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Here at DPS we have occasionally featured articles on how to shoot like a photo-journalist. The great thing about this form of photography is that anyone with a camera can try their hand at covering cultural and political events.
The rise of eye-witness contributions from amateur and semi-pro sources has completely changed the media industry. There is still a place for professional coverage of course, but if you are interested in this type of work you don’t need a permission slip to get out and start building your portfolio.
Jason Geil, from wesay.com posted the first article on this topic entitled, Discover How to Become a Photojournalist.
Putting these tips in my back pocket I decided to brave the inclement weather and put them to the test covering a protest gathering in down town Washington, D.C., referred to as a tea party.
As a wedding and portrait photographer in the Washington, D.C., area, I often hear of news worthy event’s happening locally, and even though I’m not being paid, I sometimes attend with some of my camera gear. As I mentioned above, whether you shoot weddings, portraits or just shoot on the side as a hobby, chances are you have everything you need to get out and start documenting events photographically.
Not only is this type of shooting fun, it’s a great way to learn to use your camera gear in various situations and conditions. Before you leave your home, it’s a good idea to have a plan. Generally you will want to be telling some sort of story with your images. Christina Dickson explained in her article on photo essays that, “Now more than ever, the power of storytelling ought to be harnessed. But telling a story with photos takes more than just a skillful photographer. An impacting photo story can only be developed by skillful photographers who understand the emotions and concepts behind every great story.”
To truly capture the event you can’t be a mindless button pusher behind a piece of glass. Do some preliminary research. Once on scene, if you aren’t afraid to talk to strangers, start some casual conversations with those attending the event. Apply the knowledge you gain and try to capture the emotions of the event in your compositions.
I found some interesting shots were of others covering the event too, such as reporters and TV crews. They usually don’t mind if you hover and get shots of them in action and you get to hear the interviews to boot.
Obviously, you should check the weather report and dress appropriately. It’s one thing to be caught in the rain without an umbrella and have the fizzle taken out of that hairstyle you worked so hard on and another to be caught in the rain and have the fizzle taken out of a $2,000 camera.
If there is a chance of rain, you might want to bring a plastic bag to help keep your camera dry when you aren’t shooting. If you are going to be taking lots of pictures in the rain, you can buy an underwater camera case for less than $200. If you are going to be taking a lot of pictures outdoors, you might also consider a waterproof camera bag.
Lowepro makes a bag with waterproof zippers and a fully waterproof plastic-coated nylon shell at a reasonable price. Gloves with the index fingers cut out can be useful in the winter. In my case I didn’t follow my own advice and had constant trouble juggling my umbrella and two cameras.
I think every event has an overall message to be illustrated. As photo journalists, we should try to capture images that best represent the event as a whole. In most situations, there will be outliers or images that may be dramatic but miss the larger picture (no pun intended) or meaning of the event.
If you’re shooting an event where 1000 people are pro issue X and 10 people show up against issue X, it wouldn’t be accurate to give both groups equal coverage. As photojournalists, we need to be as honest as possible regardless of where our personal biases lie. Unfortunately, agenda’s often drive the final story; but, being a neutral photojournalist is an ideal we should all strive for. On the subject of neutrality I found this activists sign appropriate.
Increasingly, I’ve heard strong complaints regarding unfair coverage coming from both sides of political issues, this hurts the reputation of the industry as whole.
The ironic thing about shooting crowds is that when trying to get the bigger picture, it usually entails getting shots of the individuals.
The first thing to remember in composing your shots of the crowd is that you need to see faces. A picture of the back of everyone’s head isn’t going to create the most interesting shot. It will simply lack emotion. This can create a conflict if the center of action is in the other direction. At the very lest, instead of shooting back-of-the-head shots, try to get at least one face in your shot and use that face as your focal point. This might mean that you have to swim up stream if the crowd is moving, or wade into the crowd and then turn around if the the crowd is stationary.
When picking a face out of the crowd, try and frame it with an interesting background. This might be a building, an interesting piece of archetecture, or a sign. In this shot, the background happened to be the White House which gives the viewer a good context of the event.
Also, look for people with character, or people wearing unique clothing or hats. There is always someone making a fashion statement and those individuals will make a great focal point in your composition of the crowd.
If people are carrying signs, try to include the text as they help tell the story of the event. Usually you need to make sure you have both the individual and the sign, otherwise, all you have captured is a low-tech advertisement of their cause.
For example, I liked the combination of the message on the sign and the children in this image.
Every rule can be broken of course, and I found this headless sign shot visually appealing.
Just remember, strive for an interesting and unique composition.
This article wouldn’t be complete without talking briefly about what type of gear you should take.
First, don’t get too hung up on gear. If you are using a point and shoot, then get out and point and shoot. If you have a nice 200mm zoom, then zoom away.
Avoid the feelings of “If I only had X, I could really cover that event.” Trust me when I say you’ll never come to a point where you say “I have everything I want as a photographer,” so that feeling shouldn’t prevent you from using what you have now. Enough said.
Once you feel like you have enough experience under your belt it’s time to go pro. You don’t want to be shooting without pay forever, so where do go for resources on how much to charge and how to work with perspective clients?
One of the best resources is the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). Things can get complicated when dealing with copyrights and contracts so I’d do the reasearch. A similar site with good information is the American Society of Media Photographers.
Lastly, a great resource to help you make the leap from amature to pro is to attend a workshop. The prestigious Eddie Adams Workshop, for example, is a 4 day intensive course after which you meet the big players in the industry such as Time, People and National Geographic. Amazingly, it’s actually free after room and board ($350) but they only take 100 students a year. Look around for other workshops in your area.
Good luck and happy shooting.