Books, Photography

20+ Lessons From The Book: TALKING THROUGH PICTURES – A Beginner’s Guide To Photojournalism | Jürg Wittwer and Jessica Holom

Foreword to the book:

We are consumers. Every day, we consume food, drink, products, and we even consume pictures. Lots of pictures. We see them in newspapers, magazines, digital print, and, as consumers, we don’t think twice about what we consume. So let’s think twice: after you weed out the garbage, the meat of what we consume is art; art in the form of photojournalism. This art has been around since the dawn of photography. But technology has evolved. Colored photos have replaced black-and-white ones. With the digital revolution, film rolls and the dark room have evaporated. But throughout this evolution of photography, the job of the photojournalist has remained the same: to capture a moment in time, to tell a story without words. This book will provide you short tips and simple tools to make pictures like a pro. In reading this book, I sincerely hope you enjoy, learn, and grow as a photographer. Moreover, my goal in writing about and sharing my experience is to improve your work’s potential for publication

20+ Lessons From The Book – TALKING THROUGH PICTURES – A Beginner’s Guide To Photojournalism:

“In the early nineties, a fire destroyed four houses in the old town of St. Gallen. The best spot from which to photograph the destruction was the women’s toilet on the top floor of a five-star hotel. Inevitably, one after another, the town’s photojournalists filed in to take their pictures.”
  • The most important decision you will make regarding your photography has nothing to do with your camera or your lens, and everything to do with the composition. In order to produce really compelling images as a photojournalist, you must position yourself in the “right spot”. You will not have the liberty to manipulate light like a studio photographer, but where you position yourself and your camera will determine the perspective, the background, and the objects in your frame. If there are a lot of photojournalists covering the same story, the “ideal spot” will be really crowded – however, your composition does not have to be this ideal in order to be considered visually intriguing; it can be new and unique and still appeal to the masses.
  • Once you have decided which elements are going to be present in your frame, you need to arrange them in an order such that they possess striking visual impact. There exists a timeless set of compositional rules. The book discusses these three compositional rules: the golden ratio, symmetry, and diagonals. As your skill set grows, you will experiment with increasingly complex compositions, and you can decide to which of the rules you, yourself, are visually attracted. Finally, you can combine these compositional elements to create innumerable variations.
“Without a wide-angle lens, this picture would have been impossible. There was simply not enough room in this old man’s hut in northern Mali – although, with the lens, it looks like there’s plenty. This is because wide-angle lenses distort space. Small spaces are stretched, an effect often used in publicity photography, particularly when it comes to commercial ads for hotel rooms.”
  • . Long lenses capture beauty (classical portraits, sports, and nature shots), wide lenses capture the emotion and, as a photojournalist, emotion is what you’re after. In order to capture intense photos as a photojournalist, you need to close up on emotions – you need to get close to your subject with a wide lens (below 50mm). The slight distortions caused by a wide lens can dramatize your composition, and pull the viewer further into the image.
  • When your audience looks at your photographs, they should see the characters, the props, the plot; they should be able to interpret the story you’re telling. You must compile all the elements of a story into the composition that you are trying to capture. Apart from the elements that naturally exist, you may also choose to insert props into your photo. For example, if you’re telling a story about an athlete’s epic win, he or she might be holding the medal or trophy just won. Not only is the prop a literal plot element, but the model will concentrate on the held object and will be less disturbed by the camera if his or her hands are busy.
  • Background information is also vital to story-telling, therefore, choose your spot so that important elements either appear next to the model or are clearly visible in the background. Doing so will “set the scene,” just as you would if you were a writer or director.
“This set of photos demonstrates how taking many shots can eventually result in “the one.” It took some time to find the right angle and the right moment to capture this man’s discreet and gentle smile.”
  • Luck is an important factor when you are working behind the camera, but what distinguishes a “lucky photographer” from a “good photographer”, and the “good” from the “great” is one’s ability to consistently produce stellar pictures without the need for luck.
  • “Quality over quantity” had always been the true earmark for the “best” of any profession, but when you’re a photographer just starting out, this is not necessarily the case. George Bernard Shaw once said, “A photographer is like a cod, which produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity.” For beginners or for those photographers still shaping themselves, this is entirely true. In order to produce the “egg that reaches maturity,” the simple trick is this: take lots of shots. In the past, before the digital era, photography equipment was so large it necessitated a crane for transport, taking lots of shots was expensive, laborious, and involved significant time in the lab. However, in the digital era, it is possible to click a few hundred shots at a fraction of the effort and cost. Doing so allows you to experiment with different shutter speeds, positions, lighting, etc.
  • Elongating the shoot will also allow you to create a deeper – and, therefore, more authentic – relationship with your model, putting them at ease so that you might capture that moment of vulnerability that makes for a great photo: when your subject is most naturally and beautifully human.
Children are often more natural and less camera-shy
but, essentially, the same rules apply across the board
when it comes to building that photographer-model
relationship: show your interest. Be honest. Treat
everyone with respect. Taking a picture is something
intimate. If you use a wide-angle lens, you get very
physically close to your subject, oftentimes trespassing
in their “bubble,” so to speak. People will only allow you
to trespass if they trust you.
“Children are often more natural and less camera-shy but, essentially, the same rules apply across the board when it comes to building that photographer-model relationship: show your interest. Be honest. Treat everyone with respect. Taking a picture is something intimate. If you use a wide-angle lens, you get very physically close to your subject, oftentimes trespassing in their “bubble,” so to speak. People will only allow you to trespass if they trust you.”
