Friday, June 13, 2008

Categorize multiple photo groups

Between competing in contests, studying competition winners and judging other competitions, I've learned a few things about multiple photo submissions. Judging probably taught me the most. Once I looked at a few of the submissions, I immediately knew what NOT to do.

This post should keep some folks from making the same mistakes I've seen/made in the past and others inevitably will make in the future.

Photo clump
I've already detailed what a photo clump is. While it isn't anything to aspire to make, readers enjoy them. They also work well in several en vogue presentation formats (namely SoundSlides and videos from stills).

If a PJ is covering a festival, state fair or some other large-scale event where a photo clump seems the best solution, be certain to get everyone's names. At least this makes the clump of photos have some meaning. It's best if the clump is visually rich with plenty of variety to keep viewer interest as well.

A package is the basic story-telling unit. It's typically three to six images. It's small enough to be packaged together in a stand-alone box on one page of a broadsheet newspaper.

A typical package includes a wide shot to set the scene and a tight detail shot while the remaining shots are the best images from the take.

If nothing else, this stresses the importance of lens and perspective variation and getting detail shots. If there's no wide or detail shots, there probably isn't a package. Otherwise, the package looks like a clump.

It's best to shoot details as both horizontals and verticals. There needs to be variation of orientation to make an effective package. The detail shots "fill in" the layout gaps.

Every daily assignment can be shot as a package. Although they won't all run as packages, introducing variation to every assignment makes for a more interesting newspaper because the best shot from each assignment will likely result in a different focal-length lens, perspective, depth of field or detail.

The individual images from disparate stories can complement one another on a page rather than appearing redundant.

Photo packages are like stone soup: each minor improvement to options yields a much higher overall affect. A folding chair in an empty room can be successfully shot as a package. Put a person in the chair, and it'll work better, etc....

A series is a set of images which show change over time. The entire point of a series is to allow the reader to compare the images to graphically see the change. If the images don't show a significant change, a single image is better.

Some classic successful series might include:
An extremely fast, active news event to establish timeline.
A tree shot from a similar location during different seasons of the year.
The sun moving across the horizon on the longest day of the year on the North Pole.
A rose in a vase degrading from fresh to dust.

Photo story
I'll do a specific post on photo stories soon. A photo story is the format PJs prefer to use and appreciate the most. A typical photo story uses multiple photos to explain or expand on a subject or issue.

A quality photo story has all the elements of any great piece of story telling. As such, it has a lead (lede) image, a kicker image, transitional images, timing, pacing and surprises. Redundancies are eliminated in the editing phase and the finished product is polished and tells the story completely, succinctly and aesthetically.

Photo essay
A photo essay is different than a photo story. An essay is an exploration of a theme. Unlike a photo story, which is propelled by action (visual verbs), a photo essay is typically steeped in nouns (people, places, things or ideas). Either the theme is a noun or the images are nouns relating to the theme.

See this essay about Cottonwood Abstractions as an example. I could have easily covered the event as a photo story. The festival occurs twice each year (spring and fall). It's ranked in the top 25 art festivals in the United States, so there are always plenty of people doing things. However, the paper wouldn't want to run the same story each spring and fall. It would become redundant and meaningless to our readers.

Consequently, I made it a differently themed essay each time. It actually took much longer to conceive and shoot the essay than to shoot a story. The year it rained, the theme became "Water colors." Another time it was "Reflections of Cottonwood."

Judging from the feedback, our readers liked the essays and appreciated the thought put into them.

While the examples are one-day essays, others may take weeks or years to complete. Many documentary stories - particularly in National Geographic - are actually essays. They explore global warming, drought, famine, rain forest reduction or some other theme. Often, the theme is the noun. In other essays, the images are the noun. Sometimes both the theme and the images are nouns.

Choose the best approach
Understanding how groups of photos are categorized (clumps, packages, essays or stories) is the first step toward making photo stories. Next time, we're going to decide the best approach to a subject. Often, this is decided by the story idea or subject matter. However, the approach can sometimes change in the middle of the shoot or during the editing process.

Enough for now,

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