Photography by Beth Nakamura
Photojournalism tips for beginners.
Learn how you can thrive as a photojournalist. Get photojournalism tips from seasoned veterans on how to take vivid photos and capture front-page shots.
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Understanding journalism, photography, and how they intersect
In journalism, photography can be incredibly powerful. Time and again, photojournalists are the ones who define how people understand major events — but they can also capture the details of daily life and the concerns of local citizens.
What is photojournalism?
Photojournalism is the communication of news through photographs. These images tend to appear in print newspapers and magazines as well as online media sites and microblogging platforms. A picture is worth 1,000 words and can instantly enhance the story that a news article communicates to its readers.
Why is photojournalism such an important part of the media?
Whether you know his name or not, when you think of the American Civil War, you think of Mathew Brady’s images of battlefields. Dorothea Lange’s photo Migrant Mother is the iconic image of the Great Depression. War photographers like Robert Capa witnessed some of the worst conflicts of the 20th century, and when you imagine the end of World War II, the first image that comes to mind is often Alfred Eisenstaedt’s image V-J Day in Times Square.
However, photojournalism is more diverse than that. It’s going to city council meetings week after week, snapping pictures of a community’s new construction project, capturing a farmers market, or doing street photography in the middle of a protest. It’s a rewarding and challenging field. Use these tips to survive and thrive in photojournalism, whether you’re a freelancer submitting to Reuters or on staff for the Washington Post.
How to think and act like a photojournalist.
Professional photojournalists act differently than other people. When there’s an emergency, they run toward it, camera in hand. When everyone is talking at a public meeting, they’re as silent and still as a wildlife photographer. During a conflict, they’re off to one side documenting. “It helps to be the kind of person who doesn’t feel the need to take up a lot of space,” says photojournalist Beth Nakamura. “I like to observe and not make a fuss about myself.”
Photography by Beth Nakamura
Blend into the background.
“Reporters are supposed to let everybody know that they’re in the room, be verbal, and interview people,” says Kathleen Marie, who’s worked as a photojournalist and art director for the Willamette Week and Portland Mercury. “A photojournalist moves in the background. They don’t want people to know they’re in the room.”
Become a silent observer.
Decentering yourself and becoming the quietest voice in the room is key to delivering good work. “Stories are about other people, about amplifying others’ voices,” says Nakamura. “That’s a rewarding thing to do. That’s what drives you. Sit back — don’t be at the center of it.”
Silently observing and letting others act is what gives photojournalists their power. “Your introversion, willingness to listen, and instinct to make space for subjects are actually key qualities,” says Nakamura. “So much of what I do is listen, and witnessing is a form of listening. We love to observe. Use those features of your natural temperament to your advantage.”
How to become a photojournalist.
Both photojournalism and documentary photography are ways of making a career out of observation. To do that, aspiring photojournalists need to know what drives and motivates them. “First and foremost, be yourself in the work,” says Nakamura. “Get to know yourself and what your values are — the things that concern you in the world — and follow those impulses. Be your own authentic voice and stay that course.”
1. Get to know the journalism industry.
Journalism is a field in flux. Publication models and revenue streams for news outlets of all sizes are constantly changing, and it’s affecting everyone from the New York Times down to local newspapers. “We are at a time when things are happening at hyper speed,” says Nakamura. “So always be open to change.”
New photojournalists need to be aware of new ideas, new business models, and new technology. Traditional publications like Harper’s Weekly have moved online and must consider how their content performs on social media on a daily — or even hourly — basis.
The way publications pay and employ staff changes. Editors and publishers are always figuring out how to stay ahead of the curve, and photojournalists need to, as well. “When there’s a new idea or a new app coming at you,” says Nakamura, “figure it out.”
2. Become an expert photographer and photo editor.
Digital camera and photo technology is constantly improving. You don’t have to buy every new gadget, but you need to learn how to use your camera so you can take great photos in extreme conditions. Learn how to use photo editing software to make subtle edits that will bring the image closer to what you saw with your eyes.
3. Build a portfolio.
The next step is simply to start shooting and build up your portfolio of images. A portfolio website is a great way to advertise your photography skills to potential employers and publications. Some photojournalists may be employed full-time by publications while many work freelance and sell their work to multiple media outlets. Your portfolio website can help you secure either type of job.
4. Connect with others in the journalism field.
Look for events to attend and groups to join in the journalism industry, such as the National Press Photographers Association. Use social media to connect with others in your field and to share your photos from your portfolio. You may also want to publish some photos for free with a non-profit media outlet that you wish to support. This can help build your resume and your experience level.
