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Focusing on photography careers

Two student photographers get tips from two alumni photojournalists
By Jacquelyn Walsh (’09)

Madison contributor and former Breeze writer Jacquelyn Walsh (’09) caught up with two JMU student photographers who were excited to talk to Full Frame 100 alumni panelists Wayne Partlow (’78) and Stephen Jaffe (’85). Partlow is photo editor for the Associated Press and Jaffe is senior media officer for the International Monetary Fund. SMAD digital video major Jacob Williams (’12) and Breeze photographer Cat Elsby (’12) asked the alums questions about their careers and asked them to share their best professional photography tips.

Jacob Williams (’12)

Jacob Williams (’12), SMAD

Jacob Williams (’12): Photography is about being aware of your surroundings and capturing the essence of a moment. How do you keep that focus and creativity consistent during assignments?

Wayne Partlow (’78): One of the unique things about working for a wire service is that there is an element of competitiveness. A lot of assignments that our photographers go on have a lot of photographers there from our competitors, shooting at the same time. This competitive spirit can keep you focused so that you aren’t beaten out. When your photos are published the next day or within the next couple of days, you get instant feedback on how you did. You want your best work out there for people to see. This instant feedback can also relate to a gratification about your work that can push you to stay focused.

Stephen Jaffe (’85): I’m also a former wire photographer, and it is such a competitive business that you’re always looking and waiting for the decisive moment. When you go into an event or any situation, you cover it by getting at least the bread-and-butter pictures and then you start looking deeper into things that might not be as obvious. Depending on how long you have to photograph the situation, you can hold onto your focus or gain creativity with extra time and making people feel at ease with you. That’s how you usually get better pictures — making people feel at ease.

Wayne Partlow (’78)

Wayne Partlow (’78), AP

Williams: Chances to capture a specific shot can be missed if you’re not close enough to the subject. How do you make sure you are in the right place at the right time?

Partlow: It’s a judgment call, but one of the things you want to use as a tool are the lenses you select. Sometimes it’s better to use a very wide-angle lens and get really close to the subject so that you can really get the emotion of what’s going on. Sometimes it’s better to put on a longer telephoto lens and stay back, observe and let what’s going on in the scene develop. It’s really an experience issue. As a young photographer you need to experiment, and you’ll begin to get a feel for the better way to go in certain situations.

Jaffe: Be prepared. There’s always a little luck in anything, but if luck comes your way and you’re not prepared, you won’t capture it. You have to put yourself in that situation to be ready. Sometimes it doesn’t happen — you zig and they zag. The main thing is to be prepared.

Williams: Do you find yourself editing your photos or leaving them natural? What are some good photojournalism tricks with natural lighting?

Stephen Jaffe (’85)

Stephen Jaffe (’85)

Partlow: Lighting is an extremely important aspect of photography. As a young photographer you really need to start focusing on where light is coming from and how it comes across. A good technique is to use light coming in from the side because that adds a lot of texture and depth to your photographs. In terms of whether you leave an image natural, editing begins when you’re taking the picture and how you compose it. After you’ve taken the picture you can edit as you decide which picture you want to use and how you crop and turn a picture. These are standard and acceptable forms of editing, but I would not encourage anyone to use any kind of photographic technique that is outside the bounds of standard editing and toning technique. For example we wouldn’t take a sign out of a picture using Photoshop.

Jaffe: You can shoot a lot more with natural light. It’s my preference to shoot all with natural light. Just be aware of light and contrast and try not to fight the light but actually have it work with you.

Cat Elsby (’12): What is the No. 1 thing you recommend to aspiring photographers trying to break into the business?

Partlow: The business is changing now, and a lot of news organizations are cutting back on the number of staffers. Aspiring photojournalists need to be flexible and think outside of the box. In the past you may have thought, “Well I’m going to go to work at a small newspaper and work my way up the ladder.” Now, you need to think about the possibility of being a freelance photographer, going to a market where you would excel and start knocking on doors to try to get a staff job. There’s definitely work out there but how you get it is changing.

Jaffe: Always have your camera with you and shoot as much as you can. When I was starting out, you needed a dark room and film. Now the film is endless and you have a hard-drive and can always delete. It’s to your advantage to practice and to take pictures all the time. Look at light and the rule of thirds, all those things photographers are interested in. And you should experiment. Really experiment. College is great for that. If you mess up, so what? Everyone messes up; that’s part of learning. If you don’t push the boundaries and are always safe, your pictures are going to look that way — safe and mediocre. When you push the envelope you’ll end up taking some fantastic photographs.

Cat Elsby (’12)

Cat Elsby (’12)

Elsby: What’s the most important thing to remember in the business of photography?

Partlow: As a photojournalist the most important thing is that you need to photograph an event or scene in a fair and accurate way. You can capture the emotion of the event and possibly provoke a response from the reader. You need to accurately portray and be fair in your coverage of the event or story.

Elsby: One thing I like about photography is that you’re always learning. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?

Partlow: Being fair in your coverage of a story. Tell all sides of the story. It’s extremely important that you cover things fairly and are sensitive to the people that you’re covering.

Elsby: As a photographer you really have to put people at ease within seconds. It’s the first impression that makes a difference, whether it’s the ability to blend in or to talk about almost anything. Good photographers know a little bit about everything; you just need to have that conversation to put someone at ease. It’s easy to hop on a plane somewhere for an assignment, but it’s in that last 10 or 20 feet that you need to get that moment for a photograph.