Do you have a passion for photography and storytelling? Want to use a camera to share news and emotion with the world? You might just love a job in photojournalism.
In this article, we’ll learn how to become a photojournalist, including how to get your images noticed, the kinds of jobs available and where to find them.
What is Photojournalism?
Photojournalism is the practice of telling news stories through images. It differs from traditional journalism in that in photojournalism, the images tell the story, not the written words. And while many photographers use their photos to convey a story, they aren’t telling news stories. Photojournalism documents real-life stories and abides by journalistic principles and ethics.
What is a photojournalist? That’s simply a photographer who takes pictures with the intent of telling a news story.
A Brief History of Photojournalism
Photojournalism has been around since the mid-1800s. A Romanian painter, Carol Szathmari, used engravings created from his photographs to document the Crimean War. Subsequent moments in world history were also documented with this technique, including the U.S. Civil War.
But perhaps the most notable period of time for photojournalism was in the 1930s and 40s. New technology, combined with the proliferation of investigative journalism and the popularity of magazines, saw the genre flourish. Photojournalism was instrumental in giving a face to the Great Depression, conveying the realities of World War II to audiences at home and sharing happenings of the world across the world. Photojournalists like Dorthea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Robert Capa helped set the standard that today’s modern photographers and reporters still aspire to.
Today, these men and women still photograph for news outlets, individual papers, and magazines, while also sharing digital content with blogs and other social media sites.
How to Become a Photojournalist
There is no one right path to become a photojournalist. Unlike a medical doctor who has a rigid plan to follow to get credentialed and licensed, a photographer doesn’t have a clear path to landing a job in photojournalism. Some start as a traditional photographer and fall in love with the storytelling aspect. Others start as traditional journalists and then move toward the photography. Some have college degrees. Others are all entirely self-taught.
The takeaway here is that your ability to make a career of photojournalism is more a matter of your determination and commitment than it is the right degree, specific training program, or job progression.
But here are some general guidelines and tips:
Learn Great Photography
You will need to know more than tjust how to run a digital camera. A highly skilled editorial photographer understands the elements of great photography, such as composition, color, lighting, cropping and angles. Knowing how to make the scene unfolding around you interesting and compelling is crucial to your job. So start by learning the basics of photography and hone your craft from there.
Learn Great Journalism
You may never right a lede or a headline, but you will need to understand the basics of journalism. Learn what makes a great story, how those stories are written, and what kind of images help support the written piece.
Focus on Photographing People
Usually, the most compelling images have a human interest component to them. We even anthropomorphize animals, objects or scenes by ascribing those subjects the emotions we feel as humans. So a photograph with a human face, then, is more emotional and compelling than one without. Learn how to focus on people and their reactions to the event, instead of the even themselves.
For example, if you’re working the opening of a new splash pad in your town, consider what makes the most compelling image from a photojournalism standpoint: a picture of an empty splash pad or a picture of two little boys standing in the spray with their heads thrown back, laughing?
Get the Right Equipment
You don’t need a cabinet of photo gear to work in the industry. But you will need the right equipment to do your job correctly and to be taken seriously by others in the industry. Invest in a quality DSLR or mirrorless camera with at least 24MP and learn how to use it.
You’ll also want a quality wide-angle and telephoto lens. Some solid choices for wide-angle lenses are the 17mm, 24mm, or 35mm with a maximum aperture of 1.4 to 1.8. A 70-200mm f/2.8 is a great telephoto lens that gives you lots of functionality in low light situations. As amazing as cell phone cameras are these days, those just aren’t going to give you the reach or low light functionality you’ll need in a journalistic photo setting.
Build a Portfolio
Before you land a photojournalism job, you’ll need a solid portfolio to showcase your photos. Start by photographing events and people in your life. These don’t need to be paid gigs, you just need an opportunity to hone your craft. Attend local fairs, festivals, and activities. Set up portrait sessions with friends and family. Approach these shoots as you would a photojournalist and tell the story.
