Friday, January 30, 2004

A Grapevine hold

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Grapevine's Wes Abel resists the pressure of Colleyville Heritage's Josh Sandoval during a dual wrestling meet at Grapevine High School in Grapevine on Friday, January 30, 2004. Sandoval won the 112-pound weight class match.

Technically, this isn't a "grapevine hold." It is, however, a wrestling hold in Grapevine. ;-}

Stars battle

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Grapevine's James Smith (bottom) keeps Colleyville Heritage's Brady Tarbush (top) from getting a pin during a dual wrestling meet on Friday, January 30, 2004. Tarbush won the 145-pound weight class match.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Two qualifiers

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Regional qualifying swimmers Brittany Lemons (bottom) and Clint Hallum (top) practice at the Town East Pool in Mesquite on Tuesday, January 27, 2004. Mesquite doesn't have an indoor pool, so swimmers practice at a heated outdoor pool.

It is contest season

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

A Mesquite swimmer practices turning at the Town East Pool in Mesquite on Tuesday, January 27, 2004. Mesquite doesn't have an indoor pool, so swimmers practice at a heated outdoor pool.

Ahhh... Contest season. Can't you just see the hair falling out and getting stuck in the keyboard at 4 a.m. on deadline day. Then the keys stick. Then there is a loud bang, bang, bang, DAMN! Bang, bang sound from the other side of the scanning room. Then possibly some sobbing.

Yup. It really is this much fun. Contest season is the wonderful time of the year when you can look at all your hard work from the previous year and determine you don't have squat. Not only don't you have squat, you start wondering why you worked so hard to be squatless.

It doesn't matter. You need to send something anyway. Why? Because you do this ritualistic masochism each year. It is part of the tradition. If you don't try, then what? Horrible nightmares.

So what exactly is contest season?
It is the time from Dec. 31 through the ending date of the last major contest. In this time, photojournalists try to narrow their images down to a set of 20 images (stories count as 1 everywhere) from the last 12 months and submit those same (or slight variations) to as many contests as possible. The hope is to win, but we all know the odds are slim. A major competition gets thousands of entrants -- all with award-winning images.

Contests by their nature have some problems. The judges are not necessarily choosing the best images. They are eliminating the worst and comparing the remainder against mental images of previous winners.

The judges are tasked with whittling (for example) 100,000 images down to 1st, 2nd, 3rd and up to three Honorable Mentions in a matter of days.

Many of the images at a major competition have won awards at other competitions throughout the year. This will effect the judge. Similarly, sleep deprivation, a cold, a traffic jam, a hangover, a childhood fear of oranges or any other problem in the world might effect the judge.

Most images are viewed for about one to three (1-3) seconds. That's it. If the judge spots a problem -- any problem -- it is "out." This causes simple, clean images to be favored and "complicated" images to be quickly eliminated.

Because of the above subjectivity, one DMN freelancer refuses to compete in any contests. I keep trying to convince him that he is not looking at the big picture. So, we will look only toward the positives of competing.

Contests are how two equal shooters are separated. A person applying for an internship or a news job has a photojournalism degree from a fine university with 3.8 GPA, a full rig with all the right lenses and lights, etc.
Potential employers use the same standards as photo contest judges. It is not a matter of selecting the best job candidate. It is a matter of eliminating the worst.

Those portfolios left on the desk need to stand apart from the others. Competition is how this occurs.

I can promise there is no photo editor who will toss aside an average portfolio if they see the shooter has a Pulitzer Prize on his/her resume. Such portfolio gets a "bye" to the final round of judging for the job. Having staff photographers with major awards is good for the prestige (and marketing) of the newspaper, magazine or other business.

I think I got my friend's attention. He decided he would compete. Now what? Look at the contest rules and see if you meet any of the criteria. Are you a woman working for a newspaper for less than two years? No. Well, that eliminated some of the contest possibilities immediately.

