James E McNay. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.

Photojournalism Defined

Photojournalism is first and foremost making pictures that tell stories. Initially, photojournalists used still-photography cameras and film to do this work. Today, they use digital still cameras, video cameras, and computers. The key is this: They are working to do nonfiction storytelling that informs a wide audience about their community and the world.

For the professional, the essence of photojournalism often means covering news. Definitions of news can include what people want to know or need to know. News has also been described as what people are talking about.

News coverage often includes events in the local community where the photographer lives. Local festivals, parades, and county fairs might qualify as local news, since they are often daily events and are of interest to people in the community. The resulting pictures often fall into a picture category journalists call soft news or features, since the content of the pictures is often interesting to the viewers but less dramatic than pictures from major news events.

News pictures also could be about events of national or international importance near where the photographer lives or in locations where the photographer must travel to provide coverage.

At certain times and for certain media outlets, select topics come under the news heading. These include sporting events, award shows (Academy Awards, Grammys, Emmys, Tonys), and coverage of things such as fashion week in New York or a large automobile or electronics trade show. Certainly, when companies such as Apple Computer or Microsoft introduce new products, there is the chance this information will dominate some portion of daily news or business coverage.

Unfolding Events

There are some similarities to all these events. First, they often show reality in that what happens is beyond the control of the photographer. The event or activity unfolds in front of the camera, and the photographers record what they see to the best of their ability. Photojournalists do not direct what happens during the coverage of a fire, an accident, or a war. Even during the cleanup after a fire or parade, photographers only have the opportunity to see and record, not control the events. Generally speaking, photo-journalists do not have and do not want to control what happens in front of the camera. Their ethic is, life happens in front of them, and they record it.

Portraits: An Exception to Arranging Pictures

Portraits are an exception to the preceding guideline. From time to time, members of the public, politicians, and business leaders are not able to give extended, in-depth access to their lives. However, they might have a few minutes to sit for a portrait. Photojournalists are often trained to make excellent portraits. Such work is often done quickly, with strobe lights or by making the best of available light somewhere near where they meet their subject. While some people might come to a studio for such a picture, more often than not, photographers go to the person, taking the lights and necessary equipment with them. The resulting picture is often made in less than 5 minutes, sometimes in a minute or two, and often with excellent results if the photojournalists have prepared themselves for this type of work.

Publishing Outlets

Traditionally, photojournalists have worked for newspapers, magazines, and similar publishing enterprises. This might be as staff photographers, which means that they are full-time employees of the company. Under such arrangements, the employing company often owns their photographs. Freelance photographers (i.e., independent contractors) may also work for these organizations if the company occasionally wants their services. For many years, most magazine photographers have been freelancers. This tradition continues today.

Often, freelancers own their photographs unless they agree to other arrangements with the hiring company. Companies frequently seek some form of work-for-hire agreements with photographers. Such arrangements give the company ownership of the photographer’s work. Today, many publishing outlets seek to own the photographs or even the freelancers who work for them. Many freelancers believe that such work-for-hire agreements are counter to their best interests and when possible seek to negotiate some other arrangement. By owning their work, photographers build up their own collection of photographs, which they can resell later to other clients. Retaining ownership this way provides photographers with income in future years.

The Relevance of Video

Today, photojournalists include photographers who shoot video. In some organizations, video photographers may be called videographers. They might work for local television stations, the television networks, or the Web. They may be staff employees or freelancers. With the blossoming of video on the Web, there are now more freelance still and video photographers than ever.

Citizen Photojournalists

The traditional definition of a photojournalist blurs more each day with the use of tiny point-and-shoot cameras and cell phones by amateurs to shoot digital still pictures and video. This allows everyone with such a device to record pictures and video at any moment. Invariably, from the most remote parts of the world or at the most insignificant events when a prominent person is present, a citizen is taking a still photograph or video and is recording an event of significance or embarrassment. Photo agencies and wire services often want to distribute these images. We live in a time when everyone might well assume that they are on camera at every moment.

