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For those of you who are interested in photojournalism and want to pursue is as a career, it’s essential to know how it differs from journalism. Photojournalism is an exciting and challenging form of storytelling through photographs. You can even use photos to enhance and emphasize journalistic pieces.
Although modern news organizations don’t tend to keep photojournalists on staff anymore, good documentary photography still has its place in the current news cycle. The internet and social media are overtaking traditional print media in popularity, and people are hungry for news as it happens. So, photography still has a big part to play in an increasingly visual society.
Today, we’ll look at how photojournalism differs from other forms of documentary photography — like street photography — and how it differs from journalism. The points we’ll cover include:
- What is photographic journalism?
- Ethics in journalism
- How do the fields of journalism and photojournalism overlap?
- Differences between journalism and photojournalism and the skills you’ll need to be successful in each field
- The types of stories photojournalists cover and how they find them
- Photojournalism tools and resources
First, let’s dive into the fascinating and rich history of photojournalism to learn what it is and how it came to be.
Similarities Between Photojournalism and Journalism
Although the two disciplines are different, there are many similarities between journalism and photojournalism. Both are in the business of imparting news and current events. But, journalists rely on the written word to get their point across. Photojournalists, on the other hand, use images or images and text to tell the story.
In order for a piece to qualify as photojournalism, its images must be relevant to the subject and the text that accompanies them. It should also focus on current events that are happening right now. Photojournalism pieces are also meant to be objective, unbiased and free from any political slant.
After all, when photojournalism and journalism become political, they veer toward propaganda instead.
So, there are many similarities between the two forms of reporting, although they use different methods to achieve similar results.
A Brief History of Photojournalism
We won’t delve into a long essay about the history of photography and photojournalism, but understanding the genre’s history is key to being a successful photojournalist today. This genre of photography was borne from photographers of the past who risked their own safety in war zones, riots, public protests and other dangerous situations to bring news to the public.
Since the invention of the camera, people have used them to document their lives. As humans, we’re inclined to capture moments in time, record historical events and the people who shaped them, because we want to share our knowledge with others through time.
It’s no surprise then that the majority of historians believe photojournalism began as far back as the 1850s! The first photojournalist is said to have been a Romanian painter and photographer called Carol Szathmari. Engravings created from his photographs documented the Crimean War during that era and were the first to use photography to record current events.
The Beginnings of Modern Photojournalism
Despite its early beginnings, the golden age of photojournalism didn’t come until between the 1930s and 1960s. As technology advanced and cameras became smaller and easier to transport, more and more people were able to document their lives using photography.
You’ve probably seen the famous photo of the Migrant Mother, taken by Dorothea Lange during the United States’ Great Depression. The Farm Securities Administration (FSA) hired several photographers to document life on farms during the Depression to educate the public. Other famous photographers who worked for the FSA included Gordon Parks and Walker Evans.
Later, during World War II, we saw the birth of modern war photography. Robert Capa and W. Eugene Smith risked their lives to document the war, often on the front lines. Capa was there at the D-Day landings to photograph the troops storming Omaha Beach in 1944.
Capa and other photojournalists like Henri Cartier-Bresson founded Magnum, a photo agency that is still home to prestigious photojournalism today.
Later, Vietnam War photographers like Eddie Adams and Don McCullin brought images of war home to the public in the mainstream media like never before. In fact, many of these haunting images fueled the anti-war protests in the U.S.
Some photojournalists opted to follow domestic stories. Photographers like Weegee followed the police and emergency services to crime scenes to photograph the aftermath. Weegee’s stark crime scene and death photos in New York and Hollywood made him famous during his time and today.
When Life Magazine, a publication at the forefront of print photojournalism, folded in 2001, many thought photojournalism had died. But, like so many print media, it has simply moved on with the times. Now, photojournalism’s primary home is on the internet instead.
Publications like National Geographic are still going strong in digital format, and the tech advances in mobile phone cameras mean that it’s easier than ever to become an amateur photojournalist. Within seconds of snapping a shot, you can have it uploaded to social media for the world to see.
Ethics of Photojournalism
Ethics and photojournalism have always walked a fine line. Journalism ethics states that reporting should be objective and unbiased. But, when faced with highly emotional scenes, it can be difficult for the photojournalist to simply watch and document without interfering.
On the other hand, it’s too easy for photographers to cross exploit the suffering of others, according to some. Take photojournalist Kevin Carter’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, “The Vulture and the Little Girl,” for instance:
The photo shows a starving child in South Sudan during the famine, desperately dragging herself towards a United Nations feeding center half a mile away. A vulture stalks the child in the background, knowing that death is near.
