Tips For Starting Freelance Newspaper Photography

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So you’ve honed your skills to the point where you are confident you can get a good picture in any situation.

Have you thought about freelancing for a newspaper? Photojournalism is one of the most challenging, exciting types of photography.

"A Historic Day in America" captured by Thomas Hawk

“A Historic Day in America” captured by Thomas Hawk (Click Image to Find Photographer)

As a result, it is also the most competitive fields to break in to. So what do you need to start?

Reliable Transportation

This should be obvious, but it’s intentionally high in this list. All the skills and the best gear in the world without the ability to get on scene is pointless.

Decent photo gear

I consider these minimum requirements:

  • 2 SLR camera bodies is a minimum requirement. Though you may use one, the other is your backup. (at least 8 megapixels)
  • a wide angle, a telephoto, a fast 50mm lens, and at least one flash. As to the exact focal lengths, that would depend a lot on what you plan to shoot. Sports shooters need upwards of 300 mm, sometimes even longer lenses depending on the sport.
  • a good number of memory cards. If all you’re shooting is jpegs, then you might be able to get away with 4 to 6 4GB memory cards. They’re cheap compared to the past, so don’t sweat it. Exactly how many is hard depends on what you’re shooting. Again sports shooters will require more of this as well.
  • a laptop with a WiFi card. The platform Mac or Windows doesn’t matter. Just like for your camera, Nikon or Canon, it’s just a tool.**optional Mobile broadband card for laptop**
  • Photoshop Elements is a minimum, the full version is nice but unnecessary. Most of the time, all you have time for is saving your jpegs to the newspaper’s specs, attaching captions and then transmitting it to the paper via the internet by either an FTP client or emailing.
  • cellphone for communicating with editors at the paper.
  • Optional but not vital is a police scanner. I don’t advocate running off and chasing fire trucks and ambulances but sometimes being at the right place a the right time with a camera is all it takes.
Writing, reporting ability

Writing and reporting go hand-in-hand. You may not need to write a full blown news story, but you do need to be able to write accurate descriptive captions.

"Why We Do It" captured by Christopher Rye

“Why We Do It” captured by Christopher Rye (Click Image to Find Photographer)

So proper grammar and ability to gather accurate caption information like names and ages is very important.

If you consistently provide wrong information and the newspaper has to print a correction each time, they won’t be calling you back.

The Current Newspaper Business Climate

Unless you’ve been holed up somewhere the last 8 years, you probably know that the newspaper and print media in general are not doing well.

Their staff size has been drastically reduced. As a result, most are more than willing to drop their standards on what is usable as far as photos are concerned.

The current business climate aside, newspapers have traditionally always relied on freelance sports coverage especially for sports. Sporting events occur mostly in the evenings and on weekends when newspapers can’t staff as many games.

So, if you’re still gung-ho, those are the hours you’ll most likely be needed. So be prepare to sacrifice “quality time” with loved ones. At this point, I need to mention that many newspapers will want you to sign a work-for-hire contract.

If they do, be sure not to. I would go so far as to avoid that discussion, so you can’t be ripped off. Briefly, by signing that document, you are giving all your rights as the author/originator of that work forever, so don’t do it. No matter how tempting “they” make it sound, don’t do it! With all those pleasantries aside, what’s next?

Learn To Send files electronically

Getting great pictures is only a small part of the work. You need to know how to connect to the internet by a WiFi network or by plugging in an ethernet cable.

"Preparing for Battle" captured by Ryan Bridgen

“Preparing for Battle” captured by Ryan Bridgen (Click Image to Find Photographer)

Once you’re online, you can either email or use an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) to transmit your images to the newspaper. Every so often, email gets flaky and doesn’t play nice, it is useful to know how to compress files, upload to a webserver, and then get the URL (web address) to send to your recipient for downloading.

That means you’ll be expected to have a laptop with Photoshop and some sort of FTP or file transfer protocol software. Depending on how large a newspaper you work with, they may or may not allow you access to their Starbucks or Metro Wi-Fi account name and passwords.

That is generally the way their staff photographers transfer their images back to their newspapers. These days it’s becoming very common for staff photographers to have a Mobile broadband cards.

These are special antennas which are either USB 2.0 or PCMCIA connectors that plug into laptops to allow fast connection to the internet. So anywhere you are where you can have cellphone service, you’ll be able to get online.