Consequently, news organizations are using still pictures and video captured by citizens who happen to be on the scene. And while professional photojournalists may be at the location of an incident, the presence of many other cameras operating from dozens of points of view may mean that citizen journalists get the most interesting or compelling pictures of any one significant moment. Television networks have started assigning video photographers (called “imbeds”) with high-quality small video cameras to cover major political campaigns as a way to acquire material beyond what their staffers and freelancers gather.

High-Definition Video

The technical evolution of video into the realm of high definition (HD) video has altered the profession. These cameras produce video images of exceptional quality. In addition, there is enough information in each HD video frame to allow traditional print publishing organizations to frame-grab an image and publish a picture of sufficient quality in a newspaper or magazine. Consequently, some organizations have started to phase out the use of digital still cameras, since their photographers can obtain both video and still images from HD video cameras.

Photojournalist versus Spectator with a Camera

If every photojournalist has a camera, why is everyone with a camera not a photojournalist? There are some distinctions that move the storyteller with a camera into the professional ranks.

The first is that the motivation of the photojournalist is to make an accurate visual report of what is happening in the world. While it may be impossible to show capital-T “Truth” with a camera, visual storytellers can work to show what is actually happening and can bring back an accurate visual report of events.

The ethics of journalism also dictate that stories and pictures be an accurate, unmanipulated representation of events. This means that photographs are not faked, just as reporters’ quotations from people in the news are not invented. And while devices such as computers are at the heart of still and video digital editing, professionals are expected to use them to assemble an accurate representation of events. While these same tools can be used to construct images and stories from scratch, such techniques are most often left to the narrative storytelling of Hollywood and others who work in that style, a different form of storytelling from photojournalism.

Another element that separates the professional journalist from others is a review process known as editing. At a minimum, this is a second set of human eyes that examines the writing or photography before it is presented to a wide audience. In large media organizations, there are multiple editors who examine the material for accuracy and ask questions to make sure that the communication is clear and honest.

On the other hand, the material that bloggers and personal Web sites generate and post for worldwide consumption is often written, reviewed, and posted by one person only, often without a formal understanding of basic journalism practices. Even the most careful writer or photographer would benefit from a review by at least one other knowledgeable person.

Storytelling: The Heart and Soul of Photojournalism

The purpose of photojournalism is to tell stories. This can be done through one or more still pictures as well as video. Projects of varying length extend all the way to theatrically released feature documentaries.

The drive of the photojournalist or documentarian is to tell a story. One key to such stories often is finding a subject that is unusual or offbeat in some way.

The word drive is important because often in photojournalism there are considerable obstacles to getting a story or project completed. People may not want a story told. Journalists spend considerable time thinking and talking about how to get access to the people and subjects they want to cover. Successful journalists find a way to get access. This may also mean that journalists invest significant amounts of time and personal funds to get a project accomplished. Journalists can learn from Hollywood filmmakers, who understand that they may have to invest 10 years of their time to bring a narrative film to the screen.

Another challenge facing the journalist is to understand the nature of a story in considerable depth. This comes from doing the reading and research necessary to comprehend all aspects of the story. National Geographic photographers often say that their assignment is like a graduate course in the topic to which they are assigned. Solid research does not always lead directly to pictures. However, if fortune favors the prepared mind, then learning everything possible about a topic can set up photographers for ultimate story success.

Preparation: To Attend College or Not to Attend College

Often, photojournalists get their fundamental training through studying for a university degree. While this is not necessary, it is a common path into the field.

Self-trained photographers have always found a place in photojournalism. There have always been considerably talented individuals who learned photojournalism on their own. There are those who can look at pictures, look at the books of those who came before them, and get the essence of what it takes to make a picture, to tell a story. As long as they can tell a story in pictures, they may not need more formal education than they get from life.

Whatever path photojournalists take, today their preparation, whether in college or on their own, must include the multimedia world. This means that, besides an understanding of the still photograph, photographers need to have an idea of audio, picture sequencing, and ultimately video storytelling. Audio can be the first step on this path as skills are added incrementally over time. But photographers should start wrestling with these topics in school or early in their careers. Few organizations are looking for someone who only has still photography skills. Employers want visual storytellers with at least an understanding of audio. They probably want video shooting and editing skills as well.

