Freelancing for your Local Newspaper--Tips to Get you Started

Freelancing for your Local Newspaper–Tips to Get you Started


Photojournalism is one of the most challenging, exciting types of photography. 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 Photography Gear


I consider these minimum requirements.

  • 2 DSLR 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. Ask bystander George Holiday when he shot the video of Rodney King.

One of my former colleagues at the newspaper was a UPS deliveryman. He always had his cameras with him and a scanner. He would “happen” on fires and other breaking news and over time built enough credibility and trust to become a stringer/freelancer and eventually land a job as a staff photographer.

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. 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.

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.

Realize these are highly simplified tips. It takes years of hard work and dedication to get into the business and there are college degrees offered in photojournalism.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how to get your foot in the door at a newspaper.”

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Peter Phun was a staff photographer at a daily newspaper in Southern California. After 2 decades, he left to freelance and to spend more time with his family. These days, he teaches photography at Riverside City College, builds websites, is Mr. Mom to his 2 kids, butler and cook to his wife. His does editorial work, documents weddings and special events as well as portraiture. He also writes a blog on digital photography which he uses to supplement his photography instruction. He is active in the local Macintosh user group. He serves as the webmaster for the group MUGSIE (Macintosh Users Group Serving the Inland Empire).

Some Older Comments

  • Krystal Harbuck February 23, 2009 03:01 am

    I don't usually comment, but great post :)

  • Peter Phun February 3, 2009 04:49 am

    The laws concerning monitoring of emergency services personnel varies from region-to-region and most definitely country-to-country. I'm certain if you do an online search

    Because I didn't prefaced this somewhere in my article, some comments here sounded rightly irritated. I believe Texas and Florida laws state it is illegal to have a scanner in your car if you are not licensed to carry one. I believe the FCC licensing is not difficult to get.

    My intention when writing this was to share what I know as it applies here in California.

  • Christina February 1, 2009 12:50 pm

    I tried to find a police scanner today because as a person with a BA in Journalism currently going to school for graphic design and photography this field is something I would really love to get into. I went to a local pawn shop (because I have no clue where to buy a police scanner) and I was told that if I were pulled over and had it in my car it would be a felony. That stationary in your home is fine, but having it in your car is against the law so they were not allowed to sell them. I don't know if that is a Florida law or if it is all of the US but I thought I would throw it out there to check with your local laws about your legal possession of a scanner.

    I really enjoyed this entry, it was very useful to me. Thank you.

  • Peter Phun January 28, 2009 04:40 am

    Thank you Darren for sharing your space and everyone for all your feedback to my 1st article here on DPS. I tried as best as I could to be inclusive yet not too specific.

    What is legal in your part of the world, as far as monitoring emergency services, is obviously different from here in the US. Freelancing as a sports photographer is viable for most folks. Like most things in photography, it will require equipment--mostly long "glass" or fast, telephoto lenses.

    Rent first, buy when you can afford it?

    There are more parts to this article if you're interested.

  • Flunky Carter January 26, 2009 10:07 am

    That's quite a term you've coined there or Poser... the latest image, one of a few that I can remember being huge national photographs was the iPhone photo of the plane crash...

    Are you a journalist photographer or are you just a shat talker?

  • Avangelist January 26, 2009 09:42 am

    I would like to remind any readers who are situated within the United Kingdom that it is illegal to carry any radio equipment that picks up frequencies in use by any of the emergency services.

    In the UK these services have been removed from analgoue frequency ranges entirely and those still in service are only for use of state emergency.

    On to the other pointers in the article.

    Carry two bodies around with you with two lenses at all times if you want to be known as "That twat who thinks he is something he is not". Need I remind everyone that the most used images of the last 5yrs worth of national and international tragedies have been caught on 2MP camera phones.

    I can't say I am favourable to modern day 'journalist photographers'.

  • Peter Phun January 25, 2009 07:57 am

    Flunky Carter,
    Glad you picked up on "reliable transportation" and the car keys. If I were in a metro area of a city that is huge, a bicycle is "reliable" if no one swipes it.
    I left it open intentionally as “transportation”

  • Flunky Carter January 25, 2009 06:16 am

    I like how you mention "reliable transportation" and have car keys ;-) Every journalist photo assignment i've taken, i've either beat other journalists from rival papers by hunting via bicycle. A single speed road bike beats, hands down any car when covering events in the city. No parking woes, parking tickets, gasoline and if you ride a beater bike, no real concern if your bike gets stolen if you happen to have to ditch your bicyz to chase a photo op.

  • Peter Phun January 24, 2009 12:21 pm

    zeta and michaelg,
    ah...yes $$ is of utmost importance. Bear in mind that what I'm sharing here may not be the case with your local newspaper.

    The one I worked for paid a measly $75 an assignment and also mileage maybe .25 cents a mile. Realize when it comes to freelancing, you have little or no bargaining power.

