May 21, 2014

On Sunday morning, before I got out of bed, I started reading a story from The New York Times on my phone. I found it via Twitter, naturally, and enjoyed Freda Moon’s account of a journey from Chicago to New Orleans aboard a vintage Pullman sleeper car.

But halfway through the story, I realized I had scrolled past thumbnail images without giving them any thought (see screenshot at the right). Each photo — smaller than a postage stamp — failed to grab my attention until I recognized the name of the photographer, an intern at the Chicago Sun-Times when I worked there.

That’s when I decided to go outside, pull my copy of the print Times out of its blue plastic bag, and check out the photos at a size I might be able to appreciate.

It made a big difference:

For the most part, I can appreciate text no matter where I read it. Maybe there’s something poetic about the winding journey of jumping from column to column across a double truck — particularly in the Travel section. There’s also some evidence that it might be easier to remember information read in print than on a screen.

But regardless of the medium, you can only read one line at a time. Reading on a phone doesn’t feel overwhelmingly different from reading in print, especially once you’re absorbed into a narrative. BuzzFeed visitors spent an average of more than 25 minutes on a 6,000-word story.

Photos are a different story. It’s difficult to feel absorbed in a photo on a device with a 4-inch screen. Zooming in and exploring a photo bit by bit is no way to appreciate the photographer’s vision.

I asked Alex Wroblewski, the Chicago photographer who shot last week’s Times travel section cover story, how mobile impacts photojournalism. “The pictures aren’t going to be telling the story as much,” he said by phone on the way to an assignment. “It’s more on the back burner. Art is less of a focus.”

He added: “If you want to really get in-depth you’re going to have to look at the pictures on a big screen. Hopefully what those smaller pictures do is point [readers] in that direction.”

That’s what the photos in Andrea Elliott’s and Ruth Fremson’s “Invisible Child” series did for me. Even my 7-inch tablet wasn’t big enough to do justice to Fremson’s images. When I viewed the story on my laptop, later, the images were three times wider and about 100 times more powerful.

Strategies for optimizing images for mobile

Kenny Irby, Poynter’s senior faculty for visual journalism, told me that’s the major journalistic tradeoff when you choose to consume stories via mobile devices. “There’s just no way that you can get the full appreciation of a powerful photographic narrative on a cellphone,” he said.

The trend seems inexorable: Mobile Web traffic continues to gain on desktop traffic, surpassing it at news organizations like BuzzFeed and NPR. Phones are getting bigger and bigger — even Apple is rumored to be increasing the iPhone’s screen size this year — but until we have eyewear devices that fill our entire field of vision with large graphics, smaller images will be a price we pay for the convenience of mobile devices.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t strategies for making photos more powerful on smartphones. The longstanding lesson to “crop for impact” is more relevant than ever in the mobile age, Irby says. There’s no room for users to explore a photo — especially one that isn’t zoomable — on mobile, so photos should be cropped to emphasize the most important details.

That could be a job for mobile and social media editors, but it’s also something photographers should keep in mind as they’re shooting. Identify details and magnify them. Look for powerful expressions. Understand that wide shots don’t work as well.

Irby said calls-to-action could be a way for news organizations to get readers to view photos in their full glory. They’re normally not shy to refer audiences to other formats — for example, NPR asks listeners to go online, and newspapers promote online content. So why not suggest that mobile readers return to a story on an iPad or laptop later to see particularly powerful photos at full size?

‘You’re reaching more people’

Of course, smartphones have also had a major positive impact on photography. Wroblewski pointed to the Instagram work of the Chicago Tribune’s Scott Strazzante:

“I think people are starting to realize that just because you have a camera on your phone, not everybody’s a good photographer,” Wroblewski said. The best Instagram accounts, he said, are those run by professional photographers, and many of them, like the AP’s David Guttenfelder, have been widely recognized for that work.

Wroblewski himself takes some incredible photos for mobile devices, sometimes with his iPhone, publishing them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram:



Twitter’s mobile app might not be the ideal medium for viewing detailed images, Wroblewski told me, but many of the photos he shares wouldn’t be published otherwise. What’s important is that a photo is being viewed in the first place, he said: “People see it, and that’s what it’s all about.”

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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