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Understanding and Appreciating the Basics of Photojournalism

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Read Time: 15 min
This post is part of a series called Photojournalism.
Climate Change: How Photographers Can Make a Difference
On Assignment: Photographing the Pope in Italy

Every two weeks, we revisit some of our reader favorite posts from throughout the history of Phototuts+. This tutorial was first published in January of 2010.

It can be argued that photojournalism is the most universal form of mass communication. Writing and speaking both require the knowledge of a specific language, but the visual image can in many instances be understood by anyone. Facial expressions, emotions, movement and body posture as well as composition, light and shadow can tell a story in the same way that words can.

This tutorial is not meant to instantly turn you into a photojournalist, but hopefully it will allow you to more fully understand the craft. This will help you to better empathize with the professionals who practice it, know what it takes to create the images you see in the news, or make a educated decision about adding the pursuit of photojournalism to your photographic life.

Defining Photojournalism

Let's first define photojournalism. On the most basic level, it is telling stories with photographs. But on top of that, the stories created must follow the rules of journalism. They must be true stories and the journalist must try to tell the story in the most fair, balanced and unbiased way possible. A photojournalist can take many forms, but in general you find them at newspapers, magazines, news stations and websites and a growing number are found working at other, traditionally non-visual news mediums, like radio stations which have expanded their coverage to the internet.

Photojournalism Jobs

A staff photographer is someone who works for a specific publication, shooting for that publication is their full or part-time job. A stringer or freelance photographer shoots for many publications. A number of different organizations may request a freelancer's services for a specific assignment or a specific period of time. Freelancers usually have a roster of clients that they work for. The third most common employer of photojournalists are wire services such as the Associated Press or Reuters. Newspapers and other news outlets subscribe to wire services. Wire services provide news coverage to these outlets which often can't afford to sent their own reporters to remote locations.

The photo below is a typical assignment. My editor said there's this great teacher at a local school who has integrated principles of “character building" into his gym class like integrity, wisdom, kindness and honor, and I had to make an image to go with that story.

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Photo Assignments

The life of a photojournalist can be exciting. You can be sent anywhere to meet any kind of person. More than the photography and journalism, this variety and diversity of experiences can be the most rewarding part of the profession. General news assignments are just that, general. General news is anything that is planned. A dinner party, a fundraiser, a protest, a press conference, an award ceremony, a tree planting, these are all types of general news assignments.

The key to covering these events (and to most types of assignments) is to try to tell a complete story with your image. For example, the photo below accompanied a story about a science class who was helping to nurse a stranded baby robin back to health. I was assigned to visit the class and see what they were doing. The photo shows all the elements of the story: the class, the teacher, the robin and how they were helping.

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Sports photography is a specialized version of general news. It involves high action and the photographer must have an excellent sense of timing. In sports photos, you want to show conflict and emotion. This usually means having players from both teams in the photo and the thing they're fighting for (typically a ball). The emotion comes by showing the faces of the players. That can be difficult because of flailing arms or helmets, but the best sports shots don't just show action, but show the emotion, too.

Spot News

Spot news is, in some ways, the opposite of general news. Spot news is an unplanned event like a car accident or fire. During these types of assignments, information is the most important thing. You need information to stay safe and to make the photo that best tells the story. You need reporting skills to get the information about who was involved in the situation and what actually happened. Being skilled at dealing with law enforcement or emergency rescue crews are often required in these situations. You can see a spot news photograph later in this tutorial.


Photojournalists also shoot portraits. While they usually never pose photographs, portraits are the exception. Journalistic portraits usually show a person in their environment; a judge in their office, a painter in their studio. The subject is usually looking directly at the camera so the viewers know that it is a portrait. The subject isn't usually doing anything, again because the viewer should not be confused as to whether the photo is a posed portrait or a real, documentary piece of journalism.

The Photo Story

The last type of assignment is the photo story or long-term documentary project. This type of work requires the photographer to spend an extended period of time documenting the actions of a subject. Photo stories usually involve multiple photos which flow together. An example would be following a family of refugees or documenting the life of a family with a sick loved one.

The Greats

Photojournalism has never been a profession for fame-seekers. But in terms of fame within an industry, there are hundreds of amazing shooters to choose from. I'm going to focus on three that are my personal favorites. I chose these three because they span a large portion of the history of photojournalism.

