Photojournalism: A Complete Guide | PetaPixel



Photojournalism tells a story not in thousands of words but in a series of photos. Just as a written news story presents a complete picture by providing an overview, a thesis, subjects, and various points of view, photojournalism achieves this same objective pictographically.

Good photojournalism tells stories with a beginning, middle, and end. Captions help convey the story, but in photojournalism text is secondary to images. The power to inform and persuade proves just as strong in photos as it does in words.

Many types of photojournalism exist, and there are just as many ways to practice it. From news to features, photo stories to portraits, from documenting wars to local news and sports, photojournalism represents a category as broad as journalism itself. What remains constant throughout is a dedication to unbiased, honest reporting. Photojournalism aims to present the facts, to provide a picture of reality, to inform.

Here’s a complete guide to photojournalism, its basic concepts, its rules, and ways to practice it.

Table of Contents

What is Photojournalism?

According to the American Press Institute‘s website, “Journalism is the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. It is also the product of these activities.” Journalism reports on the events, concepts, and people that define the world around us. It seeks to inform the public about what is happening at a local, national or global level.

Photojournalism pursues the same objectives and mission as written journalism, yet does so with photographs. (Radio and video represent two other forms of journalism.) Candid images of an event, of the people involved and their emotions, of the roots and aftermath of such events, all contribute to visual storytelling.

Ethics set photojournalism aside from other forms of photography such as street photography or some forms of documentary photography. Journalists must honor the pursuit of truth in storytelling. For photojournalists, manipulation of scenes or the resulting photos (e.g. adding or removing objects or people) is strictly forbidden. While journalism is in theory unbiased in nature and reporting, journalism inevitably presents a particular view of things. For example, each side of a war could be ethically presented in photos.

Just like good writing, good photojournalism tells a story visually using a narrative arc. An event, for example, will have a beginning, middle, and end. If the event remains unresolved, the photojournalist will nevertheless build a sense of tension with the series of photos and resolve that tension at the end. Storytelling underlies photojournalism.

The Roots of Photojournalism

With the advent of the daguerreotype camera, a cumbersome and complicated apparatus by modern standards, photography found applications beyond studio work and portraiture. Photographers like Roger Fenton lugged the bulky cameras into the Crimean War battlefields in the 1850s, and Mathew Brady and his associates braved Civil War battles, darkroom in tow, shortly thereafter. Many consider this war reporting as the first photojournalism.

Photographer Mathew Brady c. 1875. Brady was a pioneering American photographer who is best known for his documentation of the Civil War.
A photo by Mathew Brady of wounded soldiers in a deserted camp during the Civil War. ca. 1860 – ca. 1865.

Glass plate cameras like the daguerreotype or the handheld Ermanox came with a litany of limitations, mostly to do with the fragile, slow process of exposing onto glass. This, however, didn’t stop photographers from documenting news for newspapers and photo magazines of their day.

While Kodak launched a still camera that used film instead of glass in 1888, its quality proved incomparable to what Oskar Barnack developed in 1913: the 35mm film camera. By 1925, Barnack’s invention was released as the Leica I, a compact, robust camera that could fit in a pocket. Its high-quality lens and 35mm film design allowed photographers to take the camera anywhere and everywhere in search of stories, capturing life and events as quickly as they happened, with stunning results.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, mass-circulation publications improved the inks and papers they used. Photographs accompanied articles, and magazines like Life and Vu in America, and Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung and Münchner Illustrierte Presse in Germany, began printing multi-page photo stories.

By the early 1930s, a Frenchman named Henri Cartier-Bresson acquired a Leica, as did other legends like Erich Salomon, Robert Capa, and David “Chim” Seymour. Plenty of women photographers, like Dorothea Lange and Catherine Leroy, also contributed to the visual documentation of their time and its issues, such as the Great Depression, World War II, and, eventually, the Vietnam War.

Photojournalist Dorothea Lange (left) sitting on a Ford Model 40 in California with a Graflex 4×5 Series D camera. Lange is perhaps best known for her iconic photo “Migrant Mother” (right) captured during the Great Depression.

