First questions to ask when doing a story

For most of my career, I thought I understood communication pretty well. But then, I worked on staff as a photographer who went out and captured stories.

Here is the basic process of that communication for most of my life:

First, I captured content, which was the Message, and I became the Messenger, using my camera to connect with the Audience.

From the first time I picked up the camera in the early 1980s until about 1995, the only way the Audience saw my work was in print. So, this is how I communicated with the Audience in newspapers, magazines, brochures, posters, and other printed material.

Now all the other messengers I worked with would have competition through the years and still do. So we entered our work [Message] into competitions judged by other [Messengers] and then received our accolades if we won awards.

I have won many different awards through the years.

A little side note is I stopped entering many competitions because the people I admired most [Messengers] were not entering those same competitions. However, I still had my work entered by the institutions I worked with and still won those awards.

I had it all wrong

The problem now with the industry is that jobs are disappearing from those traditional institutions like newspapers. The [Audience] has slowly been leaving. There are many reasons for this, but I believe one problem is as journalists, we may have been asking the five Ws:


  • Who did that?
  • What happened?
  • Where did it take place?
  • When did it take place?
  • Why did that happen?

I was good at asking these questions of the subjects of the stories. I also added the sixth question that a seasoned journalist always added–How did it happen?

While working on my master’s degree in communication, I decided to do this at a Seminary. It was one of the best things I ever did. First, I had some of the same core classes the M. Div. students take. Then, later, when I met my wife, she could use some of my libraries when she did her M. Div.

My communications program was in the education school, and I had to take some basic education classes. So what would typically be a one-year master’s program was two years.

Now I learned in Seminary through preaching and education classes as you need to concentrate on the Audience. The education classes drove this home to me.

Communication experts didn’t pay as much attention to the Audience except to write at a particular grade level. That was all I ever heard about getting to know your Audience up until then.

In the youth education class, I learned that when working with high school students, you must understand their perspectives. For example, talking to theater students using sports metaphors is about as successful as expecting a toddler to read my dissertation paper.

We learned that for education to take place, the educator [Messenger] had to close the loop. So they gave tests that helped the teacher and the student know if the [Message] was received and understood.

Why should the audience care?

We have all been in school and asked the teacher why I needed to know this stuff. Maybe you were lucky like I have been and then had a teacher take the time to help me understand why knowing the material will help me in life.

We need to reverse the process if we want to be effective as communicators. First, we need to start just like teachers and understand our Audience. Then we find the stories that are most relevant to them.

Often teachers give tests on the first of the year to look at what skills the students lack that they must know before going to the next grade. So now they know what the audience needs.

NGO Example

Let’s say you are working for an NGO as a communicator. First, you must always start with who your Audience is, and secondly, why should they care?

I was helping coffee growers in Mexico communicate to their Audience potential buyers of coffee in the United States. But why should someone even consider buying coffee from them versus just buying Folgers coffee, for example?

I interviewed an American who had been buying and selling coffee in his coffee shop in California. I think he helped me answer the WHY? for the Audience. Listen and see if you agree.

Where should you first start when telling a story? THE AUDIENCE

How to Ruin a Perfect Photograph

Nikon D750, Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4 DG Art, ISO 50, ƒ/1.4, 1/400

The easiest way to hurt your sales on any photograph is not to hide text in a picture. The hidden text in computer files like photos is called metadata.

Now, if you shot your photo with a digital camera, there is already some metadata text inside the image. Even your smartphone captures some metadata. It is EXIF metadata.

EXIF is short for Exchangeable Image File, a format that is a standard for storing interchange information in digital photography image files using JPEG compression. Almost all new digital cameras use the EXIF annotation, storing information on the image such as shutter speed, exposure compensation, F number, what metering system was used, if a flash was used, ISO number, date and time the image was taken, white balance, auxiliary lenses that were used and resolution. Some images may even store GPS information so you can easily see where the images were taken!

That is how I know all that information I put under the photos I post here on my blog. I used PhotoMechanic software and adjusted my preferences to show this information under the image in the software. So it looks like this for me:

Now even if you had photographs as great as Ansel Adams, if you didn’t have some hidden text in the picture, then to find those photos, they would have to look at them somehow. But, still, they couldn’t search for them through Google, or even if they are on your computer, you couldn’t find them using the search function on your computer.

Most people who do not hide text in their photos create folders on their computer and then use the filename as another way to search for the photographs.

Now while your camera phone and digital camera are recording important information into the EXIF data fields, there is another set of data fields that you can use to give you even more versatility. Those fields are called IPTC. [International Press Telecommunications Council]

The IPTC Photo Metadata Standard is the most widely used standard to describe photos, because of its universal acceptance among news agencies, photographers, photo agencies, libraries, museums, and other related industries. It structures and defines metadata properties that allow users to add precise and reliable data about images. It has been around since the early 1990s.

Probably the most used software that lets you embed text [hide text] in photos is PhotoShop. Here is what the file information box looks like:


Now you can see and change a lot of those fields.

Another software used in the industry and especially by news photographers is PhotoMechanic. Here is what IPTC looks like in that software:


Using the search tool on my Mac, I can search any of the text in those fields, and it will pull up everything on my computer that has that string of text. So I searched the copyright field of the IPTC using “© Stanley Leary,” and this is what shows up:

I can click on “Show all in Finder…” and see the list of documents, emails, and, most importantly, photos with this information. So even if your client doesn’t have software to embed text into their images, they can search your photos using the reader and find them.

One more software used in the profession is Adobe Lightroom, and this is how the IPTC shows up in that software:


You can see the IPTC information in the Library Module of Lightroom.

Here is a detailed step-by-step on my digital workflow that explains how I put this information in the photos when I ingest the disks into my computer.

Now the cool thing about all this is you can create your system for file naming and what information you want to put into photos for yourself, and then with each of these software systems, you can export the images using your client’s system.

Now there are so many fields that you can use that I needed to take two screenshots of the PhotoMechanic software to give you an idea of what you can do:

I then scrolled down to show you the rest of the form you can fill out:


If you are a photographer, you should make your clients aware that you do this, making your photos more valuable because they can find them!!!

If you embed all your photos with metadata IPTC information, then more than just PhotoShop, PhotoMechanic, Lightroom, or the search engines on your client’s computers can see this information. Online database systems will read all this information and make this available to the world to find your images.

PhotoShelter is one provider many photographers and stock agencies use to help market photos. For example, PhotoShelter interviewed me on how I helped Chick-fil-A adopt their Libris system for image archiving. You can see the interviews here on their blog post.

Not for the faint of heart

Accuracy with your metadata is critical. If you misspell a word, then people will not find the image. Metadata is tedious, and many people don’t do it because it is time-consuming.

Most photographers are not all that professional in their work. They like to shoot. If professional football players behaved the way most “professional photographers” work on Sunday afternoon, they would be carried off the field on a stretcher, never to play the game again. You see professional football players lift weights, do cardiovascular workouts, watch what they eat, and practice throughout the week. Most professional photographers just show up at the game time and think that is all they have to do.

You know how your cost of doing business, practicing with stand-in subjects before the subject is in front of the camera, and doing the detail work like metadata is what truly separates successful business photographers from those who only dream of it.

Now you might understand why someone else’s work is published that you think is subpar to your work–others could find their photos.