How to take great news photos & get published – 9 tips from Chuck Zoeller of AP

betty ming liu Food, Writing how-to's 21 Comments

If you want to be a photojournalist — or just wish your photos had a more exciting, newsy edge — meet Chuck Zoeller. For the past 24 years, he’s been in the center of things at the Associated Press, the world’s largest and oldest news-gathering organization.

Founded in 1846, the AP has a global news team of 3,700 that includes 200 staff photographers and a network of freelancers. More than 1,000 American media organizations pay an annual AP membership fee for the right to publish AP stories, pictures, audio and video as material for their own readers, listeners and viewers.

Chuck started at the AP as a photo editor. Then he went on to run its photo archives, which contain about…10 million photos (!).

Now Chuck is creative services director, a job which involves promoting the AP brand of photojournalism via new exhibits, books, videos and lectures.

Here he is, during a recent visit with my very lucky NYU students at our East Village classroom.

We were impressed when Chuck told us that in terms of photos alone, the AP transmits thousands of pictures every single day. He shared some of the most famous shots during an eight-minute slide show — from scenes of wars and mayhem to light celebrity moments. Then he went on to give us advice on taking pictures, photojournalism ethics and how to pitch photos for publication at the AP.

So here’s the scoop from Chuck…

How to take a news photo

1) RULE OF THIRDS is a classic design element that composes a shot by breaking the visuals  into thirds. In the first photo below, Aaron Favila spotted this boy in the Philippines, wading through water after a shanty town fire. The boy is off center with the remaining two-thirds of the frame pretty vacant. The result: more visual interest in the subject — the boy.

But Chuck also says: “The Rule of Thirds is so classic that if you always stick to it, it gets boring.” To mix things up, break the rule. Sometimes, putting the subject in dead center, or at the extreme edge of the frame, works even better. Case in point with our second photo here — Rob Carr’s shot of a woman walking through Hurricane Katrina’s destruction.

2) BLURRED FIGURES can convey action, urgency and drama. Check out how Ted Warren made this picture work by slowing the shutter speed. Effective blurring is often overlooked as a technique.

But Chuck also says that “blurring can be tricky to execute well.”

3) A HORIZON LINE is an old school approach of making sure the background is a solid horizontal. To get the horizon line, hold the camera level and keep it as straight as possible.

But Chuck says that “there’s a saying: ‘If you can’t take a good picture, take a crooked one.’ Used well, it can be an effective composition technique.” (Beware, though. A gimmicky, tilted photo can be a crutch.) Consider these two views below of Hillary Rodham Clinton during her Monday press conference on WikiLeaks. Evan Vucci took both shots; only one truly grabs our attention.

4) NATURAL LIGHT is preferable. In the next two photos, consider the first shot by Aliosha Marquez, which makes good use of available light in covering the arrest of this murder suspect. By finding light from other sources and avoiding the use of flash on the camera, the picture conveys more of the ambient scene; there’s a sense of the setting.

Still, flash can help when it’s really dark. The second shot here was taken at night and AP staffer Apichart Weerawong had no choice but to use flash. The result was a hard, harsh light along with a bright foreground and a too-dark background.

But Chuck also says that sometimes, ”flash will bring something extra to a shot,” like the edgy feeling that is typical of crime scene photography. Ironically, Chuck notes that flash is actually most helpful in bright sunlight. For instance, it can gently fill in harsh shadows if a person’s face is partially shaded.”

Photojournalism ethics:

These days, everyone uses photo editing tools — from pricey, software packages like Photoshop to free, fun online sites like But don’t mess with a news photo.

6) The content of a news photo can NOT be altered in any way. To do so crosses the line. When you start adding or subtracting elements, then you’re into fabricating images and your credibility goes to zero,” Chuck says.

7) Avoid heavily saturating a news photo with color. The results might be glamorous, but they’re not true to the moment.

