guest lecture: photography for writers

Yesterday I had the honour of being a guest lecturer (via skype) for my former colleague Richard's class at McGill University. Richard's class is called "What’s your Story? – Magazine Writing" and it's geared towards students who are interested in freelance writing for magazines, both online and print. Richard asked me to speak about photography for writers, to share tips on how to take stronger images, should they be called upon to provide photos to accompany their articles.

This topic was personally significant to me because until recently, I straddled the worlds of writing and photography. Longtime readers of this blog will know that before leaving my job in December to pursue photography full-time, I spent the last 4-5 years balancing photography with various writing and media jobs.  At many points, I took photos to accompany the words that I'd written. I love writing almost as much as I do photography, so I was very excited to speak about this topic and hopefully help a few people in the process. In case it's of interest to you guys as well, I thought I'd share some of the advice and examples that I gave to Richard's class. Here we go:

1) First and foremost, DON'T UNDERESTIMATE YOUR VALUE AND SKILL AS A PHOTOGRAPHER. We are all capable of taking great photos. As a writer, you often have a more intimate understanding of the story you’re covering than a photographer may have. Your goal, above all, should be to take photos that illustrate and complement your written words.



2) COMMUNICATION IS PARAMOUNT. Always start by gaining a solid understanding of your assignment by asking clear questions when you speak to your editor. You want to approach photos with the same hunger for details that you have as a writer. What is the thrust of the story? Is there a certain feeling to convey? Who are the primary people in this story?

Questions to ask your editor:

- what is the deadline? (most important question!)
- how many photos should I deliver?
- how many final photos do you hope to have?
- should the photos be vertical or horizontal, or both?
- do you have a preferred file format (jpeg, tiff)
- what resolution do you require (e.g. 300 ppi)
- would you like me to resize the photos?
- what is your preferred delivery method i.e. should I send photos by file delivery service (e.g yousendit.com), upload by ftp, etc.?



3) UNDERSTAND THE STYLE OF YOUR PUBLICATION. Does it require a photojournalistic or editorial approach?

Here are some basic differences between the two:

PHOTOJOURNALISTIC APPROACH EDITORIAL APPROACH
Show a story as it happens Create or enhance a story by directing and/or styling
Blend into the background Interact with your subjects
Work alone as a "fly on the wall" observer Work as part of a team, often with an art director, stylist, etc
As often as possible, shoot without flash Utilize flash, lights, or other equipment
Don't manipulate or move anything - photograph as-is Don't be shy to move objects around to make a setting look better



In the above example, I snapped the photo on the left as my client (Jessica) was making final preparations to the desserts I would be photographing for her. Although it's out of frame, she still had curlers in her hair when I took this photo, and we wouldn't officially start shooting for another 15 minutes. The photo, however, captures what it's actually like to be in one of her baking classes, and all the deliciousness that entails. Unposed and unplanned, it shows the story as it happened. The photo on the right is a posed portrait, which you'll notice was taken in front of a relatively clean background, to create more simplicity. I gave her direction and positioned her in relation to the best light.


The above photos were both taken at Jennie and Zach's wedding. Wedding photography is a great example of a case where both approaches can be utilized. The photo on the left was taken during the couple's first look, when they saw each other before the ceremony. During the first look, I always step back and photograph from a distance, to give the couple a semi-private moment to themselves before the chaos of the day sets it. The photo on the right is a photo that would be appropriate for publication, as it's slightly styled, clutter-free and focuses on just one detail. Editors often prefer photos like this, as it would work well in a layout that features many separate detail shots.


This final example shows two photos taken at the same party. The one on the left shows a very cool and excited grandmother photographing her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter on her first birthday. I love that she's using an iPad, as it created a lovely frame-within-a-frame. This moment not only showed baby Abby and her parents, but the excitement and the fact that this day was a milestone worth photographing. The photo on the right is a posed photo in more of an editorial style, with just Abby and her parents.

4) QUICK TIPS FOR BETTER PHOTOS. These are short-term tips to help you take stronger photos in a pinch.

- make sure you shoot at the largest setting your camera has
- whenever possible, focus on finding good light--good light can make any space a great location
- look for clean backgrounds and avoid clutter at all costs
- look for surroundings that tell a story, and don't be afraid to photograph small details
- give your subject clear direction; this will help put them at ease
- give positive reinforcement; let them know they're looking good on-camera



5) SIMPLE WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY. These are longer-term tips to help you take stronger photos over time.

- consciously open up your eyes and look for beauty, details, stories, and moments everywhere
- keep a camera (even a smartphone) with you at all times to document what you see
- try a 365 project – take a photo every day for a year
- ask your friends and family to pose for you
- set challenges for yourself (e.g. try your hand at street style portraits, or photograph quickly moving objects)
- pick a theme (e.g. colour, season) and create a series of photos
- offer to assist a photographer, even for one shoot
- or, if you're not up for that, offer to take a photographer out for coffee or lunch and ask lots of questions



5) MAKE THE MOST OF WORKING ALONGSIDE A PHOTOGRAPHER. In the case where your writing gig does have a photographer assigned to it, you're in luck. Not only is the pressure off of you, but you can learn from him or her, and make a valuable connection. Here are some of the best ways to build a healthy working relationship with a photographer.

- provide them with as many details as you have about the story being covered
- remember that by helping the photographer take better photos, your story will look better and your editors will be happier
- swap contact information at some point during your time together
- if you enjoyed working with that photographer, recommend him or her to future editors and it's likely the photographer will return the favour

6) IN CONCLUSION: understand your assignment, use your people skills, find good light, deliver on time, and have fun!

If any writers are reading this, I'd love if you'd share any tips you have for photographers working with writers in the comments!