There are many "little" contests. These are good training grounds. However, the photojournalism majors are Pulitzer Prize, World Press Photo (WPP), Photographs of the Year (POY), NPPA's Best of Photojournalism (BOP), Associated Press Managing Editors Award (APME), Society for News Design (SND), National Headliner Awards, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, Katie Awards and others.

Some pay huge cash prizes. Some also charge huge entry fees. Obviously, those with the highest cash awards for the lowest entry fee become the most difficult to win. Once most staffers get their fill of regular awards, they might only enter the cash prize contests. Some senior photojournalists quit competing altogether. This is good in a way because it makes competition easier for those just starting out. Although it is not great for photojournalism in general.

There are two ways to approach contest season. I prefer to look at what I have done throughout the year and hammer it into the closest identification hole. "This looks like a feature to me." I prefer to shoot for our readers rather than a contest judge.

Others will shoot specifically for competition. To be honest, this plan works better than my plan. You can immediately tell which photographers do this from a set of their images. This practice is frowned upon by most photojournalists, but it keeps winning year after year. So, until several contests crack down on the shooters, it will continue to happen.

Likewise, severely toning images is starting to get some attention as was done this year when Patrick Schneider's images were disqualified. This is more of a digital ethics issue though.

Enough for now,

Friday, January 23, 2004

Good night for Goodyear

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Guest piano soloist Stewart Goodyear (right) performs with music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth on Friday, January 23, 2004.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Getting started in PJ

Your teacher made you research photojournalism as a job possibility. It sounds cool, so you started hunting around on the Web and landed here. You want the answers to all your questions. Right?

Unfortunately, I don't even know all the answers yet, and I have been playing around with this stuff for more than a decade.

Here's my suggestion. Start with what is a photojournalist . If it doesn't send you screaming to another profession, then come back here.

There are several directions into the industry rather than a single "way." Some people know what they want from the beginning, get a PJ degree, fight for internships, fight for stringer jobs, fight for a staff job, get the job, go to a bigger paper and eventually retire.

Others freelance for small papers while they work on degrees in engineering, business, English, computer science, geology, psychology, etc... At graduation, a staff job at a small paper is comforting and provides regular pay. It becomes a bird in the hand rather than the graduate-degree job in the bush. So, they settle into the job, become really good and live a happy life.

Those were the two extremes. Most paths meander somewhere between. It's probably best to be in the middle because the ends are indeed extreme.

The other extreme is a matter of aesthetics. There is a sliding scale between technicians and artists. All photojournalists must be a little of both, but each shooter is comfortable at a different place on the scale. Everyone is an artist capable of learning the technicals. It is like learning a musical instrument - but more expensive.

The industry is currently going through a major identity crisis (paper or silicon? would you like fries with that?). So, flexibility is a critical starting personal quality. Being part computer geek is also very useful.

To keep the size of this blog reasonable, I'll simply suggest some steps to consider at an early stage in this career.

Get the best camera system possible. Read the instruction manual at least three times to understand all the finer functions of the machine. Remember the quality of the glass (lenses) directly equates to the quality of your final images. Don't buy cheap glass and end up with cheap images, which nobody buys.

Get accustomed to charging for time, images and rights to use those images. Learn the business and learn how to conduct business (customer service, taxes, marketing, etc.). This is actually more important than your technical ability. I've seen some truly miserable PJs get rich in this industry while great PJs went hungry or worked at a 1-hour processing lab.

Study everything visual. Great photographs are the best starting point. However, music videos often use cutting-edge lighting and camera techniques.

Compete often, but never expect to win. Photography contests (and the judges) are subjective. Therefore, each image can win some contest. A community art society photography award is a great starting place.

If you win, great. If not, don't sweat it. Once you have a win or two, compete in harder competitions against better photographers. If someone wants to be a pro, then they must compete against and beat the pros.

