Photojournalism: Making Photo Essays and Stories | Benjamin Lowy | Skillshare

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Photojournalism: Making Photo Essays and Stories

teacher avatar Benjamin Lowy, Photographer

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Your Assignment


    • 3.



    • 4.



    • 5.



    • 6.

      Final Thoughts


    • 7.

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About This Class

Join award-winning feature photographer Ben Lowy to tell stories with the images you make. In this 45-minute class, Ben ventures out around the New York City subway to show what equipment he uses, the best ways to approach composition, and how to capture life as it happens (without altering its natural rhythm). This series of lessons equips you to create a photo story or photo essay of your own, and breaks down the difference between the two formats. Perfect for beginner and advanced photographers – you’ll find new ways to push the envelope and do something new. Every day, there’s always a new way to see the world.

Meet Your Teacher

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Benjamin Lowy



Benjamin Lowy is award winning photographer based in New York City. He received a BFA from Washington University in St. Louis in 2002 and began his career covering the Iraq War in 2003. Since then he has covered major stories worldwide. In 2004 Lowy attended the World Press Joop Swart Masterclass, he was named in Photo District News 30 and his images of Iraq were chosen by PDN as some of the most iconic of the 21st century. Lowy has received awards from World Press Photo, POYi, PDN, Communication Arts, American Photography, and the Society for Publication Design. Lowy has been a finalist for the Oskar Barnak Award, a finalist in Critical Mass, included in Magenta Flash Forward 2007, as well as the OSI Moving Walls 16 exhibit. His work from Iraq, Darfur, and Afghanistan have been collect... See full profile

