What’s the purpose of the promo card? Send me a cool photo, convey contact info, show-off your style, reinforce your brand, display your expensive logo, tell a story, show-off your new printer, tell me how clever you are, show the latest campaign you shot, show me how many styles you can shoot…

Action. Nothing else.

The purpose of a promo card is to get me to do something. Look at your website, call your phone, tack you up to the wall, go show it to someone and above all else not just huck it in the garbage can (wrong kind of action).

Think about it like this:

If your goal is to be hung on the wall the image should be something I’d be proud to display in front of all my colleagues.

If you goal is a website visit it should be something intriguing, that makes me want to see what the hell you’re all about.

If you goal is for me to show it to someone else it should be impressive, outrageous or hilarious.

If you goal is a phone call then you need a bit of perfect timing so that the card lands on my desk when I’m looking for someone like you.

One day I stopped hucking promos in the garbage (jeeze… of course, after bookmarking the one’s I liked) and started hucking them in the corner of my office.

Corner of my office

Then stacked them up.

Stacked in the corner

I got a call from a friend (Corey Rich) who asked if I would come up to the Auroa Photographers meeting in Maine and give a presentation. Why not? I dug into the pile and picked out a bunch that caught my eye and shot a picture of each one on my desk, in it’s native habitat as it were. I gave a simple presentation showing the different styles of promos and the ones I recently saw and liked. Here’ they are:

Note: If you’re uncomfortable with me showing your promo (or keeping it on Flickr) email me and I will remove it immediately and not try to eventually make 3.4 million off it like Richard Prince.

Link to the photos on Flickr.

UPDATE: Some people were having problems with the flash slide show so I loaded a different one. Only problem is it doesn’t play the slides in the correct order. To see the correct order with comments hit the flickr link.

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  1. Its great to see these, Thanks Rob.

    I’d love to see some photographer books aswell!!!!


  2. Great post, you got these cards from agencies as well? or just from individual photographers?
    keep posting, great source of info…

  3. Really interesting insight in how such things work. Thanks!

  4. I sometimes hate posting that I just loved the post without having anything to add to the discussion, but dang Rob… this is an amazing post and a glimpse into the mind and processes of a photography editor. Nearly unprecedented (yes, I know that doesn’t make grammarical sense, but you know what I mean.)

  5. I think it’s great that you show the process once these promos hit the agency/office, Rob!

    And to every photographer reading this: Rob’s experience is absolutely accurate for just about every magazine and ad agency. Besides the rep who shows up in the conference room with bagels and Odwallas (love that purply-black one) to lure creatives to look at a PILE of photographers’ books, the promo piece is what we’re constantly under siege with.

    And just to add to Rob’s words: make sure that what you’re offering up is something only you could be hired to do. If you show a great shot of a bolt of lightning in the sky, I’ll just think you were lucky enough to be pointing your camera in that direction – it doesn’t convince me to hire you. Unless, of course, you could produce lightning in the sky on command. That would be pretty unique.


  6. Truth be told, most of my promo cards don’t go to photo editors.

    But, at the risk of letting my rampaging ego out so early in the morning, permit me to say that my card is pretty unique. And what makes it so special?

    It’s the blank space on the back of it.

    I use that space for writing “Thank You” notes to people I meet, people who’ve helped me in some way, and, well, you get the idea. It seems that very few other people do this (where were their moms when they were growing up?) because I’ve had people turn around and thank me for writing them a “Thank You” note.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go lasso my ego and put it back in its crate.

  7. Cool, but more interesting would be the ones that don’t work.

  8. I always find these suggestions interesting. Especially since one of Rob’s favourite promos he’s listed and photographed (NEO) is actually a promo for a studio rental facility.

    Interesting that Rob found this promo stood out, yet failed to open it to see that it was not from a photographer at all.

    It’s also interesting to see what Rob considers intriguing and noteworthy… looks a bit biased towards tits and asses (I don’t blame you Rob) just wondering how much thought the sender put into targeting an outdoor magazine with racy images and how Rob feels these are relative to his magazine.

    Don’t get me wrong, most of the work is intriguing. But it does demonstrate that ‘interesting’ work is very subjective and how much of a promo is judged by it’s cover.


