What is a newspaper photograph?

Cliff Edom looks at prints entered in the 1986 Pictures of the Year, the last year that prints were judged. Cliff founded the photojournalism program at the University of Missouri and co-founded POY. I made this picture during my first year of graduate school at Missouri. I wonder whether the types of images being entered has changed. © Mike Davis

Pictures of the Year International (POYi) began judging the newspaper categories of the prestigious competition this week. It has been my intention to write about what I’ve called newspapery photographs for a while, to explain further what that means, at least from my perspective.

Two friends and I just judged the National Press Photographers Association national monthly clip contest, which provided further impetus to write this post.

In the professional photography realm, newspaper photographers tend to fall in the middle to lower levels of quality - though there are some incredibly talented newspaper photographers. Newspaper photography is better than most newsletters or in-house organs and some web site photography. It’s usually not as good as the better magazines. Most newspaper photographers wouldn’t cut it as agency or wire service photographers and could succeed freelancing only at the less dimensional level.

That may sound like a slam on newspaper photographers. Sorry about that. Truth is, few newspapers are good at producing compelling imagery. Not all of that shortcoming is the photographers’ fault.

Chances are that newspaper photographs have these qualities or factors that play into their making and choosing. (Certainly the same qualities hold true for many images that don’t run in newspapers.)

  • The dominant element will be in or near the center of the frame. You can probably draw an oval in the center portion of most of the photographs and what is outside that oval will not be important.
  • Something active will be happening and the photograph will only be about that active, verb layer - people doing things. What is behind the action layer of the photograph will often be irrelevant to the composition and won’t add to understanding or compositional dynamic.
  • A given photograph will be made and chosen more because of the photograph’s caption than the strength of the image, the potential of the subject matter or the seeing of the photographer.
  • Light and color are often sacrificed because the photo had to be made at a time when neither quality was optimal. And typically, because the image is about an action layer, even if there is good light and color, it will be sacrificed to position the action layer head-on in the center of the frame between four and ten feet from the subject.
  • Chances are that if what was photographed is not interesting, the photograph will not be interesting.
  • There probably won’t be small elements in the photograph that are critical to the image’s success, and if there are, they’re often cropped out as distracting elements to the action layer.

With no surprise at all, these same qualities are ones that I’ve written about elsewhere here. They are aspects that keep your photography from being stellar, regardless of whether you work for a newspaper.

But at a newspaper, you are rarely in charge of deciding what you photograph, when you make the pictures, which images are chosen or how they run. So the negative aspects above can compound with each step. Chances are, people with no photogrpahy or design training or experience outside of their newspaper will make most decisions that affect what is photographed, when it's photographed and which images run and how they run.

But you are, as a newspaper photographer, in charge of what happens when you raise the camera. When you’re on assignment, you can be free to explore your potential as a photographer - especially once you meet the generally minimal needs of the paper. I say that the newspaper’s needs are minimal because the editors typically send you out to solve a problem, to satisfy a need to connect an image to a story. What kind of image isn’t so important as long as what it depicts refers to the lead of the story. (This is true in the majority of newspapers but not all of them, of course.)

While that minimal expectation can be frustrating, it can also be freeing because once you’ve met the needs of the paper, you can find interesting images in almost any situation - or not, depending on your attitude and abilities. Attitudes are easy to change - if you want to - and ability can be developed, in some but not everyone.

So give yourself a gift. See things you didn’t, go beyond what the assignment sheet says and defeat the bulleted points above. For yourself.

You can.