Where to point the camera and when to push the button

Now that you know what you’re going to take a picture of, think about how to isolate that subject from all the visual clutter around you.  This will make it clear what you’re saying – it’s how to avoid “burying the lede” in your pictures.  When you are composing your picture, it’s best to keep it simple and straightforward.  In general, pictures with uncluttered, symmetrical backgrounds and centered subjects are more likely to communicate successfully than busy and complex compositions.

If you want to make a portrait, don’t just take pictures of someone at their desk while they’re answering your questions or typing at a computer.  Your story is probably describing who they are, not just what they look like, so make a picture about who they are as well.  Take a moment to find a good light source – window light is pretty versatile.

Landscape pictures are good at establishing a scene and look great on the front page.  Be sure to get a mix of horizontal and vertical images and to vary your distance from your subjects. If all your pictures look the same, you probably won’t get more than one of them past the photo editor. If you can come away with a couple of strong pictures, the rest of your piece will be that much more resonant with your audience.

When you actually push the shutter button, hold still!  All your careful preparation is for naught if your picture is inartfully blurry.

Pushing your photography further

The best thing you can do to make great pictures is to look at a lot of great pictures and think about why you like them.  The New Yorker’s Photo Booth and Washington Post’s In Sight blogs show a lot of good photojournalism and looking at World Press Photo or the Pulitzer finalists can get you some grounding in really strong mainstream work.  Reading the Pictures offers insightful analysis and criticism of current news imagery.  FOAM and Conscientious Photo Magazine are excellent resources, especially if you are interested in the important conversations going on in the field.