Editing 101: No More of Those “Say Cheese!” Pictures

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 4.22.18 PM

Tom Wolff: “I’m not partial to smiling at the camera.” Photo by Elizabeth Dietz.

In judging a general excellence competition among smaller magazines one of the first things you notice is the parade of people looking at the camera and smiling. You can picture the photographer lining them up, asking for the smiles, and clicking.

It can happen so easily probably because it’s the kind of family pictures most people takeā€”and want.

In my early days at the Washingtonian, we got too many of those pictures and it became clear that many photographers figured it was the easiest, safest picture to take. And, yes, there are times when it does make sense to keep it simple but at the very least the photographer can ask the subjects to talk to one another and not just smile for the camera.

We found that most photographers were happy to try different approaches if we let them know something of what the story was about and we made clear we wanted something more interesting than smiling faces. We did find, the hard way, that it worked best if we said, “Take a few safe pictures but also give us some pictures that might be more interesting.”

The best people photographer we had in my time at the Washingtonian was Tom Wolff. Here’s how he says he did it.

“I think I decide about the gaze of the sitter by aesthetics. Do they look interesting from this angle or that. I don’t like to use a tripod. Sometimes I’ll ask them to look at something, say a picture on the wall, then I’ll move around them. The photographer should always be chattering, like a magician and his patter. If you go silent the shoot is going down hill. I’m not partial to people smiling at the camera and try to avoid that. I would never tell them not do do that. I just try to work through that.”
One other striking thing looking at smaller magazines is how weak the picture captions are. That’s worth a longer post, and the truth is that plenty of bigger magazines also don’t take advantage of the power of photo captions to entice readers into a story.


  1. Picture caption is more important then picture. There are many magazines they don’t follow that rules and fail to attempt the attention of people. Nice post.

Speak Your Mind