You'll need a passion for current affairs, creative flair and technical ability to be successful in the competitive field of press photography
Press photographers take photographs to record news, current events and lifestyle stories. They aim to capture the best images which document an event, tell a story or convey a message and support the printed word. The pictures are then reproduced in newspapers, magazines and online. It's also known as editorial photography.
The role can develop into photojournalism. You'll need to demonstrate flair for investigating and telling a story, using both images and words to convey the message. Photojournalists often work for magazines rather than newspapers, and can work on a project over a long period of time.
Types of press photographer
Working as a press photographer, you could specialise in any number of areas, including:
- current events;
Press photography requires a combination of intuition, creativity and technical skills. You'll need to:
- work closely with other people concerned with the story, such as journalists and picture editors, and agree the photographic requirements for a story;
- handle admin arrangements such as timing, press cards, transport and access to restricted areas, venues and events;
- photograph events or personalities, and note details for photographic captions;
- add relevant keywords to image files for picture libraries so that the images can be recognised in search engines;
- ensure all pictures are appropriate, processed, catalogued and ready in time to meet deadlines;
- prepare and send digital photographs for newspaper publication to deadline;
- maintain up-to-date knowledge about current news stories and any specialist areas;
- source freelance photographers for a job or existing photographs if pushed to meet a deadline;
- arrange lighting and other requirements for magazine studio shoots;
- check the weather forecast and light values of places beforehand;
- maintain photographic and electronic communications equipment.
For freelance press photographers, extra activities include:
- researching and anticipating relevant events;
- negotiating the sale of specific shots;
- handling all business activities and establishing and maintaining contacts.
- Starting salaries for press photographers are usually in the range of £12,000 to £16,000.
- With more experience, salaries can rise to around £18,000 to £22,000.
- Very experienced photographers can earn anywhere from £25,000 to £60,000 a year.
Salaries reflect the size of circulation of the newspaper and the experience and reputation of the photographer. Quality magazines may offer higher rates. Experienced photographers can earn a flat fee when commissioned to cover a specific event.
Negotiating a reasonable freelance fee is complex and it may be worth joining the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), which offers guidance on rates and contracts; see the NUJ Freelance Fees Guide.
When calculating fees, remember to take into account overheads for equipment, which can be around £100 per day. Freelance press journalists often sell images to picture libraries, or agencies whose daily rates vary from around £75 to £180.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
You need to be where the story is, so expect to work unsocial hours including evenings and weekends. For example, if sport's your specialism, you'll be required to attend evening and weekend fixtures. Time off in lieu is generally given.
What to expect
- Most newspapers have a small core of staff photographers including senior photographers and a picture editor. Agencies and many newspapers use regular contract freelancers, on a good daily rate of pay and with guaranteed work. However, the bulk of press images come from freelancers with regional or specialist knowledge or from agencies.
- National newspapers only recruit experienced photographers with a substantial track record. At this level, it'll be assumed that you can use a camera proficiently, but you'll also need to show that you can handle people, meet deadlines and be in the right place at the right time to get the pictures.
- Magazines sometimes employ photographers with particular specialist areas, such as food or gardens. The emphasis here is more likely to be on creative skills and producing a suitable layout. Some magazines only employ freelance photographers. While the male to female ratio amongst press photographers is balancing out, some areas, such as war and sports photography, remain particularly male-dominated.
- Work is available in most cities and large towns where newspapers are produced. Detailed geographical knowledge is very useful to local photographers for finding the best viewpoint. A driving licence is essential, as travel within a working day is frequent. Overnight absence from home may be required, as may overseas work or travel.
- Work can be stressful if you're recording an accident or people's emotions and may also involve ethical decisions related to intrusion into private lives, and the possible consequences of the publication of photographs. You may experience objections to your photography and be required to deal with conflict.
A pre-entry qualification is not essential for a career in press photography but can be advantageous, as it offers formal training and demonstrates your motivation for the work.
The Diploma in Journalism course, run by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), includes the elective option of Photography for Journalists, which the NCTJ recommends is studied alongside the Videojournalism for Online option. This course can take between six months and two years to complete and prepares trainees for the National Qualification in Journalism (NQJ), the professional, senior qualification offered by the NCTJ, which is widely recognised within the industry.