Carter received immense backlash from the public for simply watching and photographing the scene instead of helping the child to the feeding center. Carter’s description of his actions that day ranged between “I watched, took the photograph, smoked a cigarette, then walked away,” and that he actually helped the girl to the aid station after he’d taken the shot. We’ll never know either way, because Carter killed himself in 1994, and no one has been able to identify the child in the picture.
This is just one of many more examples of photographs that raise questions of ethics in photojournalism. Eddie Adam’s “Saigon Execution” below is another that sparked public outcry. If you do some research on the internet, you’ll find plenty more.
The role of ethics in journalism and photojournalism is an ongoing debate, one for which we’ll likely never come to a clean conclusion about. What are your thoughts on journalism ethics? Were Kevin Carter and Eddie Adams right to take their controversial photos given that they brought serious issues to the public’s attention? Or, did they end up profiting from the suffering of those they captured on film?
Everyone’s opinion is different, but it’s likely some combination of the two. And because ethics is such a tricky question, each photojournalist has their own decree that they live by.
Differences Between Photojournalism and Journalism
We’ve looked at the ways that the two branches of reporting are similar, as well as the ethics involved in being a photojournalist. Now, let’s have a look at the biggest differences between the two jobs.
Potential to Engage Readers
Ever heard the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words”? Photojournalists have. Journalistic and documentary photography can make an immediate impact on the viewer because humans are visual creatures. Whereas traditional written journalism needs viewer to read and engage with the story, photojournalists just need to capture readers’ eyes.
In that way, photojournalists capitalize on our laziness. It takes longer to read an article than look at an image. If we’ve only got a few minutes to spare, aren’t we more likely to skim the article and look at the photos?
Many also consider photojournalism more objective and truthful than journalism, though this is a debatable claim. Written stories can be given a personal or political slant by the journalist to appeal to certain groups of people. After the story is told, there’s likely little physical proof that the story went down the way they said it did, especially years after the story first happened.
It’s difficult (but not impossible) for photojournalists to put their own slant on the images they take. They document events in real time as they happen, and these images show the truth. But, while it’s true that the camera never lies, image manipulation techniques make it possible to completely change the reality of a photograph.
Here’s what Eddie Adams had to say in 2001 about the truth of the documentary photo:
“Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths.”
Today it can be even harder to tell truth from half-truth with the rise of citizen journalists who are not bound by the ethics and rules of traditional print journalists. Like we said earlier, everyone these days has a camera phone, which makes everyone a potential photojournalist.
When news media wants to use the citizen journalists’ images, it puts those images through a vetting process. The Associated Press checks and crosschecks images from citizen journalists in order to verify them. In that way, they’re able to make sure that no ethics were violated before they use the photos.
As you may imagine, journalism and photojournalism also differ in the kinds of skills that they require. Journalists should have strong people skills. They need to be able to interview key players in order to reveal the story. Then, they need to be able to take those interviews and weave them into a written story that’s compelling and makes sense. Knowing which points to include and which to leave out is an integral skill for journalists.
Photojournalists, on the other hand, need to have a strong set of technical skills, especially an understanding of photography. They should be familiar with related photography genres including street photography, as well as photography concepts and practices related to composition, lighting, exposure and more. A photojournalist can’t be successful unless she knows how to use her camera quickly in any given situation, and how to complete some basic image editing and post-processing.
Unless a journalist and photojournalist are collaborating on a story, the two also work quite differently. Journalists plan their stories, arrange interviews and then write their articles.
Photojournalists, on the other hand, show up when the action does. They’ll often stick around a scene for hours waiting for the perfect shot. And, when it does come, they have to move quickly to capture the most interesting photos there can before choosing the best from the bunch.
Journalists and photojournalists also differ in the types of employment they often receive. Many journalists find employment at newspapers and magazines. For journalists in those positions, they tend to write solely for that publication.
Most photojournalists, however, work on a freelance basis and are often members of photography agencies that help them sell their work. This gives them more freedom to choose the types of current events they cover since many specialize within the field of photojournalism.
Freelancing is also more prevalent for photojournalists, because many hold down other jobs to round out their income. But, the more well-known a photojournalist becomes, the higher they can raise their photography prices. So, there is a possibility to make photojournalism your primary income stream.
While it’s necessary that journalists know how to craft expertly written stories, photojournalists may only need to know how to develop effective captions for their photos. This is an essential skill that may not be intuitive. Keep these basics in mind when trying to create your own image captions:
- Captions should add new information to the image that isn’t obvious from the photo.
- Captions should be fact-checked.
