Photojournalism basics


Reading: Writing for the Mass Media, chapter 9


Photojournalism in a writing course? Yes.

As a working journalist, you are expected to know the general concepts and to practice the basics of good photojournalism.

  • Importance of the single image.Nothing gets into our heads and stays there like the single, iconic image. Many of examples of this throughout history. See What did Abraham Lincoln look like? here on JPROF.
  • All journalists are photojournalists.When they were first introduced in the late 1830s, cameras quickly became widely popular. Their popularity has never waned. Now cameras are even more prevalent. Demands of the profession make it imperative that every journalist carry a camera, know how to use it and know what to do with photos.
  • Text and photos. In journalism no picture can stand alone. It needs text to explain its action and context.
  • Accuracy. Photos can give an incorrect impression or even lie in some circumstances. Journalists must take care to explain photos carefully, handle the editing with great care, and make sure that viewers gain a level of factual truth from them.
  • Ethics. The power of the image gives rise to special ethical considerations. This includes the preparation of photos as well as their presentation.
  • Print vs. web. On the web, photos are usually smaller, but there is greater capacity and potential for versatility.


Carry your camera. Be ready to use it.


The practice of photojournalism

Having a good camera and learning to handle a camera is imperative for the journalist today. Get the best camera you can afford and use it often.

Read the manual. Learn the basic settings the camera has and experiment with using them.

Practice and understand the best way to download pictures from your camera to your computer or directly to your web site.

Store your pictures in some cloud storage space: Flickr, Picasaweb (Google), Photobucket, etc.

Here are some concepts you should know about photojournalism:

— point of view – find different angles, unique aspects

— contrast – subject-background differences

— framing – look at all parts of what’s in the fame, not just the subject of the picture; above all, fill the frame with the picture you want

— composition – rule of thirds

— lighting – know the source of light; learn to judge the lighting conditions (outside is better than inside)

— distance – three types of photos: long shots, medium shots, close-ups (see photos above at right)

— decisive moment – what tells the story of a news event, captures the elements of the day, time, people, weather, subject; sometimes you can plan for this, sometimes you can’t; be ready

Taking good pictures is not so much a matter of luck as it is the product of good planning and experience.

See Heller’s Guide to Making Strong Photographs


Photo editing

Editing photos is just as necessary as taking them. Read JPROF’s section on photo editing.


Cutlines and captions

Writing cutlines

Cutlines are explanatory and descriptive copy that accompanies pictures. They range widely in style and length, from the one-line identifier called the “skel line” to the full “story” line. Cutlines are necessary to practically all pictures because of the functions they serve: identification, description, explanation and elaboration.

A well-written cutline answers all of a reader’s questions about a picture. What is this picture about? What is its relationship to the story it accompanies? Who are the people in it? Where are the events taking place and when? What does the picture mean? The cutline should answer these and other questions in such a manner that material found in any accompanying story is not repeated verbatim but is reinforced, amplified or highlighted.

The following are some general guidelines for writing cutlines.

* Use the present tense to describe what is in the picture.

* Always double check identifications in a cutline. This rule cannot be stressed too much. Many news organizations have gotten themselves into deep trouble through misidentification of people in a cutline, so cutline writers should take great care.

* Be as specific as possible in cutlines. Add to the reader’s knowledge, and go beyond what the reader can see in the picture. A cutline is useless if it simply tells the reader what can be seen already.

* Try to avoid cutline clichés. “Looking on,” “is pictured” and other such expressions are trite and usually avoidable.

Two general principles should govern an editor’s use of cutlines. One is that every picture should have some kind of a cutline. The words used in the cutline may be few, but they can add enormously to the reader’s understanding of the picture and the story the editor is trying to tell. The second principle is that everyone in a picture should be identified. Unnamed people are not very interesting, and their presence indicates a lack of interest on the part of the editor in doing a thorough job.

Cutlines are important because of the information they contain and because of the way they enhance the appearance of the paper. Cutlines should be simply and clearly written and displayed, and they should be given the same attention by the editors that other parts of the paper receive.


Looking forward to audio slideshows.



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