Photojournalism Tips For A Career In The Industry

Seeking to build a career in photojournalism? Here are some very useful  photojournalism tips from Michelle Wong,  to guide you if you are considering a career in this exciting but competitive industry.

Photojournalism versus Traditional Photography

Photojournalism began in 1925 Germany with the invention of the 35 mm Leica camera. It was a merger of editors and their words with photographers and their photographs, where captions, or cutlines, were included near the photos to reinforce a story

Photojournalism tips: Photo of man lighting a cigarette in Havana, Cuba by Michelle Wong
© 2008 Michelle Wong. All rights reserved.   CUBA – A Havana man sitting near the Malecón (4 mile coastal roadway and seawall) lights up a cigarette after losing a game of chess.

The combining of journalism and photography became more prominent after World War II and the standard means of relaying the stories of the world to its readers.

Tips for a Career in Photojournalism: Photo of a male mental health patient in Argentina by Michelle Wong
ARGENTINA – The police state of the Argentinean dictatorship may no longer be, but fragments of its authoritarian bureaucracy remain. For patients of some of the country’s more notorious public mental institutions, life is about isolation and separation for them, as they cannot conform to the greater mainstream society. © 2010 Michelle Wong. All rights reserved.

The Leica camera, like any present day camera, relies on you as the photographer to work with that camera within the realms of the conditions that you are given, such as lighting, environment, timing, composition, color, etc.

More importantly, it is the photographer’s ability to make images that represent real life – photos that have story telling significance.

Unlike traditional studio photography which takes place in a controlled setting, you have to find a way to take an artistic approach and capture the story without manipulating the environment.

This requires getting close to people who don’t know you and achieving a sense of candid intimacy, even in dangerous situations.
Working nationally and internationally as a photojournalist has taught me two primary ways of composing photos;

One, I “grab” those moments in time before I am noticed. And two, I stay close to the subjects until they feel comfortable with my presence. At this point they will continue with their daily routines and I can go virtually unnoticed.

Creatively, it is important to visualize the possibilities of what can be photographed. Try to isolate a picture out of a scene before pressing the shutter release button. Documentary photography needs to have a connection between the composition of the photo, the subject and the story.
Discretion and quickness can be important assets to photojournalism.

Obvious items such as a bulky camera bag or a flash unit mounted on the camera become obstacles to blending in with the environment.

I always have my camera set and ready for whatever action lays ahead. Little things like making sure the lens cap is removed can prevent one from missing a special moment.

And last, but certainly not least, it is essential that you don’t look suspicious or pretend to be a spy. This behavior gets unwanted attention and will result in having less access to your chosen subjects.


Tips for a Career in Photojournalism: Photo of President Obama after speech in Maryland, USA by Michelle Wong
© 2009 Michelle Wong. All rights reserved. MARYLAND, U.S. – President Obama greets the crowd at the University of Maryland after delivering a speech in which he argued for health care reform.

What Makes a Photograph Newsworthy?

Aesthetics and composition are not the most important elements of documentary photography. Just because a photo “looks good” doesn’t mean it can be published as news. For a photograph to be newsworthy it should have at least one of the following elements:

Impact: Ask yourself, “Does this photograph tell a story that has emotional impact on the readers? Will it affect their lives?” The more influence the story carries, the more photographs you will need to make in order to document that story.

Immediacy: Does your photo tell a story of something that just happened or that is about to happen? Timing is very important, as there will be competition with other photojournalists.

Proximity: How close is the story to the reader’s physical location? Readers will be more interested in events that happen around them than in other places.

Prominence: People love reading about and seeing images of people who are well known. If a celebrity or a public figure is involved in the story and photographs, it heightens the interest and holds the attention of the reader to a much greater extent.

Novelty: Photograph subjects or events that have the element of surprise or intrigue.

Conflict: Look for photographs that show dramatic stories, such as a political battle, rivalry or a clash of power.

Emotions: People respond emotionally to human-interest stories that are poignant, comical or inspiring.

Tips for a Career in Photojournalism: Photo of grieving woman in Potosi, Bolivia by Michelle Wong
© 2010 Michelle Wong. All rights reserved. BOLIVIA – A woman learns that her husband, a mine worker in the Cerro Rico mines of Potosi, has died. Cerro Rico, or “Rich Mountain”, is the reason for Potosi’s existence. The mining town, which eventually became the Spanish colonial mine, came into being as 16th century Spanish explorers, infatuated by stories of fabulous riches, conquered the mountain. Much of the work was done through forced labor, either through the mita system or with slaves. Many others were contract workers. All of them had to endure the backbreaking work of digging the silver out of the rock.

Photojournalism Tips – What is Cutline Information?

Cutline, or caption information is the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and the How about the image. When creating photographs, you need to get cutline information about your photographs, as well as interesting details about the subject or event.

