The once sought-after newspaper staff photographer position Part 2

How many times have you picked up a newspaper and started reading a story just because the picture on the cover caught your attention?

That pretty much sums up the newspaper photographer’s goal at any assignment that he/she draws.

The Assignment

Come back with a picture/pictures that will sum up the story and draw the reader’s attention to it.

Assignments are what you make of it—On a story about road safety near an elementary school where large construction vehicles would speed by, I mounted my camera on a monopod, hoisted it over my head and tripped the shutter with a long extension cord. Getting in position early in the morning gave me a long shadow of the passing truck. I was lucky the crossing guard was far away enough from the truck to be lit by the sunlight, making her standout.

In some instances, pictures can be better than headlines in summing up what happened.

Often times looking at the picture and reading the accompanying caption can even tell you whether it’s a story worth reading.

Word folks will argue that headlines can do that job too especially when it’s well-written.

But very often, because of space constraints, copy editors have to say it in a limited number of characters. Sound familiar?

Think about Twitter’s 140 characters and you should get the idea.

Needless to say, writing headlines is an art form because poorly-written headlines provide comedians like Jay Leno lots of funny material.

Compose images for impact

At the newspaper level, photography is seldom “quiet,” discreet or subtle.

It is in fact usually “in your face”.

The reason being, space in the newspaper is usually very limited.

So pictures sometimes don’t get good play—-that’s the collective grumble you hear of photographers complaining that their pictures are displayed the size of postage stamps.

For that reason alone, pictures intended for newspapers have to “read” or register its message with the readers quickly.

Photo-illustrations, like this one on aspirin, used to scare the heck of me simply because they were very difficult to execute well. Lots of time and effort is involved. And when the picture bombs, your name is underneath it.

“Artistic or avante-garde type photographers” who love subtlety and profundity who are hell bent on “their interpretations of their surroundings” will find news photography difficult.

Sure, there will be times when an assignment calls for that, but most of the time, the image needs to have immediate impact.

Hey, there is only that much room in the caption underneath.

In a portrait of an artist,for instance, if you have to explain why you chose this “style of lighting” or your “unorthodox juxtaposition” of your subject against his favorite artwork which was from his “blue” or anxiety-ridden era, it’s a lost cause.

Newspaper photographers understand this more than other photographers in other fields.

When you see that most pictures seldom runs more than 3 columns, you have to be very stingy about what you let inside that very precious space inside that frame.

It shouldn’t be a game like “Where’s Waldo?”

Make your subject big whatever it is.

My least favorite assignments

Every job has some unpleasantness about it. I imagine cops hate to make those house calls where they inform a deceased accident victim’s next-of-kin of their loss.

So at the number #1 spot for assignments I loathed:


Always a no-win situation even when the grieving family wants the media present.

Not only do I think it is an the intrusion on grief, I have to tactfully approach the people I photograph to ask their names and how they know the deceased.

Fires or accidents involving fatalities

Any time there is a fatal anything, I slow down.

I can say this now because I’m no longer in the business.

I’m certain my bosses must be appalled to hear this.

The way I see it, what would be the point of rushing to the scene?

There is no public service message here that a good picture at an accident scene will change the way folks drive.

What about the case  of a residential fire where a child is killed?

About the 15th year of my time at the newspaper,  I was dispatched to yet another one of these fires with fatalities.

The photographer from a competing newspaper  was also there.

He followed the fire chief inside the home and photographed the dead child’s room.

I elected to stay outside the home.

I photographed a smoke alarm that was not installed. In the background I showed the burned down home.

As I hit the “Return” key to send my image of the uninstalled smoke alarm,  I didn’t care what the competition was going to publish.

I also didn’t care that my boss  would likely call the next day about it.

The next day, as a follow up, the cop reporter came up to me and said he just got off the phone with the family.

They granted him an interview because we showed restraint and didn’t show their daughter’s burned down room.

Next: Assignments I enjoyed

4 thoughts on “The once sought-after newspaper staff photographer position Part 2”

  1. Hi Nick,
    Thanks for coming back and leaving a comment. It’s good to hear you’re still plugging away as a freelancer.

    I’m sure you know that more and more news outlets are finding that they can get citizen journalists to provide their pictures for free. Sadly not many people ever read the fine print that says when they upload their content to such news outlets, they are sometimes forfeiting any claims to that content. It’s a “rights grab.”

    Even if that is not an outright “rights grab,” by agreeing and uploading your picture, somewhere in there will be language that stipulates the news media outlet may now use the content in any way, shape or form without ever paying the original author a single cent.

    Those of you reading this, please ask yourself is your need to have your picture seen by folks worth that? You can just as easily set up a Flickr account and showcase it there, if you’re craving the attention.

    Many newspapers make freelancers sign a contract that says everything they shoot is “work-for-hire.” I know many freelancer think the stuff I shoot is never worth anything so why should I sweat it. It’s income.

    It may come back to haunt you if you think like that. Great to hear from you Nick.

  2. Good read Peter. By the way I’m still plugging away in an ever shrinking industry. My first and best choice I ever made entering the Photojournalist industry was to become a freelancer. It has paid off huge. Not two years ago staffers would chuckle at the freelancers and now my phone never stops ringing. Guess who’s calling me for advise and tips about being a freelancer?

  3. Paula,
    Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog and to comment. It’s the perennial battle between the word people and the visual people in any newsroom.

    I think part of the problem is that most photographers don’t want to take that promotion and sit at a desk especially if they’re still physically able to do their work.

    So, they don’t get into managerial positions at newspapers where they can make decisions regarding use of photos. I know I speak for myself here, but I had the seniority to take that sedentary cushy job but it was not my idea of a fun job. Office politics aside, I much prefer to be exploring the world with the camera.

  4. Agreed. It’s a frequent frustration to photojournalists that reporters and editors often get to choose which photo gets printed, and they frequently don’t pick the best. Over the years I’ve narrowed the options I submit, so at least the one or two printed will reflect what I’d like to say. Several years ago I submitted a multi-photo sequence for a page 1 article that dramatically “told the story.” The editor was stuck on relating the events in words and used a single photograph with far less impact. I feel that we can say far more with photography than many paragraphs of editorial, that most people read newspapers first for the photos, and that we know what we are doing to a far greater extent than those who send us on assignments and pay for our work.

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