May 14, 2009 / Photography / Staff Management

Ready the Photo Staff

Written by Bill Hankins

What a daunting task it is to tell the story of a year in pictures! I helped my students toward that photographic goal 29 times. In all those years, what I still remember vividly is how, at the beginning of each year, the feelings kept creeping back. Can we do it again? Can we do it better?

Among the myriad other things on your plate, you need to get your photo staff organized for the year as soon as possible. Usually, I planned August meeting dates before school was out in the spring so editors and photo editors, in particular, could be prepared. Often, I would meet with the editor-in-chief and photo editors first to see where they were in the planning process after summer workshops or other meetings. If the staff had developed theme and coverage ideas that would necessitate a change in photo coverage and staff organization, then we could begin work on that right away.

New advisers, who are just meeting their staff at the beginning of the year, can have these meetings after school starts. Advisers with a spring delivery book should have these meetings as soon as possible, but summer and fall delivery books should not wait too long to plan coverage. These meetings would allow the photo editor to get some idea of the layout needs and to assign the most experienced photographers to early assignments that could not be reshot if the dreaded photo gremlins botched the exposure, development or whatever.

Other special photo needs that might require extra planning include mug shots for pulled quotes, photos used in logo art, and anything needed for theme development. Special photos often require coordination between the photographers and the editors, writers and designers. You might advise your photo editor to put the best photographers on these assignments early in the year, but in doing so do not make the other shooters feel less worthy, just less experienced, at least for the time being.

This brings up personnel and staff management. These meetings are a good time to begin empowering the editors and photo editors to take charge and begin motivating their staffs, evaluating their talent and devising techniques to get the most out of them.

Another helpful thing to do at these meetings is to review the staff photo manual to make sure everyone is aware of expectations and the process through which each photographer’s work will be edited and eventually work its way into publication.

The most common expectation is how much shooting is demanded of each staff member. My approach was to start with sports since games and matches are already on the calendar. Each photographer was assigned a sport, usually with the shooter’s input on preferred sports. Some sports like football or volleyball might have two shooters if the size of the staff allowed and smaller sports like tennis would often have one shooter. Each home game was to be shot so the photographers could plan their schedules.

A photographer who did not get their first choice of fall sports could get first crack at the winter sport of choice.

Once sports shooting was established, the staff knew they might have one or two assignments each week as things came up. Usually the photo editors would work in two-week increments, assigning shooters for events on the calendar or classroom or student life activities needed for the yearbook ladder. These were minimum standards for the shooting part of the photographers’ job. All of these requirements were outlined up front.

Jim McCrossen, adviser of The Horizon yearbook at Blue Valley Northwest High School, Overland Park, Kan., also uses a manual to communicate with his students so expectations for publishing a yearbook are clear with staff members and their parents. The manual spells out the need for deadlines and the consequences for missing them.

“We give the manuals to prospective journalists and their parents must sign that they have read the requirements before they are allowed on staff,” McCrossen explained.

This is a great example for new advisers who may not have faced the strange phenomena of students’ wanting on a staff yet not being able to meet deadlines or putting outside jobs ahead of shooting for the yearbook.

Terry Durnell of Lee’s Summit North High School, Lee’s Summit, Mo., has a love for and knowledge of photography. But she said that in her 13 years of advising, six at North advising The Aurora, photography is still the most challenging part of yearbooking, especially organization.

As so many advisers must do, Durnell modifies her own approach and organization to the qualities of and numbers on her photo staff.

To help her editors stay on top of things, she advises them to have all photo assignments out by the first month of the school year. The photo editors will then do periodic checks on photos throughout the year. As far as sports is concerned, her staff has a weekly accounting of sports shooting, knowing as she does that shooting a game is not the same thing as having usable images for the yearbook.

“We require that two days after a sports event the photographer must have the film developed. Two days after that, contact sheets are presented to the photo editors,” Durnell said.

The Aurora staff is shooting film and printing primarily, but has a Nikon film scanner and has been using a digital camera for low-end photos such as mug shots.

Both McCrossen and Durnell know as they move into the digital world, organization will be a key to quality yearbook photojournalism. However, no matter how your photo staff is organized, each year a creative yearbook staff is going to come up with ideas that will tax that organization.

Do not forget to organize the photo editing process. See two timelines for examples.

McCrossen recalls that in recent years, editors have wanted photos on the cover of their book or in one case, 15 pictures on division pages.

“The photographers were excited about it,” he said, “but they knew that it would require even more good photos.”

That kind of photo coverage might demand a staff to send more photographers to cover important events and to edit more closely early on to make sure that the images they needed were there. Well prior to cover or division page deadlines, mock-ups with real photos or scans that the photographers had captured should be viewed by all involved to make sure of the quality.

Durnell also identifies with the challenge of creative yearbook ideas that put demands on the photo staff.

“Some themes are hard to convey photographically,” Durnell explains.

“We had a theme — Spontaneous Combustion — and it was one of the greatest challenges. We knew we needed lots of photos with energy.”

Even after 13 years of advising, both McCrossen and Durnell talk excitedly about the possibilities of the next school year. I understand that completely. It is an old Zen adage that “You don’t step into the same stream twice.” The same can be said of each year of yearbook advising.

Next year, start early

For new or even veteran advisers who did not get a chance to plan over the summer, consider getting your photography plans started early for next year. Two advisers use August not only to plan, but for added educational benefits.

Jim McCrossen, the adviser of The Horizon yearbook at Blue Valley Northwest High School, Overland Park, Kan., advises a spring delivery book so his staff hits the ground running in August.

“Although Photo 1 is required for coming on to staff, I encourage summer workshops for my photo students to learn photojournalism,” McCrossen says. Early shooting includes activities such as registration and Rookie Camp, which is a freshmen orientation, and he uses these situations to help train his new shooters.

“I look at film with them and critique quickly,” he said.

Terry Durnell, adviser at Lee’s Summit North High School, Lee Summit, Mo., takes the same educational approach to her photographers. She encourages them to attend camps in the summer, but once August begins, she establishes her own Saturday workshops to work with her inexperienced shooters individually.

“I also try to pair them up with an experienced photographer when we can,” she said.

The students are not the only ones who need to polish their photography skills. Looking toward their own yearbook challenges, Durnell and McCrossen both agree that advisers, new or veteran, need to know the basics of photography.

“I would advise them to take a photo class. Most of the questions I get from advisers at workshops are about photography,” Durnell said.

She added that finding a mentor is helpful and do not be afraid to acknowledge the superiority of your advanced students and use them with your beginners. She also recommends the book How to Take Photographs with any Camera by Jerry Hughes.

McCrossen, whose major was photojournalism, adds, “Kids want to do a good job. Advisers sometimes squash their creativity by taking on their responsibilities.

“Trust the kids to do this. Kids almost always live up to expectations or exceed them.”

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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.