Just about anybody can take a picture. But that doesn’t make the person a photojournalist.
So what does?
Photojournalists understand composition and subject matter and have a good sense of what constitutes an interesting, informative picture. They know about light, exposure and contrast. Most of all, they understand that good pictures require thought and planning and not just the ability to snap a shutter.
Composition mostly refers to the arrangement of elements in a picture. If the elements are arranged statically – that is, suggestion little or no movement – or if they appear as co-equal parts of the picture, they are unlikely to be very interesting to a viewer.
One of the thoughts a photojournalist keeps in mind might be called compositional focus, or emphasis. What is really important about a picture? What needs to be emphasized. Composition can be used to arrange the elements so that what is important about the picture – or what the photographer want to tell the viewers – is emphasized. Sometimes, such arrangements can be made by the way the photographers holds the camera or the area of the subject that he or she chooses to shoot.
Photojournalists look for pictures that contain some of the following characteristics:
- Drama. The picture that says to the view, “Something is going on here,” is likely to hold the viewer’s interest. A single picture rarely tells a complete story, but it can suggest something to the viewer that will hold the viewer’s attention.
- Action. Movement is a great interest-generating element. Viewers understand that in pictures with movement, something happened before and after the picture was taken. What those things are fires the imagination.
- Expression. We think of expression most commonly as being found in people’s faces, and that is certainly correct. But expression can also be found in hands, arms, feet, legs and other parts of the body. The photo that captures expression tells a good story.
- Unusualness. Photographs like to show what people do not normally see. They like to capture the unique or bizarre moments of people’s lives. To find these things, they have to look where other people are not looking and be where most other people are not normally found. And they have to have their camera’s up and ready to shoot.
The technical knowledge that photojournalists must acquire begins with an understanding of two elements that make seeing anything possible: light and contrast.
Photographers should always be aware of the sources of light on their subjects and how light affects the elements in the photo. Natural light is that generated by nature; artificial light is generated by human devices. Natural light is usually stronger and preferred for photography, but it is not always possible to take pictures in natural light.
While light is the reason we can see anything, contrast simply means the difference between the way things look. Contrast is the reason we can differentiate one thing from another. A good range of tones and contrasts makes for an interesting and highly viewable picture.
Another part of the technical knowledge the photographer must acquire is that of the camera, the computer and the software the photographer uses. Photographers understand the limits of their equipment, and good photographers – rather than complaining about the equipment they don’t have – know how to push the equipment available to take the best pictures they can.
Finally, photojournalists must acquire a sense of storytelling that includes an empathy with their subjects. They know that photography is more than technical knowledge about producing pictures and being in the right place at the right time. Good photojournalists prepare and plan their shooting. They apply the knowledge and experience they acquire. They look for what is interesting, and they try to tell stories that are true to their subjects.