  9. Martha – sounds like this story was written for you….


    I like the idea of printing up postcards with space to write things on – Stephen Shore printed a load of editions of about 5600 cards and went around leaving them in random batches in postcard racks around the US on his “Uncommon Places” trip. A set has since turned up in MoMA so he must have been doing something right.

    As an aside – why do the US postal service insist on ruining postcards with that irritating strip of white label on the front all the time ?

    Can I ask you Rob, have you actually kept many cards, or do they all get binned, bookmark or no bookmark ?

  10. I think I see mine on the floor (i.e. the new trash) in that first picture… hey… at least I know it got there now!


  11. Well done, Aurora, for asking APE to make such a presentation. Corey and Jose are two smart shooters who also run an agency that embraces reinventing itself for the times while maintaining old-school photography principals.

    IMO, promos over the last 15 years haven’t changed much, meaning they mostly miss the mark. Any decent ones bring reactions such as, “Wow! Is that a lambda print?”

    Design, printing, packaging and materials stand out more than the photographer. In some cases, these factors make it harder to throw out something that seems so unique and expensive…but while I might remember the presentation, I couldn’t tell you the name of the photographer.

  12. Thanks a lot for this post!!!

    I have liked to read your comments on some images!!!

    reading you from Sapin I would be very grateful if you could share some info about European market, if you have it and… also if you and people who write comments don´t use so many expressions and slang…

  13. @8. Peter: I rent studios. I left out plenty of T&A, everyone targets Men’s magazines with that type of material.

    @11. Janel: I think there’s a big difference between an image you want to hang on the wall and look at and images that make you want to investigate the photographer further. Being memorable in a promo is impossible unless you spend a ton and even then it just goes on the bookshelf. I would opt for frequency and intrigue (if it’s possible to describe a photo that way).

  14. I always suspected as much. That’s why I put my promo money into booze and call girls – lot of lonely Photo Editors out there!

  15. you have a flickr account, hot.

    ‘great pics’
    ‘you are amazing’
    ‘love your work’

    Ohh, nevermind, you are using flickr for fun.

  16. Rob,

    Somehow I had a feeling you’d say that you rent studios. ;-)

    It just struck me as odd that a promo for a studio rental made your list – I bet money that if you actually opened it that it would not make the short list. What other promos, with great work inside, may have been chucked because they did not somehow (almost arbitrarily) catch your eye?

    I’m not being critical & I’m not suggesting you did anything out of the ordinary, and that is what I find fascinating – that the subjective nature of the cover of a promo has that much influence on if it’s opened or chucked – even some of the incredibly generic envelopes caught your eye (??).


  17. this is so fantastic, thank you! I’m (ahem) sending my promo postcards out over the course of these first months (and am aiming for the consistency and intrigue of at least one a month), so it’s so helpful to see all of these inspiring designs; what catches your eye for various reasons; and that even a simple postcard can be eyecatching and intriguing (with, of course, the right photo and design).
    thank you thank you.

  18. Are you now going to publish your new home/work address so you can make a pile in the desert?

    a very helpful post, btw. And it always seems to get back to the same theme: strong imagery is best.

  19. @ 16 peter: All promos get opened and looked at these days, there’s so few anymore. The envelopes I thought were interesting so you could see how promos arrive on my desk. Clear is still the best for immediate impact but it’s impossible to huck those colored ones because I always think there’s a check from my grandma in one of them. Haven’t found it yet.

    There will be more posts on this topic. I kept a pile that turned into assignments.

  20. Rob, Thanks for that. It’s actually a relief to know that all are opened.


  21. I love promo cards. I’m obsessive about keeping them. I have a massive filing system for them, organized by photographic genre (and then, within that, by location). When assignments pop up, I flip through that file and see who fits. (I also have the same type of organization to my e-mail box.)

    My cubicle is also a gallery of my favorites – people we hire often, unique promos, promos I use for ideas, and promos that are just awesome photos.

    But, I must say, in our office, there is also a “wall of shame” for promo cards. Without naming names, I’ll share two highlights:

    1. A man on a Sears portrait studio-fabric background standing atop a giant wooden tooth, holding a chain saw. Um…bizarre.