    It's different if you "stumble" across breaking news that's big news, then you have more leverage because of the demand.

    So this may not be worth your time if you have another job where you make more hourly. But if you love sports, and money isn't your motivation, this can be a lot of fun. You'll see your photography improve dramatically because you'll be shooting often.

    Just as a comparison, the Los Angeles Times used to pay $250 a day.

    Thanks for reading. Next installment is in the works...

  • Richard January 24, 2009 11:53 am

    A nice article really looking forward to the next installment on getting your foot in the door.

  • MichaelG January 24, 2009 04:24 am

    Should I expect payment for a photo i submit tot he newspaper?

  • zeta January 24, 2009 03:45 am

    very nice but the most important topic it hasn´t mention:
    money $$$ how to sell. how much cost a photo

  • Peter Phun January 24, 2009 03:17 am

    You're absolutely right about GIMP. I"m all for free actually. I know of “GIMP.” Since I've never used it, I didn't feel comfortable recommending an application I have not used.

  • Chris January 23, 2009 10:50 pm

    I would like to make a suggestion, you mentioned "Photoshop Elements is a minimum". How about going for something like GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program). It's a fantastic FREE and opensource program which has almost all the same functionality as the full version of Photoshop!
    It works on UNIX, Windows and OSX so there's no excuse. It's a very powerful tool once you've got used to it.

  • Susie January 23, 2009 02:13 am

    Awesome tips. Thank you!

  • Ian Pack January 23, 2009 12:28 am

    A Police or emergency service scanner is useless in the UK as all the transmissions are digitally encrypted;-)

    Thanks for an excellent post.


  • Garry January 22, 2009 11:17 pm

    And for the love of God, do NOT submit your pictures to "reader contributions" Every week my local newspaper has a page full of quality pics taken by non-pros. Total paid to contributors - nil.

    As somebody that has worked for a sports photo agency this lack of respect is a constant annoyance to me!

  • Tom January 22, 2009 08:21 am

    I shoot for the University of Oregon's campus paper (Freelance so far...but I'm getting a lot of shots). I also have shot a few unofficial freelance shots for Eugene's Register Guard.

    Shooting freelance is difficult, because mostly you have to prove not only that you are a good photographer, but also that you are a better photographer than other photographers.

    My best advice: if you find an event...shoot it! I went to an unveiling of a Rosa Parks memorial on Monday and there were 2 photographers and 3 other TV camera men, and then me. It may not get published, but it's experience! And you can always ask after-the-fact if the newspaper needs more photos (be sure to email the same day!)

  • Peter Phun January 22, 2009 08:17 am

    No offence taken. I'm happy you found the information worthwhile reading

    You're right. You could start with less especially in terms of lenses. You can rent or buy those as you need them. But you will need 2 bodies and enough memory cards.

    I agree with your Math on the memory cards but I tend to be conservative and since those cards are cheaper, it's really not a bad idea to have more.

  • Warren January 22, 2009 05:27 am

    Maybe I was mis-led by the title of this article. I think you could start with much less if you'd just like to make an occasional submission to a community-level newspaper. (What's a "newspaper?" :-) ) This looks more like necessities for someone who wants to be a regular contributor to a mid-major paper. It's going to take you quite a while to break even, given the cost of the equipment listed.

  • mcdanimr January 22, 2009 04:10 am

    Perhaps DPS should invest in a few editors as part of its new facelift. No offence to you, Peter! Your article contains a lot of great information, but with a little bit of editing, I think it would be much more 'digestible' and professional. As a technical writer, I find myself cringing at each grammatical error, and in this case, there are a lot of them.

    Maybe I'm being too picky, but I think this is a suggestion worth considering if DPS wants to seem more professional.

  • Lander A. January 22, 2009 02:47 am

    Thanks Peter. This post is the perfect one for my situation. I feel that I could take good pictures for some newspaper, but I don't really know how to start...

    Thanks every tip on the field is welcomed!

  • Tanya Plonka January 22, 2009 01:47 am

    You may be getting around to it in one of the next articles, but to start you need to have a very flexible schedule as well! They won't be keeping you on call for very long if you're stuck at your day job while the news is happening ;)

  • Bran Everseeking January 22, 2009 01:19 am

    4-6 4Gb cards? shooting raw with a 10 Mp camera each card is equivalent to 100+ rolls of 24 exp film. even allowing for 50% failing its a lot of storage for a day with maybe two events.

  • Peter Phun January 22, 2009 01:17 am

    Sorry Romain, there's more to it actually. I had to make it digestible, that's why there multiple parts to it. I'll be sending those along to Darren.

  • Tom Brincefield January 22, 2009 12:58 am

    I have been considering trying just this, so thank you for the list. I do not think I would need all of your requirements, since I live in what many consider a small town, but it is good to see what a professional thinks about it.

  • Romain January 22, 2009 12:57 am

    good post but frustratingly short