Written by Photography

Guardian Eyewitness

At Christmas, one of the nicest presents I got was a copy of a new Guardian book – Eyewitness Decade. The book featured photographs taken from The Guardian’s daily doublepage photospread – Eyewitness. Except that the Eyewitness feature only began in 2005 when The Guardian changed from a broadsheet size to a Berliner format. This slightly shrunken broadsheet format, along with all the sections not being packed within the main book’s pages meant that there was a double page spread available each day. And that was the spread that ended up being Eyewitness.
Earlier this evening the editor of that book, Roger Tooth, head of photography at The Guardian, and David Levene one of the paper’s photographers, gave an illustrated lecture at the National Portrait Gallery.
Tooth explained that the day after 9/11, The Guardian received 2,000 photographs. A year later, on its anniversary, that number shot up to 3,000. Last Monday – the day after the Oscars – The Guardian’s computer system received 29,750 photos. And even on an average day, it gets 15,000, all of which have to be at least scanned.
The pair explained that there are number of things that need to be taken into consideration when picking a shot for Eyewitness. They like most of the photos to be in focus yet retain a sense of depth. No “muzziness” as Tooth put it. The reader tends to see the photograph quite close up, and they prefer to find lots of details, in focus, to look at. Levene said that as a result, most of the photos they publish are quite wide, with 24mm or even 16mm being normal.
The shape of the page in comparison with the shape of images in the camera needs to be considered. The paper’s size means that it’s slightly squarer than the tradition 3:2 ratio for photographs. That means when the shots are being composed, a little detail will be lost at the left and right hand edges.
A fair few of the photographs we saw were quite grim. When the paper was full of darker news, the editor sometimes asks for a lighter Eyewitness photo. Other times, a photo can actually lead to follow up stories. The example given was the a photo of some babies covered in flies during flooding in Pakistan.
Levene showed us some of his tilt-shift photography pictures including the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo. However, these are now considered to be “very 2010” and are “banned” from the paper.
At times Levene talked about some of the assignments he’d been on around the world, including a trip to Vegas to photograph the World Series of Poker. But the underlying fact that this no longer really happened. Money is tighter, and expensive photographic assignments are fewer.
We saw some great landscape photos, although it’s necessary to put a human into them to demonstrate scale. And then there are the “Where’s Wally” photos. These are the pictures that feature many people, each of which a reader can look at in detail in the paper.
Other interesting photos included a Levene photo of the members queuing outside Lords before a Test match, and a terrific photomontage that a work experience student submitted taken on London Underground escalators (although Belinda Lawley, who made the excellent image, seems to be a filmaker).
The Guardian regularly uses photographs from NASA, and there was a discussion about whether pictures of Shuttle launches and the inside of a Spitfire’s cockpit were in fact “boys'” pictures.
Towards the end there were a number of questions about things like the need to get permission (you don’t need it in a public place, although The Guardian’s code of conduct demands permission for imagery of children), the size of the images (12-14MB minimum, but more likely to be 30-60MB), and the rules surrounding retouching. Interestingly, while some basic colour correction, and dodging and burning is permissable, even something as simple as correcting straight lines as a result of distortion caused by a lens is a big no-no. Levene prefers to use medium format cameras if getting straight lines is an issue. HDR is also not allowed.
Someone in the audience asked if it was possible to get more technical data about the photos. But agencies tended to strip that kind of information out, and only photos from The Guardian’s own photographers could supply that kind of information. That became an issue when The Guardian launched its iPad application as the developers were hoping to provide that data.
There was only the very briefest discussion about audio slideshows and even video, which all DSLR cameras can now provide. But you got the feeling that while Levene is a fan, Tooth isn’t.
The one thing I wished I’d asked was about the size of images that are made available on The Guardian’s website. If you follow any of the links I’ve included in this piece, the pictures are disappointingly small. You can’t really see the scale of pictures. It’s a shame that The Guardian is unable to provide larger photos like those that The Boston Globe publishes in its The Big Picture feature. I know that the fear is that photos will be pirated, but even reproducing photos on the web at the same resolution as they appear on the iPad would be very welcome.
Anyway, all in all a thoroughly fascinating talk.