May 7, 2009 / Photography

Back to the basics

Written by Bill Hankins

Back to the basics. We’ve heard that phrase in education for years. When it comes to photography and photojournalism, the leap into the digital world has, perhaps, kept us from taking a hard look at the basics of good photojournalism and the need to reinforce habits that will help yearbook photographers capture good images and continue to grow. Let’s begin.

Have equipment ready.
Since photographers are reporters with cameras, they need to think like a reporter. Besides the camera, a photographer’s basic gear should include several reporters notebooks, several pens, and for the camera, an extra memory card, spare batteries and flash. Memory cards should be carried in their plastic carrying case when not in the camera.

Digital camera batteries should always be fully charged and ready to use, and each camera the yearbook staff uses should have a backup battery.

The basics of loading digital memory cards are much the same as loading film. Do not open the back of the camera in bad environments such as rain, wind or dusty classrooms. Protect the camera’s interior and the memory card connections. If you must remove and reload a memory card in a less-than-ideal setting, do your best to block the camera opening and perform the task quickly. And do this step while the camera power is off.

The same is true with changing lenses. Even under controlled conditions, do not hold your camera lens-side up when changing lenses. Dust falling into your camera and onto your digital sensor is far worse than dust in your film camera – hundreds of dollars worse.

Holding your camera
A photographer should keep the camera strap over the shoulder with the camera on the side. First, this position allows the photographer to conduct an interview and record notes without the camera being in the way; second, with the camera on the side the photographer will not intimidate a shy subject. Often I will keep my camera on my hip and casually approach a subject just to talk. Once I have won over the subject, then I can bring the camera into play.

When ready to shoot, photographers should hold the camera in the palm of the left hand, leaving the thumb and index finger for focusing. Even if using autofocus, resting the camera in the palm allows for a steady base for shooting. The right hand grips the camera body and the index finger can be used to change f/stop settings and to push the shutter release button. The thumb is available to move the dial for changing shutter speeds. This approach works best with single lens reflex cameras rather than point-and-shoot digitals. Point-andshoot cameras are not good for yearbook photojournalism, but if that is all you have, develop a shooting technique that allows for steadiness while you release the shutter.

Wait to view images
The beauty of digital photography is being able to view what you have captured while you are shooting. However, this ability leads to one of the basic problems of digital photojournalism – chimping.

Chimping is the disease of taking a picture, immediately looking at the image on the LCD monitor, and making quiet monkey sounds – “OOH! OOH!” – especially if you captured something good. At the same time, the photographer is missing the important shots of the event. Photographers must fight the natural inclination to peek and continue to explore possible shots until the action fades and they can find a quiet time to review the images.

Image basics
Shooting great pictures depends much more on the photographer’s mind than the camera.

A thinking photographer will grasp these basic concepts, practice them, and use them almost subconsciously so that creativity and vision can come into play. Here is a basic scenario that should help your shooting:

  • Fill the frame.
  • Check the background for clutter and distractions.
  • Wait for a nice moment when the subject reveals personality or an interesting aspect of the story.

Once photographers have this approach down, they can begin to think about good composition in more depth. Consider these basic compositional ideas:

  • Simplicity – nothing should be in the photo that does not contribute to the message.
  • Rule of thirds – mentally divide the scene into thirds horizontally and vertically, keeping the main subject out of the physical center of the picture but close to where those horizontal and vertical lines intersect. This makes for a more dynamic image.
  • Leading lines and framing – use things in the foreground to lead the viewer’s eye into the image and the main subject. This will add depth and meaning to your photo.

Once you have shot an assignment, it is important to download your images to your computer by using a card reader. Downloading straight from your camera is gambling with your images. If your camera battery fails during transmission, images probably will be lost.

Remember, these techniques will go a long way in helping photographers improve their skills.

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Bill Hankins

Bill Hankins taught scholastic photojournalism for 26 years, advised student publications for 29 years, and instructed more than 1,600 photojournalists, mostly at Oak Park High School in Kansas City. Before retiring, Hankins received the Missouri Journalism Teacher of the Year Award, the Pioneer Award from the NSPA, the Certificate of Merit from the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 from the JEA.