A word of caution. Never release "all rights" for the sake of competition. There are a great number of rights-stealing contests in the world. They often offer an attractive cash prize for the best image. However, they're simply collecting many thousands of images from around the world to sell to their clients with no royalties for the photographers. In other words, your hard work becomes their property, and you have no recourse. The winner of the photography contest was: the contest owner (what a surprise).

Do as many quality internships as possible (daily, high circulation). There are high school, college and post graduate internships and sabbaticals. The internship has become the key to staff jobs lately.

Each internship should improve the student PJ's portfolio and skill set. It should also produce some competitive images. With a strong portfolio and some competition wins, the student is able to get better and better internships until s/he gets an unrefusable offer.

The best part of internships is the free film (or CDs), access and meaningful assignments.

A trick I've seen working for some PJs lately is to start interning in high school and keep it rolling through college. Internships are typically for Fall, Spring and Summer (Summer 1 and 2 combined). Logically, one could stretch college out an extra two years by doing multiple internships. This sounds like a waste of time, but it actually saves several years and some humility at smaller newspapers. This plan is semi-cheating the system, but it seems to work for those who can do it.

A word of caution though, doing too many internships can also limit a PJ's potential. Metro editors know when a PJ student is milking the system. Consequently, they won't touch someone who's done nothing but internships for the last two years.

This means, take high school internships. In college, only take major daily internships and limit it to one per year. Once graduated, only take two internships at the most. By then, the PJ should know if they want a staff job or grad school.

If a PJ student didn't get internships in college, it's probably wise to continue into grad school to get the internships. Otherwise, it's going to be a hard road.

I could write more, but this should get most students thinking.

Enough for now,

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Designing diva

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Designer Studio owner Anita Miller poses for a portrait at the studio in Southlake on Thursday, January 15, 2004. Miller has owned the shop for 15 years and contributes to the community by hosting fashion-show fundraisers for various groups.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Chess conclusion

Fifth-grader Ethan Laster, 11, considers the final few moves of a chess game against Justin Elementary School's 3rd-grader Thinh Le, 9, (right) during a chess tournament at Justin Elementary School in Justin on Wednesday, January 14, 2004. Laster lost to Le, 9, who went on to win the tournament, which included students in grades 3 through 5 from both Justin Elementary and Haslet Elementary schools.

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Moving out

Mark M. Hancock / © The Dallas Morning News

Mark Barron of Tyler (left to right), John P. Nash of Van and Lon Brown of McKinney prepare a covered wagon at an overnight camp in Justin on Wednesday, January 14, 2004. The group of horse and covered-wagon riders are slowly working their way to Fort Worth to participate in Saturday's Fort Worth Stock Show parade.

Friday, January 09, 2004

How to write

I'm not a writer, but I play one on television. Ok, I really am a writer in disguise. I choose to be a photojournalist rather than a "word herder" for many reasons. Fresh air is probably the best reason of all. :-)

Nonetheless, I started as a writer. I still recall some of the tricks of the trade.
To make it fun, I'll juxtapose (place beside for comparison or contrast) writing with photojournalism. The photo part is longer because it's more difficult to explain. However, photojournalists should read both parts because they need to write cutlines and sometimes entire stories.

Keep it short. If possible, keep each sentence to a noun, verb, direct object construction. This increases the number of people who can understand the sentence in one reading. Because Einstein was so brilliant, he wrote in simple, straightforward sentences. The rule of thumb is: if it doesn't add to the sentence, cut it.
Visually, select the subject. Narrow the image to its subject, action and supporting evidence. Change the framing to remove or downplay the remainder. You can choose different angles, longer lenses or distance to the subject to clean the backgound. This also increases the number of people who can understand and appreciate the intent of the image. The rule of thumb is: if it doesn't add to the image, crop it out (in the viewfinder).

