Visual Toolkit

By Lukas Rapp, Sanne Derks and Ada Petriczko.

How to merge text and visuals, what to focus on in terms of photographs and how to meet each other’s expectations?

This visual toolkit will help feature editors and photographers working with images and videos to find a common language. We asked experts how to merge visuals and text, what to focus on in terms of photographs, and how to meet each other's expectations when working remotely.

1. Essentials

a. What Photographers recommend

As every assignment is different, there is no standard recipe for what basic shots you should include in your project. Fabian Weiss indicates that he usually shoots a mix of portraits, landscapes, details and vibrant scenes in every project. “Additionally, I try mostly to find scenes in between the action, while waiting, and to look for quirky frames.” Hosam Katan adds that, along with portraits, he makes sure to shoot wide-angle shots in the field to provide context for the reader about the location of the story. Anna Liminowicz asks editors in advance what kind of layout they have in mind for the story. This helps her keep her eye out in the field, as she knows whether to focus on horizontal frames (usually the case) or vertical ones.

All photographers mention that they check if their tools are ready, if all batteries are charged, if they have all the lenses and flashes they need, and if the camera settings are correct, before heading out on their assignment. In addition, it is important to check if you need special clothes, culturally or practically, for instance rain gear or special gloves for the cold.

Eline van Nes also reminds readers to have a good night’s sleep. For some news events, metadata and descriptions have to be prepared beforehand. All photographers advise doing extensive research into the story well before going to the shoot. Immerse yourself in the details: Who is the protagonist of the story? How are they portrayed in the media? What kind of personality do they have? How do they live? A good tip is also to manage expectations beforehand, since not all people are aware of what it takes to make a great photograph. Explain to the people you will photograph how much time you need and what your workflow is. Most photographers suggest to scout the location beforehand to get a feel for the lightning and the background for portraits.

Clear communication is key. You have to communicate with protagonists, but also with the photo editors. Edijs Palens explains that as a news photographer, you often have to speak to firemen and the police to explain why you are taking pictures of a fire or a car accident. “You have to be prepared for everything,” Anna Liminowicz believes. “Public figures, especially politicians, often change their minds about appointments, giving you a few minutes or seconds to take their portrait. You need to learn how to make the most of that time.” In some cases, people will not allow their photograph to be taken without first establishing a relationship of trust. “In order to do that, I take an interest in people’s lives, not just in the information needed for the story”, adds Hosam Katan. In addition, Fabian Weiss mentions that he tries “to get a deeper understanding of the people’s situations and what their needs, struggles, hopes and dreams are.” Sanne Derks also points out that communication also depends on the cultural context. “In the Netherlands, everything should be made clear in advance and all permissions should be formalized beforehand. In Cuba it is the other way around: strict appointments seem to be sabotaged and access is easier to establish by showing up spontaneously.”

All photographers agree that clear communication and good preparation are key to avoiding problems. One photographer, who wishes to remain anonymous, mentions that a recurring issue is when people who have agreed to be photographed ask for their pictures in return. However, giving people high-quality content for free undermines our business. The photographer tackles this problem by telling their subjects that they will only be able to access their photographs after the work is published, and usually agrees to send them one low-resolution picture that cannot be used for professional purposes. In any case: expectation management is key. Sanne Derks adds that it is important to know your rights so you are better prepared in case of discussions.

Fabian Weiss provides a check-list to consult both before and during your project to minimise unforeseen problems: “Make a risk assessment, plan extensively, create backup plans, carry spare equipment, emergency chains, show an authentic interest in your subjects, connect with locals beforehand, try to communicate their story with as much detail as possible, and make sure your subjects understand what is needed or expected of them for the meeting.” Last but not least, Edijs Palans mentions the importance of having back-up gear with you: “If your camera breaks down, you should always have a spare one to keep you going.”

