How to get started on Photojournalism
Updated: Nov 19, 2021
“A picture speaks a thousand words” is a phrase we've heard a thousand times and more often than not, brushed it aside without a second glance. But just thinking of the recent news on the United States forces' withdrawal from Afghanistan, we are immediately reminded of the heartbreaking scene of an Afghan baby being lifted over a wall at Kabul Airport by a US marine.
At times, what really speaks to the audience and instantly creates a compelling connection to the subjects of the news story isn't as much about the paragraphs after paragraphs of words (although it may be), but the photographs that directly strike a lasting visual impact in the minds of the audience. This is where photojournalism comes in.
For friends who no idea what photojournalism is all about, it is a form of Journalism in which the news story is mainly presented with photographs and supplemented with written copy.
But of course, as inspired as we all are, we can't immediately become professional photojournalists covering war-zones and whatnot right off the bat. So for a start, here are some tips and tricks to get you rolling and shooting your first Photojournalism project~
totally unrelated but cats are my favourite subjects to capture because they're such photogenic and unpredictable models
While technology nowadays is very advanced with certain phone cameras achieving very DSLR-like photo quality, having the appropriate professional photography equipment will really make your photojournalism journey much easier.
Setting aside the usual zooming capabilities with clearer and sharper shots that professional cameras have as compared to phone cameras, the fact that you have more control over the details – the lens, the frame, the golden triangle of photography and more... – just proves how professional cameras are preferred.
And if you have absolutely NO idea what I’m on about (what EVEN is the golden triangle of photography… I’ve only heard of the Bermuda triangle) don’t freak out just yet! I'm no photography expert, but there are many free online resources you can look into that’ll give you a clear, succinct, beginners’ guide into photography. Some of which I used when I first got into photography include: Photography life and David Manning on YouTube.
Better yet, if you have a professional camera ready, always take the step to search up the camera's operation manual and learn how to properly utilise its functions.
Another quick tip would be to always remember to charge your battery and bring a memory card, or better yet, just bring extra ones because according to Murphy’s law – anything that can go wrong, will...
If you’re here wondering, why do I need to know all this to start on photojournalism, well let’s just say that when you’re at the shoot location, experiencing the “decisive” moment (as Henri Cartier-Bresson said it) you definitely won’t want to be fumbling about, trying to figure out the basics… and miss out on an incredible shot :’) Or worse, you could be thinking you have all your great shots down after the shoot, only to realise all your shots are out of focus or too dark for the pictures to be usable… that’ll be the absolute worst. So yes, let’s not take shortcuts and learn the basics of photography!
Note: The "decisive" moment occurs when the visual and psychological elements of people in a real life scene spontaneously and briefly come together in perfect resonance to express the essence of that situation.
TLDR: A shot that captures the essence of a transitory moment
With just a white door in the middle of a white wall between two pillar, this shot would have been quite boring and flat. But at that exact moment, a lady with a mustard yellow tote (quite unusual, I would say) walks by and a while later, a golden-ish car drives past (even more unusual o.o). It's at this unexpected moment where we see the combination of both aspects that gives the shot the additional "oomph" than it would've been without.
As aspiring journalists, we can never get to run away from this useful term: Newsworthiness. Do refer to this article: Basic Writing for Journalism for a more specific explanation of Newsworthiness and its values!
Even though I agree that photojournalism, or street photography in general should, to a certain extent, be about going with the flow~ Let’s talk about when you’re on a professional assignment to sieve out stories that your editor and the target audience would take interest in, newsworthiness matters.
The newsworthiness of your photojournalism project's theme determines the motivation for people to even bother with your work.
Here are some newsworthiness values for your consideration:
Timeliness: Is the subject something that is happening now?
Prominence/Significance: Is the subject regarding famous people or places of interest?
Magnitude/Impact: What are some consequences of the subject, how does it affect the audience?
Relevance/Proximity to Audience: Is the geographical location of the subject near the audience or some distance away?
Peculiarity/Uniqueness: Is the subject rare or unusual? Is it the first, last or only of its kind?
Topic Currency: Is the subject a matter of current interest or conflict?
Human Interest: Does the subject appeal to human emotions? Is it something the audience will be generally interested in
Although street photography in Singapore doesn’t require consent from the subjects (unless, of course, if your photography strays into the deep end and may cause “harassment, alarm or distress” to the subjects), seeking consent is basic and more often than not, helpful to your journalism.
Do note that I’m using “at times” because there are always exceptions to when seeking consent is of a lower priority. For investigative journalism, which is a form of exposé journalism to unveil matters that are deliberately or accidentally concealed by someone in a position of power in order to reveal these facts to the public, seeking consent would definitely be pretty counterproductive to your mission…
Otherwise, it’s very common and encouraged to seek consent from the subjects you’re photographing. In the very first place, you should get their basic details such as their name, age, occupation, and contact details to clarify their stories wherever necessary, especially when you’re aiming to publish your photographs and their stories.
Furthermore, you definitely wouldn’t want to be a nuisance to your subject by having an ambiguous photograph that causes misunderstandings merely because you didn't get the story right. Not only does this cause distress to your subject, you might even end up with a lawsuit on your hands.
Getting the story and representation right is of utmost priority.
To counter this, you should consider either taking the shot first, then stepping up to gain their consent and to learn their stories, or the other way round.
Additionally, some subjects may find it super awkward or even be hostile when a random stranger sticks a camera lens into their face and shoots away for no good reason. Put yourselves in the shoes of your subject, take the time to build rapport with them and they’ll more likely be willing to share more than you imagined.
