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THE LONG, HARD SLOG OF WINTER: Winter snow settles in over the Wellsville Mountains and southern Cache Valley. / Photo by Nancy Williams

Today's word on journalism

January 13, 2009


"I get the feeling that the 24-hour news networks are like the bus in the movie 'Speed.' If they stop talking for a second, they think they'll blow up."

--Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, 2008 (Thanks to alert WORDster Ross Martin)

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Feedback and suggestions--printable and otherwise--always welcome. "There are no false opinions."

Photo 101: How to take better pictures

THE AGONY: A USU football player realizes the pain of defeat. / Photos by Patrick Oden

By Patrick Oden

December 17, 2008 | I am often asked as a photojournalist, what makes a great picture? That sounds like a simple question to answer, however, things are rarely as simple as they seem. If I had to sum it up in one word, that word would be emotion, but I have to be a realist, and one word can't answer that question.

I have written about what an individual who is interested in becoming a photojournalist should consider in the way of education and equipment, but let's peel this orange, and get a little deeper into the juicy center, that's where we'll find the separation of desire and success.

Emotion in a journalistic photo is a powerful thing, but this isn't always the emotion seen in the face of a lost infant, it could be the emotion invoked by a well illustrated car crash, or a brooding storm.

READY FOR ACTION: The Logan Fire Department respondis to a fire at Serendipity Salon in Logan.

No matter the shot, it is important to remember as a photojournalist that journalism is still at the heart of what we do. We are not artist, while there is a place for creativity and style, our job is to tell the story, to put the viewer in the time and place, to bring forth the feeling of the moment in a way that allows the viewer to feel as if they were right there.


BANG!: Larry, a client of Common Ground Outdoor Adventures plays with his cap gun during a four-day rafting trip for the disabled in southern Utah.

Sometimes it's all we can do to get one or two frames before the moment has passed, sometimes forces beyond our control prevent us from taking time to plan or to utilize the fundamentals of journalistic shooting.

This was the case for me one cold winter morning at the reservoir in Hyrum, Utah. I was sent on assignment to cover the Polar Plunge, a charity event where people pledge money for others to jump into freezing waters through a hole cut in the ice.

I arrived 30 minutes or so before the first group was scheduled to jump and took my place with the other photographers from various news sources and rescue divers who were on standby just in case they were needed. The first group, the local Sherriff department's S.W.A.T. team, clad in flip flops and Speedos, took their place at the edge of the ice. Leaping into the air and allowing gravity to guide them into the freezing waters, I framed and fired. Several frames were captured and when the next group took their place and I prepared to shoot, nothing. My batteries had died from the freezing temperatures outside. With no spares charged I had to leave with what I had, one group of jumpers and maybe 10 frames. This represented a lack of readiness on my part, an amateur oversight.

The photo that I selected from that series made the front page of the Utah Statesman the next day, and went on to be selected as the Utah Press Associations first-place winner of News Photo of the Year. I like to think of situations like this as happy accidents, but that is really far from the truth. Whether situations, circumstances, or stupidity prevent you from taking your time and exercising your trade with careful precision, a well understood and practiced set of basic skills will help insure your success as a photojournalist.

Be prepared. Don't show up to a shoot with dead batteries or no memory cards. Make sure to take everything you could conceivably need, and then take a few extra things just in case. I always take a moment before I head out to make sure my batteries are fresh, my memory card has been formatted, and my lens(s) are clean.

Make a point to be a little early if you can, take those extra moments to check out your environment and set up your gear. Run through all of your camera settings. It is a common mistake of an anxious beginner to forget to adjust things like ISO or white balance. Check your light, consider your desired depth of field and your subject and make the necessary adjustments to your F stop and shutter speed. Fire a few test shots. Is your lighting working as it should if you're using speedlights or strobes? Is your color good? Now is the time to fine tune things.

Eye pressed firmly to the viewfinder, it's time for the money shot. Composition is key, I repeat, COMPOSITION IS KEY. Most professional or semi-professional digital SLR cameras will have a grid viewable through the viewfinder. Two horizontal and two vertical lines which divide the image based on the rule of thirds. Use these, not only to weight the focal point of the image, but to insure you're holding the camera straight.

I like to approach a shoot with distance and angle in mind. Think of a compass, with its eight positions. North, south west, etc. and treat your subject, to the best of your ability, as if it were in the center of the compass. Try to shoot from each of the 8 points around it. But don't just stand there. Squat down, climb up something, and don't be afraid to shoot too many frames. Give the viewer a perspective they wouldn't normally see. This will make your photos more interesting and captivating.

Tighter is better. While wide angle and medium range shots have their application and should be taken in every case for variety, a tight, well composed shot will offer the most detail and interaction with the subject. If you were shooting a fireman saving a cat in a tree, would you want to see the whole tree, the fire truck, and the mailbox? No, you want to see the cat, a leaf, and the callused hand and weathered face of the fireman, that's the story and in the tightness of that shot your viewer knows exactly what is going on.

Once you sit down to edit your photos, pay attention to detail. Crop when needed, again paying attention to the rule of thirds, and to distracting parts of your image, don't overdo it though. We're not graphic designers, so don't go crazy with Photoshop. Some adjustments to your curves or levels may be needed, but that's generally it. Clarity and sharpness in your image is very important, a great shot that is out of focus is not a great shot.

One of the things I find most rewarding about photojournalism is that every shoot is different and no matter how prepared I think I am, I find myself having to think on my feet, rising to unforeseen challenges and walking away with a great image. Believe in yourself, be a perpetual student of your trade, and never forget the basics.

FREEZE FRAME: Members of the Cache Sheriff's Department SWAT team participate in the Polar Plunge for charity.



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