Don't Shoot - Witness!

It seems everyone is a photographer these days - at least: everyone has the ability to take a photograph that will 'come out' and can be transmitted to friends and family in an instant. I must have been the last photo-journalist to convert to digital (for love of my precious darkroom) - but, eventually, I finally succumbed to the seduction of Nikon, when Canon divorced me, to be wedded in the church of Photoshop.

It has been a successful marriage; but the same cannot be said for the Press. The rise of digital photography made many Press Photographers redundant as its barons sought to reduce the wage bill by having journalists provide their own illustrations and seek witness material from social media instead.

The changes have been subtle; but they have inexorably led to a rapid decline in standards that have promoted the PC agenda through which successive governments have exercised their growing control. Few journalists now seek-out the news - they write-up the news they are given (from the safety of their desks). Moreover, it is not just the quality of the photography that has led to this decline: it is the parallel shift towards 'activist journalism,' which the new approach has encouraged.

The problem from which this situation has been permitted to grow lies in the power of an image to influence our emotions, and subsequently our behaviour - and the key to producing a powerful image is to remove anything in the frame that detracts from the chosen subject. Don't waste time recording events as they unfold for a traditional photo-spread. Wait until the humanitarian effort to rescue a drowning child has ceased: then move the participants out of the frame and move in close to photograph the dead child's body. (It's worth the subsequent abuse from bystanders to get the shot that editors will drawl over).

That might be a particularly extreme example; but it illustrates the underlying problem perfectly. I'm not suggesting that all photographers are necessarily callous (although it helps to be emotionally detached) - I am pointing to the fact that the equipment upon which most of today's photographic coverage relies is incapable of providing traditional witness coverage. What's more, I'm also pointing-out that professional equipment, which can be used to truthfully document a story, rarely is - because of the platform upon which the accompanying article will be published.

Darkroom and digital manipulation aside, the closer the crop: the more you can be sure that the photojournalist's camera - or the photo-editor - is lying. After all, the purpose of a photo-editor is to select those images that help the story stand-up; but, all too often these days: words are used to stand-up the photograph.

Change, of course, is inevitable; but it need not be for the worse. Instead of 'lying' to their internet readers, the cropped image that appears on our computer screens could act as a link to the full image that might be viewed in a separate tab. It's not rocket science; but, unfortunately, even that adjustment does not address the growing problem of those images, which, either by intent, lack of suitable equipment or technical knowledge, have been constructed to deceive.

Size matters.

Without size you cannot record context - and without context, any image can be used to illustrate the direct opposite of what the photographer wished to convey - just like verbal quotes, taken out of context, to support an argument that has no basis in fact.

Trust matters. Meta-data, timestamps, and originality do not prove the image is true. 'What,' 'Where,' and 'When' are easily manufactured - the important questions to be asked when verifying material is 'WHO took it?' 'HOW was it taken?' and 'WHY?'

Technical knowledge


On the face of it, you don't need any technical knowledge to record digital images these days. After all, you can engage the camera's 'P' mode and let the integrated software calculate all the difficult stuff - and apply all the necessary settings.

It sure beats having to think; but therein lies the rub. In order to produce a successful image, the lens needs to focus. From the off, your device is encouraging you to ignore context and 'zoom in' on your subject. Indeed, that is the advice offered by most photographic schools - because the closer you crop, the simpler your task - and the more powerful the final image.

That mode of thought plays well in this age of tiny internet thumbnails and icons - this age of synthetic emotion; but it is not photojournalism.

The job of a photojournalist is to record 'scenes;' and to compose the frame in such a way as to have the viewer examine all its elements.

This is photojournalism: -

"What's this then?.. OMG!"

This is studio mockery: -

"Get that fucking camera out of my face!"

You need to understand the relationship between focal length, aperture, depth of field, shutter speed, and ISO value in order to successfully capture that Vietnam shot.

That 'P' mode, in conjunction with matrix metering, would have no difficulty in capturing the other image of a posed, well-nourished child, in affluent surroundings, that the program's wide-aperture selection would ensure is thrown into confusion as the subject is focussed upon.

Do you see the difference?..

Do you see why I've captioned those images in that way?..

In Nick Ut's B&W shot, none of the subjects are aware of the camera. It's operator is invisible as AP's photojournalist concentrates on capturing the moment that he is witnessing. He doesn't tell you what to look at. He is just capturing what he has seen - for the record...

How does a newsroom journalist 'write that up'?...

It's impossible. No words can convey or supplement that image because it communicates its contents on a pure, non-verbal level. It says everything to anyone wishing to look at it - it says nothing to those unwilling to look; but just a glance draws the viewer in.

"What's this then?.. OMG!"

It was never used to illustrate a write-up; but it dominated all the centre-page spreads...

That second image is a modern 'stock' photo, specifically designed to be illustrative of a particular theme. The 'mother' in the background would have signed a photo-release (permitting the photographer to take images of her child - normally for a payment or, perhaps, a share of the future proceeds from their distribution). It can be passed-off as having been taken anywhere, at any time, by anyone - provided they have purchased the rights to do so.

