Small screen framing

Display sizes, like on phones and wearable devices, and social sharing have changed how we we craft, edit and publish photography


The inherent power of visual communication techniques — like photographic communication — lies in its ability to emotionally connect with its audience. Technological trends have shrunk screen sizes and demanded more and more choices. With the ubiquitous nature of on-the-go, small screen viewing in photo sharing services such as Flickr and Instagram, it is not uncommon to see grids of photographs crammed side-by-side, squeezed into squares barely the size of your finger tip.

Have you ever thought about what goes into composing a image that is both readable and powerful on a small screen? It’s hard. Additionally, professional photographers don’t only create pretty pictures — they’re charged with constructing complex, layered narratives. Working within the digital landscape, what’s the new balance between accepting the medium and making a good photo?

James Chudley wrote a mini-manifesto on the topic in his book, The Usability of Web Photos, which discusses the impact of photos on the web and what now constitutes a good photo. In short, a photo must clearly display its content, be credible, communicate its message, evoke a response and help the user in their task.

That is an awful lot to ask of a small Instagram photo when you think about how much of our photographic comsumption habits have shifted to viewing, sharing and publishing to small screens.

With modern phone (or smaller) display sizes, photographers lose the ability to rely on the audience capability to even see the details, let alone notice them. They have to ensure the color or subject is striking or large enough displayed with absolute clarity. They must make a photo attract a great amount in interest with a minimal number of pixels.

This Fall, my Medill School interactive innovation capstone course worked with Knight Lab to design a tool (Pitcha) to optimize the visual display of combinations of photographs. We talked with a few professionals about how they approach making pictures for small screens, about the difference between professional and amateur shooters, and the future of the photo storytelling.

On making a picture:

Photo by Ferran Jordà

As one would imagine, photography for professionals goes far beyond simply clicking a button. Multiple photographers distinguished between taking a picture and making a picture.

Most photographers reported that there was a slight distinction between how they normally shot — which involved an interplay of moment, light, scenery and composition — and how they shot for smaller photos. Making a career entirely out of visual means, after all, means they have to be hyperaware of how their final product will look, size included.

The main difference was that photographers looked for simpler, more striking subjects rather than focusing on the picture as a whole. Most reported shooting certain photos with Instagram and their website in mind, while one even stated that he knew certain photos would end up on social media and he tended to take those on his mobile device.

Said photographer Phil Moore:

“I frame things somewhat differently when I’m shooting with my phone, as opposed to my more “traditional” cameras: I often use it during quieter moments (and don’t think I have ever filed a phone picture to an assignment) and am conscious of the fact that the smaller screen upon which the final image will be used (my iPhone pictures only ever really end up on Instagram or occasionally Facebook/Twitter). I therefore tend to veer more towards bolder subjects, where one element stands out in the frame.”

This process echoes aforementioned Chudley’s advice on displaying content clearly — when they know they can’t show much in a frame, photographers simply don’t try to.

Erin Mystkowski, photo editor at the Chicago Tribune, had similar advice to offer for reporters going into the field to shoot knowing the final product would be viewed on a mobile, stating:

“You always have to keep the viewer in mind. Because we take a photo and send it to desktop, tablet, mobile, social media and print, it’s best to stay flexible in terms of how you shoot. Don’t adhere to purist methods like no cropping and strict horizontal compositions.”

On professional vs. amateur:

Photo by AshtonPal

Nowadays, when everyone is a photographer and can share their work, we were interested in what professional photographers considered — well, professional.

Can someone who takes great photos only on an iPhone claim to have mastered the art? Can someone who only shares their work over overly-saturated social media claim to be making an effort to tell a story? Is thinking anything else elitist or just maintaining standards?

On a surface level, many stuck to the practical definition that ‘professional’ meant a person who earned their living from photography. Few, however, ascribed the financial aspect as indicative of quality.

The esteem photographers held for others had little to do with which equipment or publishing platform they used, so much as their use of the medium.

“I’ve seen amateur photographers take some amazing pictures, and some professionals do really awful work,” said Ben Lowy.

What this means, of course, is that talent lies everywhere, even with those who don’t have the means to showcase their work in a more formal manner. Social media may be a crowded outlet, but it is an outlet nonetheless, and no less legitimate for it. After all, the point of a photo is to be seen, and social media reaches a vast and varied audience.

On shooting for the small screen

Another dimension, of course, is the very issue of the sheer reach of social media and for photographers that is Instagram and Flickr. How can we disparage mediums with huge reach and require minimal effort or training?

Everyone is on the social media bandwagon. National Geographic, with its ~10 million followers, publishes tons of photos to its Instagram daily, all high quality and all tell important stories.

National Geographi’s Insagram overview

The paradox is, of course, that even in my personal experience, I can be stunned by a photo from a professional news outlet, then scroll down two seconds later and have my attention completely focused on a friend’s photo of last night’s tequila shots.

Are we cheapening stories by conceding, through the medium in which they’re told, that they warrant the minimal, most casual level of attention? If so, what does that mean for those who invest weeks, months or even years into immersing themselves into subjects’ lives to do justice to a story?

In terms of the due social media gives a certain topic, quantity may be valued over quality, and this has troubling implications for one of the primary aims of journalism, which is to make lasting impacts through on-the-ground work.

On the future of photography:

Much like the general sphere of journalism, even experts are unsure of the future of the field. Mystkowski saw potential, but also the need for certain restrictions to be placed on photography as it continues along this trajectory.

“Since documenting the world around us is so common, it’s pushing the boundaries of in terms of access in photojournalism. However we still need to uphold all the ethics that we’ve formerly applied historically. For example, this means only using Hipstamatic or other filters when it’s appropriate, but going with the unaltered for news reporting.”

What is also clear is that the balance of power has shifted — it isn’t only the pros that can produce and distribute. Quality may change the higher one climbs up the ladder, and to a certain extent so does ability, but that has a neglible effect on an individual’s reach. Even prolific reposters (those who curate others’ posts) have exorbitant numbers of followers, showing that an accumulation of experience or original work are becoming less linked to success.


Our prototype, Pitcha, is not the one tool to rule them all. However, our team tried to solve for Chudley’s advice in designing our tool. Users can select a grid which, by its very layout, changes the pictures in size and suggests a hierarcy, allowing a certain level of organization in terms of importance.

Pitcha’s arrrangements are based on the golden ratio, a natural order to relative sizes which are the most visually appealing.

The generous size of the larger photos allows the user to capture the details of the important photo and have immediate impact, framed by smaller, less important photos. The selection between using 3, 4 or 5 photos was based on the average numbers of photos shared in a story, and doesn’t restrict users by offering too few or demanding too many.

We take into account the different needs of different photographers — from bloggers to advertising execs to independent creative professionals — and tailored the tool as such.

Our solution may be considered too simple for the Ben Lowys and Phil Moores of the world — from study and experience, professionals know how to tell a good story with a photo and by arranging them. Pitcha is a tool for those who don’t, which is a significantly larger percentage of the population. However, it doesn’t assume that these people can’t make good raw content, as Lowy stated — just that they could use some guidance in displaying it.



Check out some of Northwestern University Knight Lab’s
free tools for journalists and digital storytellers:
JuxtaposeJS,
StoryMapJS and SnapMap, as well as SoundCiteJS and TimelineJS.