Making Contact

At every newspaper there is at least one picture editor who works nights or weekends. They are the ones you want to make first contact with, not the Director of Photography or the Big Kahuna in the photography department. They are the ones who will ultimately be supervising you. Evenings and weekends are when newspapers have less staffing in the photography department. It makes sense because the content for the metro and local sections of the paper are already laid out and breaking news have been covered by the daytime crew. Most of the evening work tends to be concerts or speeches and sporting events.

Be computer literate

The computer is your digital darkroom. The sooner you become familiar with its ins and outs, the better. As a freelancer, the more competent you are with these technical issues, the more likely you’ll impress your supervisor/editor. When out in the field things often go wrong.

You need to know how to quit a frozen application, how to troubleshoot, re-boot and work around issues. Understanding your computer’s operating system is vital. If you haven’t realized this by now, the actual picture-taking is maybe 50% of the actual work you’ll be doing.

"Fighter" captured by Jing Magsaysay

“Fighter” captured by Jing Magsaysay (Click Image to Find Photographer)

Getting there, not getting lost, writing captions and identifying your subjects in the picture and making deadlines makes up the rest of the work.

Build a portfolio

Start shooting a variety of photos from a specific niche (such as sports). Show you can stop peak action, properly expose while paying attention to make sure you have uncluttered backgrounds.

Unless you have deep pockets and can afford long fast lenses, shoot games that are played in daylight. That means you might have to be selective about the kinds of sports you want to cover. Indoor sports like volleyball and basketball may be a problem if you don’t have a fast lens, so try soccer or baseball.

If you make the grade, some newspapers allow their stringers access to their pool of lenses but you’re not there yet.

When you have a body of work that you’re comfortable with, have 8″ x 12″ prints made of your favorites. Also consider putting your images online along with a resume.The online version is useful for obvious reasons.

Next time you see a photographer from your local newspaper, introduce yourself and get a business card. Then ask for the full name of any or all the picture editors.

From that business card, you’ll probably be able to figure out the email address of that person. For large organizations, they usually have some sort of syntax you can figure out by looking at the business card of the photographer you just met.

With that email contact you can send the URL to your online pictures and follow up with a phone call. If they like what they see, then those prints will be very helpful when you interview and you should be on your way to that first gig.

As to where you should host your images, there are many online sites that offer “free” accounts. I don’t recommend those free ones like Flickr because of their terms of use. Instead pay for the web hosting service and retain your copyright.

Places like Zenfolio, Smugmug and others are very popular and they actually have e-commerce solutions built-in. That just means there are built-in shopping carts for you to sell your work.

Should you pay for your own domain name and own web hosting? It’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself. If appearances are important, and they are in this business, you ought to register your domain name and set up your own web hosting.

It’s not just about getting a cool email address like leo[at]leo.tv. Moving along…

A Common First Assignment: Covering a Sports Event

So let’s assume you’re in and you’ve gotten the nod to shoot your first sports assignment.

Sorry, those professional baseball, basketball and Big 10 college football games will be covered by the staff photographers because they’ll appear on the cover of the section.

newspaper sports photo

“Jaxx Baseball” captured by Scott A. Pope (Click Image to See More From Scott A. Pope)

Good knowledge of current events and sports

If you’re looking to shoot sports, then good all round knowledge of a variety of sports is important. Since popularity of different sports are very regional, I’ll leave it to you to figure that out.

Obviously expect to know Australian Rules football and cricket if you’re Down Under, baseball, hockey and American Football if you’re in the US and etc. In sports expect to know quite a bit about all types of sports even if you’ve never played it.

If you’re covering a tennis match, for instance, do you know how the players change sides on the tie-breaker? And how do they score the game? If you don’t understand how the game is scored, how do you know when the last point of the match is coming up?

Keeping up with news is especially important. When big names come through your community and you’re on top of it, this is a great way to get your foot in the door. The newspaper may or may not have the personnel to cover everything so your contribution may be welcome.

Even if they don’t use your pictures, you’ve made first contact. Although it takes years of hard work and dedication to get into the business and there are college degrees offered in photojournalism, starting out as a stringer at a newspaper is achievable if you study publications.

