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Problems with Last Year's Briefs - 1 - Technical


Although over 140 students completed last year's brief, from 12 different colleges, and they did so with an enormous range of approaches, there were a number of recurring faults that we saw time and time again. I'd like to spend a little time going through these, in the vain hope that we'll see less of them next time round....

The problems fall roughly into 3 categories, technical, creative, and production, and I'll deal with each in it's own post.

Technical Problems.

"...if the assignment had been real, up to 1/3 would be rejected"

Perhaps the most disappointing experience from the whole roadshow (in fact, probably the only disappointing thing, if you overlook the Chinese meal Dave and I had in Plymouth) was the technical ability of a lot of students entries. If the assignment had been real, anything up to 1/3 of the shots submitted could have been discarded straight away as unpublishable due to technical errors. The sort of thing I'm talking about is pretty elementary; focus, exposure, camera shake, clumsy lighting and so on - nothing advanced, and nothing that can't be learnt fairly quickly, either in college, from friends, or even online. There's a time and place for breaking the "golden rules" of photography, but remember that if you're shooting something for an editorial assignment then fundamentally you're trying to communicate a message to the viewer. Anything that detracts from this is not going to help you, or them. A shot that is very dark can be very effective, but only if used intentionally, likewise, a shot with some motion blur can have lots of impact. The key thing is to use what's appropriate, and there's a world of difference between an image that's underexposed and suffering from camera shake, and something that's shot low-key with intentional blur. The best way to learn these technical basics (which old-fashioned geezers like me would simply call the craft of photography) is to find someone who knows, and get them to teach you, and thereby make it as hands on as possible. Failing that, here are a few online resources:

Basics of Lighting: Strobist 101

Understanding Histograms: Luminous Landscape

Preventing Camera Shake: Shutter speed/focal length - Look towards the bottom for the "rule of thumb"

"...there really should be no excuse for handing us blank CD's"

Less common, but equally important were problems relating to the presentation and handing in of the images. By the time we'd got to the 2nd venue we were giving all participants of the challenge a full run down of what they needed to hand in to us, and when, plus this information was available on the printed sheet. There really shouldn't have been any excuse for people to hand us blank CD's, with unlabelled images on them, which then either can't be opened, or turn out to be too huge for my laptop to work with! Asking you all to name your files properly, and present them in a certain way may seem like simply being fussy, but it has major applications in the real world. In the scenarios we were running - that of a rush, last minute job - simple matters like being able to open the discs properly, along with the files, become very important indeed.

"...make sure everything you hand over is idiot proof"

You may be under the impression that in the case of a last minute job such as this one, the art director would be waiting at the door for you to arrive, and will take the disc or drive straight from you. I won't deny that this can happen now and again, but it's much more likely that you'll give the disc to a courier, who'll drop it off, or you'll drop it off yourself at the front desk/courier desk of the office in question. In these circumstances, having a blank disc, in a plain envelope means your valuable work is not going to move one inch from where you place it! Make sure everything you hand over is clearly labelled, and as idiot proof as you can make it. It's a good practice to verify your images by hand - by this I mean put the disc or drive back in the computer once you've created it, and check that everything (or at least, some things) can definitely be opened. If you were dropping off your work at a magazine or newspaper office, and hadn't checked this, the odds are you'd be quite some distance away by the time the disc had worked it's way to the right desk, and the art director won't be a happy bunny if they can't even open the shots!

"...make sure the relevant shots are easy to find"

This habit needs to be extended down to the files themselves. Make sure that the relevant shots are easy to find - I got handed several key drives that had stacks of stuff on them, on which I had to spend some time rummaging around for the right shots. Please don't interpolate your files upwards - there really is no need to these days, pretty much anything that has a 6 MegaPixel chip or higher will produce good images for publication, and that even covers some camera phones! I had a few files handed in that were in the region of 160,000 pixels x 120,000 pixels. When you consider that a 6MP image is only 2,000 x 3,000 you can imagine what trying to open one of those did to my computer! Renaming the files seemed to cause all sorts of problems, so here's a quick guide how to do it in both Windows and Mac:

Renaming a file in Windows

Renaming a file in Mac

Obviously, we ask you to rename the files with your names so that we can easily identify them afterwards, but it's a very good practice to get into numbering or naming your shots in a certain way, as it makes things so much easier to find afterwards. You may want to get really clever and start embedding IPTC or other metadata in the files, even going as far as doing it when you download them to the computer, which many programs will let you do. Here's how:

Embedding IPTC data in Photoshop/Bridge

Embedding IPTC data in Lightroom

Embedding IPTC data in Aperture

One last thing about files - when you've renamed them, please make sure that they still have a file extension at the end - either JPEG, TIFF, PSD or whatever's appropriate. I got handed perhaps a dozen entries that had been renamed, but without this extension, and only a handful of programs will open them happily, most need you to tack on the ".jpg", ".tiff" and so on for them to work.


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