Dominic Cummings, special advisor for Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street, in London, Britain, November 13, 2020.

Credit: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

A striking image is one of the most effective ways to capture audiences' attention and create engagement with your story - but it also has to make sense.

Take the image above, capturing the moment that the former special advisor Dominic Cummings left Downing Street after resigning in November 2020. The picture was widely shared across British newspapers, online and on social media. Although it accompanied many news stories, there was almost no need for an article - the photograph tells a powerful story on its own.

The photojournalist with the shot, Reuters' Henry Nicholls, remarked that its appeal was not solely in the aesthetic blend of cool dusk and warm orange lights, but also in the message Cummings was sending.

So what are some of the other considerations when trying to snap or select the perfect image for your story? reached out to four photojournalism experts for advice.

Provoke emotion in your audience

"What makes a photograph successful is its ability to provoke an emotion or a reaction in the viewer," says Rickey Rogers, global editor for Reuters Pictures.

Whilst an article contains the bulk of information, a picture can suggest connotations and make a strong first impression. Rogers considers the use of images a method of storytelling within its own right.

Triggering an emotion through a picture also sparks curiosity in readers and makes them want to read about what they can see.

"It can explain the story or describe it but it is presented in a way that is aesthetically either beautiful or impactful. We can have beautiful pictures of terrible tragedies," says Rogers.

Photographer Liz Sanders adds: "Images that are 'beautiful' can grab a reader's attention and bring them into the story, even a story that is hard to read, sad and about violence or poverty."

A good example of this is the Pulitzer Prize-winning image 'Starving Child and Vulture' taken by Kevin Carter which first appeared in the New York Times in 1993, using the image to depict the struggle with famine in Sudan.

Make sure the image matches the story

Sanders adds that the most viral images are not necessarily the best ones in terms of quality or skill, but rather those which appeal to curiosity or taboo. But when it comes down to it, the image and the story have to make sense together, according to Garry Cook, a writer, author and photographer.

Esan Swan, picture editor for special reports at the Financial Times, agreed and said that a photo must accurately convey the story, which will increase the article's impact. But a single image may not be able to speak for the whole story. Some stories are better suited to having multiple images.

If the images do not go hand in hand, there is a chance it will have the opposite effect. Few things kill the reader experience quite like a clickbait image and a story does not match the expectations.

"If a viewer feels cheated [by the image], they are less likely to engage with future stories by the same publication. Reader-publisher trust is eroded,” Cook says.

Do not overlook user-generated content

The "digital age", as Rogers said, means the public has access to the camera on their phones. This has opened up a world of possibilities for publications to report breaking news stories via user-generated content (UGC).

"Most of our companies recognise that those [photos taken by the public] will be the first pictures from any breaking news story," he says.

Being the first to break a story has a big impact on how well an article performs, even if it is a placeholder image until a professional photographer gets to the scene. Do not forget that when using UGC, you still need permission from the author.

Look at the first scene of the Manchester Arena bombing in May 2017 as a key example. Whilst the photos and video footage are low-quality, they played a vital part in breaking the story.

Opt for high-quality where possible

Quality matters a lot for images beyond the realm of UGC. Whether you are a publication with a string of photojournalists, or a freelance journalist capturing shots on your mobile phone, a low-quality image often results in fewer clicks, according to Cook.

Make the photo 'shareable'

The combination of a striking image and strong message makes readers more willing to share the article. This is also true about pictures that surprise us.

A good example is a widely-shared image taken by Reuters photographer Dylan Martinez during the London anti-racism demonstrations in June of last year. It captured protester Patrick Hutchinson 'fireman lifting' a suspected far-right counter-protester, who was injured in the chaos, to safety.

"When a picture goes viral it is because; it's something that people agree as being a very strong image, because of the qualities of the image, or because of the content or the aesthetics,” concludes Rogers.

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