Don’t despair, as you get better, you’ll get to the front page of the Sports section. If you have a really good picture, it may run on the front page, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves yet. So this will likely be the typical assignment you might get.

  • High School football, basketball or volleyball
  • Kick off, tip off (whatever the term is for the sport) 7 pm (earlier if you’re lucky, gives you more time to shoot)
  • Coverage of Cougars’ season opener against Rams. (substitute names for your local high school mascots)
  • Deadline for picture 8:45 pm

Preparations

Get to know the route to and from the stadium. Arrive early enough to figure out how long it will take to get to the nearest area where you have WiFi or an ethernet cable which you can plug into your laptop for internet access.

Grab a team lineup or roster for both teams. If you can’t get a copy to take with you, photograph the roster so that you can quickly bring that up for captioning when you’re editing. If you’re lucky, the Athletic Director of the school may make his office available for you. But let’s assume you have to drive to a Starbucks. Let’s say it will take you 5 mins.

That means you have to leave the stadium no later than 8 pm if they want one picture. You may be thinking that’s more than enough time. Don’t forget you have to set up your laptop which you should be “sleeping” and not turning on from a cold start. If you’re not going to be near AC power, make sure to charge up your laptop’s battery beforehand.

Be careful where you park

Be sure you are not going to be blocked by another vehicle because you will be leaving earlier than everyone else. This is also a safety issue. Have your gear ready to go once you arrive.

It’s not a good idea to be digging in your trunk. Opportunistic thieves will see this.

Watch your time

As you gain experience, you can push those time limits more.

A lot depends on how much you shoot and how fast your laptop is. If you shoot too much and at too a high a jpeg resolution and if your computer is “older,” it will slow you down. Large files take longer to download.

Those files will take Photoshop more time to open, render and save. A few seconds here and there may not seem like much, but over a 100 or 200 images, that will become significant.

The majority of professional sports photographers do not tweak their images very much. They check sharpness, dodge and burn, caption, crop, save and they transmit.

Don’t forget you will be sorting and deciding on one picture where you will need to identify all the players in it. So when you’re shooting, everytime you think you have a good action sequence, be sure to photograph the back of the jerseys of the players involved in the “play” to help you id them later.

Football and ice hockey players have an annoying knack of looking alike once they don their gear, or don’t you know that? If that never occurred to you, don’t feel bad. I made that mistake when I was a rookie. I ended up driving to the coach’s house with a wet print in hand at the eleventh hour. And mind you that was in the days when we shot film and made prints.

Shooting

  • Expose well so that you don’t have to do much dodging and burning in Photoshop.
  • Stealing a peek every now and then to see how the histogram looks is fine, but don’t make it a crutch.You might be draining your batteries or you might miss something you should be capturing in the camera.
  • Keep track of your memory cards by numbering them so that you know what order they were used.

In photojournalism where deadlines are critical, the most recent pictures tend to be more important. Game winning plays andpost-game jubilationare such examples.

sports freelance picture

“Noriyuki Haga” captured by Barry Price (Click Image to See More From Barry Price)

Later, as you’re editing, you might find another player had a very good game with outstanding statistics, then go back and look for extraordinary images of that player.

Editing & Writing

Use the team roster

Open the picture you took earlier of the team rosters. Minimize it and keep that handy. You’ll be referring to that for correct spellings and jersey numbers.

Don’t sweat the color

Most photographers don’t try to fine-tune the color because they are not in the most “ideal” locations when working on their pictures.

Pick the picture you like

If you’re told they need only one picture, pick the one you like the most. Remember, the editors at the paper weren’t there. They may ask if you have this and that, but in the end, it’s your name that goes underneath the picture.

You should feel good about your choice. In all my years at the paper, I lived by that motto. It has always worked for me. The trouble with giving in to what the editors want is this: they have a picture in mind and that’s a tainted, it’s not necessarily the best picture. You were there, only you can be the judge of that.

Identifying people

Whenever possible, identify people in your pictures left to right. Names with ages and the city they live in and other facts which might add to the picture. In the case of a soccer game, the name and the player’s position e.g AC Milan midfielder Ronaldinho (left) celebrates with teammate Kaka after scoring the equilizer in the dying minutes of the game against Barcelona.

