Photojournalism Part 1: What It Is, What It’s Not, & What the Process Looks Like

Updated: Feb 10

We’ve being going into detail about all the pieces that go into your yearbook, and today we’ll be talking about photojournalism. Although related, photojournalism is not the same thing as photography – it is the process of storytelling, using the medium of photography as the main storytelling device.

Think of your camera as your writing tool, and think of yourself as a reporter. Storytelling through photos usually causes a feeling, whether it’s astonishment, empathy, sadness, or joy. Most of us are familiar with the old saying “A picture is worth a thousand words.” While that’s not always true, it should be true of a good image in photojournalism.

A photojournalist is not directing the scene like a portrait- or marketing-photographer would; instead, photojournalists are there to observe and capture the story, not to create or interrupt it.

Additionally, photojournalism is not about the best composition or the best technical detail – it’s not about the prettiest picture, although it’s important that the images be nice to look at. Photojournalism is about showing the world a story that really happened. The emotion is often raw. A photojournalist is not directing the scene like a portrait- or marketing-photographer would; instead, photojournalists are there to observe and capture the story, not to create or interrupt it. So, to get unique pictures, the photojournalist has to enter into a world that many people might be afraid to enter. To step into foreign settings and engage closely with your subjects, determined to tell an outstanding story – that’s photojournalism.

Taking a photo that has no meaning, even if it’s a beautiful photo, is not photojournalism.

Now, regarding the essentials of photojournalism: As said before, think in terms of story. Taking a photo that has no meaning, even if it’s a beautiful photo, is not photojournalism. In order to tell a story, your photo should have at least one of the following four elements: 1) It should show people, 2) It should show emotions [facial expressions or body language], 3) It should show action, and 4) It should show something extraordinary or unusual. A posed picture should really be your last resort.

So, be familiar with your equipment. On a related note, don’t be obsessed with getting assigned to the best camera – just take the shot.

The process for photojournalism is as follows. First, be familiar with your equipment so that you’re not fiddling around with it when the “moment” comes. When working with a fancy camera, you have to understand things like aperture and shutter speed, light balance, and all those sorts of things. So, be familiar with your equipment. On a related note, don’t be obsessed with getting assigned to the best camera – just take the shot.

Don’t make your assignment day the first day you’re picking up the camera. Practice is how you learn composition and creativity.

Second, practice. Don’t make your assignment day the first day you’re picking up the camera. Practice is how you learn composition and creativity. If you can’t get access to the really good camera until the day of your shoot, then maybe you shouldn’t take the really good camera to begin with if you don’t know how to use it. Use a camera you’re familiar with, maybe even the camera on your phone (if it’s a decent quality). Remember, it’s not so much about the composition of the shot, it’s about the story you’re telling.


Researching and planning is one of the most important aspects of photojournalism.

The third step of the process has to do with anticipation and planning. Researching and planning is one of the most important aspects of photojournalism. What am I going to take a picture of? Think it through well in advance. What is visual about this event that I’m going to cover? Research it, storyboard it, and come up with a shot list of what you’ll want pictures of – think it through in advance. The worst thing you can do is run off to the event, grab a camera, have your subjects say “Okay, well, what do you want us to do,” and you have no idea because you haven’t thought about it. Have a game plan. The other side of that coin is, be prepared to change. You may have a great plan and show up prepared, but some other amazing thing may happen instead. So it’s okay to be flexible and throw out your original shot list if plans change, just make sure you come with a shot list to begin with.

Observe before you start shooting. Watch how the action unfolds and anticipate the best moments to take photos.

Fourth, observe before you start shooting. Watch how the action unfolds and anticipate the best moments to take photos. Constantly be scanning the situation for interesting image possibilities, either of the event itself or of related activities that shed light on the whole experience. Pay attention to the environment and pay attention to background, lighting, metering, etc.


...it’s encouraged that you communicate in advance with the people you’re going to be taking pictures of. Get in touch with them and maybe show up to rehearsals, that way they get used to seeing your face and know who you are.

Fifth, establish rapport with your subjects – it’s encouraged that you communicate in advance with the people you’re going to be taking pictures of. Get in touch with them and maybe show up to rehearsals, that way they get used to seeing your face and know who you are. You don’t want them to be thinking about you while you’re there taking pictures – you want them to be comfortable with your presence, that way they’ll act natural and be themselves while you’re there. Spending time with your subjects before the event itself will also help you figure out if there’s a story that they want told, because research alone may not shed light on what’s really going on. Remember, as a photojournalist you have three stakeholders in this: 1) Your publisher wants to sell books, so they want you to tell a good story, 2) You as the photographer want to do good work and be creative, and 3) Your subject wants to be represented well and wants their story told well. So it’s not just about you as a creative person – other people are invested in the quality of your work.


Aim for visual variety. Remember, your editor may want to publish more than one photo from this event, so as a visual storyteller you need to be alert to opportunities and capture varied content. In other words, move around.

Sixth, aim for visual variety. Remember, your editor may want to publish more than one photo from this event, so as a visual storyteller you need to be alert to opportunities and capture varied content. In other words, move around. Just focusing on one kind of photo won’t tell the whole story – you need portrait pictures, wide pictures, shots from up high, shots from down low, action shots, zoomed in shots, and more. All of these things combine to tell the story. Think of how a film director works. If the director filmed every shot for a movie from ten feet away, the camera would look like it’s stuck in one spot and would probably be a very boring movie, since there’s no variation in proximity or angle. Don’t be afraid to get in close – in fact, get in as close as you feel comfortable, then take one step closer.

Remember, you’re telling a story, so work to capture the flow of the event from beginning to end.

Seventh, find the continuity. Remember, you’re telling a story, so work to capture the flow of the event from beginning to end. You should always be alert for what we call the “lead” in journalism, which is the single picture that best captures the event’s purpose and mood. But that’s not your only picture – just as a writer has different paragraphs to capture different parts of their story, so too should you have different images to capture the different aspects of the event you’re covering. It’s important to be alert for cause-and-effect images, and images that provide context. If, for example, you’re doing a photojournalism story about a group of student volunteers who go out and help victims of a recent forest fire, some of your pictures should be a burned part of the forest or a charred home, not just the students working.

A great photo moment is often followed up by another great photo moment...

Eighth, don’t stop shooting. A great photo moment is often followed up by another great photo moment, and the danger is that, since you’ve just taken a great picture, several other great photo moments are happening in the time it takes you to pat yourself on the back for capturing the first. Keep shooting, and don’t congratulate yourself until you’re done.

A good reporter follows the story till the end....

Ninth, find the closer image. A good reporter follows the story till the end. Photojournalists need to keep taking photos, even after the main action may be over. In particular, look for images that show subjects in unguarded moments after the event. This answers the “Well what happened next?” question that viewers often have. Some of the most interesting images end up being the ones that capture action and expression that the viewers did not stick around to see, but that you as a photographer were there to witness.


We have lots more to say on photojournalism, so we’ve created a part two for this blog. In particular, we’ll talk about how to sort through and decide which of your photos to use, and will also cover an important bit about the ethics of photojournalism. So, we hope you’ll look at our website, unitedyearbook.net, and read the next blog.


Dr. John Tuttle, Curriculum specialist & lecturer


Dr. John Tuttle holds an M.A. in Philosophy of Religion and a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from Biola University, where for ten years he was Director of Student Communications, and where he has also been adjunct faculty for several years in the “great books” program.