Top photojournalism tips.
1. Whether you’re a freelance journalist or a staff photographer, always have a camera on you.
You never know when news will happen, when an editor will send you out, or when you’ll have to spring into action. Be ready to cover events and happenings outside your comfort zone. Even if you normally cover community events, don’t let that stop you from covering politics.
For someone with editorial authority over images, any picture is better than none. High-quality photos from DSLR or mirrorless cameras are ideal, but publications can never know in advance what will resonate. “Just document it so that I know what you got into,” says Marie. “No matter what your tech is, get in there. Get that photo taken. I don’t care if it’s a screenshot from a livestream, we need that documentation.”
When you’re out in the field, keep your camera on you to get the best images from any scene. If you run into something newsworthy, you can make quick adjustments to your camera settings.
Edit, organize, store, and share photos from anywhere.
2. Get to know your camera lenses.
Whether you use a prime lens or telephoto, the more familiar you are with your camera lenses, the faster you can figure out how to get the best shot in any situation. A prime lens offers quicker aperture speed so you can capture action even in low-light conditions, but you have to get closer or farther away from your subject to change the framing. A 50mm lens is a solid choice, allowing for both wider shots and portraits. A zoom lens gives you versatility, but it can be bulkier and heavier than a prime lens.
If you use a DSLR camera, be sure to keep your autofocus sharp by fine-tuning your focus point with lens calibration. A brand-new camera should have a perfectly functioning lens, but over time you might find that your photos are a little blurry. You don’t want to think you got the perfect shot only to find out later that your focus was off just enough to ruin your image.
3. Pay attention to your camera settings.
The best setting depends on the situation. If you’re shooting outdoors and there’s a lot of movement, you’ll want a fast shutter speed. You can start with 1/125 or 1/200 and see how it looks. As for aperture, in good light an f-stop between 5 and 8 should keep enough of the background in focus to let you present your subject in context. If the light is low, you may have to open your aperture as much as f/2.8.
- If you can’t speed up your shutter enough, you can bump up your camera sensor’s sensitivity.
With a newer camera, you can try moving the ISO up to 400 if it’s sunny, and 800 or even 1600 if it’s shady or dark. Remember to take a few shots and then take a look and make adjustments if necessary.
- When in doubt, let your camera choose the settings.
Another option is to start out with your camera in Program mode and let it decide what the right combination of shutter speed and aperture works best. If that doesn’t look right, you can override it and make adjustments. Use Program Shift to tweak the setting a little.
- In very frenetic environments, set your autofocus to Continuous Autofocus (C-AF).
This means you can keep moving subjects in focus. You can also try using Aperture Priority mode, in which you pick the aperture and your camera adjusts shutter speed accordingly.
4. Stay organized.
Keep track of when you took your photos, and label them accordingly. “Do everything by date,” says Marie. “Do everything by year, by month, by day — everything. Metadata is also super important, and make sure your photos aren’t named something like ‘screenshot.’”
Photo management software can make it easier for you to store and manage photos. With Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, you can easily save photos in albums and folders. And you can do smart image searches that use machine learning to help narrow the field.
Marie, like a lot of editors and directors who work with images, has specific rules for how submissions are formatted and named. Good photojournalists know the conventions that their publications and editors adhere to, and follow them.
5. Get ready to see your pictures in a whole new context.
Your work will appear beside news stories or other content. “When a photographer decides which photos they’re going to share, they’re ultimately giving someone else editorial access to their images,” says Marie. That includes publishing images alongside someone else’s copy.
Even with amazing photos, the real power of an image won’t be apparent until it runs in an article or as a photo essay. “Being a photojournalist isn’t about taking all the right photos,” says Marie, “but being able to look back and find photos that create stories.”
6. Know your limits and know your rights.
Photojournalists are not spies. Be respectful. “Always ask for permission, not for forgiveness. Access is so important for photojournalists,” says Marie. She has had to deal with photographers being kicked out of venues or situations they did not have permission to be in. “I think that’s bad for photojournalism as a whole,” she says. “If you can’t have permission, stay at a safe distance and know your legal rights.”
In journalism, photography is documentation, and that’s something you can do anytime, even if it’s your first time. No matter who you are or what type of gear you have, there’s a world out there right now for you to observe, whether it’s on a small town’s rural roads or a city’s bustling streets.
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