October 15, 2012 / Fall 2012 / Photography / Picture This

Habits of highly effective photographers

Written by Bill Trueit

You’ve noticed them at school events and activities on and off campus. They always seem to have a camera bag strapped around their shoulders.

And while everyone on the yearbook staff may be required to take photos for a grade, somehow these students are the ones whose exceptional photographs dominate the pages of your yearbook. Like conference all-star athletes, all-state band performers and National Merit Scholars, these select journalism masters are at the top of their game.

What makes them so special and how can you become a photojournalism all-star? The keys to success are no secret, but like success in so many areas, you have to apply certain traits repeatedly to make them habits.

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Know your equipment. This starts with the camera, knowing how to set it for lighting conditions that range from football fields and gyms to classrooms and theaters. But you also need to know when to use different lenses, adjust to using a tripod, and even get used to keeping the camera strap around your neck to safeguard the camera. Photo by Bill Trueit

The first and most obvious step is to know your camera gear thoroughly. If you are satisfied with setting your camera to auto mode, then photography super stardom is not going to happen to you. Whether you use a point-and-shoot camera costing less than $200, a DSLR camera with lenses costing $2,000 or more, or your cell phone, know how to use it.

All photography is based on light. Knowing how to set your camera for different lighting conditions is essential. Many basic point-and-shoot cameras offer variable settings called “scenes,” such as portrait, sports and landscape. More expensive point-and-shoot cameras and DSLR cameras allow you to set the basic exposure settings of ISO, aperture and shutter speed with manual and semi-automatic settings.

Regardless of the camera, start with the camera manual and practice taking shots at as many different settings as possible. Take mental notes on which settings give you the best light in your shots and which settings allow you to capture moving objects with either the clarity or blur you want for your images.

Knowing your surroundings is especially important, and is a good idea for two reasons. One of them is safety, making sure your location is safe from the start and checking around you on a regular basis. One trick I have learned is to use one eye to look through the view finder and use the other eye to see what is happening to your side.

Also, stop taking photos every so often and look all around you, 360 degrees, to help you see the rest of the story. And telling the whole story is another trait you want to develop into a habit. School assemblies and sporting events usually have stories inside of stories. There is the event itself; it has a beginning, middle, and end. Even the preface can be interesting.

At my school, students are led through the halls to the gym by the band and cheer squad for the first assembly in the fall. As they pass a class, the students are dismissed and follow the procession to the gym. Seniors gather outside the doors and enter last, as they are welcomed to their senior year by the rest of the students and staff. By the time the Pledge of Allegiance is said, the story of the first assembly of the school year is well under way.

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Photographers will benefit by wearing comfortable clothing that can take a little abuse while lying in the grass, sitting on floors, and walking through dirt or mud. Knee pads and small towels can help photographers avoid ground-in stains on clothing. Photo by Bill Trueit

The same is true of sporting events. Capturing a wide receiver’s grab of a long pass late in the fourth quarter when the game is in doubt is a shot worth trying to capture. The rest of the story has many angles. There’s the excitement of the crowd, the disappointment of players on the sideline when the referee makes a bad call, and the celebration by teammates after they make the big play.

To get the whole story with your pictures requires another trait of successful photographers – take lots of photos! Photo assignments for your class may require as few as five to 10 quality images that are organized, processed, labeled and provided with accurate caption resources. If you only take six or seven shots, you are not a serious photographer.

I am very pleased with students on my staff taking 250 to 350 captures from an event like a game or assembly. However, several local photographers, who came in as guest speakers to our class, said they took 1,200 to 2,000 images per game when shooting pro sports like the Seattle Sounders or Seattle Seahawks. Another well-known landscape and portrait photographer, Lee Mann, told me he also takes thousands of images on a shoot – and he is only looking for his best image. That single image from a shoot, though, is going to be amazing.

If you’re taking hundreds of images at an event, remember the next trait of successful photographers – move around and get dirty. This combo-deal will help tell your story and get you in position to catch that magic moment that no other photographer will be able to get.

It is easy to see the best photographers at an event. They are the ones who stake out a great spot on the floor close to the action for a basketball game and then move up into the stands 10 minutes later, only to return courtside 15 minutes later. At the football game, they go out to the middle of the field to get shots of the coin toss. They are the ones who are right by the team bench at the end of a playoff game to get shots of the celebration.

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Photographers should be aware of their surroundings at all times, to get the complete story and for their own safety. Additionally, photographers should never encourage others to attempt dangerous activities. When photographing activities that have the risk of injury to the participant, make sure not to cause a distraction that could increase the possibility of an accident. Photo by Bill Trueit

The best athletes on a team will finish the game wet and sweaty. If you’re a hard-working photographer, do not wear nice clothes, and expect the need to take a shower after an event that you shoot.

When an event is over, a great photographer is going to be excited. You will think of all of the images you shot and remember key moments. You will want to share these with the world as soon as you can. To do that, you will need to download, organize, label, process, add meta data to your files, and export your best work to formats required for publication. Getting photos processed is another trait of an excellent staff photographer and a requirement for a professional.

The excitement isn’t yours alone. Everybody at the event, and those who couldn’t go, will flock to your photos once they are available for viewing. Nothing can spark sales of your yearbook like a great photo. Many yearbook staffs now have deadlines for posting photos on websites for people to see. Some schools even set it up so people can purchase the photo. If you work on a professional newspaper or for a magazine, you will likely be expected to upload photos with captions during a break in the action like half time. After the game, processed photos with captions are expected within the hour.

If all of this sounds intense, wait, you’re not finished, but you can slow down a little. Part of growing is reading about what you do and learning from others. Continuing to learn is another important trait of excellent photographers. Reading is helpful to learn about new cameras, lenses and related equipment that you or your school can purchase to do a better job of getting great photos.

Software changes rapidly, and with new versions of your favorite image-editing software there is always something to learn. Image-editing software comes with settings and allows you to create settings for batch processing your images. Reading how to make and save settings will allow you to apply a pre-set to a group of photos that will essentially process them in a single click.

An example is your gym. If your gym is evenly lit, once you have adjusted one photo for lighting, color and sharpness, all of the other photos shot in that environment should need the same adjustments. After adjusting that first photo, you can save the settings and apply them to the rest of the shots you have selected for processing. The next time you are in that same location, you can probably use the preset you made earlier.

Finally, you probably got interested in photography because you were inspired by great photos you came across. Don’t stop looking! Every newspaper has a photo gallery. Every bookstore and library has books of great photography. Every fair has a photo contest with photos on display. Countless magazines are devoted to great photographs.

Like all of the outstanding students in your school, habits play a large part in who becomes successful and rises to the top. You can develop these habits to become the best photographer at your school. One thing, however, will set you apart from the National Merit Scholar, the all-star athlete and the best actor at your school – everyone from your community who looks at this year’s yearbook will see your great photos!

  • Christine Courtney

    Thanks for the great article. I have only been working as a co-advisor to the yearbook for a couple of years. Because I am working with middle schoolers, I find that I have to take just as many pictures as they do. Sometimes the pictures I take are the only pictures of an event. I struggle wtih getting good shots. The tips in your article are great; I can’t wait to put them into practice at our next event.

Bill Trueit

Bill Trueit is the former yearbook adviser and photography teacher at Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek, Washington, and a part-time photographer. He has covered professional soccer and concerts, and has been known to shoot photojournalistic photos even while working as a radio reporter.