September 17, 1996 / Fall 1996 / Photography

Picture Perfect

Written by David Stedwell

Photographer-editor teamwork essential for the best picture selections.

An explosion of emotion, a click, and in 1/250th of a second, it’s history.

The sharp eyes and quick thinking of a photographer just captured a great yearbook photo on film. The sharp eyes and careful thinking of an editor will get it published.

For the editor, sifting through a stack of contact sheets to locate that image can be a mind-numbing experience. When an important event like homecoming or a sports tournament generates a flurry of contact sheets with similar content, the captive images all begin to look alike.

Of course, the images are not alike. There are negative frames with the potential to produce eye-catching, story-telling photos mixed in with some frames even the photographer would rather not claim. Separating the great from the mediocre and the awful requires an understanding of what to look for on that sheet of photo paper crammed with tiny images.

Know The Story
As an editor begins the search for great photos, it is important to have a clear understanding of what story the photos are supposed to tell. Selecting images that capture significant moments during an event is an impossible task unless the editor knows the significant elements of the story behind that event.

Think About The Reader
Photo selection must focus on images that will be interesting and informative to readers. Look for images that show them something they could not, or probably did not, see during an event.

Talk To The Photographers
Often the photographer was the only member of the staff who actually attended the event. Find out which images on the contact sheet they feel do the best job of capturing the mood and telling the story.

The Big Three
Look for strong content, composition and technical quality.

Images with strong content usually feature an interesting moment, interesting lighting, interesting expression and emotion, and a strong center of interest. Content is all about telling a story clearly and with visual impact.

Editors who select photos need to know as much about composition as the photographers who take the photos. Look for images that utilize such principles as the rule of thirds, framing, leading lines, and contrast between the subject and the background. An interesting angle that contributes to the telling of the story can also enhance the composition. Zero in on images that eliminate foreground, side and background elements that do not contribute to the story.

Technical quality can be difficult to judge from a tiny image on a contact sheet, but the use of an 8x magnifier can give an editor an edge in selecting printable negatives. Reject frames that are out of focus, improperly exposed or that have scratches or other defects.

Read The Contact Sheet
The contact sheet is more than just a catalog of images. It gives the editor a clear picture of how a photographer covers an assignment. A series of frames on the same subject, for example, indicates that the photographer spotted something interesting and then worked the subject from different angles for the best photo. An editor looking for specific content sometimes makes the mistake of selecting the first frame encountered on the contact sheet. A closer look at a series of similar images often reveals that it is the last frame in which the photographer finally captured the image that best tells the story.

A great image may be captured on film in 1/250th of a second, but it takes more than just a quick glance by a photo editor to select it from a contact sheet. It takes sound editorial judgment, a sharp eye and knowledge of basic photo principles to ensure that the best photos taken during the year make it onto the pages of the yearbook.

David Stedwell