What makes a truly great image?

06 May 2015
File photo of a man rinsing soot from his face at the scene of a gas pipeline explosion near Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos

REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Reuters pictures service and our recent widely published packages of the most iconic pictures from the past three decades can be viewed here part onepart two and part three.  But as important as it is to look back proudly at our work, it’s more important to look forward.

“Photography is dead,” a professor once told a photography class I attended decades ago. He was an artist by background and he truly believed that everything that could be photographed had been already. His words sparked a debate at the time but, thankfully, did not prove prophetic.

What he failed to see was that computers and digital photography, which then existed only on a small scale, would radically change our industry. Children can now take photographs before they can read or write. Technology has made photography accessible to all, not just skilled professionals with expensive equipment. Images have become the only real international language.

Now a new phrase has emerged – “journalism is dying.” However, as with my professor, these doomsayers too are wrong: the decline of paper-and-ink media does not mean the death of journalism. If anything, the demand for information has risen.

While the Internet has grown crowded with bloggers and citizen reporters, the ability to spew sentences does not make someone a journalist any more than a mobile phone with a Leica lens and Instagram filters makes them a photojournalist. There will always be a role for quality journalists and picture providers trained in the art of balanced and accurate storytelling.

For this reason, I contend that journalism – including photojournalism – is alive and well and more widespread than ever. If anything, the crisper and more sophisticated displays on smartphones, tablets and computers have increased the clamour for quality images.

At Reuters Pictures, we are dedicated to covering global breaking news, quickly, accurately and to the highest possible standard. It is what we have always done, and what we continue to do. But the industry is indeed changing rapidly, which means we need to go further. When news breaks, our photographers not only compete with other news outlets, but also with images on social media. These may not be as sharp or as reliable, but they can certainly be as fast.

Meanwhile, news organisations, which make up the bulk of our clientele, are facing their own problems. Sharp declines in advertising and subscription revenue have forced cost cuts, and yet they still face pressure to provide ever-more content for a hungry online audience.

With less money, fewer journalists and more rivals, our clients are searching for images that make them stand out – which is where we come in. So what, in an era awash with selfies and seascapes, makes a truly great image?

Skill, trust, curation & reach

For Reuters, a great picture is one that triggers an emotional response. It is highly aesthetic and striking. It creates an emotional attachment to the subject or captures the essence of an event. It’s unadulterated fact. This is what makes an image stand out in the endless stream of pictures available to our clients.

Images with these elements have the potential to win awards, or to become part of the handful of iconic images that outlive their time and appear again and again. It is true that some great pictures are the product of blind luck. But the vast majority of the time, it is the most technically skilled, creative, ethical and intelligent photographer who captures that image. The Reuters wire is full of such images because Reuters Pictures is full of such photographers.

Take Gleb Garanich’s recent coverage from Ukraine. A powerful set of images by a skilled photojournalist documenting the realities of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Only an accomplished journalist can produce a portfolio like this. Such images cannot be created by a bystander with a camera phone.

People look at the remains of a rocket shell on a street in the town of Kramatorsk

REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

The second and equally important ingredient we offer is trust. The Reuters Trust Principles are core to the Pictures team. We stand firmly against digital manipulation of images, filters and gimmicks. Our pictures stand out because they can be trusted. We use all our journalistic skills to protect clients and consumers from becoming victims of hoaxes, propaganda and false information.

So, what else do we offer clients? We offer them a filter. Photo editors face a welter of images each day – often over 20,000 pictures from various outlets. Through coding and curation, we help them find the best and most importantly, through the Wider Image, those that tell a unique story.

The Wider Image is the umbrella for our long-form, high-quality, story-telling photojournalism. It draws on our worldwide network of photographers, challenging them to think beyond the news, to capture images that illustrate global trends on a local scale. We combine these with text or video and offer them to clients as packages and to consumers via mobile apps and the Internet.

Another advantage is our global reach.

In this well received picture package we asked photographers around the globe to shoot images of oil barrels that had been repurposed and were being used in new contexts.  This offered a glimpse of vastly different usages and locales, from a motorbike sidecar in Japan and a jockey training aid in Panama to a makeshift BBQ in Brazil. Great, creative pictures that illustrate the volatile oil price in a way that only a global news organization like Reuters could produce.


Sadao Kimbara rides on a Honda motorcycle with a sidecar he made out of an oil barrel as his grandson Rui smiles in the sidecar in Ome, outskirts of Tokyo

REUTERS/Toru Hanai

The success of the Wider Image does not mean we are done future-proofing Reuters Pictures. If anything, it demonstrates the adaptability and agility required in a shifting media landscape. We will carry on evolving and finding new ways to help our clients, and Reuters, stand out.


Reinhard Krause

Global Pictures Editor



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