Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Getting started in PJ

Your teacher made you research photojournalism as a job possibility. It sounds cool, so you started hunting around on the Web and landed here. You want the answers to all your questions. Right?

Unfortunately, I don't even know all the answers yet, and I have been playing around with this stuff for more than a decade.

Here's my suggestion. Start with what is a photojournalist . If it doesn't send you screaming to another profession, then come back here.

There are several directions into the industry rather than a single "way." Some people know what they want from the beginning, get a PJ degree, fight for internships, fight for stringer jobs, fight for a staff job, get the job, go to a bigger paper and eventually retire.

Others freelance for small papers while they work on degrees in engineering, business, English, computer science, geology, psychology, etc... At graduation, a staff job at a small paper is comforting and provides regular pay. It becomes a bird in the hand rather than the graduate-degree job in the bush. So, they settle into the job, become really good and live a happy life.

Those were the two extremes. Most paths meander somewhere between. It's probably best to be in the middle because the ends are indeed extreme.

The other extreme is a matter of aesthetics. There is a sliding scale between technicians and artists. All photojournalists must be a little of both, but each shooter is comfortable at a different place on the scale. Everyone is an artist capable of learning the technicals. It is like learning a musical instrument - but more expensive.

The industry is currently going through a major identity crisis (paper or silicon? would you like fries with that?). So, flexibility is a critical starting personal quality. Being part computer geek is also very useful.

To keep the size of this blog reasonable, I'll simply suggest some steps to consider at an early stage in this career.

Get the best camera system possible. Read the instruction manual at least three times to understand all the finer functions of the machine. Remember the quality of the glass (lenses) directly equates to the quality of your final images. Don't buy cheap glass and end up with cheap images, which nobody buys.

Get accustomed to charging for time, images and rights to use those images. Learn the business and learn how to conduct business (customer service, taxes, marketing, etc.). This is actually more important than your technical ability. I've seen some truly miserable PJs get rich in this industry while great PJs went hungry or worked at a 1-hour processing lab.

Study everything visual. Great photographs are the best starting point. However, music videos often use cutting-edge lighting and camera techniques.

Compete often, but never expect to win. Photography contests (and the judges) are subjective. Therefore, each image can win some contest. A community art society photography award is a great starting place.

If you win, great. If not, don't sweat it. Once you have a win or two, compete in harder competitions against better photographers. If someone wants to be a pro, then they must compete against and beat the pros.

A word of caution. Never release "all rights" for the sake of competition. There are a great number of rights-stealing contests in the world. They often offer an attractive cash prize for the best image. However, they're simply collecting many thousands of images from around the world to sell to their clients with no royalties for the photographers. In other words, your hard work becomes their property, and you have no recourse. The winner of the photography contest was: the contest owner (what a surprise).

Do as many quality internships as possible (daily, high circulation). There are high school, college and post graduate internships and sabbaticals. The internship has become the key to staff jobs lately.

Each internship should improve the student PJ's portfolio and skill set. It should also produce some competitive images. With a strong portfolio and some competition wins, the student is able to get better and better internships until s/he gets an unrefusable offer.

The best part of internships is the free film (or CDs), access and meaningful assignments.

A trick I've seen working for some PJs lately is to start interning in high school and keep it rolling through college. Internships are typically for Fall, Spring and Summer (Summer 1 and 2 combined). Logically, one could stretch college out an extra two years by doing multiple internships. This sounds like a waste of time, but it actually saves several years and some humility at smaller newspapers. This plan is semi-cheating the system, but it seems to work for those who can do it.

A word of caution though, doing too many internships can also limit a PJ's potential. Metro editors know when a PJ student is milking the system. Consequently, they won't touch someone who's done nothing but internships for the last two years.

This means, take high school internships. In college, only take major daily internships and limit it to one per year. Once graduated, only take two internships at the most. By then, the PJ should know if they want a staff job or grad school.

If a PJ student didn't get internships in college, it's probably wise to continue into grad school to get the internships. Otherwise, it's going to be a hard road.

I could write more, but this should get most students thinking.

Enough for now,


AriannaJean said...

oh man! i am a high school student and i am very interested in becoming a PJ. my school does not offer photography but it has just started journalism which i am taking next year along with my many art classes. its seems like such a risky career to go into because of the competition and the fact that there is no one 'way" do go about it. thank you for your insight =)

Renesha Rachal said...

I'm new to this and I don't know where to start !! );

Mark M. Hancock said...

Everything you'll need to start should be listed in the All PJ-related posts section. Otherwise, let me know what's missing and I'll write a new post.

Unknown said...

First i want to tank you so much for your blog; its really helpful to me in deciding if this will be a good career for me!
Now a question: I read what you wrote on internships and how helpful they are. Problem is, I'm out of highschool an prob wont be attending college; but i'd hate to give up on this before i even begin. Do you have any advice about what to do in this situation? Do i still have a chance at this if i choose to pursue it and if so how?

Mark M. Hancock said...

I'd suggest you assemble your work into a portfolio and take it to the smallest newspaper or magazine in your locality to see what happens. If it goes well, you can get experience and access for clips.
However, to move up in the industry, you'll need to continue working on your education.