Similarly, training through formal or informal apprenticeships or seminars may be all the training a photographer needs. Taking a workshop from time to time may enable photographers to grow at their own pace over time.

For those who attend college, the option is to study photography and journalism or instead to pursue some other unrelated subject. Photography and journalism programs can certainly give students a wide range of training in the essentials. These opportunities in college can give students considerable time to shoot pictures and tell stories. As students, photographers have the opportunity to experiment, to make mistakes. Such experience can prevent them from making grave errors that can bring their professional career to a quick end.

Another strong contingent among working journalists are those who say, “Don’t study journalism in college. Study something else.” They encourage students to skip journalism training to concentrate on learning about the world through a study of liberal arts, the humanities, and the social sciences. Studying political science, international relations, foreign languages, history, English, psychology, economics, or a variety of other subjects can train one about the world journalists will cover.

Whichever path one chooses, it is necessary to get trained and learn about the world. How that happens is less important than that it happens. No two photojournalists accomplish this in the same way.

Business and Marketing

Whatever training photographers pursue, in a world full of independent contractors, global economies, and a rapidly changing media landscape, it is crucial that photographers understand something about business practices and marketing. It has been suggested that at some point in their career, most photographers will go through a period as freelancers. The best protection of a photographer’s business enterprise comes from knowing something about the business environment.

Students in college can easily take business courses as electives or as the minor for their degree. Community colleges, adult education programs, and community centers often offer one-off business courses. Key topics could include how to develop a business plan, marketing principles, business law, finance, taxation, and accounting. Students and others who serve assistantships (mini-apprenticeships) can start to learn these skills under the direction of a working professional before they start their own business and have to compete with veteran photographers with established businesses.

Professional societies also do some training in the subject of business practices and photography, either for their members or for nonmembers who have an interest. The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA, has a business practices committee that addresses this subject. Similarly, the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP, has long been a strong advocate, urging photographers to understand the ins and outs of the marketplace. It has a collection of books on this subject and offers seminars from time to time. An online group formed to address business issues is Editorial Photographers (EP, Their online discussions answer many questions.

Making the Work Visible: Portfolios and More

In the past, photojournalists showed portfolios of slides or prints to obtain work. Those days are over for the most part—unless an editor asks for pictures in this form.

Today, photojournalists’ portfolios are more likely shown as pictures on Web sites. Photographers put up their best work in a way that shows their photographic strengths and interests. This makes it easy for editors to review a body of work quickly before deciding whether or not they wish to contact the photographer for further discussions.

One alternative to a Web presence is for photographers to put their portfolios on CD-ROMs or DVDs. The latter are particularly important for those showing video as part of their presentation. These can be sent to interested editors. In addition, they can be carried to an interview and are easily left in the hands of hiring managers at the end of the interview.

Seeking Critiques

Even in the digital age, it is important to get feedback on one’s work. The long tradition in photojournalism of photographers having editors and photographers provide feedback about a portfolio is still valid. Traditionally, these conversations have been face-to-face. This tradition continues today largely at workshops and seminars. In place of prints and slides on light tables, the pictures are often shown on a computer.

Workshops and Seminars

Another way photojournalists get their work reviewed is by participating in workshops. When photographers convene, there is always an opportunity to have work reviewed. Sometimes, the workshop organizers build time for portfolio reviews into the workshop program. On other occasions, photographers can request reviews informally and privately from photographers and editors at a workshop.

The additional training available from workshops and seminars comes in a variety of forms. The time involved can be a day or a week. The cost can be nearly negligible or quite substantial. Some travel and adventure workshops visiting other countries on cruise ships accompanied by high-profile photographers can run to several thousand dollars. Some of the best information about workshops comes from photographers who have attended these programs in the past.

All this brings photographers to the key question: What do I want to learn from a workshop? Where am I in my career, and what workshop will help take me to the next level I want to achieve?

If workshops are low cost, it does not necessarily mean that these workshops are of low value. An inexpensive workshop with the right instructor can be a life-changing experience.

