Notes from ‘Best of Photojournalism: What Makes a Winner’

I forgot how I came across this course. I think I may have been inspired by something or someone related to photojournalism and decided to search for a free course. Plenty of results popped up and caught my eye, but this one grabbed me first.

It’s a self-directed course from The Poynter Institute and it takes about two hours to complete. Since it is self-directed, you can take as long as you want and even go back to review the materials.

Even though I’m not a professional photojournalist. I had a feeling that I’d learn a lot that I’d be able to apply to whatever I’m doing in photography, especially my photo-essays.

And I was right.

It turns out going behind the scenes of the National Press Photographers Association’s (NPPA) Best of Photojournalism 2006 contest, taught me a lot about the strength of both single images and picture stories, and the qualities that make them a winner.

Read on to see my thoughts on the structure of the course and then some of the lessons I walked away with. These notes were taken right from my Evernote:

Segments of the course:
  1. Intro
  2. Meet the Judges – The judges included not just photographers but editors and designers at major publications.
  3. You Be the Judge – I was able to determine some of the second place singles and photo stories, but all the ones I thought were first weren’t.
  4. Single Image Winners
  5. Picture Story Winners
  6. Photojournalist of the Year Winners – The judges were looking for the photojournalist that had the most cohesive body of work across different stories and categories.
  7. Gallery – This is where I learned that within photojournalism there are many categories, some I was not aware of.
Three Elements of a Great Photograph (Tweet):
  1. Content
  2. Composition (eye, lens, angle, etc.)
  3. Lighting (creates volume, not just one-dimensional)
How do you know when a picture’s got it?
  • It’s a visceral feeling.
  • It’s impact. It’s the decisive moment. In truth, that’s still right despite being cliche.
  • The “wow” factor
  • It can be humorous, painful, graphical, etc.
Quotes from the judges’ videos:
  • “Photographers are not better photographers tomorrow because they won an award today. And they’re also not worse photographers tomorrow because they didn’t win an award today.”
  • “Everybody looks at the pictures first, it’s the bait. Picture, headline, and then caption. At that point, if the reader is interested, he’ll read the story.”
Insights from the judges’ videos in the final gallery:
  • There’s a time and place to show off your Vision and, at other times, you simply want to capture the content and emotion.
  • There are all kinds of photography that I seldom hear about (e.g. Enterprise, Domestic News, and Conceptual Photographic Illustration)
  • There are proactive and reactive photographers.
  • When there’s color, your eyes pick up the highs and lows.
  • The key element with action pictures is to capture “the moment.” Not only does the photographer have to be in the right place at the right time, she has to execute.
  • Your portfolio is only as good as your weakest picture.
  • Each picture should be a paragraph in the story. It should say something new, something you haven’t said before.

Not having any formal education in photography or journalism, I definitely learned a lot from this course. Many of the singles and picture stories did an excellent job at conveying awe, wonder, and emotion. But the one that really struck a chord with me was the picture story on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And even though this course covered a contest that took place in 2006, the nuggets of wisdom were timeless.

If you decide to take the course too, come back and let me know your thoughts. You can find it here.


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