I remembered how I was shooting around Golden Mile area for a photojournalism assignment and wandered into a store selling artificial landscaping products (which I initially thought was a flower shop).
Though Mr George Kok, the store owner, was busy getting the day's work done, he was very open to me photographing his store and even brought me to the second level to show me the very precious decades-old wooden ladder that his father used in the 1950s.
For my assignment, I eventually used this photograph with the accompanying caption:
This stack of price cards tells the 73 years of history behind the Hoi Kee Flower Shop currently owned by Mr George Kok, 70, an artificial plant landscaper who inherited the craft and business from his father.
Even as their products were taken off the shelves over the years due to changing demands, Mr Kok still kept the price cards of every product they have ever offered. He shared that the habit serves as both a practical reminder of the prices they used to charge in the event that they decide to sell the products again, as well as a nostalgic memory to look back on.
Do note that I included his full name, his age, the details of his store and the story surrounding the price cards (and his consent to mention them in my caption).
If I had not spoken to him, I wouldn't have given much thought to this random stack of cards and would have perceived it as lacking in “newsworthiness”. But now, I know that it’s a prized collection that reflects the long history of their family-run business.
It’s so important to talk to your subjects, gain their consent, learn their stories to best represent their tales to share with the world. Treat your camera lens as an extension of a long-standing conversation with your subjects, and not just a paparazzi-like existence to conquer and leave.
For friends who are super shy and introverted, I totally understand your reservations because if I'm being honest, I probably won't bother at all if I wasn't assigned to do this. But now that I tried, I’m totally grateful for the experience!
Not only had I not faced as many rejections as I expected (I asked seven strangers for their consent, and only two rejected), I was even treated super warmly, given drinks and stayed for hour-long chats with some subjects. As much as you're reluctant to start, treat these experiences as an essential growing pain, you’ll be warmly surprised to see how rewarding your experience can be.
Research, research and more research
Really, there’s no shortcuts around this. In the first place, you should always look up a certain area you’re planning to shoot online to figure out what kinds of lens to bring, what environments you can expect to shoot in and the kinds of shots you’ll likely have the opportunity to shoot! So do your basic research and plan ahead.
Other than the direct Googling, do search up works by professional photographers (such as World Press Photo, Magnum Photos) or photojournalists (such as The New York Times, Reuters, The Guardian) to be exposed to different styles, compositions, and unique photo stories. The possibilities are really endless!
Moreover, if you have a very specific theme or subject you wish to shoot, it’ll really help to contact the organisations or individuals relevant to your choice of topic to seek their approval before going down to the location directly.
Knowing the stories of your subjects, as mentioned above, can help you decide the types of photographs you may expect to shoot. More often than not, your subjects do not have as much experience in photography as you, so your research and exposure to different works can go a long way in guiding you on your creative direction while shooting.
That aside, I agree that sometimes it may be extremely difficult to plan ahead because some street photography shots come unexpected.
Here's a very random picture of a random chicken in a bicycle basket with some random chicks and birds in the cages while their owner is chillin' at a neighbourhood playground. A totally unexpected find.
Life is a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get. Researching ahead, or just being exposed to street photography and photojournalism works on a regular basis will help you gain ideas on how you can shoot unexpected events or sightings from different angles, framing and composition.
Photographs and captions
During my photojournalism class, we were exposed to three main types of shots
Documentary: Ensure your subject is comfortable enough around you and the camera to do their own things as per usual while you shoot away like a fly-on-the-wall!
Picture without picture: think of those “tell me your pet is clingy without telling me your pet is clingy” tiktoks that you watch on the daily. Basically, these shots give you more insights into your subject’s life without explicitly shouting it in your face.
Environmental portraits: Portrait shots have your subjects fully aware of the camera and mostly staring straight into the lens (otherwise, whatever better suits the theme/message/mood you aim to project with your photography) while you shoot. For these types of photographs, you’re free to pose your subjects which is unlike documentary shots. Do note that the background of the portrait should be something relevant to the story you’re telling. Imagine, Joseph Schooling with the swimming pool in the background
Mr Liew Yew Wan, 63, is a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physician who owns the Ban On Hoe Medical Store located on 2 Beach Road. Inheriting the 60-year legacy from his father, Mr Liew has no intention to pass it on to his own children, who are working as school teachers. Instead, he is currently training three apprentices whom he hopes will eventually take over the craft someday.
When you’re choosing the photographs for a photo essay (usually 10 to 12 photos), always choose those that best represent your photojournalism theme and story with different perspectives and types of shots for variety.
Ensure that your caption matches what’s in the picture. Obviously you don’t want to have a picture of a human in a library studying and your caption to be totally irrelevant and talking about how much cats can sleep.
It has to make sense – your captions are an extension and to some extent, a clarification of the story you’re crafting in the pictures.
So there you have it! Here are some tips and tricks I have gleaned from my photojournalism experience after an internship and a semester-long photojournalism module.
There’s still so much to photography and photojournalism to learn that I’ve not covered in this short article!! So if you’re interested in sharing your expertise and opinions, please don’t hesitate to send a message to @nus.cnm on Instagram! 😊
If you’re still shy and hesitant about it, just throw your reservations out of the window for a bit and live out your photojournalism dreams! I’m sure your experience will be more rewarding than whatever fears you've had previously :)
All photographs are taken by me.