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What Photo Editors Want: Tips for Editorial Photographers

By Jenny Carless

“Worth a thousand words”—we’ve all heard the phrase about how important a picture can be. And that’s definitely true in an editorial context. Pictures can be invaluable in telling a story, illustrating a point, and making an emotional connection with readers. So when photo editors are searching for the right photographer for a commission, expectations are high—which can seem daunting, especially if you’re just starting out or trying to break into a new market. We’re here to help.

We’ve spoken to photo editors working in news and politics, fashion, food, and technology—to learn what they’re looking for and how they like to work with photographers. Requirements, preferences, and working styles differ, of course, but these tips and perspectives from the professionals at Bon Appétit, Glamour, Mother Jones, and Wired will serve you well, no matter which markets you approach.

MORE THAN A PRETTY PHOTO

One thing is certain: Photo editors consider much more than imagery when selecting photographers to work with. Whether it’s showing initiative, being easy to work with, or putting subjects at ease, photo editors want more than just a nice picture.

Mother Jones photo editor Mark Murrmann likes working with Tristan Spinski, who shot these images at a factory farm for Mother Jones, because “he’s really versatile, he’s a great photographer, and he’s easy to work with.”

“I’m looking for versatility, someone who brings something extra to the shoot, who has a unique vision and goes all in,” says Mark Murrmann, photo editor at Mother Jones. “But ultimately one of the most valuable assets, aside from making good work, is being easy to work with, both on our end and with the subjects.”

“I look for someone who can roll with changes and still get a great image,” says Kathryne Hall, deputy photo editor at Glamour.

As an example, Mark Seliger had to deal with terrible weather when he photographed Misty Copeland—the first African American woman to be a principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre—for the Glamour “American Women Now” portfolio in 2015.

Glamour’s Kathryne Hall remembers this photo shoot with ballet dancer Misty Copeland: “It poured for an hour; we stood with plastic sheeting and umbrellas and hoped to get the shot during a break in the rain. The photographer, Mark Seliger, was totally unfazed and ended up capturing this stunning image of Misty against the skyline.”

A LITTLE SOMETHING EXTRA

These “extra” traits are critical because editorial photography is tricky—timing may be short, subjects may be uncomfortable, and topics may be sensitive.  

In fact, time can be one of your worst enemies at a shoot, and editors need someone who can handle the pressure. Such was the case for Bec Lorrimer’s shot of Andra Day in the Glamour “American Women Now” portfolio. The photographer had just 20 minutes, in 95-degree (Fahrenheit) heat, with the jazz-soul singer.

Photographer Bec Lorrimer had mere minutes to capture this photo of singer Andra Day, for Glamour.

“Bec and I scouted locations and asked Andra to come out from backstage, into the public field. Lucky for us, she was game,” says Hall. “Bec found a spot where the smoke from a nearby grill helped diffuse the light and started shooting. Fans started calling, ‘We love you!’; Andra turned and smiled; and Bec got the shot in five minutes.” 

Elizabeth Jaime, photo editor at Bon Appétit, says, “Making sure that the photographs illustrate the point of the story is one of the most difficult things. Peden + Munk did a great job with a recent Japanese cooking primer.”

“Our recent Japanese cooking primer, shot by Peden + Munk, illustrates the point that when you really break down the content and think about what each shot is going to be, you can very much convey information with the use of photographs,” says Bon Appétit photo editor Elizabeth Jaime. (Click to enlarge.)

Another skill editors value is the ability to connect with subjects, so they relax and trust the photographer.

“I go straight for the photographer with an incredible personality and patience, who can get our subjects to relax and enjoy themselves on set,” says Anna G. Alexander, director of photography at Wired. “That’s so important for editorial photography, especially Wired subjects who half of the time have not been photographed professionally since their senior high school portrait.”

Jonno Rattman was hired for a Glamour story on homeless college students. Glamours Kathryne Hall says, “Jonno’s easy demeanor helped Brooke feel comfortable re-creating for us how she and her cat, Kiki, would sleep in her car near campus.”

Murrmann agrees: “Being able to handle situations when people are reluctant or difficult to photograph is important.” For instance, for a story on youths spending time in solitary confinement, Mother Jones needed Maddie McGarvey to capture a meaningful photo of a young man, without making him identifiable.

“Being a successful photographer is so much more than just making nice photos once in a while,” Murrmann says. “The ones who stand out think about their work and are constantly pushing themselves to make better pictures.”

This portrait of a mother and son, shot by Maddie McGarvey for Mother Jones, required a sensitive photographic touch. McGarvey captured a meaningful portrait without making it too easy to identify the young man.