Keep it simple. Complex subject matter is not an excuse for a complex sentence. It's a scream for simplicity and coherent thought. Break the subject down into bite-sized morsels. Organize them in a logical order.
Keep it simple. A messy environment is not an excuse for a sloppy image. It's a scream for simplicity and coherent thought. Break the subject down to its elements (ie. firefighter, burning house and child). Organize them in a logical order (firefighter carries the child in foreground with the a sense of the burning house in the backgound -- we don't need the whole house and it needn't be in sharp focus). Then press the shutter release button (if automatic advance, lean on the button to ensure a sharp image).

Use as many single-syllabled words as possible. This tightens the text and improves clarity. Look at each prepositional phrase and dependent clause to make sure it can't make a stronger adjective. For example: "The man from the north, who had a beard, left the room." Could be: "The bearded, northern man left the room."
Visually, place only required supporting information in the background or in the foreground with softer focus (if it's smaller). This directs the viewer to your subject (the sharpest part of the image) without confusion.

If a sentence cannot be spoken in one breath, it's too long. This is the acid test. In several blogs, I've noticed a sentence might be a page long. I dare the authors to stand and read the entire sentence with one breath. If writers don't do this, it's immediately evident when they turn red and try to read without enough air.
Shoot and edit a photo assignment to one image. This is the visual acid test. If no single image gets to the heart of the story, the PJ has failed. News PJs rarely get space to tell a full story with more than one image. If the PJ don't do this, it's immediately evident on the light table.

Written stories are a construction of complementary sentences -- never redundant. Make each word count.
Photo stories are a construction of complementary images -- never redundant. Make each image count.

Enough for now,

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Eliminate camera shake

Great images and videos are often ruined by something preventable: camera shake.

Camera shake is the most preventable problem in photographs. It occurs when the camera is unstable, the film ISO (or ISO setting for digital cameras) is too low for the amount of light or the f-stop is set too high on cameras with adjustable apertures.

Most camera shake can be prevented by slowly squeezing the shutter release button instead of pushing or jerking it. When the shutter release is depressed rapidly, the camera rotates clockwise, down and either forward or backward, depending on how it is held.

To see whether a photo has camera shake, note its brightest points of light, called spectral highlights. These are typically reflections of sunlight or flash on metal or glass. If these points appear as a small curve instead of a pinpoint, the problem is from depressing the shutter release button too hard or quickly. By slowly squeezing the button, the camera is more stable when the film or digital sensor is exposed to light.

Stabilize the camera
Stability is the key to eliminating camera shake. The best way to create a stable platform for the camera or video recorder is by using a tripod. When used properly, a tripod can eliminate most movement. (A tall building swaying in the breeze is another story.)

Other ways to stabilize a platform include monopods, sandbags, tabletops, walls and even a cord or chain. The goal is to eliminate as many directions of movement as possible.

Monopods eliminate most up, down and rotational motion but allow other perspective adjustments, particularly in a mobile environment.

A table or any other flat surface eliminates these same movements but restricts image framing.

Bracing a camera against a wall or tree eliminates several directions of movement but also restricts the PJ's options and occasionally her/his ability to frame the image at all.

Make a lightweight, portable option
An inexpensive, lightweight way to stabilize a camera is to attach a cord or chain to a camera or video recorder. The PJ then steps on the cord and lifts the camera to limit vertical motion.

To accomplish this, measure a chain, nylon webbing or a strong piece of cord to the height of the photographer. Cut the material. Next, screw a bolt that is ¼ inch in diameter by 20 threads per inch ( ¼-20) through a chain or a loop in the cord. The length of the screw depends on the depth of the tripod mounting hole and the thickness of the cord.

Thread the screw into the tripod mounting hole (on the bottom of most cameras and recorders). Add a metal washer if needed. Then, step on the dangling portion of the cord, lift against the cord, and the image platform is more stable.

Other preventions
Sometimes camera shake occurs even if a camera is on a semi-stable platform. Using an electronic shutter release (often called a plunger), a wireless remote or even a self-timer eliminates this problem.

With automatic advance cameras, it's often best to take three-frame bursts of photographs. The first and final frames may have motion from depressing or releasing the shutter release button. But the center frame should be sharp.