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1. Introduction: As a conflict zone photographer, I've definitely been injured before, been in number of bombings, I've been shot, l have been beaten up, l have had been blown up, I have been stab. I've been hit by a car, definitely have had the gambit of injuries and have been in some pretty hairy situation. My name is Benjamin Lowy, I am a New York-based photographer, I photograph a variety of things be it from conflict zones, features, sports, to me it's all about making images and telling stories because there's always a new way to see the world. There's always something you haven't seen this is also just in your own life, in my own house, there is always some way I didn't photograph something, something I didn't see until that point. That's what life is, is experiencing things. Photography is just recording those experiences, every day is something new. So, today we'll talk about some of the equipment that you can use, some of the choices about why you would use some of the equipment over other equipment, but ultimately we're talking about compensation and talking about approach when you start taking an image and you begin sketching and you begin kind of constructing it so you're not taking the image, you're making the image. I got into photography actually because I was a really bad illustrator, I went to school to be an illustrator and I actually kind of sucked at it and I started doing photography so I could trace what I photographed into my drawings and I ended up just wanted to be a better photographer because of that and I discovered photojournalism. Through that and an arc bookstore and kind of changed my life and I took some time off to teach myself photojournalism and that's it in a nutshell. This class is aimed to be a learning experience, I don't want you to think you have to create a gallery show, your next book project, or this is what you're going to go into a photo editor to land your big job provoked. This is a learning experience where you push the envelope of what you've done before and do something new and learn a little that by yourself about your approach to photography and your approach to people who you're comfortable with. You know every day I see light in a different way, because it still feels fresh to me. It still feels like I'm discovering something and making something and that is ultimately the most important thing. 2. Your Assignment: Most photography works really well on cliche. You want to show people something that they've seen before, and then you want to introduce something new to it. That's how you start developing your styles, is by introducing yourself into it, but ultimately photography works, it's superficial in general. Because that's what's in front of you, it is what it is. You're not getting any deeper than that. So, how do you show people what they expect to see? Something that they can easily digest, that's not super complex, but that shows it to them in a new way. Sometimes it's an angle, sometimes it's a composition, sometimes it's an optical illusion, reflections whatever. They are all different ways to photograph. Instead of photographing a building, you photograph the reflection of the building. It's just like how can you present the world in a way that people can understand it, but also that showcases your own heart? Because that's the most important part, and that's pretty much the difference between taking a picture and making a picture, because when you take a picture, you're just taking it. It's right there in front of you. When you make a picture you're constructing it and you're putting a little bit of yourself into the art form. Putting a little bit of your soul and that's a big difference between the two, between what you're actually thinking about when you start doing photography. When you try and take it to another level of this, "Oh, I'm just photographing my kids." Because even I photograph my kids or is it, "I'm trying to photograph my kids in a way that no one had seen them before." I think when you do have creative control you can get the blur of people coming on and off a train, there's a whole lot of different things. I think it's not that you're going to create a magnum of the sun in New York City or something. It's been done before by a lot of people like, Bruce Davidson, Christo Claude, have done really great work on the subways. Who have spent years doing it and who still I say is ideally, you want to get down to the nitty gritty like idea between an essay, a photo essay and a photo story. A photo story, is point A to B. Bob goes to work, has lunch, goes home, goes to the gym, goes to bed. A day in the life of Bob. That's photo story, it's very linear, and photo essay be a little bit more esoteric. A little more traveling, it's all that using an arrow to created motion, doesn't need to be nailed down by point A to point B or by time. So, if you're going to do a day in the life of the subway of the trained doctor as he gets up and goes throughout this day till it ends, that's a photo story. If you're talking about this is the New York City subway, it doesn't matter whether the first picture you took shows less or you took it over a few months and there's no one subject, except when you edit the pictures and you put them together you create a narrative that is evocative through the composition of the images due to we're having play off each other through, light, dark, and composition, are all a way that you can create images. Then do you have an overall and the detail, middle ground shot. You figure out how they create an emotional resonance that goes throughout the narrative and that's more essayistic. When I get into the subway in rush hour and they're like 10 hands on the bar, it's been shot before a million times, but to me it's incredibly evocative. It's says a crowd in a subway car. Some things are cliche for a reason because they work. [inaudible] how else are we going to say it. Yeah, it's the truth, but so? I'd love that. If I can just do a series of pictures of these hands on subway holes around the world I would. So, here it is guys for this particular assignment, you're going to lock yourself into one place like New York City subway car, or any other metro car or room, and try to come up with a variety of different images that tells a story of this place. 