Breaking into photojournalism: pros give their business advice

World-class photographers share their experiences and offer top tips on how to make a successful career in photojournalism.
A woman's reflection is seen in the bedroom mirror, her possessions piled on a tabletop in an image by Angela Jimu.

Angela Jimu, the co-founder and director of the Zimbabwe Association of Female Photographers (ZAFP), has found it useful to connect with other women in the industry and is involved in numerous projects, including having her photographs featured as part of Fast Forward: Women in Photography. This image shows Maria Khoza in the bedroom of a tin house she was staying in while building her own home in the small town of Clarens in South Africa. Taken on a Canon EOS 500D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 850D) with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II) at 18mm, 1/5 sec, f/3.5 and ISO 1600. © Angela Jimu

Photojournalism plays an important role in helping us to understand the ever-changing modern world, and has generated some of the most startling and memorable images ever created.

Building a photography career can be tough, however. Competition is fierce and there are fewer paying outlets due to the decline of traditional media and reduced editorial budgets. It's important that new photographers know the realities of the work, how to make their images stand out and how to sell themselves as photographers.

It's also vital to tell stories that matter to you personally, points out top photojournalist Mads Nissen, who delivered a lecture to Canon Student Development Programme (CSDP) 2023 students: "I always try to remind myself why I came into this world. What do I want to do? What is important to me? And what do I believe in?"

We asked Mads and some of the other world-class photographers who acted as CSDP mentors to offer tips and advice on how to break into photojournalism and how to make a successful career from it.

Two people's hands reach for each other through a window while another person watches on, in a photo by Mads Nissen.

Stay true to yourself, says Mads Nissen, whose pursuit of wanting to tell the truth has taken him all over the world. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 62mm, 1/320 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 1600. © Mads Nissen

Stay inquisitive

"You have to be curious," says Francis Kohn, former photojournalist and Photo Director of Agence France-Presse. "You want to transmit something – it's your job – but you have to be curious, and being curious is a learning experience. Curiosity and an open mind lead to better stories and a better understanding of yourself as a photographer."

Widening your social group is a good way to broaden your views and to find new stories. "A lot of young photographers move to a city like New York and only socialise with other photographers, which limits their worldview," says Canon Female Photojournalist Award 2018 winner Laura Morton. "I began [my project] Wild West Tech because I was interacting with early-stage start-up founders socially and realised that this was a story that wasn't being told in the narrative around the tech boom."


There's no getting away from the fact that this can be a challenging career, and sometimes the only way to succeed is to take matters into your own hands.

"One of the things that struck me was just how male-dominated the photojournalism field was," says Angela. "It was overwhelming. A few of us female photojournalists banded together to form the ZAFP as a support structure and also as a way of creating our own platform."

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Irish photojournalist Ivor Prickett takes a photo of an Iraqi boy on a tomato truck.

Irish photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Ivor Prickett says a "natural ability to put people at ease" is a useful skill for aspiring photojournalists.

Be respectful

"Having a natural ability to put people at ease" and being "quiet in your approach and not too forceful" will open doors, says war correspondent Ivor Prickett. "Being gentle in my approach to photographing people, because it's a huge ask, is how I've done a lot of what I've done."

Learn to be more technical

"I wasn't the most technically gifted person in my class," says Ivor. "I was probably at the lower end of the scale, but I was told that's something you can learn. Your natural ability, your interpersonal skills and your work ethic are not things you can develop in such an easy way. The technical side of things is easier to master, but it takes time, and it's really important for making quick decisions, and doing good work on the ground."

That doesn't mean, however, chasing technological trends – you can still do great work with older cameras. "There is always something new and better," says Angela. "I say work with what you have, master it and then you will be able to produce great work."

Mourners cry as they look at a person lying in a coffin, in a photo taken by Mads Nissen.

"Don't think about being the best, think about trying to make a positive change," says Mads. "There are very few people who can be the best, but we can all push things in a better direction and that's much more meaningful to me." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 24mm, 1/80 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 3200. © Mads Nissen

Build a photography career

A career in photography can go in many different directions. Mads suggests using the start of your career to try things out and not to get too set in one way of thinking. "If you're just getting started, you're still learning the language. Have fun with it. Do things that are meaningful for you."

A great way to help your development is to volunteer at relevant organisations. "Volunteering can open a lot of doors," says Angela. "I used to volunteer at Madsoc Theatre in Lilongwe, Malawi, taking videos and pictures. It was there that I got introduced to some people who later gave me paid assignments. I have a good network, which I gained from that experience."