Use those images to compile a professional portfolio. Curate your portfolio so that your new and improved photos constantly replaces your old ones to demonstrate growth.
Showcase Your Work With a Website
A website is a great way to show your world to the public. Build a website and learn SEO (search engine optimization) to drive traffic to your site. That will help get new eyes on your images and give you a place to direct potential employers.
Again, be sure that you’re only showing your very best photos on your website. As you start, you’ll be tempted to value quantity over quality. Don’t. Pare down your portfolio to a handful of your top-of-the-line images.
Learn Other Skills to Stand Out
Photojournalism can be highly competitive, even for highly skilled photographers. So learn some additional skills that allow you to bring value to the position. Skills like videography, writing, and social media management can help set you apart from other job candidates.
Writing good captions, I’ve found, increases the likelihood of an editor accepting an image. Study the captions in publications you read. Start taking notes when you photograph to write killer captions later.
Grow from Constructive Feedback
Asking for feedback can be scary. Accepting that feedback as truth can be gut-wrenching. But learning about and growing from the shortcomings in your skills is incredibly important. Find people in the industry willing to evaluate your photos. See where you need to improve. That might be from a formal mentor, competitions, trainings, or even informal groups like a Facebook group. Be honest about your skill and commit to growing from advice you receive.
How to Get Your Work Noticed
In a perfect world, your potential employers contact you to come work for them. The goal is that your imagery and reputation becomes such that they contact you first instead of putting out a help wanted ad. That’s actually how a lot of freelancers, including writers and photographers, land our contracts. We market ourselves and network so that when the opportunity comes up, we are the solution to their problem.
So how do you get your work noticed? Here are a few ideas…
- Find your own stories. As we discussed before, you’ll need to demonstrate that you have the skills. So find your own stories to develop. Not only will you build your portfolio, you’ll build your chops, too, as they say and become more proficient in the process of photographing and editing.
- Talk to other people in the industry. Network with other photojournalists, writers, editors, photographers and publishers. Get to know what skills are needed, what stories are wanted, who makes the decisions and how to grow your craft. Attend conferences or press trainings, ask to shadow a photojournalist in another town, offer to take an editor out to lunch and pick her brain. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn simply by asking the right people great questions!
- Volunteer for your favorite nonprofit or organization. There are a lot of companies and organizations out there putting out their own media. Most don’t have a photojournalism expert on staff. So become theirs! Take images for their blog, newsletter or annual reports.
- Submit your images. Call your local newspaper and ask them if you can submit images for their use under your byline. Many newspapers are woefully understaffed and might gladly take quality photos for their publication. You might get a small fee, you might not. But even if you don’t get paid, there is value in getting your photos seen by the industry and the public at large. Regional newsletters, television stations, online news sites, radio websites, community Facebook pages, local chambers of commerce, schools, and sports teams might all have a need for your images. So ask them for a chance to share it and get your name out there. If your submissions are good enough, the right people will start noticing.
- Pitch your work. Ferret out story and image ideas and pitch those to news outlets. They may love the idea and ask you to cover it, as well as pay you for your submissions. Newspapers aren’t your only source though. Don’t overlook magazines and blogs!
- Be persistent. Just because an editor doesn’t like your first idea doesn’t mean he won’t like an idea down the road. Continue to improve your photos, your pitches and your submissions. Eventually, your commitment will pay off.
Jobs in Photojournalism
There are essentially two categories of jobs for photojournalists…staff and freelance.
Staff photojournalists work exclusively for a company or organization, such as a newspaper, magazine, news outlet, school, corporation, or other organization. You are an employee of that organization and are generally salaried. You have a boss and are subject to the day-to-day direction of the company, such as the hours you work, where you live, and where your office is located. They paycheck is usually more dependable but your assignments and actions are usually more regimented by a boss.
Freelanceers, however, are their own bosses. You are your own boss and contract with different newspapers, magazines, or companies to produce content. Freelancers typically get paid per project. You set your own hours, determine what projects you want to take on, and can live and photograph anywhere in the world. You generally take pictures for several newspapers or magazines at a time. The position comes with great freedom to choose your own projects and assignments. But it can also mean you have to hustle constantly to find people willing to pay you for your photos, and thus, earn money.
