What three truths lead to better photographs?

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In the digital era, it’s not unusual for all yearbook staffers to be responsible for photographic coverage. Just a few years back, most staff photographers were specialists; they often used their own equipment and, many times, were responsible only for assigning and shooting photos, processing film and making prints.

In the days of specialization, certain books were known for their great photography. And the addition of photojournalism to the list of responsibilities for all staffers has weakened the visual impact of photos in some books.

The three tips that follow can help improve the quality of the images in any book. If you can convince your staffers who shoot to concentrate on these ideas, you’ll notice a difference right away.

It’s What You Know, Not What You Have

Far too often I hear beginning photojournalists looking through other schools’ yearbooks and saying something like, (use your own internal whiny voice here) “Well, if we had the fancy new cameras they must have, we could get photos like that, too!”

While I am all for having the latest and greatest, fastest, highest resolution, most frames per second, longest zoom, widest angle equipment your program can afford -- that is not actually what’s most important.

I can go to the art supply house and get the same brushes Dali had, right? I could go to the music store and buy the Eddie Van Halen guitar. But I couldn’t come anywhere close to the same results in art or music. It wouldn’t matter what instrument or equipment I possessed without the equivalent knowledge and skill to be able to put it to use. 

And vice-versa. As a photographer, it’s not what you have between your hands; it’s what you have between your ears. Don’t fall prey to the “woe is me” mentality and let that prevent you from creating outstanding images. Your time would be much better spent learning to understand how exposure settings affect your images and playing around with fast and short shutter speeds, small and large apertures and the different white balance settings, no matter what kind of camera you have.

Composition Matters

These guidelines will increase any photographer’s chances for success. Being aware of the ideas of The Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, Framing and Angle of View can help the photographers look for shots that will be most effective.

With the abundance of photography training resources online, at workshops and in yearbook curricula, many photographers are at least familiar with the basics of photo composition. If your photographers need a refresher, refer to the Herff Jones Yearbook curriculum or ask your local representative to show them the Photography Road Show.

If you feel like they have heard enough about composition guidelines, I’d like to suggest, well, a reminder.

Even the most astute and well-meaning beginning photojournalist can be overwhelmed once they’re out in the “real world” at an event with cheering crowds, referees to stay clear of, players moving all over, dancers twirling, remembering to adjust their camera’s manual settings for the proper exposure. (You are asking the photographers to shoot in Manual mode, right?)

Composition oftentimes becomes the last thing on a student’s mind. Here’s an easy way to keep composition at the forefront: make a cheat sheet. Either find your own great examples and make up a personalized set or  download the ready-made version from yearbooks.biz to provide your photographers with a set of laminated composition cards. Attach a set to each camera and they’ll have a ready reference to remind them of the important role of composition.

Conduct Background Checks

No, no I’m not saying to add a private eye to the yearbook staff. (But wouldn’t that be cool?) Here it is. The if-you-only-take-one-thing-away-from-this-whole-article tip: watch your backgrounds!
Go through last year’s book and count up all the photos that were technically acceptable in terms of focus and exposure, caught a somewhat interesting moment and yet, if only those people in the background weren’t so distracting…

If only that shrub wasn’t growing out of their head. If the photographer had just moved a little this way... 
A “clean”, uncluttered background can make an okay image amazing. The greatest shot with distracting elements luring our eyes away from the main subject will completely lose its impact.

Framing-Portage Central High School
Framing Always be on the lookout for ways to show depth by photographing through objects or other openings around your main subject. (Photo by Lisa Ellis, Portage Central HS)

Depth of Field-Inland Lakes High School
Depth of Field
Adjust the Aperture setting (“f-stop”) to a lower number for less depth-of-field, blurring backgrounds or surrounding objects. (Photo by Emily Jones, Inland Lakes HS)

Rule of Thirds-McClintock High School
Rule of Thirds
Mentally divide your frame into horizontal and vertical thirds, then line up the main subject at the point where two of the lines intersect. (Photo by Katelyn Bounds, McClintock HS)

Backgrounds-Vision Sports
Watch Your Backgrounds!
Don’t forget about having a “clean” and clutter-free area behind your main subject so the viewer’s eye won’t be distracted. (Felix McLaughlan, Vision Sports)

Interesting Angles-McClintock High School
Interesting Angles
Don’t just accept how it is when you first approach, look for ways to get up high and down low for unique and interesting points of view. (Photo by Allen Mikel Armstrong, McClintock HS) 

Details-Bellarmine College Preparatory
Detail Shots
Don’t forget to capture images of all the little things that also tell the story visually. (Photo by Sean Riordan, Bellarmine College Preparatory)

Remember you can make up your own great examples or download the ready-made version of the Composition Cards from www.yearbooks.biz > Resources > Yearbook Discoveries (login).

by Adam Slye
Herff Jones Representative, CA
Yearbook Discoveries
Vol. 13, Issue 1