How to Become a Photojournalist

Storytelling is an ancient art that laid the base for today’s folklore, writing, and even journalism. Traditionally, journalists are seen as reporters that cover the latest stories or uncover the truth about important events and people. However, thanks to photography and new media, the profession has significantly evolved. Today, there are various types of journalists, including the tradition print and reporters, but also online, social media, broadcast, and photojournalists.

So what does photojournalism entail? It is still a form of storytelling – only it uses photographs and sometimes even video footage in order to transmit the messages and ideas. There are a few different types of photojournalists out there: those who only take photos and these are used in print stories and others who create captioned stories through their photographs. Meanwhile, the focuses can also be different – although many think that photojournalists cover political and international events exclusively, they can also work in any other industry, such as travel, non-for-profit, and even weddings and events.

A large portion of photojournalists are self-employed and work as freelancers on ad-hoc projects. Therefore, this is a career that requires you to invest a lot of time and passion, while also developing not only your photography skills but knowing the business side of the industry. At the same time, it can allow for a lot of creativity and an incredibly exciting lifestyle, participating in major events and the important moments in people’s lives.

Here is some more information about photojournalism in this infographic.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Bill Cain

Cain Images Photo Workshops

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  • Name:
  • Location:
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  • Twitter:
  • Bill Cain
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • 30
  • Self-employed
  • @cainimages

Understanding My Career Path

  • I originally had planned on becoming a comic book illustrator, so I took illustration and painting at The University of Arts in Philadelphia.
  • My sophomore year at UArts, I took a photojournalism elective with Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist April Saul.
  • The class actually led to my first paid photography job. I had photographed a local radio personality for a photojournalism assignment. My subject introduced me to the station promotion director. I spent the next two years, from 1985-1987, shooting concerts and promotional events for WMMR in Philadelphia.
  • In May of 1985, I was encouraged by April to seek out a summer internship as a photojournalist at the Bucks County Courier Times in suburban Philadelphia. The photo editor there liked my work but didn’t think I was ready for an internship, but agreed to hire me as a freelancer.
  • I freelanced for WMMR and the Courier Times until graduation from UArts in 1987. At that point, I heard that the Philadelphia Inquirer was looking for photojournalists for their suburban neighbors publications.
  • From the summer of 1987 until late 1998, I worked as a contractor, then staff photographer at the Philadelphia Inquirer photographing news, sports, and features as well as a weekly picture story for the suburban Neighbor sections.
  • For a time in 1996 and 1997, I also made pictures for a yearbook company. I would document sports and event assignments for various high schools in the Philadelphia region.
  • In 1998, Newsmakers photo agency, which would later be purchased by Getty Images, asked if I was interested in joining their service. I agreed, and shot news and some sports which was distributed via their network for the next few years. These were shot on spec, meaning I would receive a percentage of sales only if the images were purchased.
  • I tired of the staff photographer life in late 1998 and wanted the opportunity to do something that more people would see. From 1998-2000 I left the Inquirer and worked as a freelance photographer for the Associated Press.
  • In 2000, Getty Images purchased Newsmakers and asked if I was interested in becoming a contract photographer for them. I agreed and became one of Getty’s first contract photographers in the country.
  • In 2008, a colleague asked me to fill in for him teaching a class at Wilmington University. I loved it and became an adjunct professor at the college that summer.
  • In 2011, a friend who worked for Groupon contacted me about the possibility of doing some photo classes. From that came Cain Images Photo Workshops, which has seen 450 students take my photo classes.
  • In late 2013, a friend who is now photo editor for three newspapers (Bucks County Courier Times, The Intelligencer and Burlington County Times) asked if I could help him out and do some assignments here and there. Since that time, I have done almost an assignment a day. In the process, I’ve started shooting video as well, which I have added to my corporate offerings.