Young children are particularly interesting subjects from a commercial point-of-view. That is because their photographs immediately project 'innocence' and 'vulnerability' - to strangers. It is that expression, captured here, that immediately invokes the maternal and paternal instincts in viewers (and it is also the reason why proud parents often employ a professional child-photographer to document those expressions for the family album). The older the child becomes, the less often parents see those beguiling features - that actually denote the abandonment of evolving facial and muscular activity as the child's attention is devoted to making sense of its new environment (or examining the newcomer and his peculiar equipment). It is not, actually, a, 'Look at my innocence and vulnerability' expression: it is actually a, 'WTF?'

Most commercial photographers quickly abandon the shoot when the child becomes tired, or starts to exhibit signs of distress; but, if you are producing stock for the charity market, that's the time to employ rapid fire for those 'on-the-money' photos.

It is not just children, of course, No one likes to have a camera shoved in their face. The moment you enter another's personal space, the photograph ceases to be about the scene, it just becomes about the reactions of your subject - to you, taking their photo.

Want to capture a 'viral' image? Pop along to the next far-left or far-right rally and join the crowd. Turn to the guy next to you and then say something like, 'Nice day for it, then - arsehole.'

You'll get all the coverage you want.

Just don't try it in areas where you don't speak the local language (and best take a couple of friends).

It is SO easy to manipulate others with a camera, because we all tend to believe what we see.

Remember this?.. (It passed all those timestamp; meta-data; and originality tests).

It is not just the good-guys that know all the technical stuff.

So you want to be a photojournalist?


There is only one main rule: Don't shoot - witness!

Don't shoot your reputation by becoming a participant in what you are observing. Stay back; go wide; and give the subject full coverage.

Composition is key. Use the terrain to draw the viewer's attention to what you are seeing.

Here are some other tips that will help: -

Calibrate your equipment. Make sure you know where those clipping points are, for each ISO setting and camera/lens combination - so you don't lose any shadow detail or blow the highlights.

Always shoot stills using your sensor's native format so that you stand the best chance of recovering all those precious details if the light should suddenly change during your burst sequence. (Pay attention to the histogram in Camera Raw, and adjust the highlights/shadows to overcome clipping before modifying the original exposure). Use the ACR tools to ensure you have the perfect digital negative - then lightly use Photoshop to inject further contrast in the luminance ranges and apply selective sharpening, if necessary.

Shoot a colour-patch to calibrate your RAW workflow for each different lighting situation.

Correctly set the white-balance from a card before shooting any video (or non-RAW sequences).

Be your own scout; stay calm; move slowly so as not to draw attention.

Always be on the look-out (don't close your other eye when shooting through the viewfinder).

Stay alert for other angles and other compositions.

Don't use a bloody mobile app or a camera without a proper viewfinder. (You need to clearly see what you are photographing - in all lighting situations).

Observe. Pay attention. Don't interfere.

Be true to the moment - not the ways in which the record might be processed later.

Bracket when the lighting forces you to clip (and process as unmodified HDR).

Pan-burst for that high-quality centre-page spread or exhibition shot  (and frame-merge the sequence when processing).

Most importantly: attend to your camera settings first - don't get caught-up in the moment; and don't be seduced by that 'P' mode. Rather than thinking of that 'P' as denoting 'Programmed', think of it as standing for 'Preliminary.' Used in conjunction with matrix metering it can provide a quick snapshot of the shutter-speed/aperture/ISO equation that the situation demands. You can then manipulate those variables, in the viewfinder, just as you would a handheld meter's incident reading - and check for depth-of-field using the preview button. You can then lock-down the speed by selecting 'S' mode, if you are concentrating on the action; lock-down the depth-of-field by choosing the 'A' mode - or lock both down by selecting 'Manual.' (If you leave it on 'P': you won't be in control of the shoot).

Focus is critical. You cannot rescue an out-of-focus shot - but you can introduce blur (and bokeh) during processing.

Use narrow, single point focus for stationery subjects - or panning for background blur. When you're capturing movement: employ dynamic mode. Use nine-point where the action is confined to a specific area; 21 point for when it is all kicking-off; and 51 point when the camera is stationery. Use 3D 51 point when the action is heading towards your stationery position - or when it is heading away. (I like to organise my custom settings banks in terms of those different types of dynamic focussing - so that I can easily switch between them on-the-fly).

Do not publish high-quality images to the internet or social media; and, for your own security, limit the personal information you provide in the metadata to just a contact email/website address on public platforms.

Do not permit your work to be used by others in return for just a 'credit.'  If they want it: make them buy the appropriate rights for its use.

Make it clear, in the Rights Usage Terms field of the image's metadata that it is: 'for consideration only,' and that, 'no reproduction without prior permission' is allowed.

Lastly, never forget the tripod. Invest in a strong, lightweight carbon fibre - with a proper 3-way pan-and-tilt head, a quick release platform, spirit level, and degree marks. Don't forget: you can employ a tripod as a monopod as well; and, if you get caught-up in some violence: that latter configuration (once the camera is detached) can also be used to keep your attackers at bay.

(You will be attacked. These days: it is just part of the job).

Good hunting...