Photojournalism may seem like a commodity these days. Everybody has a phone, and every phone has a camera. Those cameras are good enough to take a picture that can be published on the front page of the New York Times, and much more easily on the homepage of a website. So what’s differentiates the true photojournalist and the guy who happens to have a camera and happens to be on the scene at the right moment?
Photojournalism means more than being in the right place at the right time. At its core, photojournalism is serious journalism, with a focus on the visual impact of a story. If you’re serious about photojournalism, you should take a course like this Journalism Masterclass to more about being a journalist, and keep in mind these tips that you can keep in mind to help move yourself in that direction.
The most important thing to bring to your work as a photojournalist is planning. If you don’t know in advance what’s going to be needed, you’re not going to have the right equipment or be looking in the right direction when something important happens. Photojournalism is rarely about capturing unexpected events, but rather about capturing unexpected moments at planned events.
As a photojournalist, even if you’re not working officially for a publication, you need to set yourself assignments, and plan ahead for what you’re going to need. Is there an event happening in your town that you believe has the potential for journalistic relevance? Assign yourself the responsibility of going to this event and photographing key participants. Pay attention to what’s happening, and think about who is likely to provide you with the most interesting visual opportunities.
A lot of photojournalism comes down to waiting. If you are in a situation where you know something is likely to happen, the question is what’s going to happen, and when. You need to be paying attention constantly. Look for visual details that will explain what’s relevant to the viewer.
When you are just learning how to capture the critical moment, you may believe those opportunities can happen only once. You need to have your camera ready, and be looking in the right direction when it does. But that may seem like an impossible expectation.
A fascinating secret about timing, and something that you don’t learn until you’re actually on assignment, is that sometimes the critical moment can happen more than once. Even if you miss the that amazing shot, or the moment the speaker trips on the way to that podium, something just as relevant may well happen immediately afterwards. If you can be there to catch that subsequent shot, it can be golden. With experience, you will learn to get the shot you need, even if you missed the shot you wanted.
Photojournalism is not just about artistic expression, it’s also about making sure that people can see what’s happening. It’s tempting to look at the artistic possibilities of every scene, and you may find yourself frustrated by the need to report clearly and accurately what is actually happening. But viewers expect reality from photojournalism.
When you arrive at the scene, set your camera carefully for the exposure you’re going to need to capture the light correctly so viewers can see your subject. When the moment happens, and you need to take that critical shot, you don’t want to be fiddling with the exposure meter. Similarly, you don’t want to let the camera take over and use automatic exposure. Automatic exposure is optimized to average the lighting, and can obscure the details that you think are most important. As the photographer, you need to take control, and preset your camera with the manual settings that you know will be needed to catch the moment when it happens.
One of the advantages of using a high resolution camera is the ability to crop after-the-fact. The point of the photojournalistic images to draw the viewer’s attention to the elements that are critical. You won’t always be able to line up every image so that the composition orients the eye and guides the viewer to the item that you really wanted them to see. Sometimes you’re going to need to crop the image around the subject that is most important.
With high-resolution images, you have the advantage of being able to do extensive cropping in software after you’ve shot a picture. Cropping, however, is the only adjustments you can legitimately make. There have been scandals about photojournalists who have done more sophisticated retouching and editing, to the point of making the image appear to be something that it wasn’t originally. photojournalism is about documenting reality. Viewers trust you, and you have to respect that trust.
It goes without saying that if the subject is out of focus, viewers won’t be able to see it properly. But focus is also a tool a photojournalist can use to draw attention to the elements that are the most relevant and image. As a beginning photojournalist, you may be tempted to use the smallest aperture possible, and try to get the widest range focus. But a narrow depth of field can be a very valuable tool. You just have to use it carefully, and learn how the aperture affects your images.
If you’re lucky enough to be close to your subject, a narrow depth of field can cast the background out of focus, allowing the subject to pop. You need planning and skill to focus carefully on your subject. I recommend turning off the automatic focus on your camera, and keeping the focus manually set on the subject that you intend to be the center of attention. Ultimately, you may need to take a course like this one in Digital Photography: Shooting in Manual to learn how the manual settings in your digital camera work.
Choosing what you want to focus on is an important aspect photojournalism. Sometimes you’ll come to an event because you know that there’s something specific there you want to capture, but sometimes you’re just looking around to see what’s newsworthy. Ideally, you should always come to any photojournalistic opportunity with an idea in mind of what you want to walk away with. Sometimes that will come from the editor who assigned you the job, but sometimes you’ve self-assigned, and you need the discipline of knowing at least one thing you want to capture.
Sometimes it’s perfectly obvious what the subject of a photograph should be, but sometimes you have some flexibility. When something dramatic is happening, is the actual event itself as newsworthy as the reaction of the crowd around you? Consider the faces of the people in the audience, and consider the environment you’re in. you may find that the context provides even more opportunities for photojournalistic interpretation than the subject you originally intended.
If you’re in public, it’s important to know the rights of the people you’re photographing. While celebrities, politicians, felons, and some emergency workers have essentially given up their rights to privacy as far as photojournalism is concerned, you need to be cautious about taking photographs of ordinary citizens. You also have to be careful where you’re taking these photographs.
In a public venue, it’s much easier to argue that you have the right to photograph somebody than if you’re in a private space, hospital, or inside a prison. It’s good to come prepared with basic model releases in case you think you’re going to need them.
Don’t take photojournalism casually. What you report can change the lives of people who are represented in your photographs, and the people who see them. Approach the field with the respect it deserves.