Feature: Painful pictures

A picture paints a thousand words, so why are so many PROs getting it wrong? Two pic eds talk Peter Crush through four rejected shots.

According to photo agency VisualMedia - which interviewed the picture editors of ten national papers - many of the pictures sent in by PR people are not only unuseable for practical reasons (because they are uncaptioned or the resolution too low), they are often simply cringe-worthy.

Incredibly, these editors complained that up to 95 per cent of PR-generated pictures are unsuitable (see 'Picture Desk Stats' below).

‘Simply cheesy'
The Guardian picture editor Roger Tooth did not take part in the survey but says he finds the results all too familiar: ‘By the time I get into work I've already got 1,500 pictures at which to look. Many that are the right file size, with no labelling or captioning problems, are simply too cheesy and not taken with our publication in mind.'

Celebrity campaign-launch pictures come in for particular scorn. Tooth says one celeb in particular - Nell McAndrew - has become ubiquitous:  he has even suggested that the features desk do a spread on all the campaigns in which she has appeared.

The worst are what Tooth calls the ‘grip and grin' pictures of giant cheques, or blatant product promotion with overly smiling individuals.

Here, Tooth and East Anglian Daily Times picture editor Andy Abbott select some under-par pictures sent to them in a normal day, and reveal where PROs are going wrong.


What is it? Botham Walk 2006: cricket legend Ian Botham's 11th walk across Britain to raise money for children with cancer. The nine-day trek is sponsored by Marks & Spencer, and each leg starts and finishes at an M&S store.

What's wrong with it? ‘Where do we start? It's a horrid picture. Botham looks like Ali G, the girls look too
old to be cheerleaders, and this is far too heavily branded. The M&S manager to Botham's left has clearly just been put in because it's his store, but he looks awkward and is not even facing the camera. Why do PROs think bunging in the store manager helps?'

What would make you use it? ‘Botham does lots of great work, and people love these walks. We would have done a story on this if we could have captured the walk better. This was in Glasgow: I'd have much rather seen an attractive bridge or hillside shot, taken low down with Botham striding towards the camera.'
Rejected by Roger Tooth, picture editor, The Guardian


What is it? RNLI's staged rescue exercise at Tower Bridge with TV presenter Lisa Snowdon, to piggyback publicity around the premiere of Hollywood sea-rescue film The Guardian.

What's wrong with it? The picture is far too heavily cropped - we can't see the whole of the boat, and there is no more picture to expand outwards. There's no caption telling us this is Lisa Snowdon as this is one of a series and there are other women involved. Finally, the wave and grin of Snowdon is a turnoff. And what are the lifeguards doing fiddling with their suits?

What would make you use it? ‘If PROs are going to send in a PR-staged event, it has to be disguised. RNLI boats are dramatic things - a shot of two or three powering along the Thames astride each other would have been really dramatic. This has all the hallmarks of the picture being taken to suit the demands of the star, rather than being managed as a photography project.'
Rejected by Roger Tooth, picture editor, The Guardian


What is it? Local schoolboy Liam Pretty wins the photography gong at the Technology and Engineering in Schools Strategy's ‘shape the future' awards.

What's wrong with it? ‘My heart sank a bit when I saw this. We'd known about it because it was a national engineering award, really quite a big thing and a good story. But the PROs fell for the trap of staging a bog-standard winner and judges shot it in front of an awful, cluttered, creased backdrop. And the subjects are not looking at the camera.'

What would make you use it? ‘All the winners are young engineers to some extent or another. A far better shot would have been to have Pretty under the bonnet of a car, or photographing machines from odd angles.
Rejected by Andy Abbott, picture editor, East Anglian Daily Times


What is it? Barclays supporting Hearing Dogs for the Deaf.

What's wrong with it? ‘This is your classic cheque-giving  picture. The construction is formulaic, and we don't know who these people are. I was always told that people, not feet, sell pictures, but this picture has a lot of feet.'

What would make you use them? ‘For the cheque picture, I'd have tried to use the dog, close up - jumping over the cheque, looking at it, etc. That's the real focus of a picture like this: animals will always work.'
Rejected by Andy Abbott, picture editor, East Anglian Daily Times


, Metro (london)

Pictures sent each day: 15,000
Number sent by PR agencies: 150
In-house PR teams: 150
Newswires: 12,000
Photo agencies: 2,500
What's wrong with PR-sent pics? Uncaptioned: 50%; Wrong resolution: 10%; Wrong format: 10%; Sent to wrong person: 50%;
No, or wrong, contact information: 50%
What do you wish for? ‘Exclusivity - it gives us a better shelf-life. An out-of-hours phone number would also help.'

Jamie HAN, Financial times

Pictures sent each day: 5,000
Number sent by PR agencies: 100
In-house PR teams: 100
Newswires and photo agencies: 4,800
What's wrong with PR-sent pics? Uncaptioned: 60%; Wrong resolution: 50%; Wrong format: 50%; Sent to wrong person: 20%; No, or wrong, contact information: 70%
What do you wish for? ‘Professional pics that are not too posed. A picture with the errors above has a slim chance of success.'

Click here to listen to Scott Shillum, MD of VisualMedia, talk about good and bad PR photos in this week's PRWeek/CTN podcast

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