In sum

Preparation is key: research your subject, prepare your gear and know what you are after. Communication is key, both with editors and the protagonists of your story. Many problems can be avoided by being clear on your workflow and the purpose of your shoot.

b. What editors recommend

Beata Łyżwa-Sokół, head of the photo department at Gazeta Wyborcza daily
Ties Gijzel, founder and head of multimedia at Are We Europe magazine
Prune Antoine, editor-in-chief at Cafe Babel magazine

All of the editors agree that good recruitment—based on portfolios or past collaborations—is key. “If the team is well-matched, the problem of incoherent style rarely occurs”, Beata Łyżwa-Sokół claims. “Photographers and writers tend to stick to their styles, so one can more or less predict whether they will be a good fit.”

Ties Gijzel adds that once the team is established, he always makes sure that everyone actively shapes the focus of the story. The editors and storytellers take time (preferably two days) to brainstorm all possible angles, inviting guest speakers and conducting creative exercises. At Are We Europe, this process is called the ‘Story Design Sprint’.

“What seems important to me is to mix the profiles of storytellers as much as possible,” believes Prune Antoine. She strives for diversity in terms of the background, specialization and style of the authors she works with. Antoine adds that, while journalists are by essence rather individualistic, cross-border projects require a certain “team spirit,” so it is important to recruit team members who are open to collective experiences.

Gijzel believes it to be the responsibility of the team leader (often the editor or the project leader) to establish a clear workflow, responsibilities, expectation management, realistic project goals, and deadlines.

Antoine requests that team members get to know each other prior to reporting together. They discuss possible storylines and come back to her with three synopses. She chooses the best one, which the team members later develop in detail, both editorially and visually. "I insist that writers and photographers should work together to their full abilities and earn the same salary—which means that I expect everyone to contribute their fair share.”

For Łyżwa-Sokół, it is extremely important to meet the photographers in person once they are back from the assignment. “I could quickly select the strongest photos on my own, but that is not the point,” she explains. “I need to hear the stories behind the images, to make sure I am not missing anything.” Sometimes a photo could be average, but it is vital to the story. In such cases, she is brutally honest. “I would say: ‘Sorry, but this one is rather lousy. Do you have another shot?’ Usually they do and it is a gem. Few photographers can edit their own work.”

Antoine practices a mix of coaching and distancing. “We communicate constantly via WhatsApp, Facebook, mails, phone calls. I ask for regular updates about the preparation of the topic, contacts, interview drafts. I am there to guide them. However, once the synopsis is clear and the reportage is well set up, I let them be totally free on the ground.”

Giving story-tellers the freedom to explore is also a priority for Łyżwa-Sokół and Gijzel. They want the photographers to take the initiative in choosing the form and the style of the story. “Imposing things simply does not work. The photographers must feel that they were not chosen by accident, but that I trust them,” Łyżwa-Sokół points out. She also gives the team the freedom to constantly re-visit their initial ideas and try new solutions on the ground.

“My role is to be the first reader,” Łyżwa-Sokół adds. “I keep on asking questions, some of them basic, even silly. For example: Where does the protagonist sleep? Where is her closet? How much does she make in her job? Photographers are so immersed in the subject that they often forget the most mundane aspects of the story, which can hold many surprises.”

Before the reporting, Łyżwa-Sokół takes the time to discuss the photographers’ expectations and fears. “Regardless of whether it is a social assignment or war, the personal cost can be very high,” she says. “I ask them if they are sure they want to approach or go beyond their limits. No picture is worth their health and well-being.”

Best practice examples of stories in which text and visuals co-exist on an equal basis

Łyżwa-Sokół: If only I was… by photographer Karol Grygoruk and writer Anna Alboth
Gijzel: Edges by multiple story-tellers
Antoine: Balkans & Beyond, Beyond 91, Borderline, #blueborder, Sisters of Europe by multiple story-tellers

“A good photo doesn’t have to have the perfect frame, the most stunning colours or light. A good photo tells a story. It has the power of stirring up personal stories of the observers.”


2. Democractic Tools

For cross-border projects using the same software and hardware is often very useful. Using phone apps like Instagram and TikTok can help a team of visual experts keep a consistent style throughout the project, as they can use the same tools and filters, and they are easy for the whole team to apply.