The arrival of color film and the rise of digital photography only allowed for more expression within photojournalism. Today, digital cameras combined with satellite and internet communication permit immediate coverage of world events, and rare are the major news stories devoid of photos to help tell the story.

Types of Photojournalism

News stories can take on many forms and genres. Photojournalism may approach them all differently, but the same honest, insightful reporting goes into each story. A single photo can serve as photojournalism, especially in combination with a written article. On a larger scale, the photo essay lets photojournalism unfold a complete visual story. Some photo books are entirely dedicated to photojournalism.

Here’s a look at some of the different sub-genres of photojournalism.


The news can include anything from elections and press conferences to crimes, protests, wars, and wildfires. Urgency is often key to capturing these events. A savvy photojournalist will keep an ear on the police scanner, or at least maintain connections with government agencies to remain informed about events to be documented. Others will take assignments in foreign countries plagued by war or famine.

A photojournalist covers a demonstration. Photo from Depositphotos.

Also, because capturing breaking news requires quick photography, a good photojournalist can operate a camera without stopping to think about it. Many photojournalists even carry multiple cameras at once, each with a different lens.

A photojournalist covers a press conference. Photo from Depositphotos.


Opposite the news, feature photos relate the everyday life and the unfamous or un-newsworthy people who live it. Features often show the funnier side of life, the ironic, or the poignant. A photojournalist on the hunt for feature photos need not race after every crime or injustice in the city. Features exist in every slice of life, from sporting events to people relaxing in a park. The idea is to document the world around us and the way we live in it. If photographing the news sometimes demands a stretch toward creativity, feature photos brim with creative opportunity.

Photo by missbutterflies and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


More and more, sports seem to occupy a prominent place in the news. But sports also relate intense drama and emotion, in the players and the fans at the game. A photojournalist covering sports can shoot time-sensitive events like the Olympics or World Cup, or they can set their lens on feature images like the lifestyle behind the sport.

A sports photojournalist will document all sides of one or more sports: the action, the passion, the elation and disappointment, the quiet moments, the preparation, and the cleanup. He or she will also know the sport well enough to anticipate where to be and when in order to get the shot that sums up the game.

Sports photojournalists at the Aviva 2010 UK Athletics Championships and European Trials at the Alexandra Stadium in Birmingham. Photo by William Warby and licensed under CC BY 2.0.


People are behind most every news story. Photojournalism relates human happenings and the human experience. A portrait can stand on its own in photojournalism, like a photo of Albert Einstein, or a portrait can form part of a photo essay by introducing the viewer to one of the protagonists of the story.

In any case, a photojournalist must respect the subject of the portrait by presenting them in a manner that parallels the overall story. Some portraits are posed, and others are candid. Lighting can prove crucial to the outcome of a portrait, and props often help relate the subject to the story.

How to Practice Photojournalism

A photojournalism project begins with an idea, a theme, a topic. Beginner photojournalists may have to find this on their own, by following their passion or relying on their network of contacts. More experienced photojournalists can develop relationships with news outlets and work on assignment. Either way, photojournalists can work as freelancers or as staff photographers. The only way to get started is to get out in the world and start shooting photos that tell true stories.

After choosing a suitable subject, or receiving an assignment, the photojournalist will often make a list of shots they’d like to incorporate in their story. Even if sent spontaneously to cover a press conference or sporting event, a seasoned photojournalist will have a few necessary shots in mind, like some portraits, some wide-angle all-encompassing shots, and some storytelling feature shots.

Variety is important in visual storytelling. Many visual stories open with a wide shot to set the scene, then apply a succession of medium and close-up shots to provide context and detail. For example, a riot contains many more elements than just people smashing windows. The onlookers, police and peaceful demonstrators, the treatment of tear-gassed individuals, the red and blue lights as far as the eye can see, all of this and more should be documented to tell the complete visual story.

Photo by Fibonacci Blue and licensed under CC BY 2.0.


The right equipment aids in procuring a variety of shots. Telephoto lenses allow photojournalists to stay at a safe distance, or to snap photos beyond distant police tape. Medium focal length lenses help capture life as the eye would see it, and they work well for close-ups. Wide-angle lenses take stock of the entire event or playing field as the action unfolds. A photojournalist should carry a selection of lenses, especially when unsure of what the story will deliver.

