Capturing your story: From the Tidal Basin to the newsroom

All photographs by Nathaniel Liu

Whether covering the celebrated cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., or a major political event, a picture is worth a thousand words. Just as reporters choose their words carefully to accurately tell a story, photojournalists must intentionally choose the story they are telling in their photos. 

As I walked around the Tidal Basin this week surrounded by the flowering blossoms at their peak, I talked to photographers capturing their stories about how they are finding their stories.

“You don’t want just any picture of cherry blossoms that you can Google,” says Tom Kochel, a local retired photojournalist. “It’s much better to take a step back and show the environment it’s in.”

Getting started

“Experiment and be patient,” says Steve Howard, a freelance photographer taking panoramic pictures of the Tidal Basin through the complex process of stitching together photos.

Anyone with a modern phone can take pictures.

To distinguish your pictures, you must “find the unexpected and the interesting,” Kochel said. “Don’t go out and look for the expected — a dewdrop on a flower petal, a sunset over the tidal basin — and just stop there.”

If you’re using a more advanced camera, read the manual.

“Nobody reads the manual,” says Ollie Williams, a freelance photographer. He added that online tutorials, particularly on YouTube, can bring your skills to the next level.

Being intentional

Composition is key.

Tom Hipschen, who works in the Treasury Building near the Tidal Basin and has been visiting the blossoms for more than 40 years, shoots using automatic settings but builds stories in his photos through framing devices, like tree branches, and composition rules.

Framing your photo involves using visuals within the image to create a frame for the subject you are focusing on:

Don’t be afraid to play with focus in your picture.

Kochel imagines an article about many tourists’ disregard for the environment: “Get that shot of the people so wrapped up in the beauty around them that they’re distracted and dropping their candy wrappers and cups. You can allow trash to be in your photo, if that’s the story you’re telling.”

Cherry blossoms come back every year, but the visitors are different.

“You’ve got people doing their wedding photography and you’ve got families. You’ve got … joggers, you’ve got kids that are bored out of their mind, you’ve got lovers in the shadows,” says Howard. “You know, it’s a very immersive kind of photograph.”

Steve Howard with his panoramic set up

When you’re not shooting

Choose your equipment carefully.

Williams stresses the importance of choosing the right lens for the occasion. Don’t bring a wide-angle lens to take in a lot of detail if you just want close up pictures of the cherry blossoms.

Your work isn’t done after the photo is taken.

Lightroom, a paid Adobe application, allows you to edit your photos and bring in details from below the surface. Some free applications allow for similar editing.

Examples of how you can edit your photos differently:

After you take some photos, figure out what worked and what didn’t work.

“If you just go out and take a few pictures and you forget how you set it up, you can lose a learning opportunity,” Howard said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified freelance photographer Steve Howard on the first reference. It has been corrected.

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