5 Concepts for Better Photos

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For folks unused to photography, letting the camera make the decisions seems the best way to ensure a decent photograph. If that were so, cameras would be even more popular than they are now. Improving your photography skills starts with understanding five basic concepts. Work on them, and you’ll quickly build a collection of “before-and-after” shots.

  1. The Focal Point: Call it the center of visual attention. Call it the photographic nutgraph. Whatever the name, a good photo needs a dominant image that tells the viewer where to look. There’s no ambiguity in this photograph by Joe Buckingham.

    Photo by Joe Buckingham. Used through Creative Commons: http://tiny.cc/6wview

  2. The Rule of Thirds: Although this compositional techniques dates to ancient Greece, it’s found a home in modern photography and freelance writers on the go. The rule tells you where to put important elements to create a pleasing picture. It’s relatively simple to use. Mentally divide the frame into horizontal and vertical thirds. You should visualize a tic-tac-toe board. Place the important elements at the intersections surrounding the center square. This post  from the Digital Photography School blog illustrate the concept. Don’t be put off by the word “rule.” You can fill the frame with an image, or place it right smack in the center. Just be sure the subject is arresting enough to overcome the compositional imbalance.
  3. White Balance: Different types of light emit different temperatures. The brain doesn’t always register them, but the camera does. That’s why it’s necessary to select the correct white balance, or color temperature, for the scene you’re shooting. You can rely on the camera’s automatic white balance setting, but you might get a cast that can’t be fixed in Photoshop. Step three in this post from slrlounge.com explains the most common icons and the effect they produce.
  4. Depth of Field: Depth of Field is the amount of sharpness between the nearest and farthest objects in a photograph. Shallow or narrow depth of field means that distance is small. Wide depth of field means the distance is large. This photo by Kicki shows how dramatic shallow depth of field can be. But artistry isn’t the only reason you should know how to manipulate depth of field. Say your photograph has an ugly or distracting background. Choose the right depth of field and that flaw can be partially or completely blurred. Depth of field is controlled by the distance between the subject and the photographer, the length of the lens, the lens opening or aperture. Get an in-depth explanation at “To Blur or Not to Blur.”

    Photo by Kicki. Used through Creative Commons: http://tiny.cc/vxview

  5. The Exposure Triangle: Photography occurs when light burns an image onto a medium, whether film or a digital sensor. The amount of light can be controlled in three ways:
  • The aperture or lens opening: The size of the aperture is measured by a number called the f-stop. The larger the number the smaller the opening. The smaller the opening, the less light hitting the medium. Thus f/16 is a smaller aperture than f/11, which is smaller than f/8
  • The shutter speed: This number signals the amount of time the shutter stays open. The larger the number, the more quickly the shutter closes. Thus a shutter speed of 60 is really 1/60 of a second. It’s much shorter than a shutter speed of 30, which is 1/30 of a second. The faster the shutter closes, the less light that hits the medium. But slower shutter speeds require a tripod so the camera doesn’t shake and blur the image when you take the photo.
  • The ISO: The ISO measure the sensitivity of the medium itself. The higher the ISO number, the less light necessary to burn an image onto the medium. But a high ISO translates into a grainer or noisier image.

How does this work? Say it’s a dark, cloudy day. That means less light for the photograph. You can compensate by increasing the ISO or opening the aperture (choose a lower number for the aperture) or decreasing the shutter speed. You don’t have to do all three. Changing one will be enough. Or take the situation described under topic four: you’re taking a photo with an ugly background. You can blur the background by using a lower aperture because lower apertures have shallow depth of field. But a lower aperture lets more light into the camera. Avoid overexposure lowering the ISO or increasing the shutter speed. Don’t do both. This post from digital-photography-school.com offers a simple but in-depth explanation of the exposure triangle. If you want to play before you take a photo, experiment with “The SLR camera explained.” Or get out and shoot. If you’ve got a digital camera, you don’t have to worry about wasting film. Just keep notes so you’ll know what worked and what didn’t.

Photographs as Verbs and Adjectives

Richard Csoltko's salute at a Memorial Day observance gave me an action to illustrate the event.

