Photojournalists shoot photographs that capture news events. Their job is to tell a story with pictures. They may cover a war in central Africa, the Olympics, a national election, or a small-town Fourth of July parade. In addition to shooting pictures, they also write captions or other supporting text to provide further detail about each photograph. Photojournalists may also develop and print photographs or edit film.
Photojournalist Career History
Photojournalism started in the early 1920s with the development of new camera equipment that could be easily transported as news occurred. A growing market for photographically illustrated magazines revealed a population wanting news told through pictures—and also reflected a relatively low level of literacy among the general public. As World Wars I and II ravaged Europe and the rest of the world, reporters were either handed a camera or were accompanied by photographers to capture the gruesome and sometimes inspirational images of courage during combat.
In 1936, Life magazine was launched and quickly became one of the most popular vehicles for the photo essay, a news piece consisting mainly of photographs and their accompanying captions. Soon, however, photojournalists left the illustrated magazine market for news organizations catering to the larger newspapers and television networks. Less emphasis was placed on the photo essay; instead, photojournalists were more often asked to track celebrities or gather photos for newspaper advertising.
The recent digital revolution has changed photojournalism forever. Many papers have pared down their photography staff and purchase stock photos from photo agencies. Some smaller papers might even hand staff reporters digital cameras to illustrate their own stories. Still, photojournalists have a place in the working world, as their trained “eyes” for perfect shots will always be in demand.
Photojournalist Job Description
Photojournalists use photography to convey information. They capture stories of everyday life or news events that, supported with words, tell stories to the entire world or to the smallest of communities. Photojournalists are the eyes of the community, allowing viewers to be a part of events that they would otherwise not have access to.
The primary job of every photojournalist is to tell a story with pictures. Photography literally means “write with light,” and that is what photojournalists do. They use the equipment that they have to illuminate a particular subject. In order to perform this primary job, photojournalists must be proficient at many secondary jobs: planning, researching, and developing photos.
Before they take pictures, photojournalists need to know the background story of what they are shooting. For example, if photojournalists are covering something as simple and sudden as an automobile accident, they need to know what happened before they arrived on the scene in order to capture the most accurate image.
Photojournalists work with different types of cameras, lenses, and developing equipment and must be proficient in the technical use of that equipment. However, they must also have an artistic eye and good communication skills. While their artistic ability will allow them to capture the best images on film, it is their communication skills that will put their subjects at ease.
Actually shooting the photographs is just a portion of what photojournalists do. They also write the cutlines or captions that go with each photograph, develop the film in the darkroom, and edit the film for production. For large photo-essay assignments, they research the subject matter and supervise the layout of the pages. Since most newspapers are now laid out on computers, today’s photojournalists download or scan their pictures into a computer and save images on disks.
More often than not, photojournalists use digital cameras to eliminate the need for developing and scanning film. Since the debut of the first digital camera designed for newspapers in the early 1990s, digital photography has revolutionized photojournalism. Unlike traditional film cameras, digital cameras use electronic memory rather than a negative to record an image. The image can then be downloaded instantly into a computer and sent worldwide via e-mail or by posting it on the Internet. Although there are still some quality and cost concerns with current digital technology, digital cameras are touted as the wave of the future. By eliminating developing and transportation time, digital cameras allow a sports photographer to shoot a picture of the game-winning basket and immediately transmit it to a newspaper hundreds of miles away before a late-night deadline.
Some photojournalists work on the staffs of weekly or daily newspapers, while others take photographs for magazines or specialty journals. Most magazines employ only a few or no photographic staff, but depend on freelance photojournalists to provide their pictures. Magazine photojournalists sometimes specialize in a specific field, such as sports or food photography.
Photojournalist Career Requirements
Because photojournalists report on everything from wars to political campaigns to small-town parades, your education should be well-rounded. Take classes in English, foreign language, history, and the sciences to prepare yourself for the job. Of course, take as many photography classes as possible. If few or no photo classes are available at your high school, consider signing up for classes at your local community college or art center. These classes might put you in touch with other artists in your area and will allow you access to darkroom and computer imaging equipment.