Before I go on, let me say that I am American, therefore I'm most familiar with American photographers. There have been other great photojournalists not listed here such as Henri Cartier-Bresson from France, Robert Capa who worked across Europe, Shisei Kuwabara in Japan, and Sebasitiao Salgado from Brazil. The three photojournalists I chose are also all male. The profession has many prominent females as well, such as Annie Leibovitz, Margaret Bourke-White and Susan Meiselas.

W. Eugene Smith

W. Eugene Smith was born in 1918 and died in 1978. Smith's specialty was the photo story, at a time when magazines like 'Life' filled their pages with documentary work. Smith covered World War II in the Pacific, but is most famous for his later work. My favorite essay by Smith is called “Country Doctor" published in 1948. It is often credited as the first modern “photo story."

Eddie Adams

Eddie Adams was born in 1933 and died in 2004. He covered 13 wars. He is probably most famous for his photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon. His timing, or luck, led him to make this frame which shows the exact moment the bullet is entering the prisoners head. For this he won a Pulitzer Prize. Eddie Adams also started a photojournalism workshop. Spots in his workshop are probably the most sought after by students in the U.S. and the standards for acceptance are very high.

James Nachtwey

James Nachtwey was born in 1948 and is still shooting. He was recently given the TED Prize in 2007, which grants the winner $100,000 and one “world-changing wish." He has primarily been a war photographer, and a documentary was made about him called “War Photographer." During parts of this film, a small video camera is attached to his camera allowing you a James-Nachtwey-eye view of the action. Some of my favorite work by Nachtwey is his photos of people suffering from AIDS in Africa and his current TED Prize project on extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis.

The Skills

Photojournalism is an extremely competitive field. Having the right skill sets is essential to having a successful career. First, people skills are the most important thing. A photojournalist need to be able to quickly gain the trust of their subjects and do in their work in a way that will not violate that trust. Strong journalism skills go hand-in-hand with that. Knowing how to determine the most important aspects of a story and how to report that to the public is crucial. This means that most photojournalists are trained in other aspects of journalism as well including writing and interviewing.

Shooting Skills

A person seeking a photojournalism position must also have a flawless portfolio. A portfolio must contain a variety of images from the aforementioned assignment types, and those images must demonstrate an ability to work in tough situations. The downfall of many starting out in photojournalism is working in low light situations. The photo below was basically taken at night with no flash. The shutter speed around an eighth of a second, but since I had practiced steadying myself and I knew to use my motor drive to shoot through my shakes, I produced a sharp image lit only by candles.

The three elements of a great photograph are light, composition and moment. Knowing how to use a flash when needed and looking for dramatic natural light are good skills to have. Also knowing the fundamentals of composition such as the rule-of-third, leading lines and repetition of form will take you a long way. But finding that perfect moment is essential. Look for the emotion peak.

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Technology Skills

A modern photojournalist must also be able to digitally tone and transmit their images and be well versed in online tools like blogging and social media. The trend right now is moving toward more and more video for the web. Photojournalists now often carry video equipment to capture footage when needed. With video also comes the need to have a basic knowledge of video editing software.


The most important thing, the thing that separates photojournalism from other forms of photography is trust. The audience must be able to trust that the image they see is a true representation of what was happening. This comes down to two main issues: interference and manipulation. A photojournalist must never interfere with a situation. He/She can never direct or pose their subjects, unless the situation calls for a portrait, then they follow the rules of mentioned above in the photo assignment section. Portraits are also labeled as such in the caption by using phrasing like “Mr. Smith poses" and the like.

It can be argued that a photographer's presence alone can alter the situation. While this sometimes is true, the impact can be minimized by patience and practice. People will eventually get used to having a photographer there, and in lucky cases, subjects will forget about it all together. The photojournalist must be good at explaining his or her purpose so the subjects understand that they should pose or alter their behavior.

Post-Production Ethics

The manipulation of photos is also strictly forbidden. This especially applies to post-production. Nothing should be edited into or out of an image. Post-production work should really only focus on correcting color problems, exposure and latitude problems, and slight sharpness problems. Cameras are still not as good at rendering images as the huge eye, so we sometimes have to make up for their sort comings.