Although this area of work is open to all graduates and holders of a diploma, the following subjects may increase your chances:
- graphic design/illustration;
- media studies;
- photography/photo imaging.
For a full list of all universities and colleges offering photo-imaging courses in the UK, see Creative Skillset: The Sector Skills Council for the Creative Industries, which includes courses accredited by the:
- Association of Photographers (AOP)
- British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP)
- Master Photographers Association (MPA)
For more course ideas, search postgraduate courses in photography.
You will need to show:
- excellent technical skills, using digital and non-digital cameras and industry-standard software such as Photoshop;
- ability in, and knowledge of, video, taking into account video packages on various newspaper websites;
- initiative when reacting quickly to situations;
- the ability to convey information;
- awareness of the positions taken by the publication you are applying to;
- creativity and an eye for a picture;
- assertiveness with courtesy;
- the ability to work under pressure to meet tight publication deadlines.
Competition is fierce. With many freelance photographers competing in the market place, you can expect to be up against a lot of experienced and talented candidates when applying for an in-house press photographer role. Being proactive and tenacious, networking and having a 'thick skin' are fundamental to breaking into this industry.
Pre-entry experience is essential, and developing the necessary technical skills and portfolio before approaching picture editors is vital. Work experience on a local paper can offer the opportunity of work shadowing and developing informal contacts, so contact them directly.
Try getting photographs published in local newspapers on a freelance basis. Freelance work may be followed by commissioned pieces or paid shifts.
It's a good idea to send some of your best pictures speculatively to picture editors and photo agencies, tailoring your selection to their style, and following this up with a phone call. For more information, see work experience and internships.
Most press photographers work for one of the provincial daily or evening papers, one of the weeklies, or an agency where targeted, speculative applications can be effective.
Most commonly, press photographers are self-employed, working either entirely on their own or in a small business with other photographers. Clearly, photographic skills are crucial, but the ability to run a business is equally important.
As a freelance photographer you can also sell photographs to picture libraries or agencies; for a list see the British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA). Invoice and licence templates to protect you work are provided by the AOP.
Look for job vacancies at:
- British Journal of Photography
- Creative Opportunities
- Hold the Front Page
For information on further sources see the News Media Association. Recruitment agencies rarely handle vacancies.
Training varies between newspapers. With some papers, new recruits start by shadowing experienced photographers before being given their own assignments in order to build their confidence. Papers may offer on-the-job or in-house training schemes.
More training options include:
- the National Qualification in Journalism (NQJ), a professional, senior qualification offered by the NCTJ, which examines all-round competence in a range of skills;
- one-day workshops covering a range of photography disciplines as well as business skills. The workshops lead to several levels of professional qualification and are run by the BIPP. Photographers who attain BIPP qualifications are highly regarded within the industry;
- the BFP Freelance Photography Course focuses on work in the commercial market and is provided by the Bureau of Freelance Photographers (BFP). It's available in book form, as a self-instruction package, complete with a set of tutorials.
Local photographic societies and clubs can provide information on photography courses and projects available within the community.
To progress your career, it's vital to keep up to date with advances in technology. Photographers now spend more and more time on computers improving their pictures and most have the means to email, retouch and print images on the spot. Digital photographic libraries can be created on the internet with easy-to-use software, enabling your work to be viewed and sold all over the world.
As well as improving your skills, you can develop your career as a press photographer in several ways, including:
- moving to a national daily newspaper and gaining seniority within the team;
- moving within the magazine field to higher-level positions;
- specialising in particular areas of photography, such as sport, the arts, fashion or advertising;
- moving between newspapers and magazines to broaden your experience;
- setting up your own practice with other photographers, or working freelance;
- becoming a picture editor or running a picture library.
It may not always be easy to move between different fields of photography. Once you've specialised in one area, you may find you're pigeonholed by clients.
There is a structured career path within local papers. You will start as a junior press photographer before moving on to a senior press photographer role. From here you'll progress to chief photographer or ultimately picture editor. You may be required to take courses in management and team leadership in order to progress.