Getting the Picture: Composing and Building, Frame by Frame, Pixel by Pixel

Johanna Sherman 
Chapin High School
El Paso, Texas

Generative Topics:

  • How can pictures build upon one another to tell a story?
  • How do we compose a picture to tell a story by itself?
  • What elements create an effective photograph?

Understanding Goals:

  • Essential Questions
    • How do we build upon a visual foundation with verbal imagery and accurate voices?
    • Are there special techniques that enhance the photo? Do those alter or enhance the story?
    • What are photojournalists responsibilities for print and Web publications?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • How has technology changed our ability to create and evaluate pictures?
    • What differences are there between photojournalism and advertising?
    • Under what conditions/in what situations can two different types of pictures control the impact and imagery of a story?

Generative Objects:

  • Pictures cut from different publications that cater to different audiences. (For example: Newsweek, Vogue, National Geographic, local and national newspapers.) “diagrammed” responses to selected pictures, cataloged in students folders for reference and vocabulary illustrations.
  • Models of photojournalism ethics from the National Press Photographers Association.
  • Samples of student photographs.

Performance Indicators:
Beginning with these foundational activities, journalism students will explore and develop different elements that constitute a ‘comprehensive print newspaper.” Because of the infancy of the program, each exploratory component will result in its own publication. In doing so, students will realize the success of publications, yet in smaller, more concentrated content areas. The primary publication from this unit will be a photo essay magazine that reveals students emerging understanding of basic photography and ethical principles of photojournalism.

Activity 1
Students will select photos that ‘catch their eye’ as well as meet different composition criteria from assorted magazines. Criteria include dominant color, action photos, mug shots, close ups, incomplete headshots, etc. After cutting away all text, students will glue each picture to a page. Apply the rule of thirds, students will analyze photos from thirds composition as well as direction of any action. Using additional beginning photography vocabulary, students will label examples found in their representative pieces. For example, depth of field, backlighting, mug shot, ranges of close up. After analyzing the action of the scenarios, students will title each piece. Titles may be linked to actual articles or be created independently.

Activity 2
Students will research and discuss examples from recognized photographers (i.e. Ansel Adams, Clyde Butcher, etc.), and compare their works to working photojournalists (Steven Crowley, Eugene Richards, AP photographers). Discussion will include action and immediacy of moments versus staged and structured work.

Activity 3
Students will discuss examples that define the following techniques:

  • Disturbance
  • Proximity
  • Sense of place
  • Vantage point
  • Universal photo

Reviewing all samples from student folders and researched artists, discuss:

  • When chronicling news and activities around us, how do we decide which techniques to use?
  • How are these techniques misused?
  • What situations could occur if the pictures were misused?

Activity 4
Students will practice their composition ideas using selected scenes from around the school. Using color film, they will take a series of pictures that utilize different placement techniques.

Techniques include:

  • A scene taken at 25 feet, 12′, 6′ and finally as a close up.
  • A photo that incorporates subjects with mixed eye levels, focus more on foreground or background
  • A photo that creates a triangulated dimension
  • A photo that utilizes disturbance
  • A photo that utilizes sense of place
  • A photo that utilizes proximity
  • A photo that utilizes vantage point
  • Three photos of the same subject from a bird’s eye view, a worm’s eye view, and a regular, straight view
  • A picture that can be interpreted with a universal theme picture that uses a dominant color
  • Two pictures of the same scene using a short and then long depth of field
  • One with available light
  • One with backlighting

Activity 5
After developing students’ assigned photos, critique and discuss emerging abilities and visions. Discussion will continue to focus on the elements of successful, effective composition and the importance of practice to hone the skills to see the story within a developing, newsworthy situation. Students will title each picture and discuss the significance of the words chosen. What impact/effect is desired? Is that effect created?

Activity 6
Using a scanner, and desktop publishing programs for photographs and layouts, students will scan photos and modify color pictures to become halftone (black and white) images. What elements of composition are still evident in a black and white image? What elements of the story composition/message change and/or remain the same with the absence of obvious color? Is that absence or content perceived or real? Does the fact that most newspapers utilized black and white photos influence how photojournalists approach their jobs? Should it?

Activity 7
Select enough photographs for a short sheet, eight-page print publication. Design a layout for these same photographs for a Web page.

Activity 8
Research codes of ethics from organizations such as NPPA or SPJ (National Press Photographers Association, and Society of Professional Journalists). How should First Amendment rights and responsibilities apply to photography?

Activity 9
Draft a photojournalists code of ethics for your school news publication. After drafting the code, analyze each picture selected for publication and determine if it is in compliance with the new code.

Discuss whether this step should have occurred before the pictures were first selected. Does that decision sequence matter? Discuss how and why a photographer could and/or should take a photograph and simply not publish it because it does not comply with the code of ethics.

Using the series of selected student photos, publish the photos in two formats:

  • a) Scanned, color images linked to the school Web page in a photo essay link.
  • b) Halftone versions in a 10 x 13 (short sheet) eight-page publication.

Both Web and print publications will include annotated discussion from students about their pictures and the impact and stories they hoped to convey. Also included will be the newly drafted code of ethics.


  • Butcher, Clyde. “Portfolio I: Florida Landscapes.” Ft. Myers, Fla.: Shade Tree Press, 1993.
  • National Press Photographers Association. Code of Ethics.
  • Peck, Richard. Fiction is Folks. “Writer’s Digest Series.” (Currently out of print.)
  • Schaub, George. “Using Your Camera.” New York, N.Y.: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1990.