Poynter’s NewsU ‘Language of the Image’ Course

This morning I took “Language of the Image”, a free online course offered by Poynter. I had no idea Poynter offered free online courses and the experience was gratifying. Since I am pursuing both journalism and graphic design, I believed the Language of the Image course was relevant to my interests.

The course begins with classifying photos into 3 categories:

Informational: Informational photos simply identify a person, place, or event. These photos should only retain an identification value, thus neglecting story-telling qualities.

Passive: Passive photos show people in situations in which their main purpose is to have their picture taken for the newspaper. It is all that is attainable when the event is no longer taking place, and to such a degree, the photographer is accountable for making the best possible environmental portrait.

Active: Active photos show real people engaged in real events in real time. They are far more engaging and favored than shooting portraits after the matter. These photos allow photographers to produce images that inform readers about their community and the world in a way that informs, inspires, concerns, and evokes exacting emotions. It is the photojournalists’ responsibility to go beyond the surface facts and capture the essence of a situation or personality.

Next, the course identifies 14 single elements in photos that can convey the fullest, most accurate sense of the situations being photographed. The elements implicated are:

  • Graphic
  • Quality of Light
  • Emotion
  • Juxtaposition
  • Mood
  • Sense of Place
  • Point of Entry
  • Impact
  • Rule of Thirds
  • Perspective
  • Surprise
  • Layering
  • Moment
  • Personality Portrait

Most images utilize more than one of these photographic elements above to enhance their story-telling capabilities as well as several different combinations of elements that can make for a more effective image. Poynter provides several images throughout the course to attest to this.


Examples of identifying photographic elements for online story

The photo is from an article from USA Today about the snowstorm that hit Flagstaff, Ariz. today. The supporting photo is active and embodies elements of surprise, the rule of thirds, moment, and layering.

This photo is from an article from the New York Times about New York Mets owners, Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, agreement to settle a federal lawsuit against them fir $162 million. This photo shows the two owners speaking with reporters outside the federal court. The photo is informational since it only identifies the owners of the New York Mets with meager identification in the background of the steps outside the federal court in New York.


What I will take from Poynter’s “Language of the Image” online course is to integrate several elements into producing images and experiment with different approaches (i.e. different combinations of photographic elements) to convey the most accurate visual interpretation of the story.

While not all of Poynter’s online courses are free, here are other courses that are: