Freelance, regular or staff: career insights for young photojournalists from Brent Stirton

What are the best ways to get regular work in the competitive world of photojournalism? One of the leading practitioners in the field, Brent Stirton, gives his advice.
A muscular young man with his arms raised aloft and hands linked stands on a riverbank. Taken by Brent Stirton on a Canon EOS R5.

"As a photojournalist, you need to be focused on your own projects and have faith in the fact that the way you see the world is unique," says Brent Stirton. "If you really put your heart and soul into it, you will make images that are interesting." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 25mm, 1/250 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 320. © Brent Stirton/Getty Images for GEO Magazine

Photojournalism is a much sought-after career, but if you're a student or recent graduate, what are the best ways to find regular work? Is doing freelance assignments the best way to begin, and can they lead to staff jobs? And what are the chances of getting regular work from that one-off big assignment?

To answer these questions, we asked the multi-award-winning photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton for his views. Brent has been a full-time professional since 1995 and has covered stories for major publications including The New York Times, Der Spiegel and National Geographic as well as NGOs such as Human Rights Watch. He has won numerous prizes including 13 coveted World Press Photo awards and is currently a senior correspondent for Getty Images and a National Geographic Explorer.

Here, Brent, who is also a speaker at this year's Canon Student Development Programme, talks about different routes into photojournalism and the future for freelance photojournalists, as well as offering some invaluable advice on the kit needed by those starting out in the profession.

Five young people carrying large nets on their heads use a fallen tree to cross a river. Taken by Brent Stirton on a Canon EOS R5.

"At the beginning of your career, you must find original ideas, then you need to find a way of maintaining yourself while you develop and shoot those ideas," says Brent. "In the current climate, it's more challenging to get grants for very complex projects. Projects which are often less complex and might lead to prettier pictures are easier to fund." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 36mm, 1/250 sec, f/4 and ISO 1600. © Brent Stirton/Getty Images for National Geographic

How to be a freelance photographer

When beginning a career in photojournalism, Brent says the most important thing is to build up the finance that will allow you to pursue your projects and develop a portfolio. "Try to work towards a really clear vision of what you want to do, and then find a job, live lean, and do whatever you need to do to save some capital, then go and do a project," he says. "That project can be in your own country, even your own town, or overseas.

"You need to be able to make unique images of a situation or issue that people haven't thought about or haven't looked at for a while. If you're interested in wildlife, for example, think of a place to go where there's a species you're particularly drawn to. If you're interested in conflict, find a lesser-known conflict. Ultimately, you need to build a portfolio that really shows who you are."

A group of young girls in identical pink leotards and leggings mingle outside a small building. Taken by Brent Stirton on a Canon EOS R5.

"If you want to be a stringer for agencies such as AP, AFP, Reuters or Getty, you need to have the same value system and you need to demonstrate it in terms of your commitment to staying in a place, producing excellent images and in many cases being there first," says Brent. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 29mm, 1/250 sec, f/5 and ISO 400. © Brent Stirton/Getty GEO Magazine

How to be a freelance photographer

Being a successful freelancer means regularly coming up with strong, original ideas and turning those ideas into high-quality bodies of work. It gives you the freedom to work on your own projects, though financial survival depends on getting regular work and this path doesn't offer the security of a staff job.

If you're a young photojournalist aiming to get regular freelance work, it's vital to nurture relationships with picture editors. "When you're starting out, you have to break into the profession and it's not easy," says Brent. "If you're proposing a story, make sure it's in line with the kind of things a particular publication usually works on. Then send a short introductory email including a couple of pieces of your work, no more than five. They need to be really good. Tell them what you're working on and that you'd like to submit some work to them on a regular basis for consideration.

"Picture editors are constantly receiving emails and they're looking for something professional which says who you are, what you're doing and why they should look at your work. After your initial approach, follow up in a subtle fashion; don't bombard them with daily emails and don't be demanding."

Working as a stringer

One route into regular freelancing is being a stringer – a photographer or videographer retained by a publication to report on events in a particular place. "If you can base yourself in a place that's topical and you can be reliable and generate good content on a regular basis, you'll probably work, though it's unlikely you'll make a lot of money," says Brent. "Being a stringer can sometimes lead to a staff job, but it's very competitive."

Often, freelance photojournalists have to support themselves and their work with other kinds of freelance photography such as wedding, fashion or corporate work. But that can also improve your overall skills. "You shouldn't look down on any form of photography because any form that's executed well is a step in making you a better photographer," he continues. "When you're not working for someone in this way, you should always be working on your own projects."