Cropping is also fine. But wrinkles stay, bags under the eyes stay, stains on shirts stay. A photojournalist cannot move a basketball around in the frame or take one out or put one in. Adding dramatic effects like vignetting, artist filters and so on are also against the rules.

An Ethical Approach and Attitude

Another side of ethics is how the photojournalist shoots and portrays their subjects. This requires compassion and a genuine interest in the people and topics covered. This part of ethics is much harder to talk about, so I'd like to describe a situation I was once in that happens all the time in the world of journalism.

I was called to the scene of an accident, so this would fall into the spot news category of the field. A young girl had been struck by a car. It's was an accident and the driver was not intoxicated nor did they hit the child intentionally. When I arrived on the scene, the driver was still present along with many members of the victims family. The two parties knew each other and we're mourning together. I made the photo below. It is a little graphic due to the blood on the driver's shirt.

The image is obviously compelling, but what's the point? Is it news? You often cannot make that decision while you're in the field. After returning to the newsroom, the reporter had discovered that the apartment complex where the accident took place had recently sent a letter to all of their residents requesting that they be extra cautious when driving for the safety of children and pedestrians. So we ran the photo. The young girl died in the hospital later, but the point of the news story wasn't to exploit her death, but to raise awareness about a problem. This is a fine line and requires a lot of thought and discussion before making a final decision.

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Without compassion and trust, access will never come. By access, I mean convincing people to allow you to document their lives, to give you access to their story. The best stories don't come from press conferences or public relations pitches, they come from getting out there and finding interesting people. Asking those people to let you follow them around, sometimes for months, can be hard. There are several things to take into account.

Risk/Benefit Analysis

First, the photojournalist must determine how a subject's story will benefit the public. Second, it should be determined how the story will affect the subject personally. Could it help them achieve something they want or could it damage their reputation and make life harder for them? Each story has it's own unique factors, but the photojournalist must present this balancing act of public good vs. personal damage or gain to their subjects in a way that they understand. After that, whether or not to allow access is up to them. However, once the journalist is allowed inside a situation it is up to them to behave in a way that will allow for continued access. Basically, they have to not get kicked out... well not permanently at least.

The “Out"

But giving your subject the power to kick you out temporarily is a very good idea. Let me explain, many photojournalists give their subjects an “out." They tell them if they get uncomfortable and want them to leave for a little while, that that's fine. Giving the subjects a temporary escape from the public eye is important, but usually knowing that they have the power to send you away without you getting upset is enough. Having the option is often more important that using it.

Dedication and Compassion

Lastly, the subject must know that the journalist is dedicated to the story as well. Spending a lot of time with subjects helps a lot and goes hand-in-hand with trust and compassion. The photo below was part of a story I did about a mother who was raising her young daughter with Cerebral Palsy. The daughter, Lianna, was around 5-years-old and could do very little for herself.

Her mother had to feed her, bath her, carry her, lift her and interpret her eyes signals to know what she was trying to say because she could not speak. Because of the time I spent with this family, her mother gave me access to everything, even including bath time to demonstrate the extent that Lianna relied on her mother.

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As I mentioned early, photojournalism is the act of telling stories with photos. Most stories in newspapers and magazines allow room for only one photo to accompany them, therefore the most you can tell the better. There are a lot of ways to do this, but I'll focus on the two strongest tools in the photojournalists bag.


Often layers are utilized to add context to an image. A photo that shows a musician playing enthusiastically could be taken anywhere, but that same musician shoot with a crowd in the background tells a story. Maybe the crowd is huge and the musician is feeding off their energy, or maybe the crowd is small and the musician is still giving it everything he has. Either way, layering the content adds a lot to the story. The layers don't necessarily have to be on a large scale like that, small elements and details can also add those layers of content.


The other important aspect of telling stories is emotion. The photojournalist has to be an expert at reading and more importantly anticipating facial expressions. A tear, a thoughtful glance, a huge joyful smile, all of these reveal how the subject of the photo feels about what they are doing. From the time we are infants, we learn to recognize the faces of the people we're around, utilizing it in a photo can be very powerful.

The photo below is of a veteran of World War II. He fought in the Pacific and was being awarded a medal for his service by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars association. The medal and the badges of the other people in the photo create layers and I believe that his expression shows appreciation, I hope that this is easily read by viewers. I hope that this tutorial gives you a better insight into the world of photojournalism.

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