There may be more to this but generally speaking, after you hit click the mouse to “Send” or the “Return” key to transmit your picture, you can relax. Call your supervisor/photo editor to make sure they receive it after a few minutes.

Playing it Safe

“F8 and be there”

If ever there was a cliché for news photography, that subheading sums it up.

F8 is a safe aperture. If you mess up on your focus, you might have enough depth-of-field to keep it sharp.

The 2nd half, “and be there,” just points to how anyone can take a dramatic picture if they were there. I believe if you had a decent camera and access, it is true. The operative word here is “access.”

Before I go on, here’s my disclaimer: I don’t advocate making a living chasing ambulances, fire trucks and police to breaking news events for 2 reasons.

  1. Covering sports is more fun and you at least have predictable hours.
  2. More law enforcement agencies have switched from analog to digital hardware, trunking systems and encrypted frequencies. This makes monitoring them harder. Still, if you pay attention to the fire department frequencies who dispatch paramedics, you can follow some of this action. If medical aid is not requested when there are no injuries, you’re out of luck. Depending on where you are, the laws are different concerning monitoring emergency services communications.
Being Ready

If you have your camera, even if it’s a point-and-shoot model, with you all the time, you increase the odds that you will stumble across something newsworthy.

That’s just how it is. These days digital cameras are built-in to all manner of portable devices and cellphones, so if it’s big like the recent ditching of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, expect someone will have a picture.

Newspaper photographers are always on scene quickly because they monitor the emergency frequencies on their police/emergency services scanners as they’re driving around.

Developing a Nose

It doesn’t mean photojournalists chase down every incident they hear on the scanner.

Developing a nose for what’s got potential and what’s likely a dud takes experience, common sense and knowledge of neighborhoods and infrastructure in your city.

Over time you will develop an “familiarity” with the voices of the 911 dispatchers. You learn to recognize the change of their pitch and interpret the tone of urgency.

You might even be able to recognize the call sign of individual officers if you head out to enough to these breaking news incidents.

Being First on Scene

If it’s a violent crime in progress, do you want to beat the cops there? I think not. You will more likely be in the way.

"The demonstration ONR v.2" captured by Iwo Wasilew

“The demonstration ONR v.2″ captured by Iwo Wasilew

It probably isn’t a bad idea to have attire and gear and training if you are serious about this type of work. Having a vehicle that has high ground clearance, 4-wheel drive may be helpful. I can go on and on. Mostly it’s about being prepared.

Access & Legalese = Frustration

This is the part where you “,average Joe,” will have problems especially if it’s a big fire.

Anytime there’s evacuations expect that if you have no credentials which some law enforcement departments issue annually, you will be told to leave.

Credentialed journalists are supposedly exempted from this restriction. Again depending on where you are, this will vary.

In reality it’s a crap shoot. I’ve been stopped many a time from entering a fire because it’s a community volunteer officer or even full-fledged officer who doesn’t understand the law.

The gist of the law in California is this: if it’s not a crime scene, law enforcement has no right to stop news media from doing its job especially if the personnel have all the gear, fire shelter, hard hat, fire retardant clothing, boots etc. as spelled out in the document.

So covering a huge brush fire can be frustrating when you encounter access problems.

Law enforcement may have a tendency to dictate what you can shoot pictures off even if it’s not a crime scene.

Legal or otherwise, they have the gun, the badge and the handcuffs. If you get pushy, you may be watching all the action from the back of a police cruiser wearing matching bracelets.

About the Author:
A Riverside-based freelance photographer, Peter Phun, who also teaches photography at Riverside City College. He does portraits, weddings and editorial work. He writes about photography, Macs and the internet. He also designs websites and is a stay-at-home dad.

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4 Comments

  1. This story will be useful, for anyone looking to shoot or wright. Good work.

  2. Thank you, great stuff!
    really learned a lot!

  3. Marea says:

    Loved your article. Very good advice. I shoot sports for a local paper near where I live and those tips are exactly how I do it. Only, I had to figure it out on my own. LOL! I love it though.

    Thanks!

  4. Geoff Carter says:

    I read with interest, the points you make in your article. Conspicuous by their absence, were the issues of Invasion of Privacy and general work Ethics!

    Your comments regarding the ‘surfing’ of emergency radio channels is illegal in Australia (obviously not in US)

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