3. Composition: Sometimes it could be a space. So, I'm a big fan of negative space, so I'm seeing maybe it's just the elevator or a wall. Then, like here, let's say on the subway, you have the shafts where utility workers can stand on in there. Do I want her head to be in half of it or do we want her in all of it? So, it's more like sometimes I'll start with the space itself and then I'll wait for people to move into the space. Or sometimes I'll see one person then I'll wait to see what they do, and how they move, and where they stand. Then I'll try and make that picture. So, there're really two approaches to either composing with the space or waiting for people to [inaudible] into space. I think my style changes. I think that's my calling card is that, at least in a professional level, I adapt my vision to work with whatever story I'm covering, and I think that's very important. If I just constantly do the same thing over and over again then it's repetitive, people get bored if it. But if I try and let each thing that I'm covering speak to me in a certain way and change my visuals because of it and adapt to it, I think that's more of where I want to go, that's more appropriate. So, a lot of the things I sometimes try and do are find different ways to compose an image. Window framings. Once you're ready, I'm in this space that I want to photograph but then you can be like, "How can I see it differently than the way I'm seeing it right now?" So, I see him in there and at first I sketched. I started shooting him, and then I realized I can also get the reflection of the subway train in the glass and the sky behind me. So, I pull my arm in and I'm using this cross beam to block the reflection of myself and I'm changing the aperture higher because I want more in focus. So, then I went to F5. I'm keeping the focus point on him but now I know I'm going to be getting more of the background and then I adjust my exposure and I'm trying to make myself smaller and I use that cross beam to block my reflection. Then I'm able to get the train and people passing by and that guy there. When I was in college, I lived in a homeless shelter and my senior thesis was living in this homeless shelter and photographing life inside, and I have this one scene of these three guys doing their laundry. It was this perfect trinity, to me, this composition that worked. My editor at the time, my mentor, was this photographer from the Saint Louis newspaper and she's like, "This is a horrible fucking picture because you've a tree growing out of the back of this guy's head and you have a light switch next this guy's shoulder, and it's not just composed." It was like, "How do you see all those things in the camera when you're shooting?" She's like, "It'll come. At some point you're going to see every single element inside the frame when you shoot." Fifteen years later, I'm like, "That's my thing." I anally compose. I will not use images if they're not composed, if someone's not perfectly within the space that I need them to be. You can start with lines and grids and keeping people within the lines and grids. So, right here I started a little bit higher and I cut off some of the lines, and then I'm just moving my viewpoint a little bit lower and trying to keep things within frameworks. So, you could do it as a grid form where you're keeping things, you have the golden rectangle and the rule of thirds of how people compose images. Squares. So, if you're thinking about Instagram. Instagram has actually been really successful, and the iPhone in general, but it's changing visual language in many ways because we were used to always, beforehand, magazines which we look at like this, the same ratio of our eyes, a rectangle. Now, we have this and when we're holding it comfortably this way, only a square works. So, now, people are seeing in more square. Was in the past, composing for a square we didn't do. I don't remember what philosopher said it, but like Voltaire or someone said, "Symmetry is a refuge for the simple mind," or something like that. But now that's a lot of what we're doing. People are seeing in square more than ever before and it's making a comeback. For a long time people didn't see that because it wasn't published and the big difference is I started with the picture, I have the square, I have the guy in there and then I see the emergency sign behind me and it just said emer-. It was cutting the rest over it, so I just slightly move over. So, one of the big reasons why I tell people don't use zoom cams. Use one lens and instead of you zooming the camera, you yourself should use your own two feet and move. So, some people have a 50-millimeter lens or a 35-millimeter lens and the big difference between the two is like three steps. Obviously, there's more to it than that. The images feel a little bit different when you shoot between the two and it's really depth of field but for the most part, you only need one lens. If I was on a desert island, I'd have one camera, one lens with 35-millimeter lens. That's all I really need. I think probably most of my images I've ever done are with a 35-millimeter lens. I'm looking through it, I'm like, "Okay. Does this work?", and I take the picture because I'm definitely the frame of mind of like, "Take the fucking picture even if it's not in focus, just take it because it might not happen again." But I'll take that first picture and be like, "That's not working. Can I get his head in the top square and the