How to take photos like a pro: A new visual dictionary

Reporting with photographs isn’t so different to putting a story together with words, writes photojournalist Guilio Saggin.

When I joined ABC News Online as their photo editor in 2007 I was asked to give reporters some advice on how to take photos. I wondered how I would compress 20+ years experience into a presentation.

Two quotes came to mind – “a photo tells a thousand words” and “a picture shows something, a photo tells a story”. Using these quotes as a guide, it made sense that, if a photo did tell a thousand words i.e. a story, then it would use the same tools as writing.

While I’d probably always subconsciously known it, when I began deconstructing photos I realised they were visual stories structured in the same way as written stories. They both used grammar (verbs, especially), included all the necessary information, found an angle, avoided messy copy, included a human element … the list went on and on.

I set about constructing a presentation – using visual examples – to show this, and when ABC reporters viewed my presentation, they loved it. Photography was being translated into a language they could understand and it made perfect sense to them.

Anything done well looks easy and a good news story is no exception. The same applies to a news photo. My presentation wasn’t going to turn journalists into photographers. I was happy to get them to a level where they could go on a job and, at the very least, send me the bones of a photo I could bang into shape. I was looking at this from a news angle.

During my nine years with ABC News Online, many reporter photos came across my desk (appeared on my screen). Often I looked at them and thought, “If only”. These are a few of the “if only” issues that needed to be worked on:

Find an angle

LtoR This visual story needs an angle to liven it up and bring meaning to it. Finding that angle –and including the facts  means the visual story is far more interesting.

This visual story needs an angle to liven it up and bring meaning to it. Finding that angle –and including the facts means the visual story is far more interesting.


All stories have a point – an angle – otherwise it’s a boring collection of words, written or spoken. We see life at eye level, so photographers try as much as possible to find an angle – crouch, sit, stand on something – to make the point of view more interesting for the viewer. If you can’t move your subject, move yourself.

Add the human element

Pouring rain looks good but is made more interesting with the addition of people “running for their lives”.

Pouring rain looks good but is made more interesting with the addition of people “running for their lives”.


News stories have quotes. News photos have people. We, as humans, are interested when we see other humans. Rain pouring from the sky during a downpour can look good but someone running through pouring rain with no umbrella adds interest. We can emphathise – or laugh – because we have all been there.

Use exciting ‘copy’

Left-to-right: This is not exciting “visual copy”. It's a glorified passport photo. In less than 30 seconds, the photo has been transformed into something far more interesting.

Left-to-right: This is not exciting “visual copy”. It’s a glorified passport photo. In less than 30 seconds, the photo has been transformed into something far more interesting.


The best way to get exciting copy into your visual story is to get your subject doing something. This usually means getting the hands to do something. There is nothing worse than seeing hands hanging by someone’s side.

Hold your camera right

The point of this visual story is the stalls and the people, not the top and bottom of the frame. Making this visual story horizontal includes far more information.

The point of this visual story is the stalls and the people, not the top and bottom of the frame. Making this visual story horizontal includes far more information.


Smartphones and other hand-held devices are designed to be held vertically, so people instinctively turn them around and take a vertical image. Instinct or not, we live in a horizontal world. We scan the horizon “left to right” and not “up and down”, the same as a street, a room, a football field, a flood … the list goes on. Our TVs and movie screens are horizontal for a reason. A well-taken photo and a well-written story are devoid of useless information. Most vertical images show the relevant visual information in the centre of the frame, with useless information filling the top and bottom of the frame.

My presentation has been turned into a book (ebook and hardcover) with over 100 photos showing good and the not-so-good examples. It won’t show you all the tricks of the trade. Instead, think of it as the first gear in a car. It gets the wheels rolling.

And all these techniques should be applied to every photo you take. Whether it be on the job, at a party, on holiday, or walking down the street, a photo that tells a story is far more interesting than a picture that merely shows something.

This will result in you being more confident the next time you rush out the door on a news job and a voice behind you shouts, “send us a photo!”

Giulio Saggin is the former photo editor with ABC News Online and author of You, The Citizen Photographer: Telling Visual Stories.