    2. A school-portrait-looking photo of Donald Trump holding an apple (the glowing edges of which reveal it was silo-ed and photoshopped in from another shot) with the tag line: “YOU’RE HIRED!” I can tell this was one of those ideas that seemed “cute” at the time…

    3. A snapshot of a motion-blurred photo of a man laughing on a black background (printed on the worst matte paper imaginable). I think this photo was an accident that happened when the photographer fell over and smacked the camera off the tripod.

    Why go to the expense (and believe me, I KNOW how expensive it is to make and send these promos) of sending these photos which clearly are the worst possible representation of your work?

    So here is my advice:
    1. If you only have one shot to grab people’s attention, don’t waste it.
    2. On the other hand, if you have a great promo, keep sending it. You may not hear back right away…but many of us do keep them on file and refer back when the right project comes up.

  22. “I always think there’s a check from my grandma in one of them” That’s really funny Rob. The personal touch never gets old: I learned that at Hallmark back in the 80’s. You know … “when you care enough …. blah, blah, blah”.

    IMHO: Don’t forget repetition and multiple points of contact. One postcard may feel like a lot to a photographer who has to hand address all those colored envelops and pay $1000 for printing and postage but 99.999% of the time it that one DM promo won’t get you a job – it takes a campaign. Unless of course you are really really lucky.

  23. Also, I love this old sales concept:

    If you know it takes 15 calls to make a sale, don’t bother making any if you can only make 14.

  24. I come back from vacation, and suddenly you have a name! Thanks for the great post once again, Rob.

    I see there are a few booklets or brochures in the pictures. Are you more likely to take the time to look remember or appreciate those?

  25. Not necessarily Christopher. Postcards are fine by me, although I like them 5×7 or so.

  26. i once returned from 3 weeks on location (i was an art buyer at the time) to find two post office tubs full of promo on my desk. the mailroom guys kept trying to stack it nicely, but the stream of paper was never ending. i filed each and every one…in the circular file. ;)

  27. @7: Good point!

    I can tell you that a live salamander sent to me didn’t work.

    Neither did a periodic travel log sent from a cross-country trip on the way out to visit me.

    If the 26 lbs. of pot delivered to the agency (true story) was from a photographer, I would’ve at least called back.

    Toys, cookies, tickets, shirts, books and booze don’t work, but they sure are appreciated.

    But I can tell you this: I STILL have a promo that was made out of about 30 cents of butcher paper, some brown packing tape, some india ink and a collection of some of the best portraits I’ve ever seen. I think the shooter put about $2.50 and all his soul into it. That was 12 years ago and this guy’s work still stands up.


  28. Is grandma sending you money??!! I always knew she loved you best. Love your blog.
    your big sis

  29. Well here is a ridiculus idea for the folks with more dollars than sense. Send out IPODS with your slide show video introduction and whatever you feel like using to get attention. I apologize if this comes off as mockery. I got off work at three in morning and my brain is fried at five thirty. Goodnight or morning.

  30. Dear Rob,
    this post was hilarious amd I loved your comments about the promo cards. I do prefer to receive emails with features proposal, as I think that everybody should waste less paper, even if I understand that is not always easy to get in touch with the photo editors.
    It is true that when a promo works you do remember the pic and the author. Here in Italy they are not very used. When I found something I like I print a small pic, add the photographer’s name and a comment and post it on my board, so I have my favourite photograoher’s promo cards collection! Thanks. Paola

  31. Why, out of interest, do you prefer 5×7? I noticed you said larger ones are harder to handle, but in what way? They’re still too large for a wallet, yes? What do you do with them?

  32. @31. Lisa: Most people keep them to put in some type of filing system or in a binder or on the wall. The really big one’s don’t make it to the bulletin board even if I like the photographer or they get folded up to fit in a filing system or binder.

  33. One way to guarantee your card won’t be thrown away is to send out a lenticular card combining your best images and/or your URL and name. The people at Flipograph.com will make you custom Flipographs of any 2 or 3 images you want combined into one card that flips from one image to the next as you view it from different angles. Disregard the pricing on their “create your own” page. I happen to know they’ll work with artists and photographers to make affordable mailers for them. They gave me a price for small ones–3 1/2 x 2-1/2 under $1 apiece for 200, and I sent them out with a letter in an envelope. They do need an envelope, though, even if you get a 4×6 card because the postal machines will scratch them up otherwise.

    Also, they’re looking for good photographers to feature on their site, so send them a link and see what you can do. We all need more links.

