The Secrets to an Interesting Photo – Unlocked!

A few days ago Reuters published a collection of the Best Photos of the Year 2012. This collection, similar to the Atlantic’s 2012: The Year in Photos, is a sometimes inspiring, often depressing look back at the events of the past year. The content and subjects of the images aside, they are both excellent presentations of some of the best in photojournalism and image making for the year, and I encourage you to not only look through the images, but to analyze the ones that you like or that move you, and determine what it is about the images that makes them so powerful. Look at the position and point of view of the camera, the aperture settings used (shallow depth of field vs. deep dof), the composition including wide vs. tight and what was put in the frame and what may have been left out, how the elements, forms, and colors in the image relate, the moment captured, etc.


Reuters photographer Joseba Etxaburu is knocked down by a wild cow during festivities in the bullring following the sixth running of the bulls of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona July 12, 2012. Etxaburu suffered some scratches on his right elbow but was able to continue shooting afterwards. Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, lens 70-200mm, f3.5, 1/640, ISO 500. http://blogs.reuters.com/fullfocus/2012/11/30/best-photos-of-the-year-2012/#a=1

In an interesting exercise, someone has compiled the type of cameras and lenses used for the photos, and the exposure settings, and then put it all into easy to read pie charts. To turn this information on its head, it seems that to have the best chance of make an interesting image, what you need is a Canon 1D Mark IV with a 16-35mm lens (likely the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L), set your aperture at f/2.8, shutter speed at 1/320, and use 200 ISO.

But to look seriously and more in-depth at the information compiled and presented in the charts, one can learn a lot about how photojournalists in the field operate:

They seem to prefer Canon dSLR cameras, with Canons used in about 90% of the images* – or it perhaps merely shows that Reuters provides, supports, and/ or encourages Canon equipment. (For example, they likely have a collection of Canon bodies and lenses at their offices for the photojournalists to use or to supplement their equipment when they need a specialized lens.) The top camera used, the Canon 1D Mark IV is a very rugged and reliable professional camera, which is interesting to note has “only” 16 megapixels (though it has a much higher quality image sensor than consumer cameras). It has recently been replaced with the more current Canon 1D X.

Prime lenses were used (rather than zooms) in about 55%* of the images, and the most common favorites were nearly equally divided over the 24mm, 50mm, and 16mm (each used about 8% of the time overall when including all lenses*).

With zoom lenses, the wide angle 16-35mm (EF 16-35mm f/2.8L) was used most often (about 19% of the time overall with all lenses*), followed by the 70-200mm (likely the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS version I or II). (The lens links here are for Canon lenses – I’ll try to get back to this and add similar Nikon lens links.)

(*these numbers may be off, as the numbers on Reddit seem to be inconsistent/ incomplete)

What this tells us is that wide angle lenses really are the “bread and butter” lens of the photojournalist, used to capture a wide scene or to place the subject or the action into a larger context – which is often important in telling a full and accurate story in a single image. It also means that the photographer was typically very close to the subject, right in the middle of the action. Sometimes however, a close-up portrait or detail best tells the story, or a photographer can’t get as close as desired, and that is where the 70-200mm comes in.  It is interesting to note that when I did extensive research into choosing lenses at the start of my professional career, I followed many working photographers’ advice and settled first upon these exact lenses – the 16-35mm and 70-200mm. You can do a lot of great travel and photojournalism work with those two lenses alone. One problem you will run into if you are only using one body, however, is that you sometimes have to quickly switch to the other, and that is where the more versatile 24-105mm f/4L or 24-70mm f/2.8L lenses can be more practical.  And you can see that these mid-range zooms were two of the other, lesser used zooms in the chart.

After some time with the zooms, most people want to try their hand at a prime lens – to increase image quality, help them work a bit more at composing and framing, and to provide even shallower depth of field. And as you can see, the wide primes are the most popular among photojournalists. The 50mm f/1.2L or the more affordable 50mm f/1.4 will give you a field of view approximating your normal vision (hence they are called “normal” lenses. The 24mm f/1.4L and 16mm focal lengths are much wider. These also show that the photographers were right up in the action.

