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Citizen Journalism 101: News photography made easy

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      Sorry for the delay in posting this latest entry. Technical issues prevented me from posting until now. Don’t we just love 21st century technology? Only when it’s on our side.

      As promised a couple of weeks ago, this week we will look at a couple of things to keep in mind when engaging in news photography. Some of this has been covered, but not in a lot of detail.

      News photography is perhaps my biggest passion. You can’t create compelling pages to look at, whether you’re in newsprint or online, without something compelling to look at. Sorry, graphic artists, but flowery text won’t do the job.

      So, let’s dig in.

Proper equipment

      As the old saying goes, “the right tool for the right job.” Well, it couldn’t be more true than in news photography. Sure, a cheap point-and-shoot camera can shoot high-resolution photos, and might even capture high-definition video, but how does it do with high-speed action, or in low-light situations?

      No, even a mid-range digital SLR will run circles around any point-and-shoot, even if it doesn’t capture images in as high definition as the point-and-shoot. In the SLR world, there are a number of brands to choose from, but like soda and politics, it’s still a two-brand world.

      Many people love to rave on about Canon. Others insist upon Nikon. Having worked with both extensively for the past 12 years, I can assure you the brand name has little to do with the quality of your photos. Having the proper set-up, and the skills to actually use the camera, however, will go much farther.

Hard bodies are hot

      There’s something to be said for spending an extra $400 at the onset in order to protect your total investment in camera equipment. Having a camera body that is capable of taking a few shocks (i.e. getting dropped from waist high without exploding inside) without falling apart is almost vital.

      So, on the Canon side, while the EOS Rebel T1i is pretty hot (15 megapixels and capable of capturing 1080p video) at just $650 for the body, I would prefer to spend the extra cash for the EOS 60D (no video, but 18 megapixels, and much more resilient) for $1,100.

      On the Nikon side, you’ve actually got a couple of choices, depending on how “spendy” you want to get. I like the D90’s resilience and video capture capability (only 720p, but it doesn’t matter when you’re looking at it online) for the value price of $900 for the body only. But, for $1,700, you can get the D300, which captures full 1080p video and has a magnesium alloy body that makes it both shock-proof and weather-proof.

What is SLR?

      SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex, and it is the primary way photography has worked for more than a century. A mechanism will open the camera’s iris for a fraction of a second (your shutter speed), and at a specific diameter (your f-stop), causing light to enter the camera.

      The light that enters the camera in that fraction of an instant then impacts a mirror inside the camera. Prior to the advent of digital photography, this light was then reflected onto light-sensitive (photosensitive) film. Depending upon the amount of light and the “speed” (ISO) of the film, the way the film reacted to the light would dictate the final image imprinted on the film.

      Today, the light will impact a photosensitive sensor inside the camera body that reacts to light in varying degrees based on the camera’s “speed” setting. The settings are all pretty similar to an “old-fashioned” film camera, and the digital SLR reacts to its environment very much like its film predecessor.

It’s all about the light

      So, with an SLR camera, lighting is the most important factor. Now, camera companies will tell you that the body (the central component that contains all of the controls, mirrors and sensors) has more to do with the quality of the photo. But, that’s because camera bodies on the high end can set you back as much as $5,000.

      In the news photography world, you can do just as well with a camera body that costs one-tenth as much. But, you still need to be able to address your lighting needs. The best way to make up the difference is with quality lenses and flashes.

      While the iris, a component of the body, still dictates how much light can hit the internal mirror, technology has really caught up with this aspect of digital photography. Even low-end SLR cameras are capable of infinitesimally small shutter speeds, and lightning-fast “film” speeds.

The right lens

      But, if you’re working with a “box set” camera, which usually comes with a low-end lens, you’re never going to get enough light into the camera to make a difference. So, while the box set is economical, stay away from it if you intend to shoot for quality news photos.

      And, like camera bodies, lenses can get extremely expensive, too. High-speed lenses used by professional sports photographers can set you back more than $10,000. But, once again, you can get the job done for far less than that, if you’re smart about how you’re shopping. The two key factors are lens diameter and the f-stop range.

