If you’ve ever wondered what publishers are looking for from photographers, here are some really helpful nuggets of wisdom from the publisher of one of Australia’s most iconic magazines.
Whenever I look at magazines, regardless of genre, I always ponder how the contributors got their articles or images published. Were they employees on some kind of retainer? Were they industry insiders who had connections that ran deep and long? Or were they headhunted somehow by a secret world of talent scouts that I hadn’t heard of? That’s why I have a habit of always going to the publisher page and looking at all the names of contributors and contact information of any people that might be relevant. I have a little black book full of names and email info that’s getting hard to manage.
So, it was with great interest when I heard Ray Bisschop, publisher of Surfing Life in Australia, talk about the things his magazine looks for from contributing photographers. Before you groan and think that this isn’t relevant to you because it’s surfing, a lot of his thoughts go across genres and are not specifically related to surfing per se.
Surfing Life is one of Australia’s oldest surfing magazines still in print. It started in 1985 and has been through many iterations and reinventions, but stood the test of time. And to be sure, surfing is big in Australia and consistently ranks as one of Australia’s most popular free-time activities. So, this isn’t some niche guy printing 100 copies a month on his Xerox at home and distributing them via pigeon. It’s a commercially successful magazine that has seen off many competitors and thrived, where others have fallen by the wayside. So, let’s get on to the good stuff.
One of the things Bisschop stressed most was that you can’t be a one-trick pony anymore. What he meant was that if you want to be a regular contributor earning from your images consistently, you need to have a variety of photography skills. In the case of surfing, it’s land, water, video, and drone mostly. He said that if you can provide a variety of shots from different viewpoints or angles, then you will automatically be put above the guy who only contributes one style.
Further, many big magazines also have close working relationships with video broadcasters, which offers you another avenue as far as videography goes. For example, Surfing Life works closely with Fuel TV; therefore, if you can produce good video and send it to the Surfing Life people, there’s a good possibility it might be passed on to Fuel TV or other networks looking for quality video. In short, you need to be a jack of all trades and preferably a master of many.
How to Get Cover Shots
This was a very interesting insight and genuinely made me rethink my approach and the gear I use. While it seems obvious, it’s something many photographers overlook: magazine cover shots must be in portrait orientation. This is important to consider for many different genres and photographers, because even if your composition can be comfortably cropped from landscape to portrait, you still need to ensure that the best elements of the frame are still within the cropped area. In terms of gear, it helps to use a lens that allows you to get really tight on your subject and a sensor with enough megapixels that allows for cropping while still retaining high-quality details. This is relevant to me as I contemplate a jump to the upcoming Canon R5 or even a move over to the Sony a7R IV.
Are You Intimately Familiar With the Genre?
According to Bisschop, it’s usually essential that you have an intricate understanding of the genre that you’re shooting. Thus, if it’s sports-related, you need to be good at that sport or have a huge knowledge of it and the nuances that make it attractive to its participants. Why? Firstly, because that helps you understand what makes a good shot. And secondly, because you’ll know instinctively what the audience or readers will really connect with.
This is particularly relevant to surfing but could be applied to almost any genre. I often see surfing photos posted online in various groups or forums I belong to that are beautifully lit with amazing colors and perfect composition, but fail badly because of the position of the surfer, be it their arms, head, or upper body rotation, or their position on the wave. The technical side might be perfect, but aesthetically, as far as surfing and style are concerned, those images would never be posted in a popular surfing magazine. In that scenario, you automatically know that the image was perhaps taken by a gifted photographer, but one with absolutely no understanding of surfing. The same applies to a plethora of other fields.
Can You Write?
Finally, we come to pairing different mediums together. Bisschop says that the gold standard for his magazine and other adventure/travel related magazines is contributors who can write well and photograph well. If a contributor can offer a well-written, engaging article and provide high-quality images to match the article, then a little asterisk is often put next to that contributor’s name, and they tend to get a lot of repeat work.
Why? Simply because it means that other people don’t have to fill the piece out. If a contributor provides images only, then those images will go into the image section, along with many others. Conversely, if you provide text only, the editors need to source images from somewhere. But if you can provide the article and the images, it makes life a lot easier for everyone and typically earns you more as well. I can attest to this, as I have contributed to a few different surfing publications. They all have rates for articles, rates for written pieces, and rates for articles accompanied by original, high-quality images. The last one always earns the most by a considerable margin.
Getting your images printed in magazines is a thrill. There’s something visceral about flicking through the pages of magazines you might have grown up reading and seeing your name and images before your eyes. But the process isn’t always easy, so I hope these tips can help you on your way.
And as a final bonus tip, Bisschop says that the best way to get in touch with a publisher is simply to email them. There’s often no secret society. Just email them with an idea and some sample images, and go from there. Please share your own experiences in the comments below.
I have had my images published in dozens of magazines, and my experiences mostly concur with the insights given in this article.
Concerning the last point, about being able to write, I will add that most magazines prefer to use an article in which the author provides the photos. Many magazines run the author's photos instead of using images by a pro-level photographer, even when the photos the author took are not nearly as good as what they could have found elsewhere. This makes it easier for writers to earn a little extra money, and it makes it even more difficult for photographers to earn money. Writers are, literally, stealing some of our opportunities away from us.
What was not discussed in the article is something is very important. Each publisher has their own Submission Guidelines. Many publishers require that the photographers submit images that have not been edited in any way at all. These publishers have Art Directors, Photo Editors, etc., on staff earning a full-time salary, and part of their job description is to process the photos that are used in the publication.
If you were a publisher paying a Photoshop expert a full-time salary, you would want to make sure that he/she is the one who does your editing for you, and not the contributing photographers, who don't know exactly what it is that you are looking for in each image, nor how you intend to use each image. Unedited files give the publisher's editing personnel greater latitude in what they are able to do with the images, form an editing and manipulation standpoint.
Excellent points Tom. Yes, some editors/publishers want raw files, others want jpegs you’ve edited, while others might have different guidelines. Always good to ask. Very often, if you’ve received the green light from a magazine, they’ll send you all their submission guidelines, but it’s always good to double check
Another thing to note is that MANY magazines work on a "Photo Call" basis. They have a list of photographers, and several months before each issue, they send out a Photo Call via email. In the Photo Call they say what their image needs are for the issue they will be working on. The specific needs are quite specific - they know precisely what they want, and don't want anything that doesn't exactly match what they ask for.
For example, in a Photo Call I received recently, they asked for a photo of a male Williamson's Sapsucker excavating a nest hole in a Ponderosa Pine tree. You can't submit a photo of a male or female Williamson's Sapsucker at just any kind of tree, because the article is going to be about how they prefer Spruce and Fir trees for nesting, but will sometimes use Pines, if their preferred habitat is not available. Most image needs are at LEAST this specific, if not much more so.
Photo Calls received via email may be for a single image need, or for all of the images in an entire issue.
It behooves a photographer to be on as many Photo Call lists as possible. Not only does it give you a chance to submit images for consideration, but it gives you some great insights into what kinds of images publishers are looking for on a regular basis.
More excellent points, Tom. I am on a few Photo Call lists but none are as specific as that. Cheers
Yes, you certainly have to be prepared to give up creative control, to some extent