A flash can prove crucial for some photojournalism. Covering the news at night, for example, requires auxiliary lighting. Portraits can benefit from a softbox flash, and flashes can also serve as fill light in tricky situations. Tripods allow the photojournalist to wait patiently with a telephoto lens.

Extra batteries and memory cards never hurt, particularly when the photojournalist has no idea when the news event will end. As mentioned, a police scanner can tip off a photographer, and sometimes the first to respond ends up with the photo on page one.

Photo by Anssi Koskinen and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

An old-fashioned pen and notebook also form part of the photojournalist’s kit. A professional photojournalist will keep track of who’s who and what exactly transpired in front of the camera.

Names of people and other important details will form part of the captions that help the photos tell their story. Even when working in conjunction with a reporter, the photojournalist needs to keep track of the people and the action he or she shoots.


After gathering the images that represent an event, editing becomes crucial. Photojournalism projects rely on structured narratives to portray stories with visual and emotional impact. This typically requires a sequence of images. Careful consideration of the necessary variety of shots, the people involved, the aesthetics and visual appeal, and the overall story arc must apply to each selection.

Ethics in Photojournalism

Photojournalism attempts to present the truth behind a news story or event. It is therefore bound to a rigid code of conduct, one that creates a level playing field for photojournalists working for competing news agencies, for example.

Honest photographs form the backbone of photojournalism. While genres like fine art or product photography permit alterations, including the addition or removal of objects or people from a photo, photojournalism merely allows for color and tonal value corrections in post-production. Cropping can help strengthen storytelling in a photo, but not when it omits details and creates an incomplete portrayal. Plenty of photojournalists have attempted to cheat reality in the darkroom or especially with the computer, only to find themselves unemployed once the deceit was discovered.

Along with the truth, photojournalists must respect their subjects. It is common for the photographer to ask permission for a portrait, and in doing so he or she can get the subject’s name for the caption. This is especially important when photographing minors: parents or guardians must approve beforehand. Also, in photojournalism it is unethical to pay someone to pose in a photo.

The ethics of journalism are best represented and explained by the National Press Photographers Association. Their Code of Ethics is concise yet clear, and helps keep novice and veteran photojournalists from compromising their, and their industry’s, integrity.


Despite the rise of nonprofessional, crowdsourced photography and its surging prevalence in online publications today, true photojournalism retains its place in the media. The genre thrived during the days of film, transitioned seamlessly to digital, and still occupies the illustrious, heavily-consumed pages of newspapers, magazines, and websites worldwide. Photojournalists, however, must remain nimble, creative, explorative, and true to their values.

Now more than ever, the world craves images. This century offers visual outlets like never before. Opportunities abound for rising photojournalists, thanks in large part to the internet. A highly connected world also offers more subjects for photojournalists to cover. Finding news and communicating with others takes far less effort today than it did in the 1930s, the “golden years” of photojournalism. Camera equipment has also advanced enormously, allowing a budding photojournalist to acquire a kit without spending a fortune.

Despite today’s opportunities and obstacles, photojournalism succeeds only if it is practiced with vigor, commitment, and pride. The basics of good photojournalism began in the 19th century and continue to the present moment. Well-executed photography, artistic and creative flair, ethically responsible practice, and a powerful story arc, all contribute to successful photojournalism.

The best way to advance as a photojournalist? Keep shooting. Find a theme, a beat, and accumulate images. Study the masters, the classics, and contemporary photojournalists like Lynsey Addario and Finbarr O’Reilly.

There seems to be more news than ever, which means photojournalists have plenty to report on. As the world becomes more complicated, as new crises emerge, and as media communications evolve and become more accessible worldwide, photojournalism earns a greater status and responsibility to society. It’s up to the latest generations to carry the torch first held by Brady, Capa, and all of the others. The role of photojournalism is to give light to the truth in the most visible way possible. One could almost argue that the handheld camera was designed for exactly this purpose.

Image credits: Header photograph from Depositphotos

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