For a longer description of all kinds of workshop possibilities, see this link:

Contests and Competitions

If one challenge in photojournalism is to build credibility and to become known to editors, one of the most powerful methods photographers use to do this is by participating in the various annual photojournalism competitions widely recognized by the industry. Like taking home an Oscar or a Grammy, photographers who win the Pulitzer Prize or the top award in World Press Photo or are anointed with one of the photographer-of-the-year titles become widely known by editors across the country and around the world.

Competitions such as the Best of Photojournalism (, Pictures of the Year International (, the W. Eugene Smith award (, the Robert F. Kennedy award (, and the Overseas Press Club award ( can add significant clout to an eager photojournalist’s resume and portfolio. College students can enjoy a similar impact at the start of their career by doing well in the College Photographer of the Year competition ( or the Hearst Journalism Awards Program (

Writing: Necessary or Not?

Photojournalism has traditionally been referred to as telling a story with a camera. It is a demanding profession, requiring one’s full attention. The written story has often been left to writing journalists—people who devote themselves full-time to the written word.

That said, photojournalists are nearly always responsible for the written captions that accompany published photographs. Since they are the journalists on the scene, traditionally photojournalists have been expected to gather the facts about the events shown in the photographs. This often includes the basic information of journalism, summarized by the questions who, what, where, why, when, and how. In some publications, photojournalists write the captions themselves. In other organizations, their captions are rewritten or are written by word journalists from the information the photojournalists provide.

Even today, photographers must learn how to write basic caption information. This information should accompany their pictures when they show their portfolios or send their work on a deadline to editors. At a minimum, the caption information should be attached to the File Info window of the picture file in Photoshop. If photographers find a way to make captions available on-screen when showing a portfolio, such a move can help viewers understand the picture. This alone may cause the photographer’s stock to rise with the viewing editor.

The basics of caption writing can be found in many of the excellent basic photojournalism textbooks in the marketplace. Guides from some of the wire services or stylebooks outlining the policies of major media companies are also helpful.

With that in mind, especially in an age when information gathering and storytelling are converging in new ways, those photojournalists and documentary photographers (with both still and motion cameras) who have or who develop the ability to write often open doors for themselves in ways their competitors cannot.

Photojournalists with still or video storytelling skills who can write a proposal or pitch, craft memos to foundations, or put together successful magazine, newspaper, and Web stories may find editors willing to give them assignments over their competitors. As budgets become tighter, buying one airplane ticket for a fine photographer who also has acceptable writing skills beats buying two tickets for a writer and a photographer.

By providing the written as well as the visual story, photojournalists may find an opportunity to guide or control more aspects of the story. By eliminating at least one other layer or filter between the project and the audience, photographers may help ensure that the overall coverage is seen as intended.

The same is true for documentary photographers who have dreams of long-form video storytelling. Being able to write a proposal or even a full-blown script if needed may help documentary storytellers see that their projects receive the green light and appear on the screen as intended.

Ideas: The Coin of the Realm

Perhaps rising above all other skills discussed so far is the ability to bring forth ideas that will be of interest to a wide audience. Journalism and publication are about communicating with many people. Audiences of several thousand are believed to be better than audiences of a few thousand.

The most successful photojournalists and storytellers start with questions such as “Why is this important?” and “Why would a wide audience care about this story?” Those who can answer such questions successfully and then produce pictures and stories successfully addressing these questions will often find a place for their work.

Another way storytellers approach a project is from a personal point of view. They tell themselves, “If I find this interesting, others will find this interesting too.” This approach may work to focus on one’s personal taste when developing story ideas. However, in journalism, concentration on personal interests is often more risky than focusing on the potential wider audience.

Whatever the case, all storytellers will know that they have the beginning of a successful idea when they can answer in a sentence or two the question “What is your story about?” Answering such a question briefly and succinctly takes practice. Professional storytellers often imagine themselves in a 20-second elevator ride with someone who has money or the power to publish. A 20-second pitch can lead to a two-minute pitch. This can lead to a 20-minute pitch. If the journalist can tell his or her story in a short, pithy way, he or she may have a chance to see the project come to life.

