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A future in photojournalism?

Hey Zenfolians, I’m Alan, and you might recognize my name if you have emailed Customer Support for help. Before joining  Zenfolio, I spent the past several years shooting for newspapers, both on staff and as a freelancer. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some insight about this side of photography.

Imagine shooting an event with a few 128MB memory cards in your bag. Now image the memory cards cost $20.00 each and can be used only once. How much shooting would you do?

If you replace “memory cards” with “rolls of film,” you’ll understand one of the financial barriers aspiring professional photographers once faced (when you include the cost of processing). Digital photography has opened the world of photography and all its facets to many more people.

The facet of photography I chose was photojournalism – specifically, newspaper photography. For me, at its best, it is part art, part excitement, part history in the making. It is like having a backstage pass to everything. So I am never surprised when someone asks me how they, too, might be able to shoot for a newspaper.

This poses a bit of a dilemma. In recent years, the industry has changed drastically. Newspapers are seeing decreased readership, and this has lead to fewer staff photographer positions. This has not necessarily lead to a decrease in the need for photos, so many newspapers fill the gaps by using freelance photographers. So the dilemma for me is, should I encourage those who ask me about how to get started? When the newspaper industry’s future is looking so uncertain, and as more and more former staff photographers enter the freelance ranks, why would I steer anyone in a direction other than away from photojournalism?

Well, let me just say I won’t discourage it. There will always be a need for visual storytelling, it’s just that there are fewer places willing to pay you to do it at the moment. Readers will always want good, thoughtful, compelling content. Stories may be presented differently than on paper, but the power of the still image is as strong as it has ever been.  If it is your passion, go for it.

There are many paths to a career in photojournalism, I’m sure, and freelancing at a local paper is one way to get a taste of it. I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone, but if you have an interest in journalism, or are a photography student looking to get a start, here are three things you should be prepared to address:

What kind of glass do you have?

One of the first things photo editors usually asked me when I was just starting out is “what kinds of lenses do you have?” A variety of lenses is good for many types of photography. What they want to see at a newspaper is if you have a usable range of focal lengths from somewhat wide (not necessarily really wide) through medium and at least a 200mm, preferably f 2.8. Sure, image stabilization is great, but not as useful if you’re shooting sports inside or at night. For many stories, setting up lighting is not an option, so faster lenses are better. Have three or so fast lenses in this range, and you’ll be good to go.

Are you versatile, or a one-trick pony?

Of course, photo editors will want to see your work. A standard hold-over from film days is a portfolio consisting of about 20 images. I still think this is a good, round number to go for. It is enough to show that you have enough experience, and few enough to show that you know how to edit down your work. The cliché holds true: your portfolio is only as good as its weakest photo.

Another venue for your work that might get a look is a photoblog or portfolio site. A quick search of your name by a potential employer may bring this up, whether it is on your resume or not. Post just the good stuff, edit down your work.

The key here is versatility. You can have a book full of great soccer shots, but what if your editor needs to send you to a courtroom after the game to photograph the defendant, or you get detoured to a structure fire in between assignments? Or maybe an editor suddenly needs a photo of some sort of a dessert flambé for the food page. Unlike reporters, photojournalists at newspapers usually do not have a beat, and will be relied upon to shoot whatever they are near, whenever it needs to be shot.


What’s going on?

A photo may be worth a thousand words, but a newspaper photo requires a few more, namely:  who, what, when, where, and sometimes why. This is where the second part of the word “photojournalism” manifests in a major way. You will be expected to know and express to the readers what is going on in the photos you make. When you write a photo caption, make no assumptions, use the facts you gathered at the scene, and write in full sentences. Most newspapers are members of the Associated Press and adhere to their writing guidelines, so a working knowledge of AP Style will be very beneficial to you.

Once, I stopped by a newspaper to show a little of my work, trying to get on their freelancers list. The photo editor sat me in front of a photo and said “Here. Write a caption for this.” Luckily, I had done this many times in journalism school and it was no problem (I was eventually brought aboard as a staff photographer there), but I would later see many a hopeful freelancer never get a call back because they did not know quite what to do. If you can put the who, what, when, where, and why into two or three clear sentences, you can write a good newspaper photo caption.

There are many other things that go into being a photojournalist, and it’s not for everyone. You will need to make interesting photos out of nothing situations, and you’ll have to photograph people who do not want to be photographed. But, some of the moments you get to witness, and some of the people you get to meet, can be some of the most rewarding work you will ever do.  If this sounds like something you want to pursue, having a good handle on the points above will be a good start, and will help you stand out among a potentially growing freelance newspaper photographer crowd.