Freelancing for newspapers–Part 4

Breaking News Photography


A firefighter coordinates with other crew at the scene of a brush fire in Box Springs mountain. Nikon F3, 28mm TriX 400 pushed to 1600, off-camera fill-flash on left. 

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.” More on that later.

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.

Being Ready

stuntIf 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.

A stuntman is launched into the air to simulate an explosion in an event staged for the news media to promote San Bernardino Airport as a movie location. Fujichrome 100 1/2000 sec @f2.8. Nikon F5 200 mm lens.

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.

Again, I don’t advocate you chase ambulances and fire trucks for a living.

German Tourist murder May 17,1994 Idyllwild

When I heard the dispatcher say “Confirm you need a German translator for gunshot victim?” I had a hunch it was no ordinary incident.

I made my way up the curvy mountain road hwy 243 to a lookout point where visitors often park to take in the view. I saw the lights and sirens of the ambulance in my rear view mirror, I pulled over to let them pass.

Even though I could maneuver those mountain roads faster, I knew they were there to try and save lives. Not the case with me.

Due to the graveness of the victim’s injuries, a helicopter was dispatched, so I didn’t get there in time to photograph paramedics tending to the victim–just the crime scene.

By the time I arrived back at the newspaper to develop my film, the photo department had calls from German magazines asking for pictures. That was in 1994–almost 15 years ago!

The pictures I got were lame. Nothing dramatic. Crime scene with yellow tape around the abandoned rental car. It was so ho-hum, I don’t even remember much about it. But when it comes to news, timeliness has value. The newspaper was able to sell those pictures for a tidy sum as I recall.

News organizations world-wide used to pay a premium to subscribe to a bulletin that automatically sent updates via faxes and pagers. Twitter and other social networking sites have empowered the rest of us to be on the pulse of news 24/7.

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.

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.

I know of at least 3 people where I live, Inland Empire, who make  a decent living doing that. One of them, a very nice married couple who own Casper News Service shoots video. They have police/emergency services scanner throughout their house. Read more about their misfortunes but are still plugging along today.

Since my departure from the paper, I haven’t been in touch with many of these stringers. But there are at least  3 others.

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 according to this document.

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 what’s in the document 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.

It’s one thing if you’re cooling your heels alongside the rest of the news media.

When it’s just you who is not allowed access, and your editors are riding your tail, that gets old.

San Bernardino Oct 25, 2003—A devastating brushfire destroyed 993 homes, caused 6 deaths. San Bernardino police officer Gary Schuelke calls through the PA system of his cruiser for residents along Carleton St near 59th St to evacuate as the worst brush fire in the city in years closes in.Neighborhoods took on an eery nighttime look with the amount of smoke shutting out the sun. These pictures were taken at around noon.

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.

skydivers_crashIn 1992 in Perris, California 15 skydivers and the pilot died when their plane crashed right after takeoff.

I pulled up as the first-responders arrived on scene.

Emotions were very high.

The Police Chief who was there actually told his officers not to interfere with me.

Quite a few of his officers were understandably upset that I showed up with my cameras and wanted to boot me out.

But the chief knew the letter of the law and stopped them.

I don’t recall too much about that day. I must have blocked out everything I saw through the viewfinder because after developing my film, I didn’t even recognize some of the images I had made– a couple hours after I left the scene.

I thought long and hard about this final installment — covering breaking news. In the 20 odd years, I have found it exciting, frustrating yet sometimes de-humanizing, addicting because of the adrenaline rush, yet never satisfying.


Not every breaking news story ends in tragedy. This one had a great ending. Nobody was hurt. The driver of the sedan fell asleep at the wheel,veered off the freeway, gained speed and flew up an embankment to collide with a trailer.Luckily for the driver, the trailer was empty so when it collided, it became lodged. 91 freeway, Riverside, California.
Kodak DCS 200 camera–a really slow first generation digital SLR. Only early adopters like newspaper photographers used them. Who else could afford it? Each body cost $25,000 and I had 2 around my neck. Kind of ugly-looking jewelry if you ask me.
They were worth more than the vehicle I drove. The ongoing joke was whenever I was in any sort of accident, the bossman would ask if the camera was okay, never mind me or the vehicle.

kodak-dcs200I don’t want to glamorize this work. It can be dangerous. When you’re so close to this sort of action so often, you can become a breaking news junkie. I kid you not.

It can make you cynical. I didn’t realize how much till one day my wife asked what happened to me.

You can say that seeing the extremes day-in and day-out takes its toll.

