Imagine a chaotic scene with sirens blaring, people fleeing frantically, and emotions running high. Or it could be a scene devoid of chaos, unraveling in a pressroom as a politician makes an unexpected announcement. It’s in these moments that photojournalists step into the heart of the action, capturing breaking news as it unfolds. One way or another, their lenses become the eyes through which we witness history in real time.
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At Wonderful Machine, we define “Breaking News Photography” as an aspect of photojournalism that reports on news events as they develop. It’s a vital component in today’s fast-paced news cycle, providing visual coverage that captures the immediacy and impact of stories.
From the days of film cameras to the present, Breaking News Photography has evolved alongside technology, enabling photographers to transmit their images almost instantaneously to newsrooms and audiences around the world. What would have taken a day to hit the papers can now reach people within seconds. This evolution has reshaped how people consume news, demanding an immediate and visceral connection with current events.
The urgency and unpredictability of this news environment presents unique challenges and rewards. Whether it’s capturing a political protest, natural disaster, or a significant cultural moment, the Breaking News photographer’s ability to react quickly, compose compelling images, and tell a visual story becomes paramount.
The lines between different aspects of photojournalism can sometimes blur. The clearest distinction exists between Breaking News and Social Documentary Photography. The former focuses on daily news coverage, while the latter operates through long-form photo reporting on subjects that might not be making headlines that day but are newsworthy nonetheless. The key difference lies in the immediacy of that story.
Some people occasionally confuse Breaking News Photography with Humanitarian Photography, which primarily focuses on communities dealing with social, economic, or environmental challenges. While Humanitarian photographers act as advocates – with the intent of building awareness and encouraging support for a particular cause – the primary intent of Breaking News photography is to accurately and dispassionately tell a news story.
Conflict/Crisis photography is a subset of Breaking News. When you hire a photographer to cover conflict or crisis, you need to hire someone who is not only experienced covering extremely difficult situations, but who is prepared for the inevitable danger that comes along with reporting on war, famine, epidemics, or natural disasters.
While many specialties overlap, Breaking News generally describes photographers who have the skill and experience to cover unfolding events in real-time.
A Breaking News photographer’s primary responsibility is to provide visual coverage of news stories with speed, accuracy, and storytelling prowess, focusing on the objective truth. Their job demands an exceptional sense of urgency and adaptability, and they must be ready to respond to rapidly changing situations, anticipating events as they unfold so they can be in the right place at the right time. Those events are often fleeting and photographers don’t often get a second chance to make an important picture that tells the story. The 24-hour news cycle means that there’s a deadline every minute, and with any big story you may have several (if not dozens) of competitors vying for the same picture.
However, it’s not simply about recording events. Photographers must possess a keen eye for composition. Their images must complement the writing that typically accompanies a story, providing information and context to the audience. Remember that the breaking news photography of yesterday played a dominant role in shaping the public’s understanding of events, whether it was the Vietnam War in the 60s and 70s or the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Photos carry weight. They make an impact. And photographers must approach each assignment understanding the responsibility of capturing compelling moments without distorting reality.
Today, though, photojournalist jobs face added responsibilities and difficulties, something Hong Kong-based Keith Tsuji elaborated on.
In the age of the internet and the widespread availability of cameras, photojournalists face challenges in standing out amidst the abundance of images online. Maintaining credibility and authenticity becomes crucial in the era of fake news and photo manipulation. To distinguish their work from others, photojournalists must rely on their expertise, skills, and experience to tell the story effectively.
Furthermore, Los Angeles-based Justin L. Stewart stated that a photographer’s core values will help them navigate a landscape throwing new challenges at them.
Photojournalism is photography about honesty and the truth, two things that are very important to me. When I was first getting into photography, I didn’t know anything about photojournalism but as I continued making photographs, I knew that the only photographs I was interested in making were unposed, honest photographs. Staged photographs didn’t hold much interest for me. Those photographs didn’t feel as special. I discovered all the photographs that really moved me were made by documentary photographers or photojournalists, and after that, there was no turning back. I’ve been working as a photojournalist for over a decade now, and while the industry is a difficult, ever-morphing one, it remains a deep-seated passion for me.
The core skills and best practices relevant to all specialties apply equally to Breaking News Photography. However, photographers in this discipline possess far less of a critical resource: time. This is true both during and leading up to an assignment. Seconds could be wasted away during a commercial project, but not here. A moment worth photographing at a news event may come and go in an instant, and unlike editorial or advertising assignments, there are no opportunities for a second or third take.
