How to Catch a Photo Editor’s Eye

For photographers looking to show their work to photo editors, life should now be easier than ever. If once they had to stuff a pile of prints into a envelope or make an appointment to show off their portfolio, today they can wow editors with the images on their website even while they’re out completing another job. But that easy option throws up a bunch of new difficulties. With websites so effortless to build — and with so many to choose from — how does a photo editor decide which photographer’s online portfolio to examine in detail, which photographers to hire and which to ignore? And what can a photographer do to make sure that his or her work receives the attention it deserves and wins a commission?

The first requirement is perhaps the most surprising. Despite the whiz-bang features and slick animation offered on so many sites, simple is usually best. Editors are short of time, and faced with a large number of images they want to gain an understanding quickly of what the photographer can do. They’re less interested in what the photographer’s Web developer can do.

“There is no secret that photo editors like clean, clear, unfussy websites,” says Whitney Lawson, photo editor at Travel + Leisure, a travel magazine. “I personally won’t last long if the photos are going by in Flash animations.”

Images should be grouped into themes, she recommends, with an ideal website showing between five and ten different series, followed by a selection of tearsheets. These don’t have to be from a national publication but they do help photo editors to understand how the images look in an editorial context.

The Image with no Sky’s the Limit

Obviously, the images have to be technically correct too, and digital problems can be one reason that photo editors click away. “Acidy” reds and greens or a magenta cast are the worst giveaways, says Whitney, and the sky should be detailed rather than left to disappear into the background.

“If the sky is blown out, with no information, it’s not for me,” she says. “I am not talking about a white sky, I’m talking about a no-information sky… It is not just negative space to me.”

It’s not just the tearsheets and the stories told in the professional series that can help win a photographer a job though. Personal projects are also important and reveal a great deal about the person behind the camera, what they like to photograph, and perhaps most importantly, how they’re likely to act on a shoot.

That’s a feeling common to all photo editors. Ryan Gamma, photo editor at Eastern Surf Magazine, tends to look particularly closely at personal projects when assessing a photographer for the first time.

“It shows me their range and helps me to judge how effective a photographer could be in an assignment situation,” he says. “Especially when it comes to a new photographer who I’m still trying to figure out.”

Creating a simple website is reasonably straightforward, especially if you’re willing to hire a designer to do it for you. Whitney pointed to Anna Wolf, Amanda Marsalis and Joao Canziani as three examples of young photographers with particularly strong sites. All of those photographers have multiple series, and Joao’s website even suggests that he has multiple portfolios. Putting that website in front of the editor though requires a different set of skills.

Whitney says that she looks at around 25 photographers’ websites every week. Some of them she finds by searching for photographers in locations where she will be holding shoots but others she discovers as a result of promos and emails sent to her by the photographers themselves.

Good Subjects Attract Photo Editors

What the photographer puts in those emails then is always crucial and especially what they put in the subject line. Messages with titles like “New work” and “New website” arrive in Whitney’s inbox every day – and are usually ignored. More interesting, she says, are emails with subject lines that reveal a specific detail, especially the sort of location detail that would interest a photo editor at a travel publication. Emails with subject lines like “Photographer based in Vancouver” or “New series from my recent trip to Argentina” are more likely  to be opened.

With a little consideration then, attracting the attention of a photo editor shouldn’t be too difficult. Ryan says that surf photographers find him and that he looks at everyone’s portfolio, new photographers and old. Persuading him to hire them though is a little  harder. Ryan wants to see that the photographer has a firm grasp of the medium but more importantly, he wants to see that the photographer has something fresh and new to offer to his publication.

That’s perhaps the easiest mistake for a photographer to make. When catching a photo editor’s demands little more than a well-worded email, it can be tempting to shoot out messages to every photo editor you can find. That might bring in views but to win the commissions, the images the email points to also have to match the needs of the editor – and the publication – they’re being sent to. Whitney Lawson mentioned one photographer who sent her an email with a link to his website that included a series about bullfighting. That was an instant rejection.

“I remember seeing a dead animal on one of the first photos on the site,” she recalled. “No thanks. I am not in the dead animal business.”

One of the biggest advantages of showing your images on a website though is that a rejection doesn’t have to be the final word. Asked what advice she would offer a photographer building a professional website, Whitney suggested befriending a Web designer.

“Treat them really well, buy them dinner, because the best website is the one that you can update all the time with all of your beautiful new work!”

One comment for this post.

  1. Nate at Plasticprinters Said:

    Great post, I agree that simple is better. I also have to agree about buying your web designer dinner, since that is what I do. haha I wanted to add that the company I work for, prints quite a few Plastic Business Cards for Photographers and from the feedback we get from clients they are really helping them get noticed. The initial quality look and feel, and just the fact that they are different adds instant credibility to the photographer. If you would like some samples for your blog or some info I'd be happy to comment, provide samples, or do an interview.

    Take Care!

    Nate Johnson

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