other guy in the bottom square?" Then I'm going to work it. I'm going to move over slightly and then I'm going to change my focus a little bit. So, now, at first I focused on him behind and then I changed the plan of my focus. So, did I get him in front, him in back? It's all about changing different things and seeing what works. I'm a big fan, one of the big influences of my work is Alex Webb, Jill Perez, and David Alan Harvey just in the sense - and I guess Steve McCurry - in how they compose and how they layer. Layering is very important to me in terms of construct the image and having different perspectives of people. The key element to how I photograph is I like having distinct compositional elements. Those are my layers. So, foreground, middle ground, background, people being compositional elements around other people, implying movement. The great thing about street photography, non-setup photography I would say, is that you're trying to capture the serendipity of life happening in an instant and without stopping it. If you can get everything lined up perfectly where you want, then that's where you feel it in your heart and your soul. It's like I've managed to capture life in a way, for me a neat compositionally structured way, without doing anything, without changing it, without interrupting its flow, and I take pride in that. That's what I practice for. 4. Shooting: So, two good things there. One is when you see something take it, and then, "Oh, can I move a little closer? Can I keep on going?" Because we always start further back. And two is, I'm always like this, because you're on the subway and if you're just not sure of where the fuck you're standing, you might get killed. So, I'm standing here, and I see this, and I'm like, "Where's my head. Where is everything else that's going on there?" So, here's a way to think about composition, you have this negative space of the sky. I always say, "So what?" When you have nothing else better to do. But still letting is a good way to learn about layering. So, you have all these poles, and all these crossbars. All these math things. So it's more about like, "Okay, if I stand here-" Obviously,see for yourself,right? I'm like okay there's someone over there, there's someone here, there's a foreground and background and I can start arranging a shot, based on composition on the structure itself, that's when you start the difference between taking a picture and making a picture, whereas I'm just not grabbing it. It's not a car accident that just happened downstairs, I pull out my phone and I'm taking it. No, I'm thinking about, I'm trying to construct but I'm not interrupting it. I'm not changing the serendipity of life, I want to capture it, but now I want to construct the image. So that's where I sketch, so I start, okay, I'm looking at it. So far this is it and I see it, and I'm focused on the background. I want to change my exposure a little bit because I want to blur out the background to hide in a silhouette. Then I'm going to move over because maybe I'm not getting people in the right framing. Yeah. Maybe I have to take a step this way, but then I just cut a woman in half with one of the crossbars and now I got to go back. It's all about seeing the space and figuring out how to make an image. Sometimes that just requires standing there, if it's worth it to you, and that's where you have to define what's your goal in doing all of this. Is it worth it for you to stand out in the cold or rain or heat, and just try and capture that one image that you saw on the back of your head? Then it's perfect. I remember I was on a shoot for ESPN covering Brett Favre's last game at Lambeau Field, in the Green Bay Packers. And most of my cameras operate the auto-focus by pushing a button in the back. Somewhere around the third quarter, it was 12 degrees. Somewhere around the third quarter, nothing was in focus. I was like, what the fuck is going on? I looked down at my thumb, it was actually blue. Because I was just standing in that spot trying to make picture, and my thumb actually froze onto my camera. I was telling it to press the button but it wasn't doing anything. So, it just depends, what's your goal? Are you on your way to work? Then, you're just doing this for fun so it doesn't matter. For me it's like, okay, I want to make sure that this image works. I've just spent enough time, setting it up in my own mind, is it going to be perfect? Nothing ever is. I would equate mobile phone technology in many ways is sort of being like a digital holga. Holga is this $20 plastic camera that you never really get something totally precise or exact what came out of it. You would get an image, that was sort of interesting and a lot of people used it. I have a good friend of mine, a photographer, David Burnett, who actually used it in the White House. In the Oval Office and showed that camera. So, when you have a more robust camera, any of these cameras; these DSRs, whatever reversed this. I have my shutter, I have my aperture, I have my ISO. Now, all three of those I can combine and be like, okay, I would like one person standing still, and a blur of humanity passing by. Well, then I have to have a slow shutter speed. I can compensate by lowering my ISO or change my aperture. You don't have that option, really, with this. I mean there are some things that you do on a newer phone. We do have some options on some of the android phones, you do have those options in Windows media. But it's the quality of image. But even that, to be honest there's not much of a difference between the two at this point in terms of the technology. It's more about the actual quality and image, I have printed images from the iPhone easily 40 inches by 40 inches. I just printed on a watercolor paper, something with a texture. So that it holds it together a little bit, and as you get closer it ends up looking like a Monet or George Seurat, and it starts