A Question Of Quality: How Research Participants Described Photographs In The NPPA Study
By Sara Quinn
ATHENS, GA (February 3, 2015) – Quality. We know it when we see it, right?
That's what we set out to discover with our eyetracking research described last week in Part One.
But just because we recognize quality doesn't necessarily mean we can articulate it to others.
So let’s see if we can build an actual vocabulary to describe the power of good photojournalism. It’s important —especially now, when the digital world is flooded with mediocre images.
Before we do that, first let's hear what a few industry experts have to say about recognizing the quality and value of professional photojournalism.
In a special video that's premiering here today, narrated by the veteran journalist Bill Kurtis and funded by the National Press Photographers Association, we'll see and hear the value of professional photojournalism through the eyes of award-winning photojournalists and their editors and publishers. The video was coordinated by Alex Garcia; shot by videographer Mark Anderson; and produced by Gail Brown Hudson.
As for building an actual vocabulary to describe the power of good photojournalism, we started with the responses from 52 people in an research project for NPPA that took place at the University of Minnesota last May. I recorded each exit interview.
Participants in the study had strong ideas about the qualities of a photo and what made it worth publishing. As we reported last week, people in the study could easily tell a professional photograph from amateur photographs, 90 percent of the time.
[A full presentation of this NPPA-funded study will be broadcast on Poynter’s NewsU, Friday, February 13 at 2 p.m. Eastern. To register, please see details at the end of this story.]
To take a cue from a conversation I had with Kenny Irby of The Poynter Institute, we might think of quality along a spectrum.
“It’s interesting to think about this on a continuum of photojournalism, where professional photojournalism is at the top and snapshot photography is at the bottom,” said Irby. “We might ask, is there a place for pro-sumer level—to borrow a metaphor from camera manufacturers—of imagery that falls somewhere in between?”
The distinctions in the following lists are things that photojournalists know, for sure. But it’s interesting to see how the layperson articulates “quality.” Participants came from a variety of backgrounds: a cement worker, housewives, a flight attendant, a school nurse, a statistics grad student, quite a few international students, office workers.
We’ll start with comments about the lower quality, UGC photographs. They weren’t shy when it came to what they didn’t like:
— nothing of interest in that photo to me, personally
— just the backs of heads — just another, every day moment
— just someone smiling at the camera — just a crowd shot — just another snapshot — just a cell phone picture — a line-up of people, rather than a moment — PR pictures
— social media pictures
— too far away from the subject
— cropped funny
— no story to it
— not enough information
“There’s a pretty wide range of news sites out there now. And some of them seem to be pretty desperate.” — 49-year-old male participant
“It kind of crushes credibility. I would be more likely to share something that looked nice, than something that looked like just anyone took it.” — 20-year-old female participant
“There’s a lot of, like, TV stations that say, ‘Hey! Send us pictures from your back yard!” — 52-year-old male participant
“Most of the snapshots, I tended to rate most of those lower, just because I didn’t have a connection to them and I didn’t know enough about them.” — 41-year-old male participant
Now, let’s look at the attributes of the highest quality and characteristics that people said made a photograph worth publishing:
— context, like a sense of place
— they had good access
— tells me a story vs. just capturing a scene
— the right place at the right time — kismet, in terms of the moment
— subject matter that has some currency or relevance
— capturing the exact moment that’s crucial to the action — a perspective I might never see — subject matter is clearly important — can stand alone, without a caption — told a good story
— dramatic, human moments — grabbed my attention
— makes you say “wow”
— something I don’t see very often — I can identify with the subject — people genuinely reacting — I can see what the subject is feeling — natural, un-posed
— clear expressions
— people interacting — you can see the reactions of people
— emotion between people connecting
— bright, crisp, clear
— perfect framing, artfully composed — good lighting, well exposed
— vivid colors — I can see everything, really sharp — clarity of the picture, sharpness
The participants were articulate, and a few of their comments surprised me.
“It’s not that it’s rare … it’s that someone has decided to see it.” — 43-year-old male participant
“(Quality is) something where, even if you’re not there, you can see what everyone was feeling – and what was going on in the picture. There was one photo where everyone jumped on top of the pitcher in one of the baseball games. You could tell it was because they just won a really close game – or the championship game. And, you can imagine yourself being excited for that team, too. — 20-year-old female student who participated in the study.
Next week: You’ll have a chance to look through the 200 photographs to see what photographs were viewed by participants in the test.
Coming Soon: Memorable and sharable: See and hear the comments of test subjects taking about the photographs that stayed with them.
WEBINAR: A full presentation of this study will be broadcast on Poynter’s NewsU, on Friday, February 13 at 2 p.m. Eastern. To register go online to https://www.newsu.org/courses/eyetrack-photo . NPPA members will receive 50 percent off with this code: 15SARA50
ABOUT THE STUDY:
Funded by the National Press Photographers Association, this study follows a long line of research, looking at how people consume news content. Other studies developed by this research team include Poynter’s Eyetracking the News, a comparison of print and online news reading habits (2007) and Poynter EyeTrack: Tablet News Experiences (2012).
This project began when then-NPPA president Mike Borland called early in 2014 to ask what eyetracking had shown about photographs in previous research. There were a few, specific findings, which still hold:
- Documentary photos get more attention than static or posed photographs.
- Faces attract a lot of attention — often they are where eyes go first.
- Mug shots get only a fleeting glance — purely informational, unless there is strong, supporting information in the presentation.
We realized the need to analyze photojournalism in much greater detail, particularly with the changing dynamic of digital and social media.
So that we might look for clear differences in the study, we recruited people in two distinct age sets: 18-30 year olds (a group we have been calling “digital natives” because they are among the first adults who don’t have strong recollection of life before digital) and 45-60 year olds, or “printnets,” referring to those who have one foot in the print world and one foot in the “’Net” world.
NPPA has offered to present specific results and testing methodology with news organizations and universities to help make sense of digital sharing and determine the best forms for storytelling.
In January the NPPA moved into the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia in Athens, their new partner in visual journalism education and leadership.