Five challenges facing student photographers – and how to overcome them

Leading professionals from across the photography industry gathered virtually to discuss the issues affecting today's students and how they can be conquered. Here we share their top tips.
An image taken from above of a young girl in a denim dress happily playing on a swing. She is leaning backwards and her eyes are closed.

Girl on Swing from Laura El-Tantawy's 2005-2014 series In the Shadow of the Pyramids. The British-Egyptian photojournalist was one of several Canon Ambassadors sharing their advice and experience with young photographers during the 2021 Canon Student Development Programme. Taken on a Canon EOS 30D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 90D) at 70mm, 1/800 sec, f/16 and ISO200. © Laura El-Tantawy

Like all rewarding careers, photography is a competitive business to break into. But the Canon Student Development Programme gives the next generation of photographers a head start.

The annual event enables students to get practical advice from some of the most influential professionals in the photography industry. The 2021 programme, held virtually, included contributions from Rickey Rogers of Reuters Pictures, Magnum nominee member Lindokuhle Sobekwa and Fiona Shields of The Guardian, as well as Canon Ambassadors Laura El-Tantawy, Gulshan Khan, Gabriele Galimberti, Ilvy Njiokiktjien and many more.

As always, the event focused on the many challenges that student photographers face and how they can rise to the occasion to ultimately take their careers to the next level. Here, we break down the issues discussed with advice from the leading panel of experts.

A close-up of the LCD screen of a Canon EOS R5 camera, which a person is using to film a mountain setting.

Mastering video is becoming increasingly important for photojournalists as audiences turn to image-led digital channels over traditional print media and opt for videos over the written word. © Ivan D'Antonio

1. The pressure to deliver multimedia stories

"If you're going to work as a photographer today in news, it's absolutely necessary to learn video," says Canon Ambassador and photojournalist Magnus Wennman. "You will never get a job if you don't know how to use video. It's just a natural part of being a photographer today because the printed newspapers barely exist anymore, and everything is online. So we need video to be able to compete with other news media.

"I'm pretty sure that many students are already better than me at the technical part of video, but my advice would be to learn the journalistic work: how to find unique stories that really engage and get people interested. If there's something we really need more of, it's the unique stories around the world."

A black-and-white headshot of Magnus Wennman wearing a baseball cap.

Magnus Wennman

Magnus is a Canon Ambassador and one of Sweden's most successful photographers, winning more than 80 awards including six World Press Photo awards, all in different categories. Since 2001, he has worked as a staff photographer on one of Scandinavia's biggest daily newspapers, Aftonbladet.

2. Pitching a story idea that resonates

While it may be easier than ever to get your work seen by an appreciative online audience, pitching a successful story idea to a commissioning editor is another matter.

The trick is to be clear and concise, says Fiona Shields, Head of Photography at The Guardian in London. "Make your pitch in a pyramid form. Give it a headline, then a brief outline, then in the third element of it go into depth about what that may be. Indicate why it's topical or why it's useful at that particular point. And then show a PDF of your images, so that any photo editor can see, at a glance, the quality of your work.

A headshot of Fiona Shields. Photograph by Paul Hackett.

Fiona Shields

Fiona is Head of Photography at The Guardian newspaper in the UK. She has more than two decades of picture editing experience, covering news stories such as the Arab Spring, the 9/11 terror attacks and the refugee crisis.

"Include a really good range of styles, but prove that you can follow a brief. I would say for any publication that is looking to commission your work, they want to see that you can fit with their style of photography. But at the same time, also show the slightly more risky work that you might choose to do – something that is perhaps a little bit more artistic."

A selection of photographs spread out on a table.

When selecting your portfolio images, it's a good idea to include as much variety as possible to illustrate the scope of the story and to showcase your technical ability. © Paul Hackett

3. Making your work stand out

Your portfolio of imagery is your route to getting a foot in the door, but what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. "I think you have to see photography as food, in a way," suggests Thomas Borberg, Photo Editor-in-Chief at Politiken newspaper in Denmark.

"You have all of these images like ingredients. You have to take the best, and you have to put them in a pot and let it boil, and that's the editing process. And then you have to make a beautiful presentation. But you need really good ingredients. If you have images which are not good enough, they shouldn't be part of this pot of food. You have to be able to serve it in a way which really makes me curious. Instantly, you want my attention."

Thomas Borberg. Photograph by Paul Hackett.

Thomas Borberg

Thomas has been a photojournalism teacher, examiner and visiting lecturer, a photo editor on book projects and a jury member for leading photo contests. He is currently Photo Editor-in-Chief at Politiken newspaper in Denmark.

