If a picture’s worth a thousand words make sure you choose the right one

is lead multimedia trainer, BBC News

An online journalist who is not interested in photos has no right to call himself a journalist. OK, maybe I’m being a bit dogmatic when I say that. Maybe. But you don’t have to look at a news website too carefully to realise the impact that well-chosen and well-cropped photos can have.

There are stories where the photos make the difference between an interesting yarn and something so compelling that you want to share it online. Take this story about a boulder smashing through a farm in Italy. Without pictures we wouldn’t have written it (hey, no-one was hurt). With pictures it’s one to talk about over at the water cooler.

The BBC’s picture editor Phil Coomes is encouraging online journalists to use pictures much more boldly, using bigger images and more of them in stories. The weather (always good for pictures) has provided a stream of well-illustrated reports.

There are many other stories where the writer will have a great range of arresting, unusual and striking photos to choose from. Photos add visual appeal, editorial credibility, drama and a sense of occasion to our reports. For me, one of the very best things about online journalism is selecting photos and using them well.

On the flip side, think of the daily challenge for business journalists. Your top story is rising house prices - are you going to reach for yet another photo of estate agents’ signs?

Controversy rages over gas prices. Oh, no, please - not the picture of that gas hob again. Granted, it may be hard to come up with an arresting image in those cases. But there is a problem when the journalist becomes habituated to choosing the obvious photo and doesn’t stop to look for something original. And there are plenty of other challenges:

Mobile and responsive

Oh for the good old pre-mobile days when we got our online news exclusively from desktop machines with big screens. Picture selection was relatively uncomplicated. Now the trick is to have a ‘responsive’ website which will display content at its best, even on old-fashioned ‘feature’ phones with very small screens. This poses problems for photo cropping. A photo that is 625 pixels wide will be big enough to have lots going on in it - a crowd scene, for example, where you can pick out individual faces.

This photo of demonstrating teachers was cropped at 448 pixels for a story on the BBC News website and works reasonably well:

However the same photo was also used on the ‘index’ or front page of our news app. At this size it doesn’t work because you can’t make out the detail at all.

What is the solution? The smaller the photo the more likely you will need to have one simple image dominating the screen. Face shots, cropped close, are an obvious answer. But then the danger is that your mobile offering is dominated by head shots, which could get boring quite quickly. So this isn’t an easy problem to crack.

Pitfalls for journalists (a small selection of...)

1. Copyright: There is a strong photo on Facebook that you want to use. You ask the Facebook contact, who gives you permission to use it. Great. You put it on your story but it turns out that the photo was taken by a professional photographer who gave or sold it to your contact. You could be facing a big bill - so make sure you check who owns the copyright before you publish the photo.

2. Defamation: You can libel people with photos. You are running a story about corruption in a police force and you casually find a file photo of a police officer to give your story some visual impact. He won’t be pleased.

3. Taste and decency: What is shocking in a photo to one person may seem mild to another. Evaluating photographs is highly subjective. Your team may choose not to show the horrific photos of the dead and injured in a bomb attack as they would be too disturbing for many people who come to the BBC website. But at what point does your coverage of a conflict become sanitised and misleading if you are not showing the human consequences of one side using its military might? (Think of ‘shock and awe’ and the 2003 aerial bombing of Baghdad.) If you are going to use strong images that may be disturbing, think about the ways you have of alerting the reader, giving them the opportunity to avoid seeing the image. Still photos displayed in an online gallery or carousel, for instance, can carry a warning at the start, before the reader has started viewing the sequence.

4. Verification: News organisations are relying more and more on photos sent in by members of the public. But a lot of people want to fool the media. How are you going to make sure the photos you choose to use are genuine? (BBC News’s UGC Hub is a centre of expertise in this area.)

Finally, some quick tips for freelancers

Editor: ‘If you’ve got no photos I won’t take your feature.’ Editors expect you to provide photos. Take lots of pictures. Take portrait photos of your protagonists, but also take photos of them doing what they do in your feature. Don’t send huge amounts to your editor - just the really good ones. You don’t have to be a brilliant photographer. Take lots and eventually you will get some good ones.

Freelancer: ‘I sent the online team lots of photos I took, expecting to be paid, and they didn’t use any of them. It’s not fair.’ Remember, the BBC pays for a steady stream of photos every day from Reuters, Getty and lots of other photo agencies. Editors want freelances to supply the photos they can’t get from the agencies.

Editing the BBC News website’s front page

Writing for the web

Writing to pictures

Social media: Verification

UGC: Source, check and stay on top of technology

Smartphone journalism: Photographs