becoming pointless. But I think that when you're using a camera that has glass elements and a super precise, and then tested, and has high ISOs and high shutter speed values. If you're aware of everything that it can do, and you have the techniques down packed, you can have more creative control because you can pre-plan ahead, like, this is the type of image I want to make. Rather than just being surprised with what you get. That just depends what your end goal is. So, if you look inside this very, very dirty lens, you'll see there's an iris, if you look inside this lens that opens and closes, and that's the aperture. The smaller the hole, the larger the number. I don't know why they came up with this- the more that's in depth of. A shutter is how fast the curtain moves in front of the actual film played. So, right now I'm at 2,500th of a second. See, the shutters move very quickly, if I change it, then that's a quarter of a second. It's just about how much light the camera is letting in onto the clip. So when you combined the shutter and an aperture, you're trying to make a correct exposure for the light. There's no one right thing, so if you look in here and be like, oh the exposure in here. An ISO is the film speed, so all those are also they create the sensitivity and the like. So, if you're shooting at 400 ISO in this room at F4 at 60th of a second. You can also shoot a two-way at 125th of a second. It will be the same exact exposure except you'd have a different depth of field because the aperture is slightly open. If I shoot F56 at a 30th of a second, which is the same exposure, then I might start getting motion blur even though the quality of light is the same. So that pillar is going to look the same, but there's no way a blur of people going by, whereas at at 125th of a second it would freeze motion. Or I could just change my ISO, if I started at a really lower ISO, camera is not as sensitive to the light, so it takes more light to make an exposure. So I'd have to open my aperture or slow my shutter speed down to get a more light. Where if I go to 2,000 ISO, well now I can probably shoot in here at 500th of a second at F4. At 2,000 ISO, which is fast enough to slow down a basketball game. So all those elements play into how you want to make your exposure. Obviously, as you go up an ISO, the downfall is grim. You start getting more and more grim in the image. When we first met, I joke around, when I don't have my camera I joke around and I'm a jokester. But I feel very visible when I have this thing around my neck and I sometimes like just blending in and disappearing, and I like capturing a picture without really being there. Because how can you witness life? How can you record it if you're affecting it? You can make all kinds of arguments, in the same way, like the law of observation which, if you're looking at something as it's happening, it's not really happening without you looking at it. Which is like a scientific theorem or fact. Obviously if I'm standing here and people are walking around me, I'm affecting the flow. Literally. But I'm not asking people to, "Hey! Tell me your deepest, darkest secret." I'm not stopping them to flirt, I'm basically trying in the very best of instances, my idea is to just say this is a slice of life that's happening right now and I want to capture it. So, that's what I'm trying to do and I'm doing that on the subway or on the street. 5. Lighting: Now, pay attention to this. Photography is basically painting with light like you're understanding how light bounces off things and how it's recorded. I mean that comes into play with composition and depending on how you move like fluorescent lights flare in a flare green and you have this light which is blue and her bag is red. There are so many different ways like, "Oh, you know." So, the shot of her because of the way the light is, even though her jacket is beige, it's going to come out yellow in the frame, because you're outside, you have a mixed lighting, you have a normal light, fluorescent light and the red. They're all bouncing light around her and we can correct everything afterwards, but it's just understanding light and how it falls on people. So, if I'm shooting here, well let say, your eyes are going to balance everything. Your brain sees all this stuff and balances all out for you. But, you have to be able to understand how to creatively control the camera and be like, okay, what if I expose for this like. So, if I'm going to just dial in and say, "Oh, I'm just going to expose for this highlight." Well and then, it become something different. Then you're just using it as a catch light for highlighting people who then only let's say this guy because he's wearing his white shirt and she's wearing black shirts. So his faces will going to come out much more clear, his lights also bouncing off his shirt, right. So, it's going to be a much different type of shot, if I shoot him versus if I shoot her. And it's just kind of understanding but that's what I'm exposing for. 6. Final Thoughts: So, when I look at the pictures, I'm looking for variety pictures, I'm looking for storytelling, I'm looking for emotional content, looking for composition. Each of us bring our own little ideas of what a good photo as it should be. I'm definitely go from more of the compositional side, some people might go more from the content side, but it's definitely you want to have something cohesive and evocative, and that's what we're looking for, something interesting. The whole idea is when you look at your work, you want to say, "Am I making an image that no one's seen before?" "Am I trying to present something that-" we all know what the New York City subway looks like. So, "Am I trying to show something that everyone knows what it looks like and try and show it in a different way? Am I being successful doing that?" That's key to this project. 7. Explore Photo Classes on Skillshare: