RGMP 7: Learn how to shoot decent photos

This is the seventh post in a series titled “Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency.” In the sixth post, I showed you how to post audio on your blog. Today I will explain how you can improve your photojournalism skills (assuming you’re not already a photojournalist, that is).

Every journalist should be able to capture a decent photo in a breaking news situation. You might be the only journalist on the scene. Sure, today it’s likely that 100 people with cell-phone cameras will be on the scene too — but why shouldn’t YOU be the one who captures the Page One image that gets picked up by Reuters or AFP and zapped around the world?

Being able to capture good images will expand your skill set in four ways:

  1. You can combine your good photos with audio and produce slideshows. (Some clients will pay a freelancer big bucks for these.)
  2. Practicing to obtain good still images will make you a better video shooter. It’s faster and easier to learn good composition while shooting stills.
  3. You will gain new perspectives on your stories. Developing your eye to seek out a good image will also lead you to aspects of the story that you might have missed, in the past.
  4. Working to get a good set of photos from a story will make you a better partner when you work with a photojournalist. Your appreciation for what he or she does will enhance your cooperation — resulting in a better story package.

Your camera

I’ve written about the benefits of a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot before. You do not need a large, expensive camera to capture great images. Most photojournalists will tell you, in fact, that the camera does not matter. It’s the person who gets a great shot — not the device. Of course, a totally blurry or completely dark shot is worthless. But most of an amateur’s clear, sharp, well-lighted shots are also worthless, because they are poorly composed (more on that below).

You cannot get the shot if your camera is at home. One of the benefits of a point-and-shoot is that you can have it with you at all times. Make sure you do. Don’t leave home without it!

RTFM (read the manual): The auto mode will work nicely, yes. But you can vastly improve your chances of getting a good, clear shot in all kinds of lighting conditions it you learn how your camera works in manual mode. Many of these point-and-shoots have three different groups of settings that affect lighting and speed of movement:

  • Named conditions such as “Beach,” “Snow,” and “Night”
  • ISO — e.g., 100, 200, 400, 800
  • Lighting types, such as sun, cloud, incandescent, fluorescent

To learn how to use these modes, EXPERIMENT. Use the camera’s manual to figure out how to set them, and then go out into the world and use them. Take 500 pictures at your kid’s next basketball game. (DO NOT use flash!) You’ll learn a lot about what your camera can do.

If you’re going to buy a new camera, I have some suitable models linked here. Check the manufacturer’s specs and make sure the camera meets or exceeds these:

  • 7 megapixels or better
  • Image stabilization (essential)
  • Video at 640 x 480 at 30 fps (absolutely essential); video must include audio
  • 3x OPTICAL zoom or better
  • USB 2 output

Make sure also to buy a 2 GB (gigabyte) high-speed SD card, or larger.

What to teach yourself

Putting the subject of the photo smack in the center of the photo — every amateur does it. Professional photographers almost never do it. So the first and biggest step to improving your images is to learn about composition. Here are seven simple lessons:

  1. Introduction
  2. Simplicity
  3. Rule of Thirds
  4. Lines
  5. Balance
  6. Framing
  7. Avoiding Mergers

It’s all about WHERE you stand and WHEN you push the button. Just about every photojournalist will tell you that.

What separates the greats from the wannabes is that the great ones know how to figure out where to stand, and almost by instinct (but really, it’s just a matter of practice, practice, practice) knowing when to push the button.

The tutorial site Digital Photography School has various clear tutorials for shooting in specific situations, such as “Tips for Better Candid Photography” and “How to Photograph in Direct Sunlight.”

Learn from examples

You owe it to yourself to get an education in photojournalism. I think it will be one of the most enjoyable investments you’ll ever make in your career. Here are my favorite sources of good examples we can study:

  • MSNBC’s The Week in Pictures — a new set of about 10 pictures each week, selected by awesomely talented photo editors
  • Magnum Photos — a wide variety of photojournalism stories and photographers, free to view online
  • Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach, 5th edition. Focal Press. $8 and up (used), by Ken Kobré (2004). There is a newer edition, but the old one is quite cheap, and packed with fantastic examples and advice. See Amazon.com for used copies.

Practice, practice, practice

I will get to video later in this series, but before I do, you really ought to work on your basic visual skills with some serious practice in still photography.

Shoot lots of photos of EACH thing you think is worth shooting. Since photojournalism is real life and not posed, your subjects will be moving and changing. Part of the trick to getting a good shot is to shoot waaay more pictures than you ever did on your summer vacation. Move up, move down, move left and right. Stand on a chair. Lie down on the floor. Shoot medium, close, and super-close. Get extra close-up detail shots (these work great in audio slideshows).

If you bring back 10 to 20 photos of one single person, action, dog, bicycle, etc., the chances are that ONE of those images will actually be quite good!

I tell students always to take at least 10 shots of each subject they are shooting. The longer you stand there, clicking the shutter, the more likely people are to ignore you. Then they relax and act naturally. Click! That’s your shot.

Previous posts in this series:

12 Comments on “RGMP 7: Learn how to shoot decent photos

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  10. Would you consider image stabilization essential also for still photography, or do you rather refer to videography? I never used image stabilization with my SLR camera and the results were good. I also heard that image stabilization comes with the price of slower speed (don’t know whether this is true, though). – Ralph

  11. @Ralph – Point-and-shoot cameras weigh as little as 3.5 ounces (about 100g). I think image stabilization helps a lot to reduce blur.

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