Pro Tips: How the Challenges of Photojournalism Can Make You a Better Photographer


Taken in Juno, Alaska, during Steve Simon’s travels for the America at the Edge project. He chose black and white because “it’s such a strong part of the tradition, and of the photojournalism that inspired me. And because color can often be distracting, while black and white cuts to the content.”
All Photos © Steve Simon

Some years ago Steve Simon took a leave from his job as a newspaper photographer in his native Canada and headed south across the border on a self-assigned project. “I’d loved photography since I was a kid in Montreal, roaming the streets, inspired by Cartier-Bresson,” Simon says, “but I’d been working 10 years at the newspaper, doing the same things again and again. I was looking for a way to get the inspiration back, to explore the power of what photography can be.”

He’d read an article about how Canada was becoming more and more like the United States. “I believed it was,” he says, “and I decided to drive across the northern edge of the US and see what our future might be.”

Over a couple of summers he traveled from Alaska to Maine, photographing in the 14 states that border Canada. The project, which he titled America at the Edge, rekindled his passion for photography and changed his life. He ultimately moved to the US and is now a citizen of both countries.

Newspaper photography prepared him for the project and for life as a freelance photojournalist. “Shooting on a regular basis for a variety of assignments speeds up response time,” he says, “so I was able to react quickly to what I saw. I was also good at problem solving in the field and dealing with a variety of people very quickly.”

At a Memorial Day parade in New York City for America at the Edge. “A cardboard flag someone was holding reflected into his glasses,” Simon says.

“This caught my attention in a rough section of Detroit, as it was intended to.” The image is in America at the Edge.

One of Simon’s photos for his post-9/11 book, Empty Sky. “For a time there was talk of making taking pictures in the area illegal because it was a crime scene, but that never came to be.” The 9/11 memorial museum bought a set of his images for its collection, and some are on display.

Telling The Story
For Simon, photojournalism is a passion. “If you find something that excites you as a photographer—some theme or project—it can have a profound effect on your life. That’s not just for professionals; it’s the same for amateurs, too. And the distinction has nothing to do with quality, only with how you earn your living.”

The challenge, he says, is to look at some recent photographs you’ve taken, to spill them out on a table or spread them across the screen, and think about them in terms of a set of images. They can be of anything—landscapes, sports, travel shots; just put them out there. Do you see the same image over and over again?

“Creating a set of images,” Simon says, “forces me to tell the story of my passion; to look at two images that are similar and choose the best one, the one that advances the story. Ultimately that forces me to move forward, to get deeper into the story, and not shoot the same shot again and again.”

While each individual image in the set has to be strong, when you put them together the sum has to be greater than the parts. “Each image communicates something, maybe something a little similar, but by the end of the set—be it eight, 12, or 20 pictures—the viewer has information that none of the individual pictures could communicate by itself, and, you hope, a greater understanding of the story. And you start to see things you might not have otherwise recognized without working on the images this way. It’s a very positive journey; experience the process, no matter what the subject, and you’ll grow as a photographer.”

At the Ground Zero site, for Empty Sky.

Another image from Empty Sky. “He had to make quite an effort in order to get up there to photograph in the Ground Zero area fairly early in the cleanup.”

Police at Madison Square Garden in New York City keep their eyes and binoculars on the street as the 2004 Republican National Convention takes place inside. Simon has photographed several political conventions and plans to cover the 2016 editions.

Personal Perspective
If you have a project, if you’re creating a story by looking for parts of the whole, you’re going to see things you normally miss or find only accidentally. The more personal you make that story, the stronger it becomes. Simon calls it being selfish in your viewpoint.

“This is how you see it—not anyone else, and not what you think other people are expecting to see from the work. There will be pictures along the way that give momentum and motivation.”

To find those pictures takes work. “I don’t go out, find a shot, and move on,” Simon says. “I look for visual potential; I plant myself there, and the longer I stay in a place, the stronger the work gets. I remember from the film days that my final picks were often frames 35 and 36. Why? Because the longer I spent, the more I would see, and the more I felt comfortable in the environment—and maybe the more the environment felt comfortable with me.”

Often, Simon finds, you become something of an investigator, finding different aspects of the story as you go along, in a sense running down the clues to the shape the story will eventually take.

“I often have previsualized ideas of what I might find. As a photographer, that’s useful, but as you start to dig in to a project it takes you often in a different direction, to places you could not predict at the beginning, places that are a lot deeper than the surface.”