      The wider the lens diameter, the more light it can let in at higher shutter speeds (remember, the faster the shutter speed, the less amount of time it is open). A wider lens also offers a wider field of vision, even when zooming into the target photograph. But, keep in mind that the more you zoom in, the longer you’re stretching the available light source (and darkening the resulting photograph).

Two set-ups worth their weight

      I’ve worked with two different set-ups for my lenses. The first set-up is to have a high-end wide-angle lens and a mid-range telephoto lens. The second is to go with a high-end all-in-one lens. Surprisingly, they’ve both worked well for me, even though the latter set-up has hamstrung me a couple of times in long-range situations.

      In the first set-up, I purchased a wide-angle lens with a focal range of 17-50mm and an f-stop of 2.8. Then, I got a nice 70-200mm/f-2.8 telephoto. I also went with an “off brand” (Tamron) to save quite a bit of money in the process. Total cost, about $1,250.

      In the second set-up, I purchased a 28-300mm telephoto lens with an f-stop range of 3.5-6.3. Again, I went with Tamron; the only huge down-side to this brand is that the lenses are plastic, not glass, so you have to be a little more careful to avoid warping the lens. It also can hamstring you a little in long-range shots, because it will require a flash. Total cost, about $700.

Flashes are important, too

      When it comes to flashes, I don’t cut corners, mainly because you want the best synchronization you can get. So, match the brand of your flash with your camera body for the best results. And, go with the mid-range flash, which should set you back no more than $300-325.

      Perhaps the biggest mistake that I see news photographers make when using their flash is that they aim the light directly at the subject, washing it out three-fourths of the time. Instead, they should practice “bouncing” the light off of the ceiling to get a more natural lighting look to their shots.

      Knowing how and when to use your diffuser and how to manually adjust the intensity of your flash are also keys to having quality photographs. And, individually, they’re very in-depth topics of conversation. I can’t give away all of my secrets, now can I?
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      Now that you have the proper equipment, it doesn’t hurt to know how to take a good photograph, too. The first key to great newspaper photos, however, is framing. The rule to live by is “The Rule of Thirds.”

      This is done by dividing the photo frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. This will create a grid of nine smaller frames. Use these as a guide for “framing” the principal target of your photograph, while letting the environment help tell the “rest of the story.”

      The ancient Greeks somehow discovered that the human eye finds the rectangle to be a pleasing shape, and that in a photograph (or in their case, a painting), the eye likes it when the main element is found at an intersection of two of the guidelines. How they figured this out, I have no idea, but it works, so go with it.

      Of course, you can achieve this by cropping your photos later, but it’s far easier to do the cropping with your own eye as you prepare to take your photograph. As I always say, “Work smarter, not harder.”


      And now that you have the right camera equipment, and know how to create a visually appealing photograph, you need to know what kinds of photographs are most likely to grab the attention of a news reader. If you’re wondering, “grip and grin” photographs won’t do the trick.

      First off, every news photo should show someone doing something. It should tell the story not only by who is in the frame, but by what they are doing. This is how a photograph becomes worth a 1,000 words.

      Next, a news photograph needs to incorporate as many of the elements of the story as possible. For instance, if you’re covering a flood event, you might get by with a photo showing the high water, but what about the people trying to hold the water back? What about the families who are dealing with flood damage?

      Finally, a news photograph should give the reader something extra, whether it is something unexpected, or something that goes a little beyond the call of duty, the extra work you put into the frame will pay off in the end. For instance, while covering a fire, capturing a firefighter dowsing himself with water to cool off as the fire rages behind him will definitely gather extra eyes.

      So, there you have it. With all of this in mind, you’re fully equipped to not just take photographs for your news outlet; you can take eye-catching photographs that will capture your readers’ attention.

      Next week, we’ll take a look at the world of news video, from a print publication/web publication perspective.

Written by bfranklinjournalism

April 20, 2011 at 8:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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