Recommended Organizations

  • NPPA – National Press Photographers Association
  • PPA – Professional Photographers Association

Advice

On whether or not he recommends a formal education
Definitely, I would recommend higher education. College is a time to learn and experiment. One of the key things that a university experience develops in students is their ability to problem solve. There can be many different ways to solve a visual problem. They’ll learn technique as well as to think on their feet. They’ll also learn to develop a thicker skin and not take things personally.

Shoot, everyday
Make pictures, not snapshots. Develop your eye. Understand how light can shape a subject. Learn to use your camera to make a statement every time you click your shutter button. Maybe find a personal or long term project. Photograph things that interest you. At the Inquirer there was a certain photographer that was really good with animal stories. Another was good with sports and another with humorous features. They had a niche and worked it well.

Refine your portfolio
Think about your imagery. Do your images capture a “moment”? Is it showing an action, interaction, or reaction? Does it have good light as well as composition? Far too many times I see images from young people that are nice snapshots but don’t say anything.

Be persistent
Don’t give up. Just because one person doesn’t like your work, it doesn’t mean another won’t as well. I once interviewed for an internship at a major metropolitan newspaper and the editor hated my work. The next day, I interviewed at their rival and the editor there loved it. I was given a freelance job on the spot.

Dorie Hagler

Dorie Hagler Photography

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Understanding My Career Path

  • While attending college I was required to take an art elective my first semester and I chose photography. I loved the class and then went on to take a film-making class the next semester. I liked producing documentary films so much I eventually changed my major to a double major in Political Science and Film.
  • After graduation, I began to work on feature films and TV movies. I was very disillusioned by the field I had chosen, as it seemed I mostly got work on feature projects, and I was much more interested in documentaries and telling stories that would benefit the world.
  • After two years in the film industry I joined the Peace Corps and served for two years in Guatemala. I brought a camera and found that I really preferred the simplicity of taking still images, rather than moving images.
  • When I returned from Peace Corps I talked to a friend of mine who was a photojournalist and he, along with some of his colleagues, mentored me and helped me put together a portfolio.
  • My first job as a professional photographer was at my local weekly newspaper. I loved the job. I was able to travel all over Northern New Mexico, and I loved the excitement of new assignments each day. I also loved contributing to my community.
  • Since then, I have become a freelance photographer, and I added event photography to my list of skills. For the past 17 years I have been shooting for publications, foundations, and non-profits, but I have earned the majority of my income from event photography.

Recommended Organizations

Advice

On whether or not she recommends a formal education
While I don’t think it is necessary to study journalism, I do think going to college is helpful. The more you know about the world around you, the better you are able to understand people from all over the world. To be a photojournalist, you ultimately need to know how to communicate visually, orally and in writing. Honing these communication skills is just as important as knowing how to operate a camera. Also, getting an internship at a newspaper is a really good way to gain experience and build a portfolio. Journalism departments at colleges help to arrange these internships.

Get involved
If you are in high school, get involved with your school paper or become a photographer with the yearbook. If you have graduated high school, see if you can do an internship at your local paper; it may lead to a job. Also, there are some really great photography workshops all over the country. I can say from experience that attending the Santa Fe Workshops is very worthwhile.

Find your focus
Find out what sort of stories interest you, and assign yourself to shoot a photo essay. When you finish that one, assign yourself another. When you have finished two to three of them, find a professional journalist or editor to look at your work.

Develop your business skills
The days of easily landing a job as a “staff photographer” are over. Newspapers are cutting their photo staff all the time. The majority of photojournalists are freelance photographers. This means you are running a business, and in addition to photography, you need to know about accounting, marketing, advertising, and client relations. The business side of things has not come easily to me and these skills, perhaps even more than your talent, will determine your success. And along the way, learn to take rejection gracefully, and don’t let it deter you.

