• The power of the photograph

The development of photography in the 1830s was one of the most profound changes that has affected the way we view the world. Photography brings to life people, places, events and other things that we would otherwise have trouble understanding. It has given us a common set of images with which to understand the environment that we do not personally experience.

Photographs – still images – are particularly effective in making a lasting impression on our brains. More than video – moving pictures – photographs allow us to reduce a person, place, event or subject to a manageable set of information that we can carry with us. The “pictures in our heads” have a great deal to do with the way we comprehend and interpret the things in our larger world.

For all of these reasons, photography is an important part of journalism. It, along with the words that we use, is a vital part of telling the story we have to tell. Photography gives the audience for journalism another dimension of information that they cannot get with words. It often gives life and form to the words that journalists use. It helps to entertain the audience as well as to deep their understanding of the information in a story.

Photography is a way of impressing a story onto the brain of a reader.

Photojournalism became a primary part of journalism soon after the invention of photography in the 1830s. Cameras became a widely popular social phenomenon in the 1840s because they were new and people could have fun with them, but it took journalists less than a generation to recognize what a powerful tool they could be.

One of the first great photojournalists was Matthew Brady, a New York portrait photographer who traveled to many of the battlefields of the American Civil War in the 1860s to record what had happened there. Brady’s images brought home to people who had stayed behind the starkness and horrors of way and helped change the way that people thought about war itself.

But photojournalism during the last part of the 19th century was not an easy thing to accomplish. The equipment required to take a picture was heavy, fragile and unreliable. Developing pictures from the film that had to be used was difficult and tedious. And even when the picture was taken and developed, there was no quick way of printing and distributing it widely because printing presses were developed to use type, not pictures.

These technical problems were gradually mitigated with the development of lighter and more portable cameras (although they were still massive machines compared to the tiny, hand-held cameras we have today). Film and the development process became more standardized, but it was never a particularly easy thing to get a print from film. Most importantly, the half-toning process for printing pictures allowed printers a quick way of getting sharp, clear and detailed images onto presses so they could be widely distributed.

By the middle of the 20th century, photography and photojournalism was an integral and important part of the journalistic process.

Because film photography and development had evolved into a highly precise and technical process, and because the skills to do this were ones that photographers had to hone over many years, photojournalists were slowed to accept digital photography when it became widely available in the 1990s. Digital photography bypassed film and the development process (sometimes called “wet photography”) by recording photos onto electronic disks and then using computers and software to produce the pictures.

Digital photography, from its beginnings, was definitely faster, and as quality equipment became much cheaper, it replaced film photography as the standard operating process for photojournalism. With today’s cameras used in conjunction with the web, photos can be taken and transmitted around the world in a matter of seconds, where that process once took days or even weeks.

The digital revolution in photojournalism ushered in a more profound change in journalism that just being able to take and produce pictures quickly. It brought photography within the reach of every journalist. While some people still consider themselves photojournalists, all journalists must consider themselves photographers. Photography should be a part of every story that every journalists covers.

That means:

  • All journalists should understand the basics of good picture taking.
  • Journalists should carry a camera and be familiar with its technical aspects.
  • Journalists should understand the software for editing photographs and should be very familiar with the process of preparing and uploading photos to the web.
  • Most importantly, journalists must integrate photography into their thinking about every story they cover.



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