Editorial photography is neither a science nor an art, but embraces aspects of both disciplines. It is observation, and interpretation. Good photographs are lenses in their own right, objects through which many viewers will understand a subject. So what separates a great photograph from a good one? And how can you create a photograph that will stand apart from thousands?
STEP 1: UNDERSTAND YOUR SUBJECT
Be it an animal or a landscape, a person or an event, to capture the essence of a subject you will first need to understand it. Understand how to approach your subject, how to interact with it, and fall in love with it, just a little bit. Appreciate how the light plays a sheen upon its feathers, how an unsolicited smile crosses their face when talking about their kids, how the outgoing tide leaves a pattern upon the shore that is only evident at sundown. These are observations born of intimacy with a subject, and it’s the only path to an original image.
STEP 2: UNDERSTAND YOUR AUDIENCE
A picture of your cat has meaning for you because it is your cat. You know it and love it, but you wouldn’t expect other people to respond in the same way to a photograph of your cat as you do. An editorial image succeeds when it can communicate something to a third party, making the image meaningful and engaging to a wide audience. That means choosing a relevant subject in the first place, then framing it in a way that can communicate truths and vitality to someone who has never seen it before.
STEP 3: BE ORIGINAL
If I ever see another picture of a log on a beach at sunset I’m going to puke. Honestly, how many pictures of logs do we need as New Zealanders? It’s like we’re the driftwood capital of the world. Choose a subject that hasn’t been done to death, and find an original way to capture that subject that brings out its essence. What makes sharks most sharky? What is it about your street that makes it entirely different from other streets? What is it that makes the person in front of you light up in a way that expresses their inner beauty?
STEP 4: GO WIDE, GO CLOSE
Long lenses are for photographers without legs. If you have legs, you will need just one lens for 90 per cent of your editorial subjects. A 20mm prime will do just fine. Stay wide and move closer. It will force you to interact on a more meaningful level with your subject than shooting from the shadows, and it will create more immediacy in your images. You will be bringing the viewer closer to the subject—which is, after all, the primary purpose of editorial photography. Once close, move around your subject until the pattern of action and light create a frame that is full of information. Wide lenses also promote depth in pictures, extending the offset between foreground and background and creating more opportunities to align those elements in interesting ways. It’s harder to shoot with a wide lens, but every frame will be closer, richer and more meaningful.
STEP 5: SHOOT STORIES, NOT SUBJECTS
As fun as wandering and shooting aimlessly may be, the best photographs result from a photographer approaching a subject with intention. What is the story? What is really happening before your lens? Now follow that story with the intention to tell it in an honest and thorough way, and you will win the support of your subject and create images that have a gravity far beyond superficial ‘snaps’.
STEP 6: DISPENSE WITH THE RULES
Forget about the “law of thirds” and similar daft rules of composition promoted by photography blogs. Don’t worry about shooting with the sun behind you. Don’t fret. Unusual compositions challenge viewers to think about an image differently, and shooting in difficult circumstances will result in more original images. Shoot during storms, or in the dark. Shoot when the content dictates it, let your subject determine the timing of your shutter.
STEP 7: DON’T STRAY FAR
There are more stories in Avondale than there are in Antarctica—more human colour, more drama, more pattern and complexity. You don’t need to go far to find a story, and if you already know a subject well then you’ve got a head start. So few New Zealanders have the guts to turn a camera upon their own family or community even though that is what moves them most. Explore those opportunities and approach the places and people you know well with a critical eye.
STEP 8: LET THE SUBJECT BE YOUR HERO
I have news for you. Viewers want to actually see something. The aforementioned log on a beach doesn’t do it for them, neither does an empty sky or a tricked-up uber-enhanced picture of a sunset. Content is everything. So let the content sing. Don’t soak in saturation or hide it behind filters or attempt to dazzle folk with clever camera work. It’s not about you. It’s about the subject before the camera. So step back from the limelight, make your contribution invisible, and let your subject be the thing that viewers remember.
STEP 9: DON’T OVERCOOK IT
Heavy-handed use of the clarity slider, overcooked HDR and vignetting are regularly used to make a bad photograph appear slightly less bad, or at least bad in an arty way. But hundreds of good photographs are also ruined by overprocessing. If an image isn’t good enough without processing, the most powerful software in the world will not make it better. Step away from the computer, and go back into the field, to that place where every good photograph ever recorded has been made.