Advice on getting your foot in the door
I got my foot in the door by being persistent. I knew that the photographer at my local paper was leaving, and I put a portfolio together and went to see the editor. She liked my work but said there was no “spot” or “action” news in the bunch. I wasn’t deterred. I waited for an opportunity, and then there was a big fire at a hotel. I went with another photojournalist, one of the mentors I mentioned earlier, to the hotel and took photos of the event. Early the next morning I took my photos to the newspaper again, and I was hired. It is not an easy field to break into, but be persistent.

Another way is to go to a country that you are interested in or that speaks another language that you also speak. Create a niche by being a specialist in a region or by having a specialty in some particular area, then most likely you won’t have as much competition.

Branden Harvey

Photojournalist

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  • Branden Harvey
  • Portland, OR & Nashville, TN
  • 6
  • Self-employed
  • @brandenharvey

Understanding My Career Path

  • I first started shooting photos in high school when I was given a camera to use for a year as a part of a photography class I was taking. Sure, that photography class taught me the basics of photography, but it was older mentors coming alongside me who really taught me how to create impactful images and run a successful business.
  • When I was 16, I got a phone call from a fashion designer out of the blue. She told me she’d seen my work online and wanted me to photograph a handful of models wearing her designs. Filled with fear, I immediately told her I wasn’t qualified enough, wouldn’t be her photographer and promptly hung up the phone. I didn’t think I had what it took.
  • A few minutes later I realized what I’d just done. I called her back and begged her to let me take the job. She said yes. I did the shoot, and I’ve been learning to continue saying yes to opportunities even when they scare me.
  • I moved to Portland, started meeting talented creatives and began working together on different projects. This helped build my confidence and taught me how to push myself outside of my artistic comfort zone.
  • I began falling out of love with photography but quickly realized that it was because I was falling in love with storytelling. I quit focusing on the technical aspects of photography and began focusing on how to craft a genuine and powerful narrative with every project I take on.
  • This led me to using social media, specifically Instagram, to tell peoples’ stories.
  • My storytelling began to gain traction online, and I guess the right people began to notice what I was doing. I started getting hired by brands and organizations to help tell their story around the world.
  • In the last year alone, I’ve traveled to tell stories in the Philippines, Rwanda, United Arab Emirates, Uganda, Hong Kong and Zimbabwe.

Recommended Organizations

  • I’ve never joined an organization relating to photography, so here’s my recommendation. Build up a creative community around you. Find others with similar passions and interests (They don’t have to all be photographers.), and commit to spending time together building each other up. It’s easy to get competitive in our industry, but honestly there’s enough work for all of us. Be generous. Encourage each other. And push each other to grow. It’s so much easier to achieve your dreams when you have people by your side telling you that you can do it.

Advice

On whether or not he recommends a formal education
From my experience, I don’t recommend studying photography in college. As far as photography is concerned, I’ve been 100% self-taught. If you’re motivated enough, there are so many incredible resources online for learning the ins-and-outs of photography. You’ll never get a photography gig by showing up with your college diploma. All that matters is how great your work is.

With that said, if you think studying photography at a university is what you need, you think it’ll help you create better work and you have the money, by all means go and do that. But if you want to save yourself from going into debt, focus on shooting photos every single day with a curious mind and a desire to grow.

If you plan on attending college, study business (like I did), global studies or communication. All of these will give you an advantage in your photography career while you continue to grow artistically outside of the classroom.

Don’t worry about the gear
It’s easy to get caught up in owning the best cameras and the newest lenses. Good equipment will only help you if you know how to use it creatively. In fact, learn how to tell a good story with whatever you have. I’ve shot huge projects for big clients using just my iPhone.

Be kind and authentic
People want to work with their friends, so focus on being a good friend to those around you and you’re bound to get to shoot for someone.

Look for stories in your every-day life
Get to know the people you see every day (the checker at your grocery store, the homeless guy around the corner, that girl in your coffee shop), then ask to shoot their photo. If that scares you, that’s a good thing. Push yourself outside your comfort zone. That’s where the best stories live.