8) Crop news photos with care. Beware of framing a shot that lies. It’s pretty easy to make a close-up of 10 screaming people look like a mob. But if that’s not what happened, you have to capture the facts, maybe from a further distance.

My students had a bunch of questions about the subjectivity of picture-taking. Chuck explains: Yes, cropping or framing a photo selectively can be used to deceive or mislead the viewer. “But at least the photo is still presenting a scene that existed,” he says.

In the end, it’s all about the photographer’s eye — and integrity. “The way you frame and compose a photo takes editorial judgement,” Chuck notes. “You’re trying to convey the story as objectively as possible, and still make it visually compelling.”

Pitching & getting published:

9) The AP might be interested in your photos if they’re either newsworthy or celebrity-snazzy. The type of camera you use doesn’t matter; it’s all about content. Consider these two iconic 9/11 shots. They were taken with a basic digital point-and-shoot number by Carmen Taylor, a tourist from Arkansas. She was on a Staten Island ferry boat just as the second plane hit the South Tower.

Key words: “newsworthy,” or “celebrity.” Breaking news is the top priority. This is defined as fires, explosions, crashes, crime scenes, etc.

But…if you happen to see Taylor Swift at the laundromat, that could work too. Warning: Chuck says the AP tries to avoid staking out celebs “and other hardcore paparazzi tactics. In all cases, photographers should act professionally, and should not misrepresent themselves as ‘shooting for the AP.’”

And remember, the AP is “licensing” your photo for a fee rather than “buying” it. The standard rate is $125 but anything goes for remarkable photos. (Btw, in case you’re you’re wondering, no — Chuck didn’t mention what the AP paid for these two 9/11 pictures.)

9) The actual pitch, step-by-step

  • Make your photo “wire ready.” That means you’re ready to share it, right now.
  • Next: call the AP’s New York Metro photo desk at 212.621.1902. If you’re outside of NYC, check the AP’s website for a local AP bureau. If there is none, ring the main New York number: 212.621.1900.
  • If the editors are interested, they’ll want to see your photo first. You’ll probably be asked to e-mail it to the desk before they commit to a payment.
  • If your photo is a go, you’ll be asked to sign what’s sometimes called a “walk-in” agreement. It spells out the specific terms and any resale rights.

Thanks, Chuck!

We met 30 years (!) ago at what was a first journalism job for each of us. As rookies, we covered lots of stories together. Then in 1983, he did me a huge favor by taking my wedding pics. The students got a kick out of these ancient photos. But he couldn’t bring himself to look at them until after class, while the two of us were at lunch.

No one was around to watch as he flipped through his early work, shots he hadn’t seen in 27 years. His critique? “Not bad,” he decided. Here are two of Chuck’s photos. One of my moms and me, another of a waiter with our Peking duck:

And here’s a photo of what Chuck looked like when he took these shots. Too bad I can’t show you the whole album of both my ceremony and the 12-course traditional Chinese wedding banquet. Even after a decade of divorce, the photos still make me smile.  :)


Comments 21

  1. Enjoyed Chuck’s visit, especially when he talked about the legitimacy of photos. Personally, the best tip I ever had about photography is that the best camera is the one you have with you. Whether that’s a phone or a DSLR makes no difference. Take the shot when you can.

  2. Tip 3! You always see this strategy in the papers, though until now I could never quite figure out how they make someone just standing there at a podium look interesting. (Let’s pretend the slant was an “accident.”)

  3. I’m taking a photojournalism class at NYU next semester, so I’ll be coming back to look this over. Chuck’s visit to class was very insightful and was part of the reason why I chose to register for the class. I’ll be posting up the photos I take, so you don’t have to unsubscribe to me after this semester ends Betty!

  4. Post

    chuck’s visit was so good for all of us! these days, everyone’s taking pictures. we need to know camera basics. chuck’s photo examples here make this post a great resource. thanks, chuck! and thanks to my class for asking so many smart, thoughtful questions during his visit. :)

    yes, madeline — the marriage but be over but the wedding album is forever. i guess i still like the pictures because my ex- and i get along very well (now). it’s nice that we do share some good memories, along with a beautiful child.

