Planning the plan for yearbook photography
Written by Bradley Wilson
Documenting the year takes a serious attitude and a lot of preparation.
When a photographer working for any student media operation takes an assignment, it is more than just an opportunity to go shoot a few snapshots and visit with friends. It is a job. It is an agreement to document history.
And the work begins before snapping any photos.
When an editor gives a reporter an assignment, they discuss story angles, sources, length, how it will be packaged on the page and photo ideas. Too often, however, when an editor gives a photographer an assignment, the photographer gets little more than “go shoot the game.” Of course, that is why the basketball spread in a book from New Jersey looks much like a basketball spread in a book from Arizona.
Being a photographer involves as much or more preparation than that of a reporter, and the first step is communication: with the editors, reporters and designers. Spend time brainstorming story angles, key individuals and fresh ways to cover events specific to this year. Think about the action as well as the reaction, by the players and the fans. Even five or 10 minutes spent brainstorming and examining creative ways to cover the topic will be time well spent. Look in books from other schools to see how they have covered similar topics. Look in past years’ books. Do not do what they did. Look in magazines with coverage of the topic to get story and camera angles.
Do not let the communication stop there.
Writing down current and future assignments on a calendar aids in planning coverage and avoiding conflicts with exams and family vacations. Some staffs set up a Google calendar that editors and photographers can access to log assignments and indicate which photographer has agreed to shoot the assignment.
And that agreement is like a contract. When a photographer accepts an assignment, it is a contract between the photographer and the staff to get that assignment completed on time.
The calendar helps staffs plan what photos can be done in time for what deadline and how equipment, for staffs that share equipment, can be allocated. Because it takes special equipment to shoot football and soccer, for instance, staffs need to plan who will use that equipment and when. The calendar also helps staff assign their best shooters or the ones that are the most knowledgeable about a particular subject.
Before heading out
There is planning to do on the day of the assignment, too. A last-minute chat with the editor and reporter might shed light on changes in the story angle. It is a chance to verify when and where. Get a contact name, email and number for someone involved in the coverage, and for the reporter and editor.
Developing the action plan enables photographers to determine what equipment is available, how well it is working and what would be the best equipment for the assignment. While a 16-35mm f/2.8 zoom lens might be perfect for an academic shot of students in English class acting out Julius Caesar, it is not appropriate for a photographer planning to shoot action shots of a daytime water polo match. A 70-200mm f/4 zoom would be fine for such an assignment. Knowing the limitations of the gear is part of the commitment a photographer makes when taking an assignment.
Photographers should take time getting to know the gear. Have other photographers that have used it gotten error messages? If so, what did they do? Reformat the card before beginning any new assignment. Cards that generate error messages should be discarded or at least examined closely to determine if they are still usable. Learn how to change focusing zones and metering modes. Know how to switch between shutter priority when shooting fast action and aperture priority when shooting most anything else. Learn how to change the ISO, knowing that ISO and image quality are inversely related. The higher the ISO, the lower the image quality but the more sensitive the sensor becomes to light, making high ISOs appropriate for shooting in low-light settings. Check the charge on the batteries. Carry extras even if they show full. The camera and lenses are tools. Photographers need to be masters of their tools.
The photographer needs to learn the game and the players. It does not matter whether the photographer is shooting a gymnastics match, a production of “Bye, Bye, Birdie” or an experiment in physics class. Photographers should take time to know what types of action will occur, the best places to stand and avoid, and what the light will be like. It is always worth an hour or so to attend a rehearsal or a practice match to see how the action will play out. Indeed, sometimes shooting a dress rehearsal rather than a performance can be more productive and rewarding, since photographers tend to have more latitude at rehearsals and practices. Certainly, documenting coverage of rehearsal and practice adds even more depth to the yearbook’s coverage.
All this preparation leads to going out on assignment, shooting images that are good in technical quality, well-exposed, well-composed and have meaning beyond just being snapshots. Plan ahead for bad weather and traffic jams. Get there early and stay late.
When on assignment, review the plan, but be open to new points of view. Part of good photojournalism is being at the
right place at the right time and evolving with the story. If, at halftime or intermission, it has become obvious that an individual player is having an outstanding performance or stands out for some reason, visit with the reporter and cover that evolving story.
Remember, photographers have a job to do. Attending a basketball game is an opportunity to document history. Newspapers, as American newspaper publisher Philip Graham said, are “the first rough draft of history.” But yearbooks are the final draft. Photographers who are too busy visiting with their friends and not documenting history are not getting their job done. Standing on the sidelines chatting or cheering is just not part of the job.
Most student editors and advisers realize that students will be students. So, rather than have one person shoot every single home basketball game, they spread the wealth around. They partner less-experienced photographers with more-experienced ones to provide training for the younger students and to build a staff with depth and breadth. Within a long game or series of games, editors might split the work, having one set of photographers cover the pre-game through halftime and another set of photographers cover halftime until most people have gone home. Then, all the students get a chance to be students as well as photographers – photographers with a job to do.
Outstanding photographers know that they do not have to wait for an assignment to get the job done. They carry their cameras with them and document the lives of students at their school while at home, babysitting, working at their part-time jobs, conducting community service projects and even shopping. Documenting student life is more than just documenting students at football games and sitting in class.
The best photographers realize that their job is more than a commitment to document what the editors send them out to document. They realize that if they do not cover it, it will not be part of history and 100 years from now, it did not happen. It is an incredible responsibility and one that should not be taken lightly.