  • A great portrait is the one that distills the essence of the subject’s complex personality into a single photo. As a photographer, it is your sole responsibility to perform the distillation process – to pull the personality from the model and exhibit it on the model’s face, body, and attitude. Talk with your subject when preparing for a shot, as well as when shooting the portrait. Learn about the person and then tell their story through the photograph. Photographing a person is both a scary and intimate act, both for the subject and the photographer – it is your responsibility as a photographer in the field to put your subject at ease in the face of such a vulnerability.
  • If not used limitedly and with precision, artificial light can create artificial pictures, calling into question the authenticity of your photos. While working as a photojournalist, always start shooting with the natural light available to you. Once you’ve assessed the natural light available to you, you’ll be able to better target specific areas of the picture that require flash.
  • Avoid mounting the flash on the camera. Doing so is convenient, but gives off a fairly unnatural frontal light. Instead, carry a flash cord of 3 meters and either hold the flash in one hand as far away from the camera as possible, so that the angle on the subject’s face is not frontal or place the flash on a small tripod and direct the light to whatever needs lighting; the background behind a subject, for instance. You may also use the flash indirectly, against a wall, a piece of paper, or a special reflector mounted on the flash. This is easy and straightforward in black-and-white photography, but be careful when you attempt this with colored photos. Reflections from colored surfaces may change the hue of your picture.
  • Darken the sky. A darker sky dramatizes the photo’s story. If you darken all four corners, you create an effect which is called a “vignette.” This provides portraits with an “old touch” but is usually detested by editors.
Digital print has also brought about some important and
even ethical issues: as photographers and editors, how
far are we allowed to go in enhancing a photo? If you
intend for the picture to be published, then any
alteration may be critical. When you digitally edit your
photo, do so limitedly. In fact, it would be wise only to
edit as far as was possible in the old-fashioned dark
room (i.e. darken, lighten, contrast, and alter color
tones). Any retouching should be strictly limited to
cleaning the picture of spots due to dirt on the sensor or
lens. The above example is an original of a girl sitting in
front of a small tree, holding her sibling. It was edited
limitedly, only in order to make the two children stand
out.
“Digital print has also brought about some important and even ethical issues: as photographers and editors, how far are we allowed to go in enhancing a photo? If you intend for the picture to be published, then any alteration may be critical. When you digitally edit your photo, do so limitedly. In fact, it would be wise only to edit as far as was possible in the old-fashioned darkroom (i.e. darken, lighten, contrast, and alter color tones). Any retouching should be strictly limited to cleaning the picture of spots due to dirt on the sensor or lens. The above example is an original of a girl sitting in front of a small tree, holding her sibling. It was edited limitedly, only in order to make the two children stand out.”
  • Lighten the whites of the eyes and teeth. The contrast will dramatize the portrait’s expressiveness and will draw the viewers’ attention to the most essential feature of a portrait: the eyes.
  • Darken any nonessential parts of the picture. Again, the viewer’s attention is drawn toward the light, so you are literally highlighting the important parts of the story for your viewers and, in contrast, subduing the nonessentials. Doing so will direct the absorption of the story.
  • Crop, crop, and crop! Always crop the picture a little more than your gut instinct may instruct. The more you crop away, the more pronounced the picture’s visual effect will be. Don’t hesitate to cut the top of the head or limbs if doing so doesn’t eliminate a vital prop. This will expand the size of the eyes and draw the subject closer to the spectator.
  • It is always advised to shoot in excess. But, be very selective about the images that you retain. Settle on one picture per subject. Always keep only the best one, and put the others out of your head. This is sometimes difficult to do, but self-restraint is key to maintaining your ideal collection. How do you settle on just a single photograph? The question to ask yourself is: when it comes to the perfect shot, which quality trumps all? For yourself, perhaps emotion is the key indicator of perfection; for another photographer, the composition may trump emotion.
  • There is a simple hierarchy of attractiveness when it comes to the inclusion of objects in a photo, and the hierarchy ranks as follows: People > Animals > Inert Objects. So whatever job you’ve received as a photojournalist, take care to include a person in the picture. This small and simple step will greatly improve your chances of publication.
  • You do not necessarily need a professional camera to make professional pictures. If you are short on money, hold off on purchasing an expensive camera and buy a good lens instead. So if you can take a “professional” shot without a professional camera, then why purchase that thousand dollar pro-camera anyway? There are a number of reasons to invest in your profession: reliability, quality, speed, and some special functions.
  • Don’t let your camera hang around your neck. If you are working daily, you will quickly move your tool to your shoulder. Before the digital era, professionals walked around with two or three cameras hanging on them like bulbs on a Christmas tree. In those days, every camera had its spot: left shoulder, right shoulder, and neck. Today, one camera is enough, and its rightful place is on your shoulder.
  • Don’t show off your big new camera bag. A camera bag should be light, as small as possible, very resistant and, last but not least, it should look old and used.
  • Finally, if you want to look like a pro, then you have to know your material, it has to exist in your heart. You need to be able to handle your camera in every situation, whether that’s at night when you’ve awoken from a deep sleep by a story, or under high pressure, in the case of time-crunch or as a result of the desperate conditions in which you’re shooting.

Personal Opinion:

This book, as the title justifies, is truly for a beginner. If you are like me, reading books and blogs for years, practicing street photography and now thinking about exploring the genre of photojournalism and documentary photography, then there is very little in this book that will come off as “new”. However, it is a great book for someone just starting out, also for anyone who is looking forward to brushing up their mindset and ethics as a street or documentary photographer.