  5. Betty, it’s as though this post was made for me! I’ve always wanted to shoot for the AP. Do you think Chuck would be willing to look at my portfolio to see if I’ve got what it takes?

    Totally sweet wedding photos — your dresses are beautiful, and of course who wouldn’t love the peking duck waiter?!

  6. Hi Betty — it’s like this post was made for me! I’ve always wanted to shoot for the AP. Do you think Chuck would take a look at my portfolio and see if I have what it takes?

    I love your dresses, and of course the Peking duck waiter.

  7. Betty was a beautiful bride, and she’s barely changed in 30 years! Also, for the record, she was waaaay ahead of the foodie curve when it came to photographing meals. I’ve been doing it ever since.

    Great class, not that I expected anything less; thanks for having me. I especially liked seeing the students’ photos. And sure Laura, I’d be happy to look at your portfolio.


  8. Post

    thanks, gerry — you’re always so supportive. and laura — aren’t you lucky that chuck’s gonna look at your work. i love it that these comments are turning into a real conversation!

    chuck, i can’t thank you enough for helping me out with my class..and for the compliments. it really fun having you visit with us. and who knows, someday i might be a beautiful bride again. haha. :)

  9. Betty,

    Wonderful information you are sharing and the example photos make it easy to understand. I just hope your students have an inkling of how lucky they are.

    And you in that wedding photo? Priceless!

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    ooooh, laura, let’s see if chuck answers your comment. and joel, thanks– i’m so lucky that chuck provided the ap photos. not every blogger has access to the ap archives.

    i’m going to start posting more journalism stuff for my classes. it’s hard to find textbooks that cover things the way i want so i usually don’t assign one. but if i post my own learning materials here, everyone’s happy — my students save money and i get traffic!

    btw, the price of required texts is becoming a real problem…$100 per book is ghastly. my friend pat winters lauro, who is a journalism prof, just blogged about the issue. here’s the link to her blog:

  11. hi Laura and Betty,

    I had a pretty busy week, and finally had a chance to sit down with Laura’s photos. I’m going to comment re the wordpress blog,

    which I think is wonderfully well written, but I’m a visual person, so what do I know? Let’s talk photos.

    I was immediately impressed by the range of images and relatively exotic situations. Laura is not just shooting the tourist stuff; a lot of this is the real deal. The other thing I noticed right away is that many of the people in the photos are looking directly at the camera, which is a little jarrring if you’re expecting traditional “candid” photojournalism. That’s not a criticism; I just want to point out that traditionally in news/documentary photography, the subjects don’t acknowledge the camera — it’s as if the photographer is not there. Laura has a body of work, though, where the eye contact works and makes some very effective portraits. Diane Arbus did OK with this too.

    Let me cite some examples from the blog. The most successful photos, I think, are the ones where the subject stands out, with few distracting elements. The very first photo, a full length photo of a man with a turban, is an example. A relatively straightforward portrait, but a clean background. Also, I think it is shot from a slightly low angle, which helps separate him a little from the foliage in the background.

    Now drop down to the fourth photo, some military guys standing together with rifles. Much the same type of photo, and I like the fact that although they’re posed, they’re standing from foreground to background, so you get a feeling of depth. That roofline at the top right sort of reinforces the diagonal effect. Some distracting elements are starting to creep in — a telephone pole over the middle guy’s shoulder, and some structures and vehicles in the background — but not too bad; your eye still goes to the man in the foreground first, so it works.

    Next photo down, two women standing together, I really like it for many of the same reasons, and you’re in a little closer, which is good. I like that the woman in foreground seems very comfortable and is casually handling something; it’s not a stiff protrait. I might crop just a tiny bit off the right side to get rid of that lavender dress in the background; that really cleans it up I think, even if it means cropping slightly into the arm.

