September 28, 2011 / Fall 2011 / Photography / Picture This

Picture This: Be camera-ready for yearbook

Written by Jill Chittum

Student photographers still need to capture great moments even when they do not have a staff camera in their possession.

About 10 minutes after our newspaper class period started one day this May, our principal’s voice came over the public address system to instruct everyone in the building to head for a tornado shelter. Four days after the devastating tornado in Joplin, Mo., our town about 125 miles north was under a tornado warning, with funnel clouds spotted about a mile away.

As the newspaper staff listened to the principal and prepared to move to shelter, I gathered my keys and purse, and gave instructions to the students.

“Grab a camera! Get your purses! Let’s move.”

Thinking safety first, we did not take the time to unlock the camera cabinet and take a DSLR with us, but the photo editor brought her iPhone 4 with hi-res still photo and HD video capabilities.

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Several areas of Blue Valley High School are designated as tornado shelters, and on May 25, 2011, the journalism students found themselves hunkered down with classmates in the fitness center. Most students spent the 45 minutes in the area waiting while the journalism students worked to gather information including taking photos with their cell phones. Yes, your cell phone camera may not be the best, but it is better than not being able to take photos when an important, unexpected event occurs during a routine day. Photo by Maegan Kabel

We headed down to the fitness center, and the photo editor started shooting photos of kids crammed in the room.

To this day, the staff laughs at me for shouting “Grab a camera!” first. My news photographer Spidey sense got the best of me, I guess.

But while we were still in the shelter, the staff had tweeted, interviewed, photographed, captioned and got a story on our news website, bvtigernews.com.

Any photojournalist worth their salt knows that capturing moments is the ultimate goal. People love to talk about how they were lucky to get a certain shot, and yes, luck plays into it sometimes, but I am also a firm believer that you make your own luck. Being in the right place at the right time helps, but a lot of good it does you to be in the right place at the right time with no camera in your hands.

It is easy for professionals, who are paid to carry cameras with them at all times. They do not have textbooks for six other classes to carry around, and most likely, they are not stashing their gear in a hallway locker.

I know it is hard for yearbook photographers to have to carry their gear at all times, but having a camera ready at a moment’s notice is essential. When your chemistry class breaks out the marshmallows and graham crackers for a s’mores lab, or when your English teacher decides today is the day he is going to be walking around on top of the desks, going to your locker or to the publications room to check out a camera means one thing:  You missed the moment.

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Being in the right place at the right time is only part of the equation to capturing those engaging moments of students living their lives in and out of school. The other? You have to carry your camera – even when you are not on assignment. Some of the best pictures in the yearbook were not assigned. Photo by Mickela Miller

There is an easy fix for this. Most high school students today DO have a camera with them at all times – a point-and-shoot digital camera, or even a smartphone with a decent camera on it. If you are not willing to carry the camera bag along with the backpack every day, at least carry a camera that will fit in a pocket or a purse.

When a situation arises that you know will make a great photo, pull out your personal point-and-shoot and go to work. That way, you’ll get the spontaneity and emotion that comes in the moment, even if you do not have the fanciest equipment at your disposal right then.

Do not get caught up in the race for the longest lens or the biggest camera – the equipment that matters most are your own two eyes and your own two legs.

The first photos out of the “Miracle on the Hudson” jet crash in January 2009, the photos that ran six columns wide in New York newspapers the next day, were taken by a man with a cell phone camera. Janis Krums sprang into action when he saw others taking photos, and posted his first photo of the accident to Twitter within minutes.

The best scholastic journalism photographers have that special sixth sense. They realize something is happening, or is about to happen, and they reach for the camera. If something is happening in front of you that you think you will be describing to friends later in the day, as in “You’ll never believe what Mrs. O’Bryan did today” or “We made the coolest projects in ceramics this afternoon” then it will probably make a great yearbook photo. Do not be afraid to get the camera out and start shooting.

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Photographers who consistently deliver the best photos are the ones who shoot the entire event; oftentimes the before and the after. The defining moment – the image that clearly captures the essence of the event – can happen at any time. If you have stopped shooting and started watching, or are not in position, you may miss getting “the” shot. Photo by Ashley Lane

Chances are, you know what makes a great photo. All you need is good light, good composition and great emotion.

Composition techniques like the rule of thirds, leading lines and worm’s eye view are probably second nature to you after a few months in photojournalism class. Though you might not be able to adjust and control a typical point-and-shoot camera like a DSLR, you can still look for those leading lines, and you can still get high or low to get the best shot.

Of the big three (good light, good composition, great emotion), the one that might be hardest to achieve with a pocket camera would be good light. The flashes on point-and-shoot cameras can be a little overwhelming. So teach yourself how to manipulate the flash on your pocket camera. Crack open the instruction manual (if you have lost it or thrown it away, look it up online), and read about how to turn the flash off, or power it down. If you are in a classroom with nice window light, turn off that flash, and take advantage of the natural light in the room.

Experiment – if you are not sure if the light is bright enough, shoot some photos with the flash on auto mode, then turn it off and try some more.

Do not be satisfied with one or two frames. Work the scene just as you would with your typical DSLR camera kit. Try different angles, different lighting techniques, and watch for those decisive moments.

You never know when you will see the next great photo opportunity, so be prepared to take advantage of it. Remember to make your own luck.

Jill Chittum

Jill Chittum, MJE, is currently a Walsworth Yearbooks sales representative in Oklahoma and Arkansas, as well as an accomplished guest speaker and presenter at yearbook workshops across the country. Prior to joining Walsworth, Jill taught journalism and advised the yearbook and newspaper at Blue Valley High School in Stilwell, Kansas. She also spent five years as a photographer at the Wichita Eagle, the largest newspaper in Kansas.