The photojournalist’s expression used to be “f/8 and be there” but based on this data, it will obviously have to be modified to “f/2.8 and be there.” The most common aperture setting in these images was f/2.8, used in about 29% of the photos, followed by f/4, f/1.4 (which is possible with some of the prime lenses), and f/3.2. What this means is that they are most often using a very shallow depth of field, usually in an attempt to visually separate the subject of the image from the background, and to call attention to exactly where in the image they want the viewer’s eye to fall. Plus the wide aperture lets in lots of light, which may help them be able to use the fast shutter speeds and low ISO settings they desire.

The “f/8 and be there” expression has been interpreted in a few different ways, but what it seems to say is have your camera ready, and then just be at the scene. The camera settings aren’t nearly as important in photojournalism as simply being there to capture the action.  It also shows that with f/2.8 (and other wide apertures) being used as the most common aperture setting today, photography has likely made a shift over the past few decades where shallower depth of field is much more common.  This would be interesting to investigate, but it could be the result of autofocus systems, allowing a photojournalist to be much more sure of their focus and able to use shallow dof – where as before they had to quickly manually focus and a slightly deeper dof allowed some focusing lee-way. It could also have to do with lenses now being sharper at wider apertures.

The most often used shutter speeds were 1/320, 1/250, 1/800, and 1/640. A photojournalist is often capturing action or precise moments, and thus a fast shutter speed is desired. The best thing to do in these types of situations – especially if working in Aperture Priority Mode so that you have full control over your depth of field – is to set an ISO speed (based on the lighting of the scene) that will allow the camera to select appropriately fast shutter speeds. The best shutter speed depends on the situation and how fast/ what direction the subject might be moving, but from these results it shows that anywhere from 1/250 to 1/800 can work for many scenes – although 1/1000, 1/2000, or faster will be needed for sports and fast action. So set an ISO speed that will result in this shutter speed range when your aperture is set around f/2.8 or f/5.6 (or whatever aperture range you plan to use). The results show that the photojournalists seem to choose the lowest ISO possible for the situation (based on the lighting), as this will result in the least amount of digital noise – interestingly the most used ISO settings actually went in order from 200, 400, 800, to 1600. The fact that ISO 100 came in next, but at a much smaller percentage seems to say: don’t risk it with 100 ISO – just use 200 ISO so that you don’t inadvertently use too slow of a shutter speed when the lighting level decreases but you aren’t paying attention to the exposure settings. The noise and sharpness difference between 100 and 200 is pretty negligible for most current cameras.

Don’t quite understand all these settings and the terminology?  Have a look at my Full Stop dSLR camera guides, such as Canon 5D Mark III Experience and Nikon D600 Experience, which cover not explain the functions, features, and controls of Nikon and Canon dSLR cameras, but more importantly how, when and why to make use of them in your photography.

full stop dslr photo photography camera manual guide for dummies canon nikon

 

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5 comments

  1. I wonder if there is an answer to why Canon ?

    Are they better, cheaper, I can’t imagine a photographer buying Canon because Reuters encourages it, there are too many newspapers for that or perhaps I don’t understand photographers but it has me very curious!!!

    1. Perhaps Reuters has a collection of bodies and lenses available to their photographers, and they are all Canon so that they are all compatible. Such as when a photographer needs a body while one of his is in the shop, or needs a specialized giant telephoto lens. I believe this is common for newspapers, and probably similar for news services. I don’t exactly know how this works with a large news service, but I am curious too.

      1. Well that could explain it..

        HOWEVER, as you know Canon/Nikon is a religious argument and I have two of my friends who are very pro Canon and one of them has already made a comment on my Facebook page so you see why I asked. ;-)

        1. I read through the comments in the original Reddit post and it sounds like Canon had the better equipment for photojournalism and especially sports use at the time when many newspapers and news services were committing to digital, so that is what they started with for their equipment pool, and that is what they continue to support.

        2. Makes sense, thanks, that’s a good answer if I get another comment ;-)

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