Panoramic Photography in the Newsroom: Novelty Revolves Around Purpose

Do panoramic photos have a bright future in news reporting?

Feb 24, 2014, Violet Jiang

Of all the seated guests behind President Obama during his 2013 inaugural address, Congressman Steny Hoyer stood out for unique gesture-wipe his eyes. It was captured in a panoramic photo by a photographer works for the Washington Post. Panoramic photography can capture moments that would not have been possible otherwise. Of all the photos covering the 2013 inauguration, Washington Post was a pioneer using interactive panoramic photos to reveal historical scenarios.

Today, in terms of technology, 180-degree or 360-degree panoramic photography is not just for professional photographers, can be used by Panorama apps, like Sphere, 360 panorama and Cycloramic Studio 360 Panorama allow ordinary people to shoot with their digital smart phones.

There are groups of panoramic photographers who specialize in shooting panoramas, mostly for travel and commercial purpose. Aram Pan is one of them. The Singapore-based photographer labels himself as a “professional virtual tour photographer,” and has shot dozens of panoramas featuring both landscape and individuals.

But it was a gallery of newsworthy panoramic photography, DPRK 360, recording his visit to North Korea that drew the world’s attention. To the global media, those panoramic interpretations of North Korea have meant much more than simply travel photography, and have started journalistic controversy.

Quite different from prior visual revelations of North Korea, in Aram Pan’s lens, this country showcase an unprecedentedly prominent look, modern and beautiful. There arouses controversy in the global stage. Is it true that a closed, undeveloped and highly autocratic North Korea will look so pretty? Wall Street Journal writes, “those panoramic photographs provide a new visual perspective on North Korea, but raise criticism that they glorify a regime known for oppressing its people.” And The Huffington Post regards DPRK 360 as new street-view-style photos, which altogether mapped scenes that were incredibly private to “socialist republic.”

As for Aram Pan, it may stand to reason that panoramic photography, in some circumstances, will be an edge for future journalistic reporting. “There are many situations where 360-degree panoramic photography could be used,” “It has the ability to completely immerse the viewer into a given situation,”said Aram.

He believes, if applied to journalism, panoramic photography, especially 360-degree panoramas will surpass ordinary photos in transforming the narrative in a more immersive way, creating a sense of engagement. Most panoramic photos are large and three dimensional, a 360-degree photo offers a spherical view of scenario from the front to the back, the top to the ground. Usually, people should move the cursor in order to see the whole image, going through consecutive optical changes. An interactive as well as immersive visual experience is produced.

Also, panoramic photography can prevent story being framed. “What really is happening around the photographer doesn’t get censored away,” said Aram. The result-people don’t have to passively see the picture from the perspective of the photographer. They are able to form their own perspective, which help journalists reach objectivity.

Apart from North Korea, there are far more mysterious lands, memorial scenes and live events worthy of multi-dimensional visual interpretation. And panoramic photos can perfectly help map the story. The Washington Post took advantage of panoramic photos in reporting Ukraine’s huge protest in early December, 2013. The image reveals a stunning moment of the populace flooding into the Independence Square. And recently, San Jose Mercury News used a 360-degree close-up view depicting an all-set Sochi downtown in its pre-Olympic Games time. Through those panoramic photos, readers don’t only feel immersed, but also develop an integral knowledge of the scene.

However, Keyue Zhang, an independent photographer based in Canada, is reluctant. “Panoramic photos may overshadow news subject due to its wide coverage,” said Zhang. “It’s quite applicable to cover a collective event because there are few singular identifiable subjects need to focus,” said him. He also worries that such a creation of immersive feeling will sacrifice the right interpretation of subject, which made news less informative.

Leena Jayaswal, associate professor of Film and Media Arts at American University, and a national-recognized photographer, shares ideas with Aram Pan in applying panoramic pictures to journalism, but thinks nothing is more important than the purpose of shooting.

“I do see a promise of seeing more images like this, but it has to be purposeful,” said Jayaswal.

From her perspective, correlation of panoramic photography and journalism is more closely tied to two variables-“original” and “market”. She said, “It is a novelty so it has to be done sparingly and for important images. We are inundated with images, things like this are a way to get the reader to stop and look, so why not to keep being inventive?”

According to her, applying panoramic photography to journalism may follow the path of most novel techniques. “It will make the reader stop and look because it is unique, until the market is saturated with more images like this and they don’t seem so original anymore,” said Jayaswal. But so far, we have not been saturated with this type of coverage.

Beyond continuing with pros and cons using panoramic photos, the Post delved in to the realm further by initiating a panorama-based interactive tool which links figures in the panorama with their Facebook accounts. Most influential figures are tagged and linked, which allows both Post staff and readers to edit. Here, panoramic photos aren’t merely utilized as visually appreciable images, but as a functional platform for  based-on applications, like interactive maps, interactive evolution paths, and interactive info graphics. Therefore, it may give rise to multiple applications of devouring news, whereas the viewer could simply read the information.

Perhaps as Aram said, panoramic photography foremost enable, “viewers get a better sense of what the scene is like and they also have a true sense of scale.” Its most undisputable expertise is functioning as big image.

The prerequisite should always rest upon serving news purpose and being informative. All that journalists have been endeavored to do is telling the story in the best way regardless of medium.