Write Your Way into Editorial Photography


Photography: blackbiscuits

The toughest way to sell your editorial images is the one faced by most photographers: you have to pitch your photos directly and unsolicited to photo editors. They look at dozens of portfolios a week and only rarely find images that they like enough to pay for. Fortunately it is also possible to try a different way in. Instead of trying to sell your pictures, you pitch a story — one that comes complete with professional-quality photos.

That might not look like such a smart move. Story editors are just as inundated with pitches as photo editors are. But the queries they receive usually come from writers offering only text. If images are mentioned as part of the package, they tend to be the kind of snaps that might look good in the family album but which don’t reach the professional level publications need.

A photographer who can supply both a high quality article and the images that illustrate it is offering a complete package and solving two problems at once for the publication. He stands out from the crowd of photographers and writers trying to sell their ideas — and he gets a foot in the door that can lead to new shoots.

From Magazines to Galleries

It’s an approach that has worked for Ken Sullins, an equine surgeon and keen photographer. About ten years ago, he became interested in writing, and began successfully pitching stories to outdoors magazines. Soon, he began to put more effort into the photography and it wasn’t long before he was reaching for his camera more often than his pen.

“Very soon the photography became more interesting than the writing,” Ken says. “However, stories with photos still sell better than photos alone.”

Ken is now a semi-professional photographer who regularly sells his prints and whose works frequently appear in galleries.

The principle and process of pitching to story editors are similar to those involved in selling images. First, you have to read and follow the submission requirements. You can usually find these on the magazine’s website and they state exactly how the publication wants to see pitches. Following those instructions should be pretty straightforward — although lots of people still believe that their story ideas are different enough to ignore them, a quick way to be ignored themselves.

Much harder is to make sure that your pitch matches the publication. Magazines have both a specific audience and a specific style. If you tend to shoot photos of cars, for example, you can certainly submit your car photos to a wide range of different magazines but the story that accompanies them has to have the same voice as the publication as a whole. You have to identify whether it’s talking to mechanics who are comfortable with the jargon and the technical details, or whether it’s more likely to be read by young people who are more concerned with looks than specifications. The same story can be written in a number of different ways and it’s important that the pitch matches the approach of the publication. That’s something that can only come through lots of reading and a good understanding of the magazines on the market.

Editorial Photographers Know How to Tell a Story

It’s also something that requires some writing skills so writing your way into editorial photography is not going to be an approach that would suit everyone. But even when it comes to planning a story, photographers do have an advantage. Editorial photographers understand that there’s more to a successful image than the right composition or a pretty use of color combinations. The pictures have to tell a story, and a narrative is precisely what most editors are looking for — both story editors and picture editors.

“I am not wowed by random images of exotic places so much as I am by a well-told story that has a strong sense of place,” says Whitney Lawson, a photo editor at Travel+Leisure Magazine. “This is more the essence of editorial travel photography than a bunch of scenics thrown together that don’t relate to each other.  I don’t need to see a photo of Angkor Wat followed by the Trevi Fountain. What’s the story there? ‘I flew to Cambodia, then I flew to Rome?’”

Whitney who, as well as commissioning photographers also writes and shoots for Travel+Leisure, suggests that photographers looking to make the first steps in travel photography begin by taking a weekend trip with friends, and shoot pictures that portray the vacation in a beautiful way. That’s not a bad way to start writing too.

Of course, pitching and writing aren’t the only ways to get your images into magazines. The best way, of course, is to be well-known. If your style is distinctive enough, when a publication wants pictures like the ones you shoot, they’ll call. You won’t have to do any marketing and when the buyer is making the approach, you get to set the rates.

And if you’re not at this stage yet, then knowing photo editors can help too. There’s no guarantee that they’ll buy, but when you have a friend at the photo desk, you should at least be able to get your pictures seen.

But neither of those routes is going to be open to everyone, so most photographers will find themselves battling the crowds surrounding the photo editor’s desk. Aim for the story editor instead, show that you’ve got great images to match the article and you should be able to give yourself an advantage that other writers just can’t beat.

Whether you then choose to remain a writer and a photographer will be up to you. Having sold images once, you should find it easier to make those sales a second time. But you might well find that you enjoy doing both. Ten years after submitting his articles to magazines, and although he has created a name for himself as an equine photographer, Ken Sullins still writes articles. And he still submits images with them.

5 comments for this post.

  1. Thursday Bram Said:

    It's also very possible to team up with a freelance writer to create solid editorial packages: as a freelance writer, I've gone looking for photographers in my area to help me improve my chances of getting a query accepted more than once.

  2. Fotografi Said:

    To be an editorial photographer means to have a net to produce interesting stories and to take aoutstandin pictures.

  3. Denver Engagement Photographer Said:

    Great idea, but I'm not a writer, not even close. Thanks for the alternative thinking though. Aproaching jobs that have photography attached from the other angle.

  4. Russell Cavanagh Said:

    Absolutely spot on! Journalists today are expected to have multimedia skills and so it is logical that photographers can enhance their prospects by writing up stories. Thanks for this post.


  5. john hildebrand Said:

    great story i am going to start trying to do this with my images. will let you know when and if it works for me

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