Rickey Rogers, Global Editor at Reuters Pictures, agrees that being economical with your selection is the way to go if you want to avoid losing the interest of busy commissioning editors: "We've hired people just on the basis of a five-picture portfolio because they were so incredible. And sometimes we get a 50-picture portfolio, which is very hard to wade through to be honest. So you need to present your best work – and less is better."

A headshot of Rickey Rogers.

Rickey Rogers

Prior to joining Reuters Pictures, Rickey was an oilfield geologist who subsequently set up Bolivia's first news picture agency. He was formerly Reuters' Chief Photographer for Latin America and North America and is now based in London as the agency's Global Editor.

Hear more home truths for photography students on Shutter Stories:

4. Staying on top of social media

Social media is, of course, vital to powering your photography, with a carefully curated collection of images helping to define your brand. But how do you make your profile stand out?

"I don't care at all about the design," says Lars Lindemann, Director of Photography at GEO magazine. "It's all about the photography. Videos can be a good addition, where you can get a better idea of how he or she works. But it's not the design or how you arrange your posts or how often you post, it's the quality of the visual work itself.

"What I find important is that some people on Instagram or Facebook use really strange names, which I think goes back to a time where many people tried to be more anonymous when using social media, which I understand. But I think if you use it professionally you should use your real name for your profile."

A black-and-white headshot of Lars Lindemann.

Lars Lindemann

Lars Lindemann is the Director of Photography and Deputy Visual Director at GEO and PM. He is a self-taught photo editor, photographer and photo exhibition curator, and the co-founder of the Hamburg Portfolio Review.

Canon Ambassador, Laura El-Tantawy, underlines the value of the text included with your images on social platforms. "It's important to put some weight on the words that we put next to our posts because oftentimes those can be problematic, if you use the wrong hashtag referring to something that somebody else disagrees with. So I think there's a responsibility that comes with the imagery, but also the words that we use."

Canon Ambassador and documentary photographer Laura El-Tantawy.

Laura El-Tantawy

Laura is a British-Egyptian photographer and Canon Ambassador. She studied Journalism and Political Science at the University of Georgia, USA, before working as a news photographer for regional newspapers in America. In 2020, her work won the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund Grant and the PHmuseum Women Photographers Grant.
A man walks between white display boards at a photography exhibition.

The Canon Student Development Programme is usually held at the Visa pour l'Image festival of photojournalism in France, but this year's event was hosted virtually.

5. Setting boundaries and protecting your mental health

Immersing yourself in a story that personally involves you or focusing on a subject that you feel passionate about can bring depth and meaning to a body of work. It also requires a level of responsibility, both to your subjects and to yourself. How far should you push your personal boundaries when searching for those moments of truth?

"Whenever I edit work, and I look at an image which I'm uncomfortable with, I always think of myself first being in that image. Would I be comfortable being represented like that by another photographer?" says South African documentary photographer and Magnum Associate member, Lindokuhle Sobekwa. "After that conversation, I take it back to the people depicted. What do they think about this photograph? Usually they have their own ideas and then collaboration follows."

A black-and-white headshot of Lindokuhle Sobekwa.

Lindokuhle Sobekwa

Lindokuhle is a South African documentary photographer who began taking pictures in 2012. His work has been published in South Africa's Mail & Guardian, Vice Magazine and De Standaard, as well as exhibited at the Ghent Photo Festival in Belgium. He has been a nominee member of Magnum since 2018.

Canon Ambassador Bieke Depoorter says that she often crosses the line, especially while working on her long-term project, Agata, which explores the complex relationship between photographer and subject, and focuses on a woman Bieke met in a strip club in Paris. "It became something I never expected. On the cover of the book, I say I want to quit, because actually it became too close to me. But you always realise that it's too much after you cross the line, of course. So I think it's important to take breaks and to not feel pressure from the outside to show something."

Lindokuhle says that running two or three projects at the same time helps to relieve the tension for him. "If I feel that a project is becoming too much for me, I will go to another project. And then when I go back, I can revisit it with a fresh mind and eye. You have to care for yourself. You could meditate, or you could try writing things down. It also helps to share any frustrations about your work. There are always tools that can help a photographer to deal with those things."

A headshot of Bieke Depoorter holding a camera in low light.

Bieke Depoorter

Bieke began studying photography aged 18 and completed a master's degree in photography at Ghent's Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 2009. She has been a full member of Magnum Photos since 2016 and is the winner of the Magnum Expression Award, The Larry Sultan Award and the Prix Levallois.
Marcus Hawkins

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