How to become a citizen photojournalist

Since the mid-1800s, when newspapers first began including photographs, there have been citizen photojournalists. In fact, in those early days, the pictures were shot by independent, skilled photographers. While they weren’t directly employed newspapers, they still provided news publications with images to use. This is essentially what citizen journalism means: public citizens playing a role in newsgathering while not directly working for a publication.

In this article, we will discuss the history of citizen photojournalism and the steps needed to become a citizen photojournalist. So, if you want to become a citizen journalist or are just curious about what it takes to become one, you’re in the right place.

The modern citizen photojournalist

Through the early 20th century, newspapers discovered that images sell papers. They began to employ photographers as photojournalists. As cameras and processes evolved, more photographers became employed. There is a special art and skilled craft to get just the right image that tells the story.

As television dawned, the term “photographer” stuck in most news organizations. In the black and white days, motion picture cameras were the most commonly used tool. It was not uncommon to have anchors read news stories with no visuals to accompany them.

However, as technology evolved, smaller, portable cameras came to be, making it easier to capture images. As the 20th century came to a close, news stories without visuals were rare. With the advent of 24-hour, all-news stations, the demand for video became immense.

Today, almost every smartphone has a decent camera. This means anyone from anywhere can capture news-worthy footage. It’s now commonplace to see footage shot with a smartphone accompany a lead story. However, there is a stark difference between being an eyewitness with a camera and being a citizen photojournalist.

The tools of the trade: How to become a citizen photojournalist

The first step to becoming a true citizen photojournalist is learning the art of visual storytelling. This includes learning essential foundations of cinematography, like setting up a shot’s framing, angle and composition.

All photojournalists learn how to get themselves in a position to capture the action just right. While there are many great avenues you can take to learn the craft, observation is your greatest tool. Watching the news with a critical eye and learning what works and doesn’t work is key. It’s also important to check out news outlets other than the local affiliates. The BBCFrance 24 and Aljazeera have English news broadcasts that come with a different cultural approach.

Next, you need to look at the tools they already own and consider if you need to invest in more equipment. A good digital camera is a must. Second, it needs to be a camera you know how to operate. Reading the manual and learning all the functions is a good start. However, it’s not just about the camera. You need to know how different lenses can change the overall look and feel of an image. Additionally, since news can happen at a moment’s notice, you need to be able to set up their gear quickly and have the ability to move the setup around. Practice setting up your equipment before you head out into the field.

It’s in the little things

The saying goes: “The best camera you can have is the one that is with you.” For most of us, that means our smartphones. Most new smartphones have cameras with incredible features. It may surprise you that many professionals use smartphones to get quick shots or a second angle. There’s a niche called “mojo” or mobile journalism.

In some cases, you can get better images and more control with additional apps. However, it still takes skill to take a good photo on mobile devices. It’s important to learn the controls of your smartphone’s camera and know how to use them. Don’t think of your cell as just a way to get selfies.

Also, remember that video is only part of what you’re capturing. Good videography should include good sound. The most basic mic used in newsgathering is the shotgun. These microphones focus on the sound you’re capturing. For newsgathering, a shotgun mic can mount on the camera’s top to point in the same direction you’re pointing the lens. If you can get a shotgun mic with a long cable or a wireless transmitter and receiver, you can use it for interviews as well.

Releasing the image

Once you feel comfortable with your gear — and know how to use it — it’s time to get out in the field. Of course, you never want to intentionally get in harm’s way. Otherwise, you’ll become the news story yourself. It’s best to start small. Go to a local public event like a political campaign rally. Politicians rarely shun the camera! Roll your camera and try to find the single shot that tells the story of the event. If it’s appropriate and people agree, get an interview or two. There is no better way to tell the story than through someone else’s eyes.

Now, what do you do with your video after you shoot it? It’s time to make some phone calls or send a few emails. Start with your local TV stations and ask for the news director. That is generally the person who decides what goes on each newscast. Explain what video you’ve shot and ask if they would like to include it in a newscast. It might not be a bad idea to search the station’s website beforehand to see if they already have a method for sending in video footage for consideration.

If you do happen to shoot a video that becomes a huge story, the station may compensate you. However, those situations are rare. You can expect the station to send you a release form to ensure you haven’t edited or manipulated the footage in any way. Some organizations may want you to sign a form giving them exclusive rights. This means only they can use your video. It’s entirely up to you if you want the video to be exclusive to one station or network. If the story is that important, they will waive the exclusive wording. Always read before you sign.

Words of caution

Before you decide to go out into the field and capture stories, there are a few things you need to note. Remember that you are acting as a citizen photojournalist, not a paid member of the press. That means that you are not going to be allowed in certain places like the other media representatives. For example, you can’t cross over police lines or go backstage with celebrities. The National Press Photographers Association has a great Code of Ethics you should check out. Keeping these codes in mind will do you a lot of good and allow you to go far in your career.

Also, it’s important to note that if your footage is so significant, it might land you in court. If what you shot shows key evidence, that makes you a witness. A citizen photojournalist generally is not protected by freedom of the press. To the law, you are just a bystander with a camera.

With those warnings in mind and some good practice time with you’re gear, you’re on your way to becoming a successful citizen journalist. Remember, find the story and capture it as it happens. Who knows? You might find your images on the news.

Jeff Chaves
Jeff Chaves
Jeff Chaves is the chief creative officer of Grace Pictures Inc. and is a full-time minister with over 12 years of experience in television broadcasting.

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