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One of the biggest changes photography has seen over the last 10 years is in photojournalism and documentary photography. Some will see this change as good while others will see this change as bad. The improvements made to consumer DSLR cameras, lenses and editing software have opened the doors for many photography hobbyists to engage in documentary photography.
Gone are the days when having a good camera and access to a darkroom separated the professional photographer from the amateur photographer. The playing field has been levelled and it is open season for anyone to take part. Within this new landscape there is an abundance of opportunities for you to possibly earn a little extra cash by taking photos for your local paper, magazines or online news outlets.
The assignments will always vary. You may be asked to cover a government meeting or the opening of a new business. You may be taking pictures for a human interest story about a unique person in your town. You could be asked to cover a local high school football game or be asked to rush to the scene of an accident. You may find yourself taking pictures of a festival or a gala dinner featuring some movers and shakers.
Below is a list of tips that will help you be a better assignment or documentary photographer, and possibly get your foot in the door to get some jobs.
In many regards, photography starts with the gear. It is important to know the limitations of your equipment. It is equally important to know the areas in which your equipment performs well. No matter what camera and lens you are working with, your equipment will have limitations. Don’t spend time wishing for, or wanting a different lens or camera. Use what you have to the best of its ability. A better lens in some warehouse, is not going to help you now.
As an assignment photographer you should be prepped before you go out by the editor of the publication, or the writer of the story. If you have any questions, ask them! I have never had an assignment editor react poorly to me asking questions about a piece they are asking me to cover.
Ignorance can be overcome by asking questions. Overcoming stupid is more challenging. Don’t be stupid. If you are not clear about what is expected of you, ask questions until you and your editor are on the same page.
Speaking of questions, do your pictures answer the ones above? Try to take pictures that answer as many of these questions as possible. While it will be very challenging to capture one picture that addresses all of them, shoot with the idea that your pictures are answering as many as possible.
After you have asked the necessary questions of your assignment editor, do your own research on the subject. This will help you develop ideas, understand how events may unfold, or which images will be more important than others. Don’t expect your editor to tell you exactly what picture to get. They are hiring you, in part, because of your vision. Conducting a little research before you go out will help you find your vision.
After researching your subject, think of shots that you want to capture and work toward those pictures when you are in the field. But don’t knock yourself too much if you don’t get “the” picture you wanted. Documentary photographers have little (or no) control over what happens. Come with an idea that will keep your mind centred, but be prepared to adjust your ideas accordingly as the events unfold before you.
Once you arrive, begin by playing with your exposure settings and shooting styles. This will ensure that you, and your camera, are properly set up when the moment arrives. In the same way athletes warm up before a race or a game you need to begin by getting your mind and your gear in proper condition before the event begins.
Remember, you are there to document what others are doing. The story is not about you. Do what you can to stay out of the way to allow events to unfold naturally. If you are too intrusive your subjects will not relax and you will not be documenting natural events. Stay out of the way and let events unfold in front of you.
Take wide, medium and tight shots of what you are covering. As an example, if you are covering a town hall meeting be sure to get a wide shot that shows all of the filled, or empty chairs, in the room. A medium shot may be a waist-up shot of someone at the podium. A tight shot would be a head shot of someone expressing emotion as they discuss the subject of the meeting or as they listen to the presenters speak.
Proper focus is critical in all photography. It is essential in documentary photography and photojournalism. Your focal point tells the viewer what they should be looking at. If you are still taking pictures at that town hall meeting you can have two very different pictures of someone at the podium if one picture is focused on the speaker and another picture is focused on all of the microphones that the presenter is speaking into. One picture shows who was talking and the other picture shows how many people (news outlets) were there to cover the event. Each picture has its own meaning and that is derived from the focal point.
I make a lot of sports analogies when talking about documentary photography because, in many regards, photojournalism and documentary photography is a sport. Just as a quarterback has to read the defence as he stands behind the centre, a documentary photographer has to have his eyes and attention in several places at once. By keeping a constant vigil on your surroundings you will see a picture developing in the same way a quarterback sees a play developing. The great ones always seem to be a few seconds ahead of the action.
A professional attitude will help to guarantee two things. One, it will help to ensure that those around you understand that you have a job to do and they will permit you to do your job as long as you maintain a professional demeanour. The other thing a professional attitude will bring to you is another assignment. If word gets back to your editor that you were forcing people to behave in a certain way or that you interfered with the event to get a shot, you may not get another chance to work for that editor again because you have embarrassed them (and yourself) in your attempts to get a great picture.
Once you get back home or to the office, back up your pictures. It doesn’t matter if you put them on a second hard drive, upload them to the cloud or put them on a disk. Make sure that you have copies of your pictures in more than one place in the event that the originals become damaged, destroyed or lost.
Your job as an assignment photographer doesn’t end when you back up your pictures. More times than not you will be asked to caption your photos. Your assignment editor will have no idea of the names of the people in your pictures. It will be up to you to write a brief description for each picture you are turning in. An easy way to do this is to answer the questions, who, what, when, where and why when making captions. “How” may not always be relevant.
If you are asked to turn in edited pictures, don’t over-edit your work. Photojournalism and documentary photography are about the real world. In a strict sense you should only adjust the contrast of your picture. Some news outlets shun adding too much color and all news outlets shun the removal or addition of elements into a picture.
Being easy to work with is incredibly important in today’s freelance assignment photography landscape. It is becoming easier and easier to take quality pictures with less than professional equipment. Photographers are becoming very replaceable as there are more and more people with photo skills itching to get a little credit and maybe even a little money. Make sure you have an easy payment process. Make sure it is easy to get in touch with you, and that you respond quickly to emails and phone calls. Make sure you are open to your editor’s suggestions and that you are willing to go the extra mile to make them happy. Make it a no-brainer for them to rehire you because there are more photographers behind you just waiting for their chance.
This is a great time to get your foot in the door as a freelance assignment photographer. It’s not easy work and it’s not always sexy. But with hard work, a good eye, a professional attitude and determination you can find yourself on a short list of photographers that assignment editors want to use again and again.