It may seem absurd, but breaking news assignments may require hours or days’ worth of preparation. Some stories can’t be predicted ahead of time, while some can. A recent example is Former President Donald Trump’s arraignment in New York City, which Benjamin Norman covered for The New York Times. The press and the public knew the date of the event, and both parties would be vying for a look at the Former President as he entered and exited the Manhattan Supreme Court. Benjamin was in that camp.
Buenos Aires-based photographer Analía Cid expanded on the topic of research.
There are some fundamental qualities one must have while covering breaking news. First, the ability to do fast research before getting into the assignment. You never know how quickly you would have to be ready to shoot news, but it is very important to know what you’re going to cover. Is it a demonstration that has any degree of physical risk? Is it a conference in a closed setting, where you can expect bad lighting and distance from your subject? Do you have to photograph someone famous or important in some way? The answer to these kinds of questions will shape the way you will work during the assignment, the kind of equipment you will need to use, and how much time you will have to do the work.
Photographers must have a heightened sense of awareness, constantly scanning the environment to anticipate critical moments. The ideal occasion to photograph could come and go in seconds, even if a photographer has been at the scene for hours.
The ability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances is crucial in Breaking News Photography. Photojournalists must be flexible in their approach, adjusting settings, composition, and positioning on the fly to capture the most impactful images. This adaptability also extends to working with different equipment and lighting conditions.
A lack of research and preparation hinders a photojournalist’s level of adaptability in the field, something Analía learned the hard way back in 2016.
Some years ago, while I was living in France to do a master’s in documentary photography, I decided to cover the eviction of a refugees’ settlement located in an abandoned public school in Paris. I went alone (first mistake) and without the proper protective equipment (second mistake) in the middle of the night. I already knew how violent the clashes with the police could be in France, but I went there anyway, and I had a really hard time coping with the tear gas and the beating of some protestors. I was completely unprepared, and I almost got imprisoned, but I did have a press card and my passport with me, two things that allowed me to leave the risk zone the police had established around the school. I was quite shocked after the whole event, but it was a way to learn my limits and my needs as a photojournalist.
To land assignments regularly, photographers need strong relationships with publications. Cultivating them can take many forms.
This is a requisite for any profession. Attend industry events, workshops, and conferences to meet fellow photographers or editors at publications. Go through the usual motions: begin with an introduction (awkward or otherwise), engage in conversations, exchange contact information, and follow up with emails to get closer to that first assignment. Digital networking can be just as effective, whether it’s via email or LinkedIn.
Create a portfolio that highlights an ability to capture the intensity and significance of breaking events. Share work through a professional website, social media, and photography communities. Regularly update the portfolio to give the impression of someone active in the specialty. Quite often, publications will reach out to photographers with a clear visual style in their portfolio.
Additionally, photojournalism work can lead to gigs in the commercial space. Benjamin’s projects with the Visiting Nurse Service of New York are a great example. After covering news stories, he built a reputation for handling time constraints efficiently.
When I started getting hired for commercial work, I was getting hired for gigs where the subjects were non-celebrities. They were real, everyday people, and they were usually folks that didn’t have a lot of time to be photographed. So, I had to get in, make them very comfortable very quickly, and get out. I worked with [the Visiting Nurse Service] for almost 10 years, shooting their ad campaigns of real New Yorkers, actual patients of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. I would have no time to scout these photographs, so I’d have to walk in, and usually, the two-hour clock would start as soon as I walked in the door.
Develop story ideas that align with the editorial focus of news outlets. It’s essential that photographers craft pitches with a comprehensive plan in place. As Benjamin said, serving a potential story on a silver platter to editors almost always works. If the travel and logistics of coverage are sorted out, it’s easier for a publication to chomp on the bit. The pitch conveys all this information, and the process of making a compelling one was something Benjamin had to learn.
In 2016, I went to the Missouri Photo Workshop, which is a very well-known photojournalism and documentary workshop. They helped me refine my pitching, so since then, I’ve tried to pitch one to three major stories or multi-day stories every year.
There’s a lot of reporting and producing and access branding, that’ll take me anywhere from one week to a month or two to complete. The percentage of pitched versus assigned stories is low, but the pitched stories are a heavy lift, so they usually are multi-day or multi-week affairs.
