Intro to Photojournalism
Here are some basic rules and guidelines of photo composition to keep in mind as you start developing your eye:
1. The Rule of Thirds.
If you pay attention to only one element of composition, the rule of thirds should be it. If you start shooting with this “rule” in mind, your pictures will begin to look a lot better immediately.
The general idea is to imagine breaking an image down into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. If you place the main points of interest in your photo where the lines intersect, or along the lines themselves, your image will be far more visually interesting than if you just put the subject smack in the middle. Studies have shown that composing photos this way draws the human eye far more effectively.
2. Use color.
Black and white photography is a beautiful art form, but in photojournalism, most of the time you’ll be shooting in color. It helps to know what combinations of color to look for if you want your images to really pop.
You probably recognize this photo. Known as Afghan Girl, it is one of National Geographic’s most iconic images and was taken by color master Steve McCurry. One of the reasons this relatively simple picture is so stunning and so well-known is the colors: red and green, which fall on opposite sides of the color wheel.
Opposite colors, paired together, can make each other look more vibrant. Notice how the green of the girl’s eyes is picked up by the wall behind her and set off by the rusty red of her scarf.
Images with variations on the same color, known as monochromatic images, can also be quite striking:
3. Capture the decisive moment.
“The decisive moment” is a term that was coined by renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. It refers to that fleeting instant that photographers love to capture: When someone leans in for a kiss, when a soccer player connects with with the ball, or when a protester throws a rock. If you aren’t ready with your finger on the shutter, you’ll miss the moment. If Bresson had taken this photo a split second earlier or later, it would have been a much more ordinary photo of a man splashing through a puddle. These moments don’t need to be that dramatic; for your assignments, it may be as simple as capturing the moment when the food truck owner you’re profiling flips some meat on the grill or hands the food to her customer. Action shots vs static shots tell more of a story.
A decisive moment shot doesn’t always need to be dramatic. A lot of the time it’s about having the foresight and patience to wait for the stars to align in your photograph, compositionally speaking.
4. Leading lines.
Leading lines are lines that move the eye from one part of the image to another part, or sometimes out of the image. They add a sense of drama and perspective, so it’s always good to be on the lookout for roads, bridges, fences, shorelines and the like.
5. Symmetry and patterns.
Symmetry and patterns exist everywhere, both in nature and man-made sights. Looking for repetitions and symmetries, while staying alert to things that then break those very patterns (especially on the thirds!) is a sure way to make an arresting image.
Another great way to make sure your images are visually interesting is to keep an eye out for what’s happening up close, in the middle distance, and far away. Think in layers. If you can frame your shots so that interesting things are happening in the background as well as at your focal point five feet away, you’re onto something.
Layers will be one of your greatest tools as a photojournalist, because layers add context. They tell a story.
This is a famous photograph by South African photojournalist Kevin Carter. He won a Pulitzer Prize for this image, which showed the effects of the 1993 famine in Sudan.
“Photojournalism” means you’re telling a story, not just taking a picture.
Layers are also a great chance to play around with something called depth of field. This refers to the difference in focus between things that are in the foreground vs. the background—if there isn’t much difference, like in the Kevin Carter photo above, then you’re using greater depth of field. When that difference is dramatic, like when your phone is in Portrait Mode, it’s called shallow depth of field.
Shallow depth of field also gives you something called bokeh, which turns background lights into warm globes.
Depth of field is affected by a few things: the focal length of your lens, your distance from the thing in focus, and aperture. We’ll talk more about that when we get into camera settings.
Light impacts everything we do as photographers. How much are we working with? Is it natural or artificial? What is the temperature of the light? What direction is it coming from? Is it harsh or diffuse? What time of day is it? Are you using a flash? Many photojournalists prefer to shoot with natural light as much as possible. Portrait photographers and fashion/fine art photographers often use studio lighting to create interesting lighting environments.
Different kinds of light will affect how different people look in photographs depending on their skin tone.
8. Get close. Then, get even closer.
Photographer Robert Capa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Proximity with your subjects makes for more powerful and intimate photos. Don’t be afraid to get right in someone’s face with your camera. It may feel intrusive and strange at first, but a huge part of being a reporter is engaging with people and making them feel comfortable.
What’s that process like? How do you go about shoving a camera in someone’s face?
For analysis: Photos of the Week
For next class:
If you’re intending to use your own camera this semester, please bring it in on Thursday as we’ll be having a DSLR camera workshop. Nothing due next class, but start thinking about a topic for a photo essay. Pitches will be due next Thursday, Sept. 7.