For most of my career as a writer, I aimed for sentences so descriptive the reader could visualize the scene. That changed with the advent of blogging and online content writers. Suddenly I was also responsible for art: either finding it or making it. While I could take a decent picture, I wasn’t a photojournalist by any means. Most of the sites and books I consulted urged shooters to visualize a photograph before clicking the shutter.

But I think in words, not images. After lots of trial and error – and some really corny photos – I stumbled upon a technique for visual journalism: decide whether the photograph will be an action verb or an adjective.

In photojournalism, most photographs are action verbs.

If you’re writing about an activity, then the photo should depict it. If you’re covering an event, the photograph should show what’s happening. Before I pull out my camera, I brainstorm a paragraph of lively, verb-filled sentences. Sometimes, I jot them down. Those sentences guide my shooting. That’s the way I photographed Richard Csoltko at a Memorial Day observance.

Richard Csoltko’s salute at a Memorial Day observance gave me an action to illustrate the event.

Portraits are adjectives.

For portraits, I think about adjectives because they describe emotion. When I take a formal portrait, I modify the strategy I mentioned above. I talk to the subject while setting up my equipment. (I’m clumsy so setup takes a little longer than necessary.) I listen to the tone of voice and observe the body language. Then I brainstorm a couple adjectives that seem to fit the subject and try to illustrate them with the photo. Mostly importantly, I keep the folks talking so I can get more natural expressions.

When I shoot candids at an event, I simply brainstorm adjectives and work on illustrating them. Here’s a portrait of Jayvan Wheeler right after he graduated from fifth-grade. My adjectives were “proud,” “excited,” “hopeful” and “loved.”

Jayvan Wheeler was a proud, hopeful little boy when he graduated from fifth-grade. The loving embrace from his teacher Victoria Abdow made the day special.

I wish I could say I came up with this insight all by myself, but I reinvented the wheel, of course. Mark Hancock blogged about it in 1996.

I also happened upon a slide show that has been a strong influence. The photo gallery “Comparisons” was created by Sarah Coward, who is a photojournalist from Florida. She calls it a “ visual rant against the practice of forcing newspaper reporters …out of their element and into the world of visual storytelling.” I watched it and learned what kinds of photos I shouldn’t take. Then I browsed her site and learned what to aim for.

Coward hasn’t updated the site in quite a while, but stay with the photo gallery anyway. Click the dark screen and the photos will load. Then browse the photos she shot for stories.

You don’t have to take photos to use this advice.

I recently had a headshot taken. Before meeting with the photographer, I brainstormed two adjectives I wanted to project. I came up with “energetic” and “bold.” Mark Bennington took this photo. Tell me whether it works.

I wanted a bold, energetic headshot. Did I succeed? (photo by Mark Bennington)

How Freelance Writers Can Take Their Photography Skills to the Next Level

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Journalism is largely driven by opportunity, which is why you should always carry a camera. Your photographs may end up being the only documentation available for your story or for some random, newsworthy event that you may stumble upon while walking home. Everyone has taken a picture or two, but taking great photos can help make you a little more cash as a freelancer. Here are some tips to bring your photo skills to the next level:

1. Learn how to use your camera’s manual functions. The automatic settings are easily fooled by challenging conditions like backlighting. So knowing how to balance aperture, shutter speed and flash can help you produce salable photos even with a point-and-shoot. A faster shutter, for example, will freeze action but let in less light. A bigger aperture will let in more light but give you a shallower depth-of-field. At f2.8, your background will blur out, providing nice isolation of your portrait.

2. Your chances of selling a photo increases with quality. This means always shooting at the highest quality image setting you camera offers (RAW is best) and actually taking time to compose shots. Train yourself to look around and behind your subject to see if anything intrudes into frame like a pole coming out of the top your subjects head. Don’t center every shot or shoot everybody in front of a wall. Experiment with different angles.

3. Choose a camera with fully manual and semi-automatic settings like aperture priority or shutter priority. The two latter functions are probably what you’ll use most. They allow you to manually set either shutter or aperture and the camera will do the rest. You also want a camera with an optical viewfinder as opposed to focusing with the LCD. An optical viewfinder allows you to shoot on a bright day. A Canon G10, G11 or G12 is what many photojournalists carry around when not working since it’s a relatively simple camera with decent lens quality and a full manual mode. The new class of micro Four Thirds is even smaller and has interchangeable lens capability. Most Four Thirds don’t have optical viewfinders, though.