There is work to be shown beyond the digital screen or printed pages of a portfolio. Stephanie Heimann, Photo Director at The New Republic, insisted on the importance of safety training and qualifications.
Make sure you have received advance training. Things can happen very fast in breaking news situations. And unfortunately, hostile environment training is applicable in all kinds of situations in the United States, it’s no longer a concept reserved for war photographers working overseas. There are many non-profit organizations ready to support journalist safety training, there is a very good list collected by the Danish Siddiqui Foundation. Luck and timing are the hallmarks of any photographer in a breaking news situation, but training is going to be a decisive qualification for many hiring editors.
A few other organizations that provide safety training resources include the RTDNA, International Women’s Media Foundation, Reporters Without Borders, Thomson Reuters Foundation, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Editors will trust a photographer who consistently delivers images to the publication’s standards. This can also lead to opportunities to work with other departments, such as sports, travel, or lifestyle. Editors are more likely to recommend a photographer they trust and may be more receptive to requests for specific assignments.
Nothing trumps first-hand experience covering news events. Offer assistance to seasoned photographers and gain valuable time in the field. Observe the photographer’s workflow and learn the ins and outs of reporting on events. Doing a great job as their right hand can lead to referrals or future collaborations.
Rates in photojournalism have undergone several changes over the past few decades. Previously, photographers could charge much higher fees depending on a few variables, including which page their photos would be featured in. Today, as Benjamin mentioned, publications follow a uniform and standard approach to their rates, usually within a work-for-hire model.
Space rates are rarely used nowadays. It’s all day rates, and that’s up to eight hours of work. It ranges from $275 to $800, I would say, for newspapers and magazines. The rate can also be determined by the copyright usage of your images, but nowadays, it’s 99% day rates. Front page, back page, doesn’t matter.
However, photographers will earn more when covering stories in dangerous and uncertain environments in the form of Hazard Pay. This is mostly applicable to reporting done in areas of conflict and crises.
As the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) states, photojournalists are trustees of the public, with their primary goal being “the faithful and comprehensive depiction of the subject at hand.” While chasing newsworthy events and stories, they must hold themselves to exceptionally high standards knowing how impactful and influential images can be.
Photojournalists must strive for accuracy in their images, providing an authentic representation of events. As such, there are stringent restrictions on how much or how little photos can be edited. Similarly, they should avoid staging or manipulating scenes that could distort the truth.
Photojournalists should provide accurate captions and descriptions, ensuring viewers understand events and their context clearly. It builds trust with the audience and upholds the integrity and reputation of publications.
Benjamin described some of the cardinal rules regarding accuracy, context, and transparency.
In terms of manipulating your subjects, there is still a pretty hard and fast rule, that you’re not supposed to manipulate. And you’re not supposed to tell anybody to do anything unless it’s a portrait, and then you have to label it as a portrait in the caption so they know that there might be some potential direction that the photographer gave.
All subjects featured in a story must be treated with respect and dignity. Photojournalists and news editors have difficult calls to make for specific stories, where they must assess what’s in the public interest against other considerations such as invasion of privacy. It’s imperative that they show empathy when dealing with sensitive subjects or traumatic situations. Keith added,
In approaching people in distress, my primary focus is maintaining their privacy and dignity. A discreet approach, using longer lenses to capture photographs while keeping a respectful distance. Respecting their privacy is always my top priority.
Mobile, Alabama-based photographer Dan Anderson’s work in Breaking News has frequently taken him to areas affected by natural disasters.
A lot of times, it comes down to just learning how to read people and coming off as non-threatening as possible. Those piles of rubble from a tornado or flooded-out neighborhoods from a hurricane are still someone else’s property and home. While I have run into a few people who have told me to kick rocks while covering a disaster, in most cases, I have had people offer to bring me into their damaged homes and businesses (usually without me having to ask) to document the damage the weather has unleashed. Many people in these communities know that having photos of the damage these disasters have done could help bring much-needed aid to the area.
The NPPA has a more comprehensive Code of Ethics for photojournalists to follow, ensuring their profession is handled in the most responsible manner possible.
Photojournalists with success covering breaking news have excelled at the difficult task of reporting on events quickly, accurately, and responsibly. While this specialty may not be as financially rewarding as others, we mustn’t forget that photojournalists capture the joys and sorrows of our shared human experience, shaping our collective recollections and perceptions of the world. That’s a remarkable feat on its own, and one that eclipses a monetary value of any kind.