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Learning Photography Tips from Pulitzer Prize Photographs

written by: Steve Graham•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 2/24/2010

Pulitzer Prize photographs can teach photographers a lot. For example, many beginning photographers try to shoot a whole scene or event when something really focused gets the job done better. Also, it's sometimes more about emotion than capturing the news.

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    Study, study, study

    The most common advice for writers is to read, read, read. By studying the work of others, most writers can improve their own craft.

    The same goes for photographers. Studying award-winning photos will help you improve your photos. For photojournalists and family photographers alike, Pulitzer Prize photographs can help improve your photos.

    I’m not saying you’ll win a Pulitzer if you just imitate other Pulitzer Prize photographs. You also must be in the right place at the right time when major news breaks (and it doesn’t hurt to work for a major newspaper or wire service). Having said that, you can improve your photos and maybe land better assignments, or just get more memorable images.

    Due to copyright considerations, I can’t show the Pulitzer Prize photographs, but visit the Pulitzer site to see the images.

    Here are four important lessons from Pulitzer Prize photographs that can improve your photos.

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    1. Capture something unusual

    The Pulitzer Prize photograph in 2007 was a single image of a female Jewish settler pushing back against a group of Israeli security officers in riot gear. She was protecting settlers’ homes in a West Bank town.

    The typical images of the clash involved young men throwing stones at officers on horseback. Associated Press photographer, Oded Balilty, found something different and unusual to capture.

    Whether shooting the kids’ soccer game or a local protest, look for the unusual image and improve your photos. Instead of trying to shoot a whole march, look for one person who might be exhausted and sitting on the sidelines of the event.

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    2. Look for tiny, compelling details

    The Dallas Morning News staff captured the Pulitzer Prize photograph in 2005 with a collection of images from Hurricane Katrina. The disaster was clearly the story of the year, and most photographers captured heartbreaking images of the widespread destruction and misery. However, I believe tighter images of small details earned the Pulitzer. One of the best images is a close-up shot of a man’s feet with his makeshift shoes of torn cardboard and rubber bands.

    Improve your photos by looking for such small details. A photo of a burned charred keepsake can tell the story of a house fire just as well as a photo of the burning home.

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    3. Get close to the action

    Capturing the small moments means getting close to the action. In 1997, the Pulitzer Prize photograph was Annie Wells’ photo of a firefighter rescuing a girl from raging floodwaters. The overhead angle suggests Wells was close to the same raging waters. Of course, she ran the risk of losing her camera and taking a firefighter’s time to rescue an overeager photographer.

    The most recent Pulitzer Prize photograph also was the work of a brave photographer who put the image above his personal safety. He captured a wounded (and even more gutsy) Japanese videographer who was injured in a bloody clash between troops and protesters in Myanmar.

    You don’t have to risk your life to improve your photos. Just get yourself close to the action. For example, at city council sessions or other public meetings, don’t be afraid to get up really close to a speaker (without seriously disrupting the event) and get a better photo.

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    4. Show emotion

    Getting close to the action sometimes feels like an invasion of privacy, but that can be necessary to improve your photos and capture a compelling image. The Rocky Mountain News shot Pulitzer Prize photographs in 1999 during and after the tragedy at Columbine High School. The two best photos show the extremes of emotion on April 20, 1999. One shows two students overwhelmed with grief, and the other shows a group of students hugging with joy after finding a surviving friend.

    Both are close, tight images, but the students were less concerned about an invasive photographer than the tragedy unfolding at their high school.

    Again, you can improve your photos by capturing honest emotion. This also applies to home snapshot photography. I would rather see the thrill and anticipation of a child opening a gift than a posed photo of the kid holding up his toy.