  34. This might seem long, but your incite would be greatly appreciated.

    I love this post. It’s behind the scenes. One thing I’ve always wished I could learn is the ins and outs of being an editorial photographer. How to get the jobs and make a career out of it. How to price stuff, etc.

    Everyday, my mind steers left and right trying to figure out how to tackle my dream. Everybody tells me to shoot weddings, it makes the money. This might seem kind of dumb to say, but I feel like I’m just not that guy. After a series of jobs in the “corporate world” working non-photography related jobs (sitting desk jobs), I finally just quit my job and have hopes to open my own business. The question is, should I shoot weddings and just shoot what I like on the side, or should I dedicate my time to shooting straight for the market I like shooting for?

    I’ve got old stuff from college on my website, but if you feel like it, give it a go:


    • Note: insight means something different than incite.

  35. LMAO @ the Richard Prince comment. Oh man that sale really stirred up discussion between me and my friends in the creative industry.

    I decided that I’m no longer going to send postcards out. If my goal is to get someone’s attention a flat card is hardly the answer. Booklets are the next best thing but not by much if you ask me.

    I need to be first on a prospects mind when they need a photographer. My sales manager and I have worked a super focused list so what I send is quite expensive but its the job of the mailer to give a glimpse into my brand’s experience, to talk on my behalf and of course get a call back for a face to face meeting.

    Great article and great blog.

  36. Thanks for this article I found it very informative. It’s nice to know that some editors actually take the time to look through them and keep pertinent ones on file. It’s also a bit disheartening hearing comments from some that they just chuck them all in the garbage. I realize the quantity they receive may be large but they may be missing out on a really great photographer.

  37. […] Just unlucky timing. We’re all full up with a killer staff for the time being. But just like A Photo Editor holds onto good promos, I’ll hold onto his info and give him a ring when the time […]

  38. Thanks Rob.. just saw this. Great post.. Thank you. Just curious though…
    What is the best promo you’ve ever received ?

  39. I looked up Mens Journal editors on AdBase and didn’t see you listed. Where ever you are now, please let me know. Hopefully at a magazine that I would be interested in shooting for. kencedeno.com. I’ll be getting a different site up in the near future.


  40. PS. It was really nice to see and learn your insite to what is out there with all the different promo cards. Thanks very much for sharing.

  41. Hello Photo Editor,

    I am currently designing a promo card as well. May I ask what other information should I put on it other than my logo,name,website, phone number, and email? Would you suggest to put some more pieces of my work on the back?

    Can you give me some suggestions? Thanks.

  42. Dude

    How can you work at a desk like that – the texture of the surface reminded me of school.

    If I should feel the need to send out promo cards you will know it by the SWAT team of furniture delivery people coming in through your window.

    Keep up the good work and Thanks.

  43. […] and you can tell by what they write. This can also be reflected in the title of your blog. Take A Photo Editor for example – the titles says it all. Lou Lesko is allowed to use his own name as a title, […]

  44. Anyone ever (other than Grandma) tryto bribe you?

    Great info. Thanks.

  45. I am curious, and the answer may be in here above (but I missed it); did you ever use any of the photographers in the corner pile? Or did you mainly stay with your dependable, established contacts of photographers for MJ?

    PS: Thank you for taking the time to create the slideshow and share this with us.

  46. […] Just unlucky timing. We’re all full up with a killer staff for the time being. But just like A Photo Editor holds onto good promos, I’ll hold onto his info and give him a ring when the time comes. var a2a_config = […]

  47. Hi Rob
    I suppose it’s a bit much to just send you some pictures and get you to design me a card. Anyway really useful as I’m about to start putting together a card. Don’t worry it’s for London though I might just send you one for fun.

  48. I gone with desk (1/2 sheet) calendars. Fortunately I’ve noticed most people use them, at least for the year they are printed.

  49. Hi Rob, the flickr slideshow seems broken, any other place to look at the promo cards?
    thank you

  50. I’m having the same problem at Fredrico… the flickr page shows only one photo…
    Pleas help! Thank you

  51. What’s the general judgement on a digital promo card? Would editors rather see it on their desk or store it on their laptop?

  52. I need visitor for my website by using photo… how will you promote the photo?

  53. Thanks to let us in your reasoning regarding promo cards Rob, it makes perfect sense!

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