- You can use captions to identify the main people in the photo (if any).
- The tone of the caption should match the tone of the image. That is, serious images shouldn’t have humorous captions, and vice-versa!
It’s possible to be a journalist and a photojournalist at the same time, but you need to possess the skills relevant to both genres to be successful. There’s a lot to be said for combining the two if you have the talent. You’ll likely be more versatile when it comes to covering stories and therefore find more work.
Topics in Photojournalism
There are different topics you can explore within photojournalism to suit your particular interests or skills. And because the competition is fierce, you’ll need to have plenty of contacts within the field, as well as a lot of patience and determination.
Consider tailoring your photojournalism career to these niche fields:
- News and Current Affairs — This niche encompasses what you think of when you recall “traditional” journalism. Paparazzi photographers go where the stories are, for example, to catch the most coveted images that will make headlines.
- Documentary photography — Documentary photography is a broad genre that, alone, isn’t necessarily photojournalism. In order for documentary to become photojournalism, it needs to be connected to a current issue or problem. A documentary photographer may or may not be a photojournalist, depending on their choice of subject.
- Street photography — Again, street photography isn’t photojournalism unless it pertains to a news story or hot current topic. For instance, street photography of homeless people could be linked to a news story about the growing homelessness problem in America’s largest cities.
- NGO/charity awareness photography — Non-governmental organizations tend to use photography to help raise money for their cause. Save the Children and WaterAid are great examples. They often hire photographers to document the reality of a disaster or famine to raise awareness of that issue. NGO photographers typically receive travel and food compensation or reimbursement, and many waive other fees.
- War/conflict photography — The golden age of war photography has long gone. Most governments no longer allow war photographers free access to the front lines like they did in Vietnam, and those that are allowed to work with the military are watched very closely. Still, you may be able to capture images from the sidelines. In fact, citizen journalists have now taken the place of war photographers because they are living in the thick of conflict and have essential local knowledge of the problem.
How Do Photojournalists Find Stories?
Budding photojournalists should take an interest in news stories and current affairs, as well as what is causing a stir on social media.
Having a lot of contacts from all walks of life is important too, so networking is a big part of finding stories. NGO and charity photographers don’t have to find stories, though, because the charity will already have a story lined up to document.
Not all news stories have to be of national interest to be newsworthy. Often local issues are worth covering because they matter to the people who live there. Covering a local news story or two will help build a solid portfolio and give you valuable experience in journalism.
Photojournalism Tools and Resources
If you are interested in becoming a photojournalist, you’ll need some tools and resources to get you started.
Photojournalists need to have their own camera gear and lenses and unfortunately, they don’t come cheap!
Freelance photographers probably already have most of the equipment they need, but if you’re starting from scratch you’ll need to assemble a starter kit. At the very minimum, you’ll need:
- Camera body
- Zoom and prime lenses
- Spare batteries
- A computer with photo editing software for optimizing your images
That may sound like quite a lot, but you can save on some items. On the plus side, you don’t need a top-of-the-range DSLR or mirrorless camera to start as a photojournalist. Even beginner cameras are more than capable of taking a decent photo. And, you can often find second-hand camera bodies and lenses in camera stores and on eBay for a fraction of the price.
Do try to buy the best lenses you can afford, as they are generally more important for photo quality than the camera body itself.
As most photojournalists are freelance photographers, you will need to develop the skills to run your business successfully.
You will need to learn about growing your business and also financing it. Here’s a breakdown of the kind of things you will need to do before you start as a freelance photographer or photojournalist:
Create a Business Plan
Getting your thoughts down and organizing them in detail will help you visualize what your business is and how you plan to make a profit. Photography is a very competitive business, so you need to have a plan for your cash flow and expenses. And don’t forget to research your competition!
It may seem like a huge task, but you can find plenty of help and resources on the internet to make creating a business plan for your photography business easier.
Assess Startup Costs
Part of your business plan should cover startup costs, or the essentials that you’ll need to become a visual storyteller.
As mentioned earlier, camera equipment will be the largest cost you have upfront. Those who already have the gear will have a head start, here. It’s not just camera equipment that you’ll need though. There’s public liability and equipment insurance, website costs, and photo editing and accounting software.
As a photojournalist, at least you won’t need to pay to hire or buy studio space, so that’s one less cost you’ll have to face. Do some research online to find out how to assess your startup costs. There are lots of sites aimed at starting a small business!
If you want to get your photos to major news outlets, having connections and experience can help. But, if don’t have those connections, you can use other tools to break into the market.
