Through the Viewfinder: Learning to Think Like a Professional News Photographer

Keely Lewis
Edinburg High School
Edinburg, Texas

Title: Through the Viewfinder Learning to Think Like a Professional News Photographer


Topic of Unit

How can a student photographer compose a visually interesting news photograph?


Overview and Rationale

Part of the allure of photojournalism class for most Edinburg High School students centers around the idea that they will get to go outside of the classroom setting and wander around the campus taking pictures. Obviously, in order for that to be an educational experience, they must have careful instruction in photo composition before they are set loose with actual cameras and film. They must learn to approach their subjects with an intelligent eye and know how to apply composition techniques that go beyond the ordinary.


Understanding Goals


  • Essential Questions
    • Why do some photographs catch your attention while others do not?
    • Why not always center a subject in the viewfinder, as most amateurs do?
    • What specific techniques can improve the visual interest of a photograph?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • What role does a well-composed photograph play in the success of a newspaper?
    • How does a news photographer’s view of the world differ from the average spectator’s?




Activity 1 (1 class period)

  • With students working in small groups, have them look through popular magazines and cut out photos that catch their interest. As a group, they must agree on 10 that they feel are the most attention-getting. In deciding on which 10 to present to the class, they must discuss specific reasons they are drawn to those photos.
  • One member will present these photos one at a time to the rest of the class.
  • After all groups have presented, the class will collectively list elements that make a photo great. Discussion should include why they passed over other photos.

Activity 2 (1-2 class periods)

  • By showing slide examples of each, teacher will present concepts of
    • Disturbance
    • Proximity
    • Vantage Point
    • Sense of Place
  • Back in their groups, students will search for two examples of each of these techniques and a different reporter will present these to the class.

Activity 3 (1 day)

  • Invite a professional photojournalist to speak to the students about real-life experiences and show examples of their work. The students should be able to recognize the use of specific composition techniques in the examples.

Activity 4 (1 day)

  • As a final review of composition, the teacher will display photo “flash cards” and randomly call on individual students to name the techniques that are in evidence. Photos should include some ineffective examples that students should now know enough to be critical of. Teacher will review purpose and procedures for first photo assignment.

Activity 5 (3-5 days depending on camera and lab availability)

  • Students will shoot a roll of film demonstrating their knowledge of one of these composition techniques.
  • If they are able to do their own darkroom work, they are required to turn in a contact sheet of the 15 photos they shot and an enlargement of what they feel was their strongest shot.
  • Once the photos are graded, they will be displayed on a window or bulletin board, and the class will identify the techniques used and discuss why some photos work better than others.
  • Suggestion: Stage a photo contest of these photos with all students voting among the best five and award a prize to the student in each class who produced the “best” photo for this assignment. This will also help motivate some students to improve on their next assignment.



The photos will be graded using the related Photo Grading Sheet and will count three grades: for meeting the deadline, for technical quality, and for composition.


Recommended reading and sources

  • Kodak’s Learning Photography video series – segment on Composition
  • “Photojournalism: The Professional’s Approach,” Kenneth Kobre