2018 will mark my 5th year as a photojournalist. In honor of my half decade of shutter clicking here are five key things I’ve learned about working in photojournalism.
- It’s not about gear. When I first started out in photojournalism I was obsessed with gear. Reading reviews, watching videos, writing pro and con lists. Gear was my focus and what I thought would make me a great photojournalist. I was wrong. Gear only needs to do three things. It needs to be weather sealed, needs to work well in low light conditions and needs to be reliable. That’s really it. Everything else is on you. Knowing HOW to use the gear you have is paramount. The ability to find and utilize natural light and learning the patience and technique required to capture a candid moment are far more important than megapixels. I use a 5-year-old Canon 1dx for most of my work. It is heavy and not the newest, sexiest camera out there anymore but it’s indestructible and has great low light performance especially when paired with a prime lens (which I’ll get to later). For anyone just starting out a refurbished Canon 5d Mark III and a 35mm f/2 will allow you to shoot 80% of news and portrait assignments in any weather, any light and will not break down on you.
- Natural talent is a myth. In High School I was interested in photography but was intimidated by people who were deemed “naturally talented” by teachers and peers. I didn’t want to be embarrassed or showed up by these people so I didn’t pick up a still camera until freshman year of college. I was not talented but I was observant and patient. It took two years of experimentation and studying other people’s work to get to a place where I was happy with the photos I was making. Photojournalism is really 30% photographic skills and 70% social and observational skills. If you are good with people and can pick out details most people look over, you’re ahead of the game. The photo skills will come with time, the people skills are the most important talent to have.
- Get a mentor. In college I begrudgingly interned at a local newspaper to fulfill an internship credit. My boss was a guy named Scott. Early 30’s, cargo pants, always heated up weird smelling sandwiches in the photo lab toaster. He became my mentor and is responsible for starting my career. He’ll be a groomsman at my wedding in May. During my internship Scott taught me everything; Technical camera operations, how to crop an image effectively, how to work with people hesitant to have their picture made, which assignments have the best free food, etc. He helped me form connections in the photojournalism community and even alerted me to the opening of my current job before it actually opened to the public. He has that key mentor ability to tell you your pictures suck without making you feel like crap. Scott and I now live about 15min from each other. We regularly drink beer, edit contest entries, build bonfires, ride mountain bikes, and send each other freelance work. Scott has been an indispensable person in my life. If you want to be a successful photojournalist, find a Scott.
- Enter contests. When you’ve made some work you’re proud of, enter some contests. For photojournalists the National Press Photographers’ Association offers an awesome monthly contest with a variety of categories. These contests force you to look back at what you’ve shot on a monthly basis. It helps you evaluate what you did well and what you need to step up. When the results come back from judging you can see where you stack up against other photographers in the country and what the best photographers are doing that maybe you’re not.
- Push your comfort zone. I used to be reliant on my 70-200 lens, a big zoom lens that allowed me to stay back, not get involved and just zoom in on the action. Unfortunately that meant sacrificing context, sense of place and intimacy in my pictures in exchange for the comfort of not getting up close and personal with my subject. I learned that most good pictures require an interaction of some sort with the subject, and that even on days when my introverted side was pulling strongly, I had to interact with people to make good pictures. This is uncomfortable at times and some interactions go more smoothly than others, but I promise you, the pictures you make will be worth the hassle. ALSO, try shooting new types of assignment. If you’re a portrait photographer, try picking up a news assignment. If you specialize in documentary photography, try shooting a basketball game. Similar to playing multiple sports, shooting a variety of disciplines will make you a more well-rounded photographer. Aspects from one discipline will compliment other disciplines.
- (BONUS) Shoot Primes. I know I said it’s not about gear, and it’s not, but I have one gear-related suggestion. Use prime lenses. They’re sharper, clearer and help you see in a new way. I shoot the majority of my assignments with a 50mm f/1.2. Primes teach you to crop out the unimportant, to leave only the necessary pieces of the scene. They force you to frame creatively. Zoom lenses have their place, but they make photographers lazy. Zoom with your feet, not with your lens. Walking 5 feet forward or backward can dramatically change how you see a scene and what you see in it. These lenses also allow you to use an incredibly shallow depth of field. Shooting between f/1.2 and f/2 will gently blur out the rest of the scene leaving the sense of place intact while maintaining a razor sharp focus on the subject. Prime lenses also use light more efficiently. More light in the lens = less grainy pictures even in dark conditions. If a lot of what you’re shooting is indoors or in low light conditions prime lenses are your friends.