Career Advice

Tips on Breaking Into Video and Photojournalism

By James OBrien January 24th, 2013

Here’s the takeaway, to start with: if you mean to build a career as a professional freelance photojournalist or videographer, you’ve got to get used to using the tools of the trade.

That was a key message from Jehangir “Jay” Irani, founder and CEO of Jini Productions, and a former multimedia producer at Mashable.

He spoke to some two dozen storytellers at Contently’s New York headquarters on Jan. 22 as part of Freelance Forum Week, organized by Contently’s Freelance Writers Meetup.

Irani said that, in more than one example as a journalist who uses video and pictures, he’s learned the new techniques and new technology by jumping in and trying it out.

Take the editing of images, for example. On a freelance budget, one doesn’t necessarily need to start with a $500 Photoshop package. “Start with iPhoto,” he said, or with a comparable pack-in product on whatever computer you own. “Just learn it. Learn how it works. Run some photos through it. See what each function does, just play with it.”

Irani suggested starting with any photos, even those you may not like, just to get the feel for what the programs can do.

“Say,’I’m going to work with these photos today and I’m going to learn all about the curve adjustments and how curves work,'” he said. “Play with that all day long. And then move on to saturation. And then move onto brightness and contrast.”

Irani offered strategies for the up-and-coming multimedia freelancer to study the best work already out there. And he talked about the importance of pitching editors with an array of multimedia work.

Looking and Learning: Resources for the Freelancer

It is not the camera that you use, said Irani, but it is the shot that you get with it that matters. A good enough composition, and the equipment equation can rely less upon the brand name of your bodies and lenses.

To get to that point, you have to develop your eye. Luckily, the world is full of images from which to learn. Irani showed the room some striking stills that he took with his iPhone camera.

“All it comes down to is knowing how to compose the shot,” Irani said. “And the way that I learned to compose my shots, and that I still study to this day, is, number one: good photos . . . study good photography and ask yourself: why is this there?”

One resource that he recommended in particular was the Lens blog at the New York Times.

“As far as other resources for good composition,” he said, “I study paintings. I study art. Vermeer happens to be my favorite. There’s a reason that he composes paintings in the way that he composes. Everything in there has a purpose. So, I would say study great photography, and study great art.”

Work Samples and the Freelance Pitch

“If you want to build a photo portfolio,” said Irani, “then start shooting.”

The same thing applies with audio and video. Work on each in turn, he recommended, until you’ve an example that you can add to your website and to which you can direct the next assignment editor. It doesn’t have to look like a $10 million production. It has to look like you’ve got the sensitivity, the eye (and the ears) for the job.

That being said, when it comes to being a multimedia storyteller and journalist, the concept of being a one-person does-everything phenom might be something of a fantasy, at first.

“My suggestion is that you can’t do all three at once,” Irani said, regardless of what assignment editors may want. “They’re going to make you try. You can do all three at once in a really [poor quality] manner, or you can do one at a time in a really good manner.”

“Focus on what resonates with you,” he said. Get great at one, move along to the other, don’t over-promise on any one job.

Irani created a cheat sheet for aspiring multimedia journalists as well. It breaks out a ton of starting-equipment recommendations, resources for further learning, and some basic dos and do-nots when it comes to working in the field.

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