Having a gutter mentality

OK so it’s a deliberately eye-catching headline and, unfortunately, this blog post is about composing photographs for use in newspapers and magazines rather than anything X-rated. In publishing the ‘gutter’ is the fold or join between the two pages across a spread. It might be pages two and three, four and five or any other combination through thirty-four and thirty-five to the end of the publication. As photographers we have to handle those spreads carefully because there is always a chance that a badly composed or laid out picture can lose a lot of its impact through an important detail disappearing into the gutter. Experienced photographers and thinking photographers always go out of their way to give designers as much flexibility as possible to use their pictures across a spread without losing those important details.

How the pictures look

Here is an example of an image and how it was used. It’s not the greatest picture that I have ever taken but it is a very good example for the purposes of teaching – something I’ve used this picture for many times. You can see where the gutter lies – halfway through and that there is a single column of text on either side of the cropped picture. The designer could easily have laid the page out with two columns of text in white on the darker background or two columns on either the left or right of the spread – they had plenty of choice. That, to a large extent, is because the photograph was shot with design in mind.


Space on either side of the image with interesting but unimportant detail makes this an ideal editorial photograph in terms of composition. It could even have been cropped to a single page vertical if the layout hd called for the. Arguably it would have been a shame, but that’s the way it sometimes goes. You’ll also notice that the designer has taken advantage of a large dark area within the image to run a headline. Purist photographers hate having their work used (and they’d argue abused) in this way but I am happy for it to happen as long as it doesn’t trample the important details that I have mentioned previously. Put simply, shooting pictures more loosely than you might otherwise do nearly always gives designers more options.

When I’m teaching editing and workflow to other photographers I often see them cropping their images to perfection. The fact that those crops rarely coincide with the shape of the page and the fact that even if they did coincide things often change is something that I spend a lot of time talking about. The only times you get to crop your images exactly how you want to see them are in a) your self-published book and b) your portfolio. Photographers that want to get used over and over again by the same clients provide options and that means a range of pictures many of which have a strong element of flexibility about them.

I absolutely love shooting for editorial clients. I also love working for corporate clients who like to use images in an editorial way. That means that I have to think about what the designers and sub-editors might want to do with my pictures every time I have the viewfinder to my eye. When I was first starting out that was one of the steeper learning curves – easily as tough as correctly exposing transparency film and focusing manual lenses. Twenty seven years on, it has become second nature.

From journalism to design and all spaces in between

No matter what you talk about in life there seems to be a scale: left to right, top to bottom, right to wrong. I can now add a new one….journalism to design. These are the two ends of the scale that I exist in as a photographer. At one extreme my work is pure journalism and at the other it’s little more than eye candy.

©Neil Turner. London, June 2009

The pressures that I feel when I’m out working come from both directions, and both sets of pressures come from the newspaper. My instincts are clearly those of a news photographer, but more and more I find that my work is required, judged and edited by designers. This makes me nervous because they wouldn’t ever consider meddling with the written journalism and I sometimes find my pictures being selected on the basis of how well they add to the graphical feel of the page.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for this attitude to pictures in lifestyle magazines, but the success of those magazines has meant that attitude spilling over into newspapers. Daily and weekly papers have always been dominated by the written word and photographs have always had to struggle for their place as an integral part of the journalism. I am fairly convinced that no significant newspaper has ever had a photographer as it’s editor, so it isn’t surprising that words dominate.

The constant changes in “who does what” inside newspapers has lead to the appointment of more and more designers who seem to have become very influential, not only in a design sense but in a more general editorial way too. Photographers are being sidelined by yet another group of workers.

Going back to my left to right argument, there are pages within a newspaper that are predominantly news and there are pages that are rightly about lifestyle. I have no problem with this except where the emphasis becomes blurred and decisions about photographs are made because they make the page look good on pages where the journalistic content should be king. Editorial photography is a far wider field than news photography and I want to be able to shoot in a wide range of styles to suit the whole spectrum, but more and more of my colleagues here in London are feeling the pressure to shoot in a softer, more feature based style all of the time. Don’t get me wrong, I think that great photography is great photography no matter why the pictures were taken and no matter where they are intended to go…but…the hijacking of news pages by people with anything other than journalism in their thoughts has to be resisted.

I strongly believe in giving designers and layout artists greater flexibility so I hope that everyone will realise that I want to meet “the enemy” halfway and not just sit sniping on the sidelines. I just get very depressed when I hear designers and layout people talking about photographs, good photographs as so much “window dressing”. The answer? Appoint more picture literate people to senior positions on newspapers, treat news photography with due respect and never allow photography to become just another element of design