Why Professional Photography Matters

Sara Quinn’s study on eyetracking photojournalism finds that at a time when user generated photography has taken off with the convenience of iPhones, readers can still point out a professional photograph when they see one.

She asks the question, “In this age of Facebook and Instagram and so many publishers–what makes a photograph worth publishing?” Her study seeks to answer that very question.

To conduct the study on eyetracking, 52 participants were shown 200 published photographs on a screen–100 were professionally taken and 100 were user-taken photographs. Participants were then asked to rate the quality of the image, their inclination to share it, and whether they believed it to be professional or not.

This is one participant completing the study with a machine that tracks his eye movement below the screen.

She used equipment to trace the subjects’ eye movement while looking at the images on a screen to determine what draws readers’ attention when viewing a photograph.

When participants were looking at a photograph, they could distinguish between the  professional and amateur image 90 percent of the time.  In fact, participants spent 50 percent more time looking at professional photographs they were shown, and also rated those photographs to be higher in quality.

Her study finds photographs are worth publishing when the images:


During Quinn’s exit interviews with participants, most of her them brought up the word “emotion.” Photographs conveying emotion stuck with the participants.



Photographs that had a story behind it were viewed longer


Faces attract attention, and readers first look at and focus on faces when viewing a photograph for the first time.



  • Though readers find photographs that tell a story to be more compelling, Quinn’s findings show the importance of writing strong captions. Participants’ eyes jumped from the image and caption several times when viewing photographs. Quinn also finds that when the caption is more descriptive of the context of the photograph, readers spent a longer time viewing it.
  • Having the caption adjacent to the image was also important, as the reader’s eye bounces from the image and caption to gain context.
  • This insight to the importance of captions may inspire designers to change how captions are displayed–usually in small font below the picture.


Though, more newsrooms are cutting their professional photographers from their staff, they still play a key role in telling a news story.

A man said to Quinn during an exit interview, “I like the way photographers see the world. It’s like they are seeing it for me.” Another participant said, “It’s not that it’s rare, it’s that someone decided to see it.”

Yet, the role of the professional photographer should not completely discourage newsrooms from featuring user-generated photographs.

The New York Times featured an array of Instagram photos on its cover to highlight snow in New York.

“There is still a role for user photos, but it doesn’t replace professional photography,” Quinn said.