    Next photo down, a boy standing with a basket on his head. A good subject, but here we have a lot of distractions in the background Cars, buildings, signs, and a man sitting partially behind a wall. In addition, the lighting is wrong on this one, the background is in bright sunlight, and the boy is effectively in shadow. As a general rule, the eye is drawn to the brightest part of the photo (although I’ll point out an exception to this rule later). In this case, the boy gets lost in all the other elements. Same goes for the last photo in this Portraits section, the man sitting in a car. He’s sitting in shadow, and my eye keeps wanting to go to that white van all the way in the background.

    Now, the Sister Cities photos.
    No portraits in this section; these are little more in the classic photojournalism vein, with some nice moments. Here, again, I’d like to see a little more separation of the subject from the background. The first two photos here, the woman with popcorn, have a lot of depth of field, meaning everything’s in focus, from foreground to background. That sounds like a good thing, but it makes it hard for the subject to stand out. The rage in photojournalism lately is mimimal depth of field: get the subject in sharp focus, and let the background drop away to a blur, more-or-less. You can buy expensive super-wide-aperture lenses to do this, or you can be resourceful with the equipment you have. In these first two photos of Sister Cities, there are lots of people and other distractions in the background. I’d like to get in closer to subject, because depth of field is also a function of distance from the subject, not just the aperture of the lens. Get in tighter, make the woman more dominant in the photo, and work with the lens aperture wide open, or close to it. You should find the background getting softer and less distracting. In that second photo, I’d really like to see something shot in close, from a slighlty low angle. The woman’s face and arm in the air could really stand out in that photo.

    Speaking of camera angles, I like the photo of the man throwing flowers from the rocks, and I don’t mind the buildings in the background, but I do wish the camera angle had been lower, so that the man, and especially the flowers, had the sky behind them. As it is here, the flowers are a little lost in the background.

    Last but not least, the Photographic Portfolio section. There’s enough material here for a graduate seminar, but I’ll focus on a few key points.

    Second photo, two girls standing in front of a blackboard. We have a winner. The expressions, the lighting and the composition all work, and check out the way one girl is holding the other’s hand. It’s really a wonderfiul portrait. All the surrounding elements, the desks and chairs, and the writing on the blackboard add to the ambience, and don’t distract. In fact, the desks lead your eye right into the subject, which is great.

    Next photo down, students at their desks. I like the way Laura framed the photo to include the walls and part of the ceiling, again giving a sense of place. As an option, I would maybe like to see what would happen if the camera was closer to the boy the front left, say, so that he was prominent in the foreground, and the rest of the students were in the background, giving the photo a more dominant subject. Still, I like feel of Laura’s photo.

    Two more photos down, two boys standing at a desk. Another home run for me. I love the body language, the ambient light, and the fact that Laura was close to the subject. There’s a sense of intimacy here. Remember how I said the eye goes to the brightest part of the photo? The light blasting through that window could be a distraction, but here it’s a great source of natural light that gives beautiful lighting and separation to the sides of the boys’ faces. And there’s just enough reflected light on the front of their faces so that their eyes and other features are not in complete shadow. Really well executed.

    Moving through the hospital photos, I’m looking at this as a package. In a classical photo essay, you would probably have a slightly broader range of photos, from wide shots establishing the location, to tight photos of subjects’ faces, and a variety of mid-range shots, which most of these are. Also, in a text book example, you probably wouldn’t have the woman burn victim looking at the camera, but that said, it remains a powerful photo, and in this context, it’s effective. The thing that inpresses me about this hospital series is that Laura got access and made some very strong images.

    In general, I think Laura’s work displays sensitivity to the subject, and conveys the dignity of the people she photographs. And any criticisms I’ve made are minor in light of the fact that she’s out there making some real photos. I applaud the effort and the results. I hope she keeps shooting and writing.

    Thanks for sharing in such a public forum!


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