Starting Out

So, how does one get a job as a photojournalist? It’s a tough career to get into, especially these days with newspapers making drastic cuts in staff or outright shutting down. But for the talented, persistent photographer, a job is out there. Patience and luck also help. I know, I was lucky to get my start!

Here’s how it happened.

I was self taught in photography. Never took a class. I was actually studying to become a marine biologist because of my love of the ocean. I was living in Monterey, California going to school and just hating it…the school part that is. But I loved photography. I loved taking photos, especially landscapes thanks to the beautiful Monterey Peninsula.

I had a friend in Livermore, California who was interviewed by the local paper, the Tri-Valley Herald. During the interview, while she was being photographed, she learned that the photographer taking her picture was quitting and that there was going to be an opening at the small 13,000 circulation paper. She thought of me right away and told me about the opening.

I thought, why not apply? What did I have to lose? I love photography and to get paid for it would be sweet! So, I grabbed a few of the landscapes I had and made the drive up to Livermore.

A portfolio of landscapes is not what a photo editor of a newspaper wants to see, but that’s all I had! Fortunately Gordon Clark, the man who interviewed me saw a glimmer of promise in those photos, but more importantly he told me later, he saw the enthusiasm and passion for photography that was in me.

But rather than out-right hire me, since I really had no experience shooting the kinds of photos you see daily in newspapers, I was given a test, a trial assignment. If I passed, I was hired…talk about pressure!

I was told to shoot a Friday night high school football game for the paper. A tough 1st assignment on so many counts. First of all, it’s on a tight deadline giving me just 30 minutes to come up with a photo, secondly it’s at night in a dimly light stadium meaning I needed to shoot with a strobe which meant no motordrive. And, because of the strobe, the action needed to be somewhat close to me. And as if all of that wasn’t enough, I needed to have a sharp image! Remember, this was 1973…we’re talking ancient history here – no auto focus whatsoever. Fast action, on deadline, at night…this was all so very different than the comfort of my landscape photography. Was I nervous? Just a bit. Oh yes, I wasn’t even a football fan…I had no idea what 3rd down and 4 meant!

I had to use my own equipment which consisted of 3 lenses; a 28mm 3.5 I think it was, a 50mm 1.8 and a 100-200mm 5.6 push pull zoom all on a non-motorized Canon FTb. I didn’t even own a strobe so Gordon loaned me one of his, a Honeywell Strobonar and told me how to shoot with it. I was to set my camera at 1/60th sec at f5.6, put the strobe on full power, set my zoom lens at 100mm and the focus at 50 feet and wait for the action to happen…at 50 feet away. In other words, pray! Gordon told me with such a slow lens, shooting fast action and without a motordrive, my odds were better to set zone focus than trying to follow focus.

He was right…I made deadline and came up with a sharp well exposed photo. Just so-so action but let’s not be so picky here. I also in my first assignment nervousness happened to forget where I parked my car that night so rather than waste time looking for it and possibly missing deadline, I ran to the office which fortunately was only 4 or 5 blocks away.

The next day…seeing my photo on page 4 of the Sports section with my byline under it…needless to say…I was hooked!
Seven years and many Friday night football games later, I got hired at the SF Chronicle where I worked for 30 years. We’ll look at what that was like in upcoming posts and also discuss further what you need these days to get hired.

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2 thoughts on “Starting Out

  1. That’s a wonderful story. I especially like the part where you forgot where you parked your car! The feeling of panic in the pit of your stomach. I think we have all been there at least once in our lives!!! The point is that you did what you had to do to get the shot, the print and the job. The perfect personality type for a newspaper photographer!

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