How many times have you picked up a newspaper and started reading a story just because the picture on the cover caught your attention?
That pretty much sums up the newspaper photographer’s goal at any assignment that he/she draws.
Come back with a picture/pictures that will sum up the story and draw the reader’s attention to it.
Assignments are what you make of it—On a story about road safety near an elementary school where large construction vehicles would speed by, I mounted my camera on a monopod, hoisted it over my head and tripped the shutter with a long extension cord. Getting in position early in the morning gave me a long shadow of the passing truck. I was lucky the crossing guard was far away enough from the truck to be lit by the sunlight, making her standout.
In some instances, pictures can be better than headlines in summing up what happened.
Often times looking at the picture and reading the accompanying caption can even tell you whether it’s a story worth reading.
Word folks will argue that headlines can do that job too especially when it’s well-written.
But very often, because of space constraints, copy editors have to say it in a limited number of characters. Sound familiar?
Think about Twitter’s 140 characters and you should get the idea.
Needless to say, writing headlines is an art form because poorly-written headlines provide comedians like Jay Leno lots of funny material.
Compose images for impact
At the newspaper level, photography is seldom â€œquiet,â€ discreet or subtle.
It is in fact usually â€œin your faceâ€.
The reason being, space in the newspaper is usually very limited.
So pictures sometimes don’t get good play—-that’s the collective grumble you hear of photographers complaining that their pictures are displayed the size of postage stamps.
For that reason alone, pictures intended for newspapers have to â€œreadâ€ or register its message with the readers quickly.
Photo-illustrations, like this one on aspirin, used to scare the heck of me simply because they were very difficult to execute well. Lots of time and effort is involved. And when the picture bombs, your name is underneath it.
â€œArtistic or avante-garde type photographersâ€ who love subtlety and profundity who are hell bent on â€œtheir interpretations of their surroundingsâ€ will find news photography difficult.
Sure, there will be times when an assignment calls for that, but most of the time, the image needs to have immediate impact.
Hey, there is only that much room in the caption underneath.
In a portrait of an artist,for instance, if you have to explain why you chose this â€œstyle of lightingâ€ or your â€œunorthodox juxtapositionâ€ of your subject against his favorite artwork which was from his â€œblueâ€ or anxiety-ridden era, it’s a lost cause.
Newspaper photographers understand this more than other photographers in other fields.
When you see that most pictures seldom runs more than 3 columns, you have to be very stingy about what you let inside that very precious space inside that frame.
It shouldn’t be a game like â€œWhere’s Waldo?â€
Make your subject big whatever it is.
My least favorite assignments
Every job has some unpleasantness about it. I imagine cops hate to make those house calls where they inform a deceased accident victim’s next-of-kin of their loss.
So at the number #1 spot for assignments I loathed:
Always a no-win situation even when the grieving family wants the media present.
Not only do I think it is an the intrusion on grief, I have to tactfully approach the people I photograph to ask their names and how they know the deceased.
Fires or accidents involving fatalities
Any time there is a fatal anything, I slow down.
I can say this now because I’m no longer in the business.
I’m certain my bosses must be appalled to hear this.
The way I see it, what would be the point of rushing to the scene?
There is no public service message here that a good picture at an accident scene will change the way folks drive.
What about the case Â of a residential fire where a child is killed?
About the 15th year of my time at the newspaper, Â I was dispatched to yet another one of these fires with fatalities.
The photographer from a competing newspaper Â was also there.
He followed the fire chief inside the home and photographed the dead child’s room.
I elected to stay outside the home.
I photographed a smoke alarm that was not installed. In the background I showed the burned down home.
As I hit the â€œReturnâ€ key to send my image of the uninstalled smoke alarm,Â I didn’t care what the competition was going to publish.
I also didn’t care that my bossÂ would likely call the next day about it.
The next day, as a follow up, the cop reporter came up to me and said he just got off the phone with the family.
They granted him an interview because we showed restraint and didn’t show their daughter’s burned down room.
Next: Assignments I enjoyed