Instagram is an ideal cross-border visual tool, as photographers can add their images to a shared account. It also helps to provide live updates as the story unfolds, since you can share locations and current statuses. In addition, it can be used to create an image archive for the publication. Additional interviews can also be shared via stories and saved in the profile. Especially in tricky situations, where you may have to record more secretly, the advantage of the mobile phone lies in its small, portable and amateur-like character. New models from 2019 onwards mostly allow you to record 4k 60 frames.

HINT: Always use 1080px as a minimum size to keep the highest quality, as Instagram compresses the file.

Here are some examples of photographers using phone apps to document and share their work:

TIME Instagram photographer of the year 2013: David Guttenfelder 2016: Ruddy Roye

Best Practice cross-border photographer’s project:
A collection of women photographers around the world shooting their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michael Christopher Brown: Using his iPhone in Photojournalism

TikTok has the same democratic approach as Instagram. The additional value lies in the video-based format and in-app editing, which allows you to add things like sound and graphics. “The app is currently used by 800 million people worldwide every month, with more than one billion video views per day. Statistics from February 2020 show that 41% of TikTok users are between 16-24 years old, making it the perfect platform to reach younger audiences,” writes the British Council. TikTok’s popularity and accessibility can help you share your content with a younger, global audience.

Best Practise:

3. Nice 2 Know

Aspect Ratio
According to different sources, the human aspect ratio is between 5:3 and 4:3, but researchers found that we move our eyes faster from left to right than from top to bottom. The 16:9 and Cinemascope ratios make it possible to fit more on the screen, which is pleasing to the viewer because it provides more clarity. Instagram uses 1:1, 1.91:1, and 4:5 ratios. As a photographer you need to consider this, as your designed photo needs to be cropped if shot in standard mode. If you plan to publish your work on Instagram, be sure to include some more space in your photographs to be able to crop them perfectly. For TikTok the recommended aspect ratio is 9:16, 1:1, or 16:9.

Colour Style
Especially when working together with different photographers on a project, make sure that one person alone is doing the colour grading and editing, to keep the same style throughout the project.

Video length The length very much depends on the medium you are producing it for. If we stay digital, Vice, New York Times, Vogue and many more outlets have increased their long form stories uploaded on YouTube in the last five years with immense success. Some platforms have introduced algorithms that search for longer watch times than clicks. Having said that, a pivot, or “wake-up call” within the video is necessary to keep the audience watching. For most digital productions, the moment of the pivot should come at 30 to 120 seconds into the video.

4. Specs

Technical Basics

The following numbers and specifications are based on the ARTE regulations. Record in 4K to stay flexible about your publications. Most modern DSLR Cameras are able to shoot at 24/25 FPS at Full HD. Even though most TV channels consider 10-bit their broadcasting standard, many are also starting to accept 8-bit footage. Check in advance with your editor if 8-bit is acceptable.

More about FRAMES and Standards.

Good audio is a must and can compensate for the quality of the video. A very good example is the documentary “Nowhere to Call Home” by veteran radio journalist Jocelyn Ford.

A good video can still work with some bad images. However, bad sound will ruin every video. Make sure to record your audio properly. Use external shotgun microphones for run-and-gun shots. It always pays off to have an additional crew member dealing with sound, but if that is not possible, take the time to level your sound before interviews.

Besides the proper equipment needed to guarantee a clean audio file, don’t bother too much with technical settings and always record in 48kHz, 24-bit.

More on AUDIO.

Raw vs. JPEG: Again, if your storage is large enough, always shoot in raw, as the bit depth is between 12 and 16. This makes the adjustment in colour correction much easier and allows you to create richer colours on point. Invest the money for an additional storage card. It is the same as for a 4K video recording, and you will be grateful for the high resolution after shooting, when you need to crop.

However, keep in mind that working with JPG is much faster and some agencies only accept untouched JPEGs to avoid image manipulation.

Aspect Ratios (Mobile Photography)

Instagram Photo & Video Posts
1:1 1080x1080px
1.91:1 1080x608px
4:5 1080x1350px

9:16 1080x1920px
1:1 1080x1080px

Instagram Stories
9:16 1080x1920px

IGTV Cover Photo
1:1.55 420x654px

About The Authors

Lukas Rapp

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Sanne Derks

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Ada Petriczko

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