I use a Canon 5D digital SLR (single-lens reflex). It’s an amazing camera but pricey, an beast of a machine for any upcoming freelance writers. A more affordable option would be a used Canon 40D or a T2i with a good lens or two. It’s always better to buy good glass over an expensive camera body for anybody that can’t afford both. So if you already have an old Canon 20D, upgrade your lenses. You’ll be amazed at the quality you can get from a professional grade “L” lens. And if you don’t have one already, buy a 50mm 1.8. It’s the sharpest and fastest lens that you can buy for $110.

How to Pitch Podcasts, Slideshows and Multimedia Packages

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One way to generate more income as a freelance writer is to pitch a package to potential clients. Instead of only pitching an article, throw in a podcast, slideshow, and/or video. But don’t give it away, and charge more if it is edited.

If you’re writing a feature story on an event but you also have great photography skills, ask if you can take photos. But go one step further: propose putting together a slide show. If you also have the equipment and can shoot video, recommend that too. Keep the video clips short though — it’s a good rule to keep videos around two minutes. If you’re covering a local government meeting, tell your client you’ll record the audio of the entire meeting, and they can publish it as a public service on their website. Even better, if you have a laptop and a quality video camera, ask the client if you can “livestream” the meeting so their websites readers can watch it live from their website.

Afi Odelia-Scruggs, who has been freelancing full time since 2004, got her start as a reporter in the 1980s. She now mainly works as a freelance photographer for Cleveland Heights and Beachwood Patch sites in Ohio.

“I got into video reluctantly and through that, went into audio,” she said.

Odeli-Scruggs contributes a weekly slide show. Recently, she covered a fifth-grade graduation.

In 2008, she wrote a commentary for TheRoot.com titled “Remixing Grandma’s Voice: How to preserve her stories in the age of the iPod.” In the article, Odeli-Scruggs talks about a Mother’s Day present to her family — a digital version of an interview she taped with her grandmother in 1990. Check it out at http://www.prx.org/pieces/63534.

Odeli-Scruggs prefers using audio to tell a story because it’s “simply easier to capture, and easier [for me] to edit. I can turn a piece around fairly quickly. The equipment is lighter to carry, and the start-up costs are more manageable than video.”

She also created an audio slide show on her trip to the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. Check it out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scrqDitq_yo. In addition, last year at a teachers workshop, she created a video to explain news literacy.

Ebyline Adds Video Uploading Feature for Multimedia Journalists and Digital Newsrooms

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Today, we have some exciting news at Ebyline.

When we started Ebyline, we spoke with many editors and freelancers who wanted an easy-to-use system to create and to collaborate on content. We call it the virtual newsroom, and today, we are taking our vision of a digitally-integrated, multimedia environment to the next level with a new feature: Video Uploading.

We created this new feature as a response to what we have been hearing from many editors from many different outlets. Few editors, these days, are confined to just the written word. Now, editors are feeling an increased demand for multimedia assets to accompany their stories. Editors are encouraged to imagine a broader scope of each story they assign and to answer the question: how will this story exist online? With Ebyline’s new Video Uploading feature, we have provided a simple, streamlined solution for editors to create a rich online experience. Imagine the possibilities: Breaking news, intimate interviews, audio pieces, Podcasts. These multimedia story-telling opportunities are now within reach.

For freelance journalists and investigative article writers, Video Uploading opens a wide variety of new opportunities. Now that ubiquitous smart phones and Flipcams have made journos into multimedia journalists, our Video Uploading feature allows freelancers to sell video footage through the Ebyline system. Already, you have probably used our photo uploading feature to send images to an editor. Now with our multimedia uploading feature, you can upload a video or an audio file to your editor, allowing for new opportunities to sell your content. Multimedia uploading is another great way Ebyline can make you money.

We are really excited about Video Uploading, and we hope you are too.

-Allen Narcisse, Co-Founder Ebyline

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