Learn the Basics of Photojourmalism

The role of a photojournalist is to tell a story with pictures. Journalist write, photojournalists snap photos. Both fields are important when reporting the news, but as a picture is worth a thousand words, photojournalists have a leg up on most other kinds of media.  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a nine-percent decline in photojournalism jobs (Reporters, Correspondents, Broadcast Analysts) between 2014 and 2024. This may be due in part because of the decline in print media; newspapers and magazines.  However, as television, websites, blogs, and other online publications grow, so will the need for skilled photojournalists. 

Because viewers depend on photos to capture a moment in time, individuals entering this field must have an expert working knowledge of photography equipment, digital software, lighting, editing and color correcting tools, and more.  They must be able to set up a photo or photos, edit the photos without changing the content or significance of the occasion, and upload it to the internet for publication using a variety of software.  Beyond technical skills, photojournalists must also have exceptional people skills.  Even if a photojournalist works alone, which many do, they must still interact with people while at photo shoots and must conduct themselves professionally. 

Photojournalists find themselves in a variety of working conditions, including in the field with a news team, taking pictures of events, or working at photo shoots with companies who employ them.  They might work in severe weather and under severe conditions, and sometimes are witnesses to gruesome disasters.  Photojournalists work long, often odd hours, weekends and holidays…when news happens. They also often work in high-pressure environments and must strive to meet tight deadlines, and be on call to communicate with others on a breaking news story.  In addition, all journalists must understand all legal and ethical issues when using photos, and how to write a contract and diplomatically receive approval prior to publishing a photo.


Learn the Fundamentals of Photography & Journalism

Most photojournalists earn a bachelor's degree in journalism, communications, or photography. Some students will major in photography and minor or choose a concentration in journalism, or vice versa. Some employers may hire an applicant who has a degree in a relevant field, such as political science or English. However, employers do look for photography experience no matter the degree field. Photojournalism coursework focuses on shooting photos, learning relevant software programs, digital photography, journalism law and ethics, and training in multimedia. It is also fundamental that photojournalists work across all platforms; social media, online, print, and broadcast.

Because photojournalists often upload photos to the Internet and content is delivered on websites, television, mobile devices, etc., acquiring experience with programming, graphic design software, and coding can’t hurt and may even help your application reach the top of the pile. And, as how and where people view news and information changes almost daily, photojournalists must also have the ability to develop stories with graphics, data, audio, and video.

Photojournalists can also advance their career by gaining work experience through internships or by working for school newspapers, volunteering for non-profits, or simply by honing their craft through studying new camera techniques, lighting, playing with different lens, etc.

Although photojournalists tell stories through pictures, there are a number of job duties beyond taking pictures, including processing and printing negatives or film, preparing audio to accompany video segments, traveling to shoot locations, editing photographs, pitching ideas to editorial staff, writing copy, headlines and captions to accompany photos, and capturing images in an ethical manner.


Build a Professional Network

Photojournalists are skilled artists in their own right. Depending on location, photojournalism jobs may be scarce, and competition can be great.  Establishing a network of professionals in similar career fields, such as college professors, reporters, and editors, can help someone just starting out in the field.  Building a professional portfolio, filled with pictures of all types, such as people, places and events will give a prospective employer an idea of your talents and capabilities. It’s also important to constantly update your portfolio to show growth and improvement in your photographic skill. 

Although the average annual salary for a photojournalist is $42,000, those with little experience can expect to earn much less until they have established themselves and gained a reputation. Individuals with years of experience can earn upwards of $60,000 per year. Photojournalists who choose to freelance may find their salary tends to fluctuate depending on hiring company and workload.

Get to Know Our Experts

Bill Cain

  • Title:
    Cain Images Photo Workshops
  • Company:
  • Where:
    Philadelphia, PA
  • Experience:
    30 years in the industry
  • 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 TimesThe 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


    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

  • Title:
    Freelance Photographer
  • Company:
    Dorie Hagler Photography
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    18 years in the industry
  • 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


    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

  • Title:
  • Company:
  • Where:
    Portland, OR & Nashville, TN
  • Experience:
    6 years in the industry
  • 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.


    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.

    Photojournalist Infographic