Courtesy photo / © Casey Templeton
Daniel Berman, a high school student in Seattle, asks,
"What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to an 18 year old planning on pursuing a career in photojournalism?"
The biggest piece of advice I can give to a high school student or anybody just getting started is to pay attention to style and be a fan of other people's work. Study their work. Study how they approach things, but never try to emulate another photographer. Always try to take from other people's work what you can see as being positive - what you see as being moving. Then, try to put that into your work and try to add your own style to it.
If you have your own style, it'll take you a lot further than just getting the safe shots. A lot of photographers have portfolios they put together, and it consists of work that other people expect to see. You've got your spot news, you've got your sports, you've got your feature, and people spend their time shooting to fill that cookie-cutter portfolio. What they need to do is know that the best thing they can do as a photographer is put their style into their work.
The judges noted your style. What are key elements of your style?
I pay a lot of attention to color. I really like difficult lighting situations. So, I like to walk into a difficult lighting situation and make something happen with it. If you walk into something like a fireworks display or something like that, there's going to be great colors. If you do a picture that has great colors of a fireworks display, then you've done a mediocre shot that anybody could get.
But, if you walk into a dark room and the lighting is constantly changing. If you walk into it and say, "Oh no! I have to shoot in here? How do you expect me to shoot in here?"
If you walk into that situation and you find something creative and you make something out of nothing, then you've done something. Your style's shown through.
My style deals a lot with color and emotion. I tend to have a lot of faith-based aspects in my work, and I don't really notice it until afterward. But, that's a big part of everything that I do - my faith is. So it happens to show through in some of the different situations and the different people I talk with. That's usually things I pull from them.
How do your religious beliefs factor into your shooting style?
My faith is important to me, but I'd never try to hold anybody else to it. Somehow the spiritual aspect of different people, sometimes it shows through in my photos. It happens without me really knowing it.
But I'm open to everything for everybody.
What advice do you have about eating Sponge Bob Squarepants pops?
(Laughs) I would recommend in moderation. Yeah, in moderation. How about that. (laughs)
What other advice do you have for young photojournalists?
My best advice to young photographers - like myself, I'm just getting started - is to always be true to your style, be a fan of other people's work. Never get discouraged when you see other people do great work. Never discourage other people. Always be happy for other people when they're putting out great work.
It's easy for a young photographer to see somebody create these stunning images and for you just to have this automatic competition with them. It's an automatic thing that makes you really hate the fact that they're doing great work. That's part of competition. That's part of you always want to improve.
But I would always recommend that you should never be discouraged by other people doing great work. Always be encouraged by it and always look at it as a resource for encouragement. But that's challenging.
That's challenging to me all the time. I see people putting out fantastic work, and I think to myself, "Jeez, why am I not doing that kind of work? Why am I not doing that level of work?" But, you never want to discourage yourself about it.
Another thing for young photographers is to always seek advice from other people. Always ask questions, always have people look at your work and never be discouraged by bad photos. The best way to improve, I think, is to challenge yourself to take bad photos. Those are the photos that you're going to learn from.
Go out and you try something new. If it doesn't work out, look them over [and] see what you can do differently the next time.
I learned on 35mm film. Now, most of the people getting started are learning on digital. The advantage I see to learning on film is that you didn't have that instant gratification. I would shoot a roll of film a week or so. My mom would go to work and have it developed.
I remember waiting at the top of the steps for her to get home with my photos. The majority of the time I'd have a roll of 24 photos and, maybe, two of them came back OK. That would me you had 22 photos that turned out awful.
But, how you have to look at it is you have 22 photos that you can learn from. I never paid too much attention to the good photos. I spent most of my time looking over the bad ones. I thought to myself, "How can I improve? How can I do something different here?"
You have to be willing to do something different. Sometimes that's not going to work out, but you have to be willing to learn from it.
How did you start in photography?
In high school, I got a used 35mm camera. Someone in my family had an older camera. I picked it up and started using it. I was also working for the high school yearbook. I was able to work for them and send off rolls of film every week.
Getting started, I would shoot a roll of film. My mom would take it to work. She worked at Kroger. She would have the film developed and bring it home in the next few days. I'd have the photos, look through them and learn something. The next time I went out, I'd always keep that in mind.
I was looking at prints. I never did much film processing. I never did any darkroom work.
Then, I started working for this company called Life Touch, I did sports photography for them. I went to different high schools and shot their team sports - action sports. That was a tragedy at first, but it turned out OK. I was learning to shoot sports while shooting film, so it was difficult.
How did you choose James Madison University?
I didn't have the choice of going out of state. I had to pick a university in state. JMU happened to be the school I felt most comfortable with.
I knew I wanted to do something with photography, but I knew there wasn't a photography program there. So what I decided to do was find something that could help me in everything but photography. Other areas that are important in photography, but a lot of people don't think about.
Four years ago, I'd really love to learn how to make a Web site. I'd really like to learn how to do some multi-media. I'd really like to work on my caption writing. So I did feature writing, news writing. I'd really like to learn some media history. So, I did everything but photography.
JMU felt comfortable. It felt great. I felt at home there. I'm so glad I went.
JMU doesn't have photography program?
They have one class in photojournalism. It's an eight-week course. I took that my sophomore year. It was great because my mentor, Tommy Thompson, taught the class. That was the one photography class I took.