Dutch photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Ilvy Njiokiktjien has some practical advice on this matter. "Practise on a daily basis," she says. "Go to photo festivals. Do internships. Try to find a mentor. Reach out to editors before festivals to see if they will do a portfolio review, or sign up for a portfolio review. These are all ways to get into the industry. In the end it's about having connections to the people who will publish your work."

A husband and wife stand in front of a display of colourful plates in their home powered by biogas in an image by Angela Jimu.

This image is of Matthias Nyanhete and his wife Wenias Chifamba, who power their home via sustainable biogas. "Look within yourself," says Angela. "What are the stories and causes that are close to your heart and that you feel strongly about and want to share with the world?" Taken on a Canon EOS 600D with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II lens at 24mm, 1/40 sec, f/6.3 and ISO 3200. © Angela Jimu

Sell yourself as a photographer

There are many ways to promote your work. Naturally, social media is one of them. "It is a very useful tool if you don't have a website," notes Angela. "I have also found that being a member of the African Photojournalism Database (APJD), an initiative of the World Press Photo Foundation, is quite useful in promoting your work. They feature the work of members online, and their platform has millions of followers."

Ilvy believes that pitching is key to getting your stories noticed by editors. "Ask other photographers how they do it and ask editors how they would like to see stories coming in," she says. "If you know how to pitch a story, you will be able to make photography into a true career."

Ivor urges up-and-coming photojournalists to focus on the work above all else, and to apply a selective approach to networking. "Networking is an important part of the job as a freelance photographer, but essentially it all comes second to making good, individual work," he says. "Target the people that you really want to work for, and focus on specific magazines, newspapers and institutions, because not everyone is suited to every publication or organisation. We all have our style and speciality, so work out where you fit in and go after that."

Laura also suggests diversifying your output. "Find something outside the editorial market that you have a skillset for and build a parallel business with that." For Laura, this involves taking pictures at meetings and conferences. "If I have a big corporate job one month, the funds from that will help me carve out the time to work on my personal projects."

Industry insight: how to pitch to photo editors

Tips from professionals on how to pitch a photojournalism project, stand out from the crowd and get hired by a photo editor.
Two people wearing glasses and headsets test out the AZoth Pyramid at the 2018 Worlds Fair Nano futurism festival, in a photo taken by Laura Morton.

Laura photographs conferences and other events as a parallel business, and has immersed herself in the tech community covering such things as the Worlds Fair Nano futurism festival in San Francisco, California. Here, visitors test out the AZoth Pyramid – an interactive brain entrainment machine that uses coordinated LEDs to induce brain wave patterns intended to cause sensations of euphoria. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/4.5 and ISO 3200. © Laura Morton

How to stand out as a photographer

"Don't let people tell you that you should be covering this thing that everybody else is covering," says Laura. "I started having success when I started doing the things that weren't being covered. A lot of people thought I was crazy to photograph people basically sitting at computers, but that's when my career really took off.

"The best way to stand out from other photographers is to have unique story ideas. If you are photographing something that no one else is photographing then you have an edge."

Your subject might take place in another country – or simply a street or two away from you. "It's important to be immersed in your community and remember that ideas can come from anywhere in your daily life. Curiosity about the world is key."

Keeping well informed is another way to make your work cut through the noise. "I do tons of background research for my projects," explains Laura. "I'll read stacks and stacks of books about a subject before I start photographing. Knowing the background not only helps you take better photographs, it helps with access when you can really show individuals you want to photograph that you've done your homework."

Two people carry a tyre as three men look on at a South African youth camp in a photo by Ilvy Njiokiktjien.

Ilvy's work at a youth camp in South Africa won her two World Press Photo awards. Here, in an image from the camp, self-proclaimed Kolonel Franz Jooste and his sergeants watch as the boys in the camp lift tyres. "The Afrikaner Blood story was the first time I'd tried mixing videography with photography," says Ilvy. "We decided to do video because it was important to us that all the racist things that the leader of the camp was saying would be accurately portrayed." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM) at 25mm, 1/400 sec, f/4.5 and ISO 400. © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

One unique story can change everything

"Afrikaner Blood was a story I made in 2010 about a youth camp in South Africa, where a racist group was operating," says Ilvy. "I was there with a writer and we created a short video and submitted it to the multimedia category at the World Press Photo awards. It won the first prize, which was crazy. I also took second prize in one of the other categories with one of my pictures from the camp."

Winning these awards opened doors for Ilvy, changing her career practically overnight. "I was working on a local Dutch newspaper and all of a sudden, the New York Times and all the international papers were calling," she says. "It was published in Germany, Italy, Denmark, Japan, England, everywhere. I don't think I would be a Canon Ambassador now if that had not happened."

Many photographers have similar tales. It just goes to show that you never know when your big break might come, so do the work, promote it, and never give up.

Matthew Bowen and Will Salmon

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