Online tools can help anyone with a camera submit their photos to media outlets. If you already have photojournalism skills, then you will have an advantage over amateur photographers, because your photos will likely be of better quality and composition.
Here are three websites that allow you to submit your news images for consideration:
This free website acts as a broker between you and news outlets. Simply create your photographer profile and post your newsworthy photos and captions. Demotix then automatically posts those images to its news feed, so that news outlets like the New York Times, Huffington Post and others can choose the photos they want to use.
News media buy non-exclusive rights to your photos from Demotix, with per image pay ranging from $50 to $3,000. Demotix takes their cut, of course; they split the payment 50/50 with you. On the plus side, you retain your copyright, and Demotix may sell the same photo to multiple buyers at the same time, which increases the amount of money you will get.
AOL Seed offers a slightly different approach. They post assignments for either journalists or photojournalists, with with a due date, for photographers to complete.
AOL Seed offers different licensing options for selling your photos:
- Exclusive AOL license — Receive the full price offered, whatever it may be
- Limited Exclusive license — AOL pays 75% of the offer price
- Non-Exclusive License — AOL pays 25% of the offer price
The downside to AOL Seed? The pay is comparatively low, often $5 to $25 per assignment. There’s also no guarantee that buyers will accept your work once you’ve completed an assignment.
You likely won’t make a living from AOL Seed, but it’s a good place to get started in photojournalism by gaining experience and building a portfolio.
News videographers might consider trying YouTube Direct. This YouTube platform allows news media outlets to find and verify breaking news through videos. Simply submit your videos through the platform to various outlets who can then choose to accept or reject the footage.
The drawback to platform is that you don’t get paid! One way news videographers are getting around this is to submit only a ‘teaser’ video for consideration, and offer the full video to interested outlets for a fee.
Photography workshops can be a great way to learn and gain experience. Luckily, there are workshops out there specifically for photojournalists. A quick search of the internet will reveal photojournalism workshop opportunities near you. Some are free to join, while others carry a hefty price tag.
If you can afford it, the National Geographic Expeditions are one-of-a-kind photography workshops. But, online workshops are often cheaper alternatives. Although you won’t get the hands-on teaching of a physical workshop, you will learn valuable skills about photojournalism and running a photography business.
So, what can you expect at a photojournalism workshop?
Experienced photojournalist and documentary photographers often teach these courses to help you refine your visual storytelling and image composition. You’ll likely also learn how to analyze your images objectively, edit them and write captions.
How to Get the Most Out of Photojournalism Workshops
As with many things in life, you’ll only get out what you’re willing to put in! You want to get the most benefit out of a photojournalism workshop, so it makes sense to do some research and prepare before you start.
Research Workshop Leaders
Check out their website and social media to see if you like their photography style. You’ll learn more if you and the workshop leader have similar interests stylistically-speaking.
Ask What Workshops Will Do for You
Email the course leader to ask for an overview of what you will be doing in the workshop. That way, you can decide if it’s a course worth joining for you at your level.
Prepare for Critique
If you’re unused to having your photography critiqued, then this can come as a shock! You have to grow a thicker skin and learn to look at your work objectively. The aim of critique is not to bring you down, but to point out where you’re succeeding and where you can improve.
Don’t be afraid to speak up or ask for extra clarification when you don’t understand. Workshops usually welcome questions, as they provide opportunities for great group discussion.
Choose Workshops with Small Groups
The smaller the workshop group, the more one-on-one time you’ll get with the teacher. Smaller groups tend to be more expensive, though for that reason.
Get Comfortable Using your Camera Gear
Before you go to a workshop, make sure you know how to use your camera and equipment. You should have a grasp of ISO, shutter speed, aperture and shooting modes at the very least before joining a workshop.
Don’t Get Hung Up on Mistakes
We all make mistakes, and they are part of the learning process. Photojournalism is no different! Of all the photography genres, perfectionism is probably least important here. Your job is to capture news as it happens, which means it’s most important to be fast and capture a good angle.
Workshops are very hands-on, which means you can expect a critique. Photography expeditions, on the other hand, are run by guides who take you to specific places and point out things of interest. If you choose a photography expedition over a workshop, you’ll be responsible for taking the shots you want, and you likely won’t receive feedback.
We’ve had quite an in-depth look at photojournalism and how it differs from journalism. You’ve learned the history of photojournalism and the skills essential for photojournalists. We’ve also provided some handy resources and tools that you can make use of to sell your photojournalism photography.
Hopefully, if you’re an aspiring photojournalist, this article has given you the encouragement and practical information to take the first steps. Photojournalism is a very competitive and challenging career choice, but with some effort, you can make a difference with your work in this field.
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