Additionally, PJs must control their breathing. Before making a photo, frame the subject in the camera viewfinder. Then, take a large breath. Quickly blow the air out and slowly squeeze the shutter release button. After each breath, PJs have three seconds to depress the shutter release before their bodies begin shaking for a new breath of air. If waiting for a particular moment, a photographer can keep breathing like this until ready to make the image.

Enough for now,

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Good news for young PJs

Poynter Institute states there is some good news for the future of photojournalism and future photojournalists. Basically, niche pubs are the future. The flagship papers will survive because they are the core of the biz.

In realistic terms, this means there will be more need for ORIGINAL editorial content. Therefore, there will also eventually be additional jobs created for photojournalists and other newspeople.

Right now, it means additional burden on existing journalists. How much? Here is an e-mail from our head photo librarian (he only handles the Dallas/Fort Worth-area images, not other Belo metro papers):

The average number of photos published daily in Al Dia for the month of November was 32; for Quick 52.

For the
The Dallas Morning News we averaged 353 photos each Sunday and 370 each Friday.

That's a lot of photos!

Jerome Sims
Photo Librarian

Somebody needs to acquire those additional 84 images. Even if each assignment netted two images (which they do not), this is an additional 42 assignments PER DAY being absorbed by staffers, freelancers and wire photographers. Smoke starts pouring out of our brains and cameras after three assignments per day. So, the company will need to hire some new people if they plan to sustain this level of productivity.

Hopefully this might parallel to the current economy. Productivity is about at a maximum, which could lead to new job creation. Each new job creates a new (or better) consumer, etc...

Personally, I am just happy I am in an "old business" where most of us keep our jobs. We don't actually have paychecks anything like you see in the movies or on television, but we make a living, pay our bills and take occasional vacations (like now). :-)

Enough for now,

Friday, January 02, 2004

What sells newspapers

Happy New Year to all. May everyone's year be safe, prosperous and meaningful.

It sometimes surprises me when intelligent, well-read people fall into the common trap of saying horrible occurrences (particularly graphic images) "sell newspapers."

They do not. Actually, they cause people to cancel subscriptions.

What actually sells newspapers? Wedding announcements.

The mother of a bride or groom may pick up more than 25 copies of the newspaper to send to distant relatives. No story or photo prompts any reader to pick up this many single-issue copies from a newsstand. It's a deflating realization for most young reporters, yet it keeps everyone humble.

However, this is the misunderstood part of the newspaper business. If newspapers really wanted rack sales, they'd be nothing but stories and pictures of brides and sports (particularly youth-league sports). Instead, newspapers contain information readers need each day.

The misconception is often a confusion between media forms. Some people think newspaper and television stories are the same. Therefore, they watch the television and blame the newspaper. This is an apples and oranges issue.

Yes, I'll concede TV does a far better job of presenting breaking news in real time. However, "live" is frequently confusing and not always accurate. It changes as it's watched. Meanwhile, newspaper stories are accurate to the point of deadline. The next day, it may be clarified in detail.

At a recent shoot, a nice man said he was pleased I was "finally covering a good story" for the newspaper. I told him he hadn't read our newspaper. He got flustered and changed the subject because I caught him.

He couldn't respond because he probably had not read any newspaper lately. Even if he had, I could've asked him "when" or "how many pages" and the reaction would've been the same. Likewise, he didn't know what my particular beat is.

Yes, I do cover fires, murders and the like, but I cover far more sporting events, elementary school PTA functions, concerts, ballets, and theaters. If he thought the 11 community parades/holiday events I covered this December are "bad news," then he probably shouldn't get a subscription. He'd never find "good news" in our paper.

If we gave two stories the same amount of space, most of our paper's readers would want to know about the serial rapist in their city rather than best manicured lawn award winner. Consequently, they won't read the lawn story. It doesn't mean the lawn story isn't written. It's simply a prioritization of importance to individual readers.

Enough for now,