Advice on the Business of Photojournalism


Ever since I put my portfolio on the web, I have received many letters from people asking me about the field of photography.  Because I ended up answering the same questions over and over, I wrote this down below.  If you have more specific questions after reading this, go to the form on the contact page and send me a message. 


The job prospects for new people entering this field are dismal. It is very difficult to make a living as an editorial photographer (for publications like newspapers and magazines, in contrast, commercial photographers for advertisement make much more Ė but itís still a tough business).  In fact if/when I find another career in which I can see prospects, I will likely leave photography.  The business is very crowded with too many photographers.  They are often young single people willing to work for nothing and to give up the rights to their photos.



You donít need a degree in photography and usually there are no educational requirements at all to be a photographer.  Some staff jobs at papers do require a degree but usually any degree will do, not just photography.  However, staff jobs are scarce - more on that later.


Without studying photography in a formal setting, how do you learn? I learned the basics of photography from books and magazines. Once I had the technical aspect down, I tried to imitate photos I liked.  Eventually I developed my own approach and style.


Just because a college degree isnít needed, doesnít mean you donít need an education.  In college, you learn to understand the world you photograph, the money you handle, how business and government operates.  In addition, you may want or need a job later that requires a degree.  And, while in college you can photograph for the student paper which is a great place to start.



Now that Iíve stated the case that a degree is important but not necessary, youíre probably wondering what is important.  You need a good portfolio and experience.  Working in the field to get experience is much better than any education.  Of course, you need a job to get experience and you need experience to get a job.  So, start small.  I first took photos as a hobby, then for the high school yearbook and then for the college paper.  Small community papers are also a good place to start. 


No mater how small you start (unless itís a student publication) never work for free.  When you do this, you are taking money away from people who are trying to make a living at photography.  Donít be conned into believing that having a photo published will help you get paying work later.  If they want your photos bad enough they will pay for it.  Besides, I have never shown published clips when meeting a new editor Ė only my portfolio.


The Business:

The reason there arenít many staff jobs available is because there are too many photographers looking for too few jobs.  So, when someone gets a staff job, they usually hold on to it until they retire or die.  Also, there are fewer and fewer newspapers to work for and they keep cutting back on staff jobs.  For example, when I  contacted the Photo Director of the Philadelphia Inquirer, he told me that he had replaced only one photographer during the 1990ís.  Magazines generally donít have staff photographers at all anymore.


To save money, publications use freelancers.  Freelancers work with: no job security, no benefits, decreasing rates, increasing costs to operate - all while publications demand more (or all) rights to your photos thus reducing your future income from relicensing your images.


The rates publications pay photographers have been stagnant and in some cases decreasing for the past decade.  Hold your ground and always ask for more money.  Donít be afraid of being pushed aside for other photographers.  If they use you and your photos, you are valuable to them.  They will never just offer you more money; you have to ask for it.


Contracts and Rights:

Editorial photographers continue to lose the rights to their photos because publications demand it from them.  Publications donít even offer more pay to compensate for the additional rights they want.  Publications usually get what they want because there is always someone behind that photographer who will give away their rights.  So, a photographer has to be strong and never sign away the rights to their photos.  Network with others faced with the contract and work together to refuse bad contracts.  (A great way to do this is to join Editorial Photo @ this is a list serve that discuss the business of photography for publications.)


Get to know others in the field and learn everything you can about the business from others.  For example, a new photographer (and many experienced ones) may not know that a ďwork for hireĒ contract means that you give up all rights to your photos.  This isnít spelled out in the contract, but thatís what ďwork for hire,Ē means. 



I know this is all dismal information but, itís important that people know this as they consider editorial photography as a career.  If you go ahead and decide to pursue the career, then heed the advice Iíve given above.


All photos and design © Jonathan Barth