How to get newsworthy photos

Edited by Claire Eglinton from an article in the newsletter of Lower North U3A, SA.

News media is becoming a much more visual affair than it was years ago. Conditioned by decades of television watching, we expect more from newspapers than the old style column after column of newsprint. We expect to see photographs illustrating even the most mundane of news articles. And news editors will invariably give priority to a story accompanied by good photos.

What is a good photo? I am not talking about framing and focal length but what makes an effective publicity photo which will gladden the heart of an editor trying to inject some interest into his pages, encourage readers and paint your U3A in the best light.

Well, first let us talk about the most common photos, the cliché photos so you know what not to do. Firstly there is the ‘grip and grin’. You know the one where someone is shaking a hand of another person while they hand over a cheque or document. There they are, frozen in time, holding an awkward pose as they bare their teeth and stare woodenly at the camera.

The other one could be called the ‘firing squad’. The photographer has lined everyone up against the wall, and the longer they wait for the stragglers to take their place, the more their eyes glaze trying not to blink, hoping their faces don’t betray how they are wishing to hell it was all over and done with.

We are always told to avoid clichés when writing and cliché photos should be avoided too. They are the visual equivalent of “a good time was had by all”.

Try to catch people doing their activity or relaxing and joking but it is not always wise to make it a complete ambush. If you take snaps which catch your subjects totally unaware, you may have to edit out quite a few to avoid grim, unsmiling faces. Some people do have naturally serious faces so be aware of the dangers of glum faces which are not a great recommendation for U3A.

Let them know you are moving around taking photographs but don’t ask them to pose. Alternatively do some posed shots then start shooting again after they have all relaxed and forgotten about you.

Here is some advice from former journalist and PR expert Guy Bergstrom taken from an marketing newsletter. He says the most effective photos, the ones which make people read the article are of people facing the camera (not necessarily staring at the lens) while doing something relating to the story.

Bergstrom is no fan of staged group photos, and suggests three ways to make them interesting and useful:

  1. Turn group photos into action shots
    Make people DO something. If they’re scientists, shoot them in the lab, holding bubbling beakers, looking through microscopes. For office workers, at least get them at a conference table, when they’re having a meeting (not a staged fake meeting) and wait for the meeting to really get going before you start taking shots.
  2. Focus on one person
    One person will naturally be the focus of any good shot. Maybe TWO people, if they’re right next to each other and interacting. The whole group will not be equally prominent in a photo. So when you shoot a group, and pick the best shots, look for ones that feature the person who’s most important to the story.
  3. The arms-length test
    What looks great on your computer monitor at full resolution may look cluttered and terrible when it’s printed or put on a web-site in a much lower resolution.
    Hold the photo out at arm’s length. Can you tell what it’s about? This is hard with action shots and even tougher with group photos. Crop the photo to cut out anything distracting in the background and play with the contrast and levels until it’s clear what the photo shows even when viewed from far away.

Digital cameras are a boon but few of us make the most of them. Not only can you immediately check out the photo and see if you cut off the tall guy’s head, but it doesn’t cost you anything but your time to take 50 photos instead of one.

Bergstom says: A professional photographer shooting a model for a magazine cover is happy to do 200 shots and have five good ones at the end. I see so many people take two shots and call it good. Take the 200 shots. Look for the five good ones. Pick the best one out of those five. It’s worth the time, because images are important.

That is so true. Why does an amateur think they have nailed the best shot first or second try when a
professional never would? Back in the days of film, every photo cost you money and to take more than one or two photos was extravagant. Not any more so it is time we got over that way of thinking.

Recently I was asked to take photos of a workshop and everyone thought I looked very professional and liked some of the photos. Truth is I am a lousy photographer so I did what I could to overcome my natural lack of talent. I even read the camera manual and packed a tripod. The tripod is a great investment for anyone who doesn’t have the steady arms of a pistol shooter. Lacking that, rest the camera against a door frame or something solid so you maximise your chances of having a sharp photo. The other thing I did was take hundreds of shots. It was amazing and embarrassing how few proved usable.

I was concentrating on the people, totally unaware of how inanimate objects like water carafes and microphones can jump in front of the subject in the most scene-stealing way. Every person’s appearance was marred by sticky-paper name tags. On the day I was blind to these problems. It was only that night when I saw them enlarged across my computer screen that I realised the worst. Thank heavens I had taken so many.

While you can burn the midnight oil writing a press release, you can’t go back and recreate the day to take more photos. Take more photos than you could ever imagine needing, from all different heights, with all different backgrounds and you should have a few keepers, you may even get lucky and take a real winner.