Get names, ages, addresses, and any other relevant personal information and be sure to double-check all spellings. Don’t worry about the writing, because it will be rewritten at a later date. Do worry about accuracy, as it is essential that you are truthful and unbiased. The cutline text needs to be factual, to the point, and in short sentences. Avoid fancy prose.

The first sentence of a cutline must describe the action in the photo. The sentence must contain a present tense and active verb, while the rest of the sentences can provide background information about the story or photo. These are photojournalism tips well worth remembering.

Tips for a Career in Photojournalism: Photo of inmate at "La Reforma" prison in Costa Rica by Michelle Wong
© 2011 Michelle Wong. All rights reserved. COSTA RICA – A convicted man in solitary confinement looks out of his cell. Prisoners in “La Reforma” spend 23 hours in solitude and receive one hour of sun light a day. The prison holds perpetrators of some of the most violent and high-profile crimes in the country, from two former presidents convicted for corruption, to the man found guilty of killing an investigative journalist on behalf of a Catholic priest
Tips for a Career in Photojournalism: Photo of street begger in Peru by Michelle Wong
© 2010 Michelle Wong. All rights reserved. PERU – A young man begs on the streets of Lima. According to the CIA World Factbook, 54 percent of Peru’s population lives in poverty. Of the poor, the United Nations Development Programme estimates that 19 percent live in “absolute poverty,” meaning they survive on less than US$1 a day.


Follow the Code of Ethics
As photojournalists, it is important that we promote the highest standards in ethics and operate as trustees of the public.

The primary role of a photojournalist is to visually report on significant events with a variety of viewpoints in our common world documenting society. At the same time a photojournalist should preserve the event’s history through images that reveal the truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, and inspire hope and understanding in order to connect with all people.

Tips for a Career in Photojournalism: Photo of man living on a bus in Santa Barbara County, California by Michelle Wong
© 2010 Michelle Wong. All rights reserved. CALIFORNIA, U.S.A. – A homeless man lives on a bus. It is estimated that more than 4,000 people (including families, adults and children) are homeless in Santa Barbara County.

Photojournalism has a long and cherished tradition of truthfulness. You should always include these guidelines:

1. When photographing, it is crucial to be accurate and all-inclusive in the illustration of subjects that provide context.

Tips for a Career in Photojournalism: Photo of people in Haiti's Tent City by Michelle Wong
© 2011 Michelle Wong. All rights reserved. HAITI – Residents of Haiti’s Tent City. Haiti’s history is one marked by violence and upheaval. Spain first conquered the island they called ‘Hispaniola’ for its gold. The island’s Caribbean location also made it a haven for pirates.

2. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups at all times.

3. Image editing: be ethical and accurate when editing, cropping or choosing and image for publication. Cropping out significant elements of a picture in order to produce a misleading image creates a cloud of uncertainty among the viewing world. It is simply wrong.

Technology allows practically anyone to produce and disseminate visual messages in massive numbers for a world-wide audience.

This creates countless visual messages that perpetuate negative stereotypes of individuals from various multicultural groups, and images that blur the distinction between advertising and journalism. The editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context.

4. Look to photograph diverse viewpoints and work to show unpopular or unnoticed points of view.

Make a Variety of Images

It is also important to provide a visual variety of what you photographed.

There are three types of photos that should be made for each major assignment: the establishing shot (also called the overall shot), the medium shot, and the close-up.

This way you can provide more content for the photo story and your editors and layout designers will have more material with which to work. This also means that your work is more likely to be published.

Do Not “Chimp”

If you are composing your image while around other photojournalists, be sure to respect their space and remember that “chimping” is unprofessional and annoying.

Tips for a Career in Photojournalism: Photo of unemployed woman in Port-au-Prince, Haiti by Michelle Wong
© 2011 Michelle Wong. All rights reserved. HAITI– Unemployment in Haiti hovers around 40 percent, so bargaining is the way of street commerce in Port-au-Prince. Vendors gather to sell whatever they can get their hands on as a way of survival including farm produce, drugs and their own bodies.

“Chimping” is the act of looking at your LCD screen the second after you take a shot and then inviting others to look, while at the same time pointing to your LCD screen saying, “Ooh, ooh, ooh” like a chimpanzee. This is a bad habit that interrupts your flow and the flow of others as well.

You are also wasting precious time and could miss a decisive moment, resulting in unnecessary pressures. On top of that, you could accidentally delete those great photos. When it’s all said and done, your photographic work will speak for itself.

Although there are many components to photojournalism, from the actual act of photographing and all its rules, to editing and presenting the photographs, the most important thing to remember and follow at all times is to be ethical. There have been many journalists and other people who have manipulated images and stories for their own, or sometimes, other people’s advantage.

Remember, as Photojournalists we are entrusted to bring forth unbiased and truthful depictions of events and peoples. Integrity and truthfulness should be foremost in your mind. After all, in order to build a career, your ethics and integrity is all you have. I hope some of my photojournalism tips will prove useful to you in your journey

by Michelle J. Wong
Article and photos: © 2012 Michelle J. Wong. All right reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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