But ideas are key. No photojournalist or documentary photographer should go into a meeting without several ideas rehearsed and ready. Some editors are happy to hear two or three ideas. Others expect ten. Preparation on the photographer’s part is key. One noted editor was famous for saying that he had many journalists calling regularly asking for assignments. Few called offering ideas they wanted to develop.

The Importance of Having a Project

Besides having photographers generate ideas, editors are impressed when photographers are engaged in projects. It is good to show completed projects (picture stories, photo essays, multimedia stories, video documentaries). However, a few pictures shown as work-in-progress also gets editors’ attention. They want to see that photographers are engaged in the storytelling process, even if those stories and projects are incomplete and will be unfinished for months to come. All this helps editors see the direction of a photographer’s mind and passion. This gives editors a deeper understanding of the photographer and opens editors to what kinds of stories and projects a photographer might do for them or for one of their professional colleagues.

Internships and Assistantships

One of the ways photographers starting out gain experience in photojournalism and storytelling is by interning with a publication or news organization. Similarly students, recent college graduates, or aspiring photographers might assist a working professional in his or her business. Both experiences are valuable and give the new photographer an understanding of the profession. Interns may be treated as regular staff members and may produce pictures for the publication on deadline. Some companies offer roles more in the background. These allow a chance for photographers to develop new content for their portfolios and educate photographers about industry practices.

Students need to find a way to generate fresh content above and beyond what they produce for class assignments. Through internships, assistantships, and self-assignments, which aspiring photographers take on outside of class, making time to create single pictures and for longer projects is the best way for a photographer to show his or her drive and special storytelling interests to potential employers.

Internship and assistantship experiences are often available to college students at publications, broadcast outlets, Web sites, wire services, and photography businesses throughout the country. Sometimes the details are posted on an organization’s Web site. If not, students can often approach editors and photographers who work for such organizations and learn the details of internship possibilities. Universities often post such opportunities either on campus on or the Web. Professional organizations such as NPPA make such listings available electronically to their members.

It is not unusual for photographers breaking into the business to serve several internships while in school. Summer breaks are the high season for internships, so the most eager students work to arrange internships each year they are in school. The best internships often are competitive, so a first internship starting in the summer following a freshman or sophomore year can lead to second or third internships at major organizations by graduation.

Some internships are paid, some are not. Ideally, aspiring photographers will gravitate toward those internships that pay well. If students take unpaid internships, they should see if their school grants academic credit for completing an internship. Often, such experiences can count as an elective or as an independent study course. Students should never be asked to pay for the privilege of doing an internship. Organizations that make such demands on students misunderstand the nature of internships.

Covering War

While it is possible to have a long career in photojournalism without covering conflicts, for some storytellers, war is at the heart of being a photojournalist with a still or video camera. For visual storytellers with these aspirations, there are conflicts in every corner of the world ripe for coverage.

Wise photographers will research what others have done, before setting out on their own. Many photographers have written candidly and eloquently about what it means to be under fire. Aspiring war photographers should read some of the biographies of experienced war photographers and look at some of their videos where photographs talk about their experiences. It is useful to understand what it means to be in conflicts zones, to understand the risks.

Because photographers and members of the media are often targets to be shot at or kidnapped, photographers may want to go to battle zones with an organization, military or civilian. Media companies have people on the scene to provide some measure of support in the conflict area. If a photographer can be hired by such organizations, it may give him or her access to medical care and evacuation in case of injury.

One way to prepare for war zones before getting on an airplane is to work in some of the more challenging areas of one’s own country. By finding a way to tell stories about U.S. inner cities, whether from the point of view of the people who live there or from the side of law enforcement authorities who patrol these areas, photographers can gain considerable street sense by challenging themselves with such assignments before going to a foreign country.

The Money

Like the worlds of music and sports, it is possible to make large amounts of money in photography. However, as with these other professions, only a small number of the industry’s participants actually succeed at a high level. For the most part, photography is like teaching, the priesthood, nursing, acting, social work, working for NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), and the like: It is not about the money. Something else motivates people to get into the profession.