Advice on getting your foot in the door
Start with who you know. Who do you know that needs their story told? Shoot for them. And do a really, really, really good job. Blow them out of the water. They won’t be able to help but tell their friends (who are even cooler) about you. And when their friends hire you, blow them out of the water as well. Keep working hard. Don’t be afraid to start small.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Photojournalist?


There are a variety of paths those wishing to pursue a career in photojournalism can take. Some of the basic skills you will need include, of course, photography, but also writing, people skills, often business skills, and an interest and knowledge about the industry you would like to photograph. Often this can be politics, international affairs, nature, or other areas.

One of the most obvious routes to becoming a photojournalist is to simply pursue a photojournalism degree at a university. Some are focused more on media and communications, while others are specialized on the artistic side – choose the one that is right for you and will expose you to the type of industries you are interested in focusing on. Another option is to minor in photography or hone those skills yourself and take a degree in disciplines such as journalism, public relations, political sciences, sociology, or any other subject that might interest you.

Of course, you also have the option of self-teaching. This will save you a lot of money, but beware of the discipline that it will require, as you will need to put in hours and hours of hard work on your own, with the help of books and the internet. In any case, but particularly for this path, it is recommendable to find a mentor who can help you along the way. There are also many photography workshops and local organizations that you can join in order to make up for the networking that you would have easier access to in school.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A FORMAL EDUCATION TO BECOME A PHOTOJOURNALIST?

  • Boston University
    Students at the College of Communication at BU may pursue a journalism BA with a concentration in Photojournalism. Besides traditional coursework, classes also include technology-related material. Other concentration options include magazine, broadcast, and online journalism. Master of Science level studies in journalism specialized in photojournalism are also available. Annual tuition is $46,664.
  • Rochester Institute of Technology
    The Department of Photographic Arts and Sciences at RIT offers a BFA in Photojournalism, as well as a wide range of other photography degrees. Students may also participate in an annual student trip to Washington and New York and become part of the NPPA chapter at RIT. Annual tuition here is $36,596.
  • George Washington University
    The Corcoran College of Art and Design, through its School of Arts and Design, offers students a BFA in Photojournalism. The program is often taught by working photographers and definitely provides the perfect location for field practice. The college also offers an MA in New Media Photojournalism, incorporating new multimedia platforms in its curriculum. Undergrads pay $48,760 per year.
  • Central Michigan University
    The Photojournalism program offered at the Central Michigan University’s College of Communication & Fine Arts, takes a strong focus on hands-on learning. Therefore, there is an advanced lab for practice, internship and in-school work opportunities to stimulate portfolio building and a variety of networking opportunities. In-state students pay $11,850 per year, while non-residents pay $23,670.
  • Kent State University
    While the School of Journalism and Mass Communication does not offer a photojournalism major, students may pursue it as a minor, or choose visual journalism or electronic media. They may obtain a degree in advertising, digital media, journalism, public relations, or a different area, such as political sciences or English. Ohio residents pay $10,012 per year, while out-of-state students pay $17,972.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Just like most photography fields, photojournalism is very competitive. It is a rewarding profession that many seek, and you will face fierce competition when trying to get in. So what are some of the things you should do to make it easier to jump-start your career? First and foremost, participate before you even graduate, if you do decide to go to college. Get on your college newspaper, take internships, volunteer for non-for-profits, or get assistant positions with local photojournalism freelancers. This will give you a portfolio and a resume to show to potential employers and clients before you even graduate.

Another thing you should start doing early on in your career is networking. Join local and national organizations for photojournalists but also for those subjects that interest you professionally. This will help you begin building connections and can ultimately lead to references, joint projects or work directly. Within these groups, always have a professional image – that doesn’t mean to be the boring one, but if you do take on any projects or promise to deliver something, do so within the given timeline. Also, have business cards, a digital presence and an online portfolio you can share.