The nature of the beast is only the superlatives becomes the news. This cliche  rings true: if a dog bites a man, it isn’t news but if a man bites a dog. Baddest, meanest, most gruesome, smartest, prettiest etc.

After a while, you lose perspective and appreciation for “normal” things. No, it’s not as bad as I make it to be.

Suffice to say, there were days when I didn’t want to talk about what I saw when I got home. I’m thankful I don’t have to do this for a living today.

For What its Worth

When I was new, I was understandably pushy and gung-ho. Every story seemed like the most important one of my career. I’m lucky I didn’t end up in the back of a cop’s car although I came close a few times. I was detained by military police when I entered military housing area after 911.

There were times when I felt the best pictures didn’t even get the play they deserved. As with most large  organizations, newsroom politics dictated a lot of this.

The worst brush fire that threatened San Bernardino which I covered also caused injury to my eye. I had the hard hat, and was even using the goggles but somehow burning embers entered. Despite the injury, my supervisor wanted to send me out to do more.

Anyone who does this long enough will win awards. It’s a matter of playing the odds. But that doesn’t mean I don’t place a value on what my friends in the business do.

On the contrary, I think they’re underpaid for the risks they take, the long hours of dedication they put in, often times that “hard work” doesn’t even make it to print because of “politics” or space constraints.

I can’t think of anything else for the moment. But I do have a final anecdote about one particular picture I took which I am proud of. It didn’t win any awards. It’s not even a great picture.

Rather than bore you with it, I’ll see if anyone asks. Thanks for reading all 4 part of this super long post.

The job prospects for newspapers is not good. The few staff photographers they have left are overworked.

That’s why I feel a lot of newspapers will be relying more and more on freelancers.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

This is Part 4 of a 4-part-post on “Freelancing for newspapers”

6 thoughts on “Freelancing for newspapers–Part 4”

  1. Jack,
    Here’s another approach. If there is a local university or college around you, you may have a buyer for your sports pictures. You have to figure out what schools are in the same conference as your local colleges/universities then approach those schools directly or even the newspaper that cover that city.

    Budget constraints being what they are, newspapers may still need the pictures. I don’t think you need to even submit with a story. You would be filling a need for them especially if you local college/university has a great athletic team.

    I understand that your local paper may not hire freelancers as much, so approach the colleges/universities. They will always need pictures for their publications. Most universities/colleges have also done away with their staff photographers. But their need for pictures remain.

    The “press pass” is really needed if an area has been evacuated for public safety in a breaking news situation. If you get there before the evacuations, that’s when you’ll get good pictures.

    In sports, you need the Athletic Director’s okay. How you get that depends on what you can work out with that person. To start you might say, I’ll provide pictures for you. That arrangement doesn’t preclude you from selling to other sources

  2. I have been a sports photographer for 2 local papers, the Washington Examiner and the Potomac News, but both have quit hiring freelancers due to budget restraints. So you say to shoot and then submit with a story? I was just wondering how to get good shots without a press pass.

  3. Jack,
    Thanks for commenting. As you know newspapers are not doing well. They have skeletal crew these days. That means they will readily use pictures from any source. Just don’t submit a newsworthy picture for “free.” The key is getting your foot in the door. It a weird situation about the press pass. That press pass is actually a strange animal and is misleading. Anyone who shows they make a living from covering breaking news can go to some local law enforcement agency get photographed and be issued an ID. The criteria that each agency issues this varies. Bottom line is you have to build a body of work on your own which anyone can do even with limited access.

  4. DeeAnn,
    I don’t know about you, but I don’t miss chasing brush fires. The actual picture taking once on scene was actually sort of easy as you know. It was the “getting there” and getting out safely “without driving” over firefighters hoses that made covering brush fires a major hassle.

    I’m sure a lot of folks don’t know this but driving over a firefighters “charged hose” or one that has water pressure is a MAJOR violation! You could be subject to arrest because it places the firefighters in imminent danger.

    You’re right. It’s the other news folk we used to see that I miss. That kind of camaraderie comes from being in a intense situation time and time again.

    I’m just lucky I didn’t pass out while covering brush fires like one of my co-workers. Firefighters had to revive him and tow his vehicle to safety.

  5. Peter,
    I won’t bore you with the details of my spot news coverage unless you ask. I think my attitude in covering fires/TCs was respectful not only to victims, community but first responders.
    I do want to know your proud pictures and I’ll share my laugh one.
    I miss seeing John and Nancy Casper and have shared history of many tight spots on fires. Particularly on Juniper Flats Fire. Steven Doi was on that one too, and weren’t you on the north side?

Comments are closed.