A four-year degree is recommended to become a photojournalist, although an associate’s degree with the right experience is sometimes sufficient. Although some colleges and universities offer photojournalism majors, many aspiring photojournalists major in either journalism or photography and seek out classes and experience in the other field.
Many journalism programs require their students to complete internships with newspapers or other local employers. This is essential to building your experience and getting a good job in this competitive field. Many photojournalists are offered their first jobs directly from their internship experience.
Working on the college newspaper and building a portfolio of your work are also important in addition to your classes in art, computers, and liberal arts. Another wise idea is to join a photojournalists’ organization, such as the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), for job contacts and professional development. The NPPA offers student memberships to those currently studying photography or journalism.
People skills are essential to photojournalists as well as an eye for art and photography and a working knowledge of camera equipment and computers. It is also important to be able to work flexible hours, write well, and perform research.
Because of the timely nature of many assignments, photojournalists must also be able to work under the pressures of a deadline. They may be assigned to shoot pictures of people in trying situations, such as house fires, car wrecks, or military combat. In these cases, the photojournalist must be extremely sensitive to the people at the center of the story, ask permission to take photos, and when possible, ask for details about what happened. To do this, photojournalists must be extremely tactful and polite and work well under stress.
Exploring Photojournalist Career
In addition to doing well in your classes, you should also get involved with school clubs that will help you develop writing and photography skills. The most natural fit would be joining the school newspaper or yearbook. See if you can participate on the staff as both a writer and a photographer. If you can, become involved in the caption writing and layout of the publication as well. There is no better way of judging your writing and photos than by seeing your work in print.
A large percentage of photojournalists work as freelance contractors. Photo agencies and news organizations such as the Associated Press purchase photos from freelance photojournalists to use in print and online publications. Some photojournalists work on staff for newspapers, magazines, or other print publications. Television networks also hire photojournalists to help illustrate breaking stories.
Regardless of where they work, most photojournalists get their first jobs through an internship or professional contacts. The NPPA offers job assistance to its members. Classified advertisements are another way to find out about job openings.
Most photojournalists get their first jobs through contacts made during their internships during college. However, contacts can also be made through professional associations such as the NPPA and other sources. The most important thing that the beginning photojournalist must prepare is his or her portfolio. This carefully selected collection of work should reflect the individual’s abilities, diverse interests, and flexibility.
Photojournalists can advance by shooting for more prestigious papers (and earning more money for it) or by going into business on their own. They can advance to become the head photo editor, in charge of a staff of photojournalists, or they can even become managing editors or editors-in-chief of a publication.
Other newspaper photojournalists move into magazine photography, usually on a freelance basis. Where newspaper photojournalists are generalists, magazine photography is usually more specific in nature.
Salaries vary drastically depending on the size and location of the employers. In general, the smaller the employer, the smaller the salary. Larger news organizations can offer staff photojournalists much more pay and added benefits such as medical insurance.
Freelance rates are dependent on both the experience of the photographer and the size of the magazine, but can sometimes be as high as $800 per day. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that photographers (in general) earned a median salary of $26,100 a year in 2005. Salaries ranged from less than $15,240 to $53,900 or more annually. That same year, those working with newspapers, books, and other publications earned an average of $37,230, while those working in radio and television broadcasting earned an average of $36,100.
Photojournalists work where their stories take them, such as sporting events, political rallies, or even the front lines of war. They also work in photo labs, offices, or out of their homes, developing film, printing images, downloading them onto computers, and writing accompanying text and captions. Because of these varying work environments, photojournalists have to be flexible and able to work under many different circumstances, from a quiet office to a roaring, crowded stadium.
Photojournalist Career Outlook
Employment for photojournalists will grow about as fast as the average through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. A continued need for visual images in many areas should spur the demand for qualified photographers. Photojournalism is a highly competitive field, but individuals who develop a strong portfolio, maintain professional contacts, and stay on the edge of developing digital technology will find job opportunities in the future.