How Much Do Photojournalism Jobs Pay?
According to the job site Glassdoor.com, you can expect to earn between $30,000 and $64,000 a year working in photojournalism. That will vary by organization. It’s also probably dependent upon your experience and location. A photojournalist in rural Montana doesn’t earn the same salary as oneworking in downtown Philadelphia.
Internships provide a great way to experience what it’s like to work in the photojournalism industry. Interns have an opportunity to find and develop real stories. They build material for a portfolio, as well as operate under a mentor who will provide instruction and constructive feedback. An added benefit is meeting other people in the industry and having great networking opportunities. It’s a great way to get real-world experience and get your photos noticed.
The downside of an internship is that it may not pay as well as a full-time position, if it pays at all. You may also be asked to help with tasks that aren’t related to photojournalism at all, like filing, making copies, etc.
Is A Photojournalism Degree Necessary to get hired?
No…but maybe yes. How’s that for confusing?
There are a lot of amazing photojournalists out there who have no formal college education. They are self-taught, honing their craft through years of hands-on experience. They’ve built a name for themselves and now have editors calling them to work on projects.
Certain positions do require a photojournalism degree. Many government agencies or large corporations require a college degree simply as a means of narrowing down the applicants. If you have your eye set on working for a specific company or organization, research their positions now and see if they require a photojournalism degree.
Do You Get a Higher Salary With a Photojournalism Degree?
Again, there’s no clear cut answer here. Some organizations and institutions will pay you more if you have a college degree. Others, quite frankly, don’t give a fig. In fact, some of those businesses may pay you more based on your experience, not your education.
My best advice is to research your ideal job or niche in the industry. Research recent hires, salary levels, and educational and experience requirements.
Is a Photojournalism Degree Worth It?
Obtaining a degree in photojournalism does offer some advantages. First, you have access to mentors and teachers who will help you learn the craft and prepare you for a lifelong career. You don’t have to figure it all out through YouTube videos or free webinars. You’ll also have the chance to learn about more than just photography and journalism in college. Most programs require a well-rounded set of courses to make you more experienced and worldly upon graduation. You’ll receive instruction in photography, journalism, business, humanities, critical thinking, and much more. And many J-school programs, as journalism school is often called by attendees, will help place you in working positions after graduation.
But that degree comes at a significant financial cost. There’s also the opportunity cost of not immediately entering the workforce. While you are taking classes, another fledgling photographer who skipped photojournalism school might be building a freelance portfolio and have more work and experience to show than you will four years later.
So obtaining a degree certainly isn’t a requirement for every photojournalism career. But it might be needed for your dream job. There are probably a lot of people that hate how much they had to pay to receive a college education (myself included), but we don’t regret getting a degree or the time spent in college learning and growing. Only you can decide if the experience and education you receive versus the costs and time lost are “worth it.”
Colleges and Universities Offering Degrees in Photojournalism
There are a number of colleges and universities offering photojournalism degrees. These include institutions in the United States and abroad. Those colleges range from well-known storied institutions to smaller, more regional schools.
Additionally, some schools offer photography degrees with an emphasis in photojournalism, or journalism degree with an emphasis in photography. Even general communication or digital communications degree with internships in journalism and photography may land you your dream gig.
You can also pursue a master’s degree in photojournalism if you already have a bachelor’s degree and want additional accreditation.
Check out this list by universities.com to find a list of degrees in photojournalism in the United States. Or research schools that interest you. See if they carry the degree or a similar program.
Working as in photojournalism is exciting, fun, intense and hard. You work long, sometimes crazy hours, and it can be tough to find a foothold in the industry. But if you love taking pictures and telling stories with those images, it might be your perfect job. If you have an interest in photojournalism, start investigating the career, talking with people in the industry and practicing your craft. Maybe someday it will be your byline we’re all reading!