I've spent most of my career as a photographer centered in smaller cities. When I first picked up a camera as part of a profession, it was as the editor of a county newspaper. The largest town in the county only recently hit a population of 20,000. The population of the entire county is just over 30,000. Working as a photographer in a small town can be quite interesting, especially if you think outside of the box.
As a photographer, I began my career as a newspaper editor, which is kind of a roundabout way to do it. Being the only direct employee, I also became a photojournalist as well as a photo editor for the freelance photographers who would submit their images.
Before being hired as an editor, I had no experience in the field. When it came to photography, I didn't even have a functioning DSLR. For the first issue I used my phone to capture images. But it was a position no one wanted in a paper that few had heard of. The reason it continued to exist, like many small papers, was because it was owned by a larger news organization, and the legal ads that were mandatory to post in a local newspaper was an easy revenue stream.
Being an editor isn't for everyone. That doesn't mean that local papers are out of the question though. Many local newspapers have a need for photographs. They may not have a large budget, but often can pay at least a little something. This is especially true if you shoot events or sports, because even if a paper has full time photographers, they never have enough to cover everything.
Doing freelance work for a newspaper most likely won't suffice as your only source of income, but it does set you up in a different way.
First, it allows you to attend a variety of different events. As a photojournalist, I shot everything from pro-rodeos, to high school plays. I was a staple of local sporting events, as well as other community and private events. Having to photograph in such diverse areas meant that I had to adapt a lot and learn on the fly. And there was more forgiveness. If I only came out with one or two good photos, that was enough for the paper.
Being the go to photographer means that people keep me in the loop. This was taken during a Veteran's Day ceremony near where I live. I was asked to come out, and if it wasn't for that, I wouldn't have known about the event, and I wouldn't have captured this image.
Second, it establishes you as a local photographer, and often the go to photographer. With the paper I was an editor for, the circulation was only a couple thousand. So it wasn't a massive exposure. But being at various events, and interacting with locals, was better than any advertising I could have paid for.
By being at events, and speaking with many of the same people again and again, you begin to be the go to person when it comes to photography. You get associated with photography. Working in photojournalism, and covering an event, also means speaking with those putting on the event; the decision makers. After time, relationships are built, and when a photographer is needed, they already have one in mind.
This extends to other areas of photography as well. Before working for a newspaper, I had no intention of trying to do portrait shoots. I had no idea how to enter into that market, and wasn't ready to fight to get into what is usually a pretty saturated market. Photojournalism became somewhat of a backdoor though. When it came to high school sports, I was constantly talking to the parents of the athletes. It began first by just needing to get a name for the photo caption. From there it just grew into more relationships, and when it came time for photos, such as graduation or prom, I was the person to go to.
The reason is simple. Searching for a photographer can be difficult and exhausting. Even in a small town, if someone posts to a local social media page asking for a photographer, dozens of people respond and it isn't uncommon to be flooded with private messages. And the quality between those photographers is night and day. But if you've already established yourself as a quality photographer, and built up relationships with people, there is no need to go through the searching process.
Third, it gives you some very unique opportunities. As a photojournalist, I've been able to shoot some amazing subjects in places most people aren't allowed. It was with photojournalism that I fell in love with rodeo photography. Instead of being stuck in the seats above the action, I could venture down right next to the arena, where I was often just inches away from a raging bull.
Over the course of my career, I've been able to shoot four Olympic medalists, the top names in professional bull riding, nationally acclaimed singers, and everything in between. And this has led my work to being published both nationally and internationally.
In a lot of these situations, I'm not making much money off the actual shoot, but I'm loving the opportunities. And lets face it, seeing your work published on such large scales can be rewarding and exciting.
Fourth and final, it allows you to give something back as well to your community. After leaving the first county paper I worked for, I set up my own small paper, which was primarily online. Its something I still keep active in, especially since relocating to a city that lacks a local paper.
As the local photographer, I covered an old time event outside of town. It gave me a great chance to capture unique images. Being the only photographer out there, my photos were shared quite a bit, and it helped my shop that does Old Time Photos.
Without a local paper, a lot of events go unnoticed and aren't covered. These means that many organizations, or even the city itself, don't have photographs capturing the event that they can also share and help promote what they are doing. When it comes to local sports, and even more so local academic events, quality photos are almost non-existent.
By being the local photographer, its a way to give the community something they enjoy and that is needed. It helps fill a gap in that community and is often very appreciated.
That doesn't mean there isn't something to be gained though. For me, when I relocated, it was so I could set up a new business. My wife, brother and myself opened a start to finish art studio in a city with the population of about 6,000. By shooting these local events we were able to become known by both the locals as well as the city and other organizations. Simply, we provided a service people really wanted, and it put a new business on the map.
One thing I haven't mentioned up until now though is that being a photojournalist, especially for a small town, has the potential to help you grow as a photographer very quickly. That growth can also be very stressful.
When I started shooting school events, I had no idea what I was doing. While in some cases I could do some research about tips and tricks, such as with high school football, in many cases, there is almost nothing out there for help. The first time I shot a high school musical, I went in blind. It's a difficult event to photograph as its very low light, no flash is allowed, there is often a lot of movement and locations to shoot is often minimal, and where you can shoot means you need a long lens. That and you have to be aware of noise. So knowing when and when not to shoot is important.
By the second act though, I started getting the hang of it. After years of shooting these musicals, as well as college and local plays, it has largely become second nature.
Being a photojournalist means adapting a lot, which means you're constantly learning from that experience. It also means you break a lot of rules that photographers often put up, such as shooting during midday. Often there is no other option, so you have to make due.
There are some dangers that also come with being a photojournalist, to both yourself and your gear. Throughout my career, I've been lucky to never fully break a camera, but I've had cameras where half the buttons no longer work. I've had multiple lenses break either from dropping them or just too much wear. And my cameras have been covered in everything from mud to snow. Having a good weather sealed camera is a must.
It's not just the camera that gets bumped and bruised though. Over the years I've been hit by football players, thrown back by horses and bulls that slammed against the gate I was shooting from, and nearly crushed by a dirt track race car that lost control. I've also shot protests where the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
There also becomes a high chance that your photos will be stolen, as it true with nearly any photos that circulate widely. I've found my photos in various publications, used in various marketing campaigns, and even in promotional work for different pageants. Reigning it all can be tiresome.
All in all, shooting for local papers though can be very rewarding. It's a unique way to get into a market, and can provide some very interesting opportunities. It's not a path for everyone, but for some, it may just be the opening they need.