Protesters lit a paper dragon on Seventh Avenue during the 2004 Republican convention. “There were no injuries,” Simon says, “but with everyone on high alert, it made for some very tense moments. I was focused on delegates, journalists, and protests; those three gave me my direction. Afterward I spilled all the pictures onto the table and put the story together. I ended up having a book published.”

Joe Biden and his son Beau at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. “This was a personal, emotional moment in the midst of all those people, and a reminder of the power of the still photograph to capture and convey such emotion.”

In Harlem, election eve, 2008. “There was a big screen up on 125th Street, and everyone was watching the returns,” Simon says. He remembers taking this image right before the California results made Barack Obama president-elect. “I would stand in front of people, camera dangling around my neck or in my hands. With a nod or a look, communicating without words, I would get a green light to shoot.”

Favorite Tools
Simon’s current camera is the 36-megapixel Nikon D810. “Having more megapixels isn’t about making giant prints, it’s about finding more images within the frame,” he says. “I can maintain the same aspect ratio and pull an image of the file and have a usable, publishable photograph. If I didn’t quite frame it as I should have, I can get an image by cropping. I learn from that; next time I’ll know.”

His lens choice depends on who he’s working for. On assignment in a competitive environment a zoom makes sense because he wants to be able to frame as tight as the next guy. It will be either his 24-70mm f/2.8 or the smaller, lighter 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5. For longer reach, he carries a 70-200mm f/2.8. When he’s working on his own projects, his choice is the 35mm f/1.4—faster than the f/2.8 zooms and wide enough to allow him to tell more of the story.

“When I can move in close with it, it gives the viewer a really intimate perspective with a minimum of distortion,” he says. “Because I photograph people a lot, it means being pretty intimate in terms of distance, but it has a real impact.”

In Jaipur during the Holi Festival, taken on Simon’s three-day side trip to India after conducting a workshop in Dubai. “It’s a happy day; they fling colored powder on everyone,” he says. “Even on days off, shooting for myself, I try to capture images that convey what it was like, and what I felt when I was there.”

The Content Of The Image
“Working as a photojournalist on assignment for the newspaper, I had to capture an image that expressed what was going on at the moment or situation,” Simon sums up, “but as a photojournalist who’s a documentary photographer, I’m looking for images that go beyond an actual event, images that can be iconic and represent an entire range of emotions and reactions.”

The photojournalist, working over time to create a story, brings his passion and his perspective to the telling. “That’s what makes it all the more interesting,” Simon says, “and you hope, enlightening and illuminating. If you have a project, you have focus, and if you focus your attention, you’re going to find your story.”

How to Approach Your Subject
Steve Simon says he’s a shy person so photographing people is never easy. “But it gets easier the more you do it,” he says, “so you have to force yourself out of your comfort zone.”

Sometimes the person he wants to photograph is not aware of his presence, but when he is, he starts out by asking if he can talk with that person. “I’ve got the camera, I look like I’m a photographer; people know what’s going on.”

Then comes his elevator pitch: I’m a street photographer, or I’m working on a story, or a project, and do you have 20 seconds?

“Once I’m able to get them on my side, and they understand it’s not just one picture—I say I’m going to try a few things, and let’s go over here where the light is better—I’ll work it a bit. I’ll say, ‘I might come a little close to you, just ignore me, just keep looking in that direction, keep doing what you’re doing.’ I’m hoping in that situation, in that opportunity, something real happens, and often it does.”

People will often smile because that’s the natural thing to do when a camera’s present, but it isn’t what Simon wants. “In my experience a smile is not as evocative as a more serious expression, so even in that 30-second, two-minute, or five-minute period—and I try to extend it as long as I can—I’m trying a few things. If people are smiling I’ll shoot and say thank you, but I’ll also suggest trying a serious photograph. The more you talk to people, the longer the session goes, and then you can start to say things that evoke certain expressions.”

He won’t always volunteer what the assignment or project is, but if asked he’ll tell the truth. “Sometimes people are skeptical. Why does a stranger want to take a picture? But in my experience, the average person, when you talk to them about what you’re doing, if you’re able to get your pitch out, they’re flattered by the whole idea.”

Does he show them the LCD? “I don’t bring that up, and I rarely do it—too many chances for them to not like what they see. The idea is always to get and keep them on your side.”

Steve Simon’s website,, features galleries of images, links to his blog and workshop updates, and information about his acclaimed book, The Passionate Photographer: Ten Steps Toward Becoming Great.