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A man wearing tribal clothing looks out to sea. To his right is a small hut and in the background a vast mountain range. Taken by Brent Stirton on a Canon EOS R5.

"If you're a photographer starting out, in your first couple of years, you need to be able to do everything. Being multi-talented and being able to work across multiple platforms is absolutely key," says Brent. "I shot weddings, I shot fashion, I did all sorts of stuff to finance my projects." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 24mm, 1/250 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 100. © Brent Stirton/Getty Images for GEO Magazine

Using one-off freelance assignments to leverage more work

If you're lucky enough to be offered a one-off dream freelance assignment on a subject or issue you want to cover, it's important to seize that chance. "It's amazing how casual some people can be about opportunities," says Brent. "There's some serious talent in the world of photojournalism, so if you have the chance to do any kind of work like that, you really need to do an amazing job."

That piece of work can be an important springboard to more freelance work or even a staff job.

Positive and negative aspects of being a staff photographer

Unlike many professions, photojournalism doesn't offer a clear career path. Working as a staff photographer is often seen as the photojournalist's main career goal, as it provides the security of a regular income and financial backing for the projects you want to do. Then, if you're successful in a staff job, you can go on to develop in a management role. However, Brent says staff jobs also come with their own demands and limitations.

"Don't make the mistake of thinking that you get everything you want in a staff job," he says. "Media businesses are run on very tight margins these days, especially print. But this is a golden time for television and documentary work, so you're more likely to be successful with shooting video than still images for print.

"Staff jobs have a lot of pressure and you'll have demanding targets to achieve. You're going to have to deliver, and if you have a family, you'll have to cope with being away from them a lot."

Also, in today's media world, there are relatively few staff jobs to be found. "I've been enormously lucky to have the security of a staff job and it's been a great privilege," he continues. "But there aren't many of those jobs available. For instance, National Geographic has only two staff jobs that I'm aware of. At this point, very few publications are wealthy and in the business of hiring."

 A woman lies across a sofa with her hands draped above her head, a face mask pulled down to her chin. In the corner of the grey room is a small planted tree with bright orange flowers.

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 In a parched environment, a man and a woman – one seated, one standing – close their eyes tightly as dust blows around them. Taken by Brent Stirton on a Canon EOS R.

"One of the difficulties with being a freelance photojournalist is that you're competing against very experienced people with finance and sometimes a wealthy, well-informed organisation such as The New York Times behind them. So that's hard," says Brent. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 39mm, 1/200 sec, f/18 and ISO 200. © Brent Stirton

Investing in your kit

Photojournalists have to work in a range of challenging environments so Brent advises investing in good-quality kit. "Buy the best kit you can afford," he says. "Buying a Canon EOS R6, EOS R7 or EOS R8 as opposed to an EOS R5 is perfectly acceptable. If you can't afford the latest kit, the second-hand market has some amazing deals.

"You need something that's going to work no matter what happens, and allows you to work in low light because you're going to find yourself in those conditions more often than you think.

"As a photojournalist you're probably going to swap out your camera bodies every five years because they get worn down, so lenses are a more long-term investment. These days, zoom lenses are really good and I can literally do my job with a single body and Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM and Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lenses. Once you have reliable kit, putting your money into financing your projects is a better way to go."

Two young men wearing tribal clothing and carrying handcrafted bows and arrows crouch down among yellowing grass. Taken by Brent Stirton on a Canon EOS R.

"One thing I always say to photographers is you need to understand finance," says Brent. "When you're young and making money, some aspect of that money has to go towards your future security. You need to be investing in something – whether it's property or the markets or something else. These are the kinds of things people don't tell you about." Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens at 30mm, 1/200 sec, f/18 and ISO 200. © Brent Stirton

Be passionate but pragmatic

Brent is keen to give aspiring photojournalists a clear idea of potential pitfalls, but overall says it's undoubtedly a great job to do. "Our profession is hugely romanticised, but ultimately if you want to survive in it, you need some level of business knowledge," he says. "It's a job and people forget that, so you need a business plan, you need determination and discipline, and you need talent.

"Very few of us doing this job are wealthy or successful – the rewards you get from it are based on passion and on the fact that you genuinely care about the issues. It's not an easy career choice. But at the end of the day if you can get it right, it is an amazing life to be a photojournalist or to be a photographer in general."

David Clark

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