In the case of journalists, photojournalists, videographers, and filmmakers, the motivation is often to tell stories. In many cases, the resulting stories and projects are intended to make a difference. While it can bring great satisfaction to accomplish these goals, it is the rare project that brings Oscar-like wealth and recognition. This means that photographers must find satisfaction in other benchmarks of success.

Because the work of photojournalism and storytelling with still or video cameras and multimedia equipment is so challenging, some argue that this is a profession people should pursue only if they cannot see themselves doing anything else. The technological challenges are considerable. The access to willing subjects seems to close down every day. The distribution of completed projects doubles the work involved in any undertaking. Unless aspiring storytellers are compelled to take on these challenges, they would do well to consider other work, unless they simply cannot imagine doing anything else.

However, those who do take up the challenge regularly report that they have chosen the best job in the world.


One of the ways photojournalists and visual storytellers help ensure that ongoing income from the work they create is by registering their work with the U.S. Copyright Office ( Such a move helps those in the creative arts maintain legal ownership of the work they write, photograph, film, paint, and compose. It is not enough to do the work: Creative people must register their finished work with the U.S. government. The process is relatively simple and inexpensive compared with the consequences of not registering.

With the digitization of photographs and films, the opportunity to steal a photographer or filmmaker’s work is easier than ever. If a photographer is good, chances are that at some point, someone will take the photographer’s work for some purpose. If the originating photographer or filmmaker has registered the work with the copyright office, the opportunity to seek legal redress becomes significantly easier.

How easy? When a creative artist calls to complain that one of images or film clips has been taken and used without compensation, the first question asked in response often is, “Has the copyright on this work been registered?” If the creative photographer can answer in the affirmative, the lawyers of the person who used the work without payment or authorization take the complaint far more seriously—because the penalties for taking a copyrighted work are so much more significant than for the illegal use of unregistered work.

Ideally, the copyright law is something creative artists study and monitor throughout their careers. Congress modifies this law regularly, and courts make important decisions about copyright law all the time. Copyright is a subject to follow over time.

There are many books and resources to help with this process. In addition, professional societies such as the NPPA, the ASMP, and the filmmakers’ International Documentary Association (IDA) and Web sites such as the one created by EP all follow this subject and do what they can to spread key information to participating professionals.

Trends: Looking Ahead

Perhaps the most important trend around photojournalism and documentary storytelling is that this world will become increasingly digital. Stories will be told on the Web in a multimedia environment using still pictures, audio (music, narration, interviews, natural sound), video,

and the written word. These elements may exist as individual components of the story or in a blend.

Therefore, for photographers who want to work in storytelling, the key is to learn as many of these techniques as possible—or partner with those who know them—in order to produce accurate and fair storytelling.

While it is possible for one individual to develop a wide range of software and technical skills, it is good to remember the model of the motion picture director. Starting out in the business, filmmakers often learn enough script writing, photography, audio production, lighting, and editing to do small projects reasonably well. As they advance in their careers and take on larger projects, directors often team up with friends and colleagues who have greater aptitude in certain areas of the process. This allows the directors to bring their best skills to the project and allows other highly skilled professionals to bring their diverse talents to the project.

This means that the best films, the most fascinating books, and the most amazing Web sites often result from the collaboration of many highly creative minds brought to bear on one project. While one might attempt to do something by oneself, projects often succeed when partners are involved as collaborators.

Fortunately, the Web has considerable room to display one’s work. Creative minds are no longer limited to just the space of the printed page or the distribution system of major film studios. With the Web, everyone can be a publisher or a studio head. Individuals no longer need millions of dollars for a brick-and-mortar building, a printing press, or a series of theaters for a distribution system. With a computer, a blog, a Web site, anyone can tell a story and exhibit material where it can be seen.

The key, however, is paying attention to the viewer’s attention span. Just because writers and photographers can post a story equivalent to 25 pages of printed material, does that mean the audience will stay with it? Just because we can post a feature-length film project to the Web, will an audience care?

Viewers will migrate to and will stay with compelling storytelling. If visual storytellers can do that, they have a chance to have their project seen by the audience they want to reach.