THE EDITOR-PHOTOGRAPHER RELATIONSHIP

Depending on the publication—and the industry—a photo editor may rely on photographers for production and other extras.

“For smaller, locally shot stories with several locations (for example, a city guide that features multiple restaurants), I’ll ask photographers to schedule and shoot on their own,” Jaime explains. “For larger productions, I do almost everything from a production standpoint.” 

How assignments are handled varies by publication and industry, too.

“I’m happy to give direction, and I do communicate what we’re looking for, but I’m hiring photographers for their vision,” Murrmann says. “I like working with photographers who don’t need a lot of hand-holding.”

For a story on the best places to eat in California’s San Gabriel Valley, “Brandon Harman did an amazing job scheduling everything on his own, running to a dozen different restaurants in a span of three days, and capturing the energy and food of these places,” says Bon Appétit photo editor Elizabeth Jaime.

“We commission photographers based on their portfolio, so we pull images that align with our vision of our story,” Alexander says. “This is an essential step when photographers have several different looks.”

CATCHING A PHOTO EDITOR’S EYE

Of course, a first step is getting your portfolio in front of the photo editor. And here’s some good news: It’s easier than you might think. Editors really want to see new work.

So whether you send promotional material via email or snail mail, seek editors out at conferences, or build a strong online presence, just choose a method and do it well.

Jaime relies on Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, and print magazines (and not just those focused on food). “Pinterest is great for finding hyper-local food photographers—usually a pin will lead me to a food blogger who also happens to be a great photographer,” she says.

Murrmann finds new photographers by doing portfolio reviews at photo festivals, as well as through promos and project proposals he receives via mail or email.

“I’m looking for work that fits with what we run in the magazine—so look at our printed magazine before pitching—as well as photographers who have a unique vision, whose photos have a particular style,” he explains.

Sabrina Hernandez bathes her granddaughter Hazel with bottled water, in this photo by by Zackary Canepari, from “Flint and America’s Corroded Trust,” in Mother Jones.

Wired typically hires photographers geographically located near the subject. In fact, Alexander keeps a sticky-note system for commissioning that focuses just on cities and countries. She finds new photographers when they send promo cards or email, and by scouring some of her favorite publication brands and art galleries.

“Go visit the photo editors and the art buyers of the world,” she advises. “I can’t tell you how many photographers I’ve hired for their first assignments at portfolio reviews!”

In addition to publications and what she receives via mail and email, Hall pays attention to agency rosters and PDN’s 30. She also keeps an eye on talented assistants working for established photographers.

Watching for trends, and knowing what editors are looking for, may help you break in to a new market, too.

“I’d like food photography—and photography in general—to become more real and personal,” Bon Appétit’s Jaime says. “I’d love to see real scenes: half-eaten food, a fork haphazardly placed, real moments of genuine interaction at the dinner table.”

Glamour’s Hall sees a trend in fashion toward authenticity in portraiture and away from gimmicks like props and concepts.

“I’d like to see more female photographers, as the pool of professionals is still overwhelmingly male,” she notes. Bec Lorrimer, Nyra Lang, and Nadya Wasylko are some of her favorites.

In his field, Murrmann notices a trend toward stillness or contemplativeness—“photos that may not jump out at you but allow you to spend a bit of time in them.” At the other end of the spectrum, he sees wider acceptance of work that pushes boundaries—“like the really ‘contrasty,’ dark, black and white work Matt Black and Mark Peterson are doing,” he says. “Pari Dukovic’s gorgeous, grainy color work is next level. I’d like to see more of this, stylistically: photographers pushing the envelope of what can happen in the frame of an image.”

This image by photographer Matt Black, featured in Mother Jones, has a “contrasty,” black and white look that is stylistically daring. Photo editor Mark Murrmann has said he’d like to see more photographers taking these kinds of risks.

FINAL TIPS

All of our interviewees said that they want to work with new photographers. “We like to assign new photographers to smaller stories—and every once in a while we’ll throw a lesser-known photographer a bigger feature,” Jaime says. “I think it’s exciting to take risks. After all, that’s how you find the photographers who end up making it big.

Mark Murrmann, Mother Jones:

  • Work on projects that inspire you.
  • Keep in mind our lead times: In July, we’re wrapping up the September-October issue.

Elizabeth Jaime, Bon Appétit:

  • Get yourself out there: I look at everything!
  • Even if you’re not being commissioned, personal projects are a good way to let photo editors see your style.

Kathryne Hall, Glamour:

  • Work on all aspects of an image until you’re really happy with it.
  • I’d rather see only three great pictures than 10 to 20 mediocre, additional ones that make the three great ones look like accidents.

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Are you an editorial illustrator looking for industry advice? Check out “What Art Directors Want: Tips for Editorial Illustrators.”