They also have an art department at JMU. They have several photo classes with that, but my senior year I took an independent study with an art photography class. We didn't shoot necessarily, we didn't learn much about photography. We did our own projects and talked about them in the class.
So, no, there's no photojournalism program. There's not really a photo program. I just did everything but photography in college.
Do you think you would have done as well at a "photojournalism" university?
I don't think I would have. I think coming to a school where there wasn't a photojournalism program really made me become more self-motivated. I had to go out and make stories. I had to go out and just have my camera and look for different photos. It's a whole new challenge when you're shooting for yourself and not shooting for a class or for somebody else. That's a big challenge to go out and find stories.
Since I didn't have a photojournalism program, I developed more of a style that's a little bit different than everybody else because I had no prior education. I had no structure in the way that I was learning.
I just trusted my eye and did work that felt natural to me. Again, I clutched on my style and things worked out well. I don't think I would have done as well being around several other photographers all the time. I think I could have sacrificed my style just to make a better grade on an assignment.
So the answer is no I don't think I would have done as well if I went to a photojournalism school.
What do you wish you had learned in college?
I wish I would have learned more of the business side of photography. Not necessarily accounting and financing, things like that. I wish I had learned more about running your own business. I wish I would have learned more about stock photography or commercial photography, just everything.
So many kids my age are coming out of school and we've learned so much about photography, but we know nothing about the business of photography. That can really hurt us.
When you come out of college, what's your day rate if you're going to do an assignment for somebody? How much taxes do you think you should take out? How do you plan to live off the money you make in photography?
This summer I'm going to be helping out with a lot of the studio photographers and a lot of commercial photographers because I want to learn how they run their business. I can apply [the knowledge] to my future career in photojournalism.
If you're a good photographer and a good businessman it's going to take you a lot further than just being a great photographer.
Basically, I'm going to be seeking out advice from photography business owners. I just want to be there. I'm doing other work this summer to make my money to where I can spend the week [learning].
I would like to do some paid assisting, but if I don't get paid, that's OK. I just want to be there. I just want to learn how everything works. Hanging out and learning. I'll always be learning. I have a lot more learning to do, especially on the business side of everything.
Is it good or bad to take internships?
I think it's fantastic to do internships. That's learning that you can't get in the classroom.
I think it's absolutely priceless to work, especially to start off at a small newspaper so you can see how many roles - how many hats you can wear as a photographer - at a small newspaper.
Most students come out and they will start working for a small newspaper and they got to understand you will be reporting, you will be photographing, you will be responsible for good captions. You will be responsible for shooting three, four, sometimes five assignments per day. You have to learn the workflow and time management. It will also help you appreciate when you start working for bigger newspapers and bigger magazines.
How important is competition in the industry?
Competition can go either way. Sometimes you can get addicted to competition and you can shoot strictly for competition. That can be detrimental. But, competition can be a great way of learning.
When you see a competition and the final results and you see what's winning competitions, you start to see the images that are different - the images that straight away from all the other ones - are usually the ones that rise to the top. That's a great learning tool to teach you what you need to be looking for when you're at an assignment.
Competitions are also good because you see how you're comparing to your peers. You also see what you need to work on.
For instance, with College Photographer of the Year, this past year's competition, I'm very blessed to have won it. But, I also am smart enough to know it could have gone either way.
If there were any three different judges there, the entire competition could have swayed a whole other way, and I could have not even placed. You have to understand that, especially when you lose in competitions you have to understand that. It's just those judges on that day. If it were any other day or any other judges, things could have gone completely different. So never put your own work down because of that.
You went to Missouri the year before you won. What did you learn by watching the judging process?
When I went out to Missouri to watch the judging of the competition the year before, I was able to listen in on the judges. I was able to listen to what they said. What they didn't like. What they did like. I was just able to learn about different people's styles. I was able to learn how aggressive you need to be with cropping images, how you need to be about toning images, how important it is to find that decisive moment.
On a side note, I also learned that judges - for some reason - love black and white images.
One great piece of advice I got a few years ago is before you enter a competition, you need to research it. You need to research the judges. You need to research previous winners. You need to research what's been winning the past few years.
That's a big challenge to young photographers. Sometimes they don't know what to enter or they don't know how much to enter. A huge thing is your edit. I learned when I went out there editing down your work is very important. Although you can be very attached to a particular image or a set of images, you have to take an outside viewpoint of it and find your strongest work.
With CPOY, I realized that you want to have the minimal amount of singles, which is eight. If you look at the past three winners - including myself - there are between eight and 10 single images and then two stories - very tightly edited.
That's something I noticed and that's something I kept in mind when I entered the portfolio. Some of the people that entered the portfolio competition this past year had three or four stories. If they had narrowed that down and had a tight edit, I think that they definitely would have taken the competition.
But, if you have way too many images in your portfolio, the cream of the crop of your work won't be seen.
Some of the people in the POYi portfolios, they enter four or five stories and it wins. But, in college stuff, a lot of times, you don't have the access like some of these professionals do. You don't want to have a story about an ice cream man, a story about a kid with cancer, a story about a high school teacher. You don't want to have all that stuff. You just want to have your best work. Every competition is different. You just have to know the competition before you enter it.
Enough for now,
Please see Part B of this interview.