Working as a Photo Editor at a National Magazine the monthly low point usually occurs when the editor reviews the layout illustrated with the shittiest photos I have ever seen that were the direct result of hours upon hours of stock searches for a subject that’s thinly covered and being told that, rather then kill the story or run an illustration, I need to look a little further and find something good this time.

“Did it it ever occur to you that the subject you have chosen for extensive coverage in the magazine might possibly be shit and that’s why the photos are shit? No, I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that I haven’t uncovered the one decent photographer who happened to take a picture that makes this subject look good. Maybe I’ll try Flickr or Google.”

And, so I would hunker down in my office with my Stock Photo List (here) and try endless combinations of keywords and search obscure stock sites and try single word searches on Corbis and Getty that would turn up 10,000 images to sift through or sometimes I’d troll the crap stock sites praying for a diamond among the turds and I’d do this until I felt like I’d looked under every rock or completely run out of time.

Having spent many years working at magazines of a similar genre from time to time subjects we’ve covered before would crop up in meetings and that’s where I could finally say with authority, “I’ve searched for pictures on that subject before and nothing good exists so we should kill the story now or assign an illustration.” This is usually when the Editor or Creative Director decides to do a quick Google image search and finds the perfect photo.

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  1. Hello non-longer-anonymous PE … love your blog… am a long time reader (and lurker)… this is off topic, but i was wondering what you are going to be doing professionally now that your PE days are behind you. You have a ton of experience and insight to share but does that translate into a living? Perhaps you are one of the lucky few that doesn’t need to worry about cash — millionaires are supposedly multiplying like flies, or so they tell us…



  2. Sadly, I’m not a millionaire. I freelance as a photo director for money. I have several internet projects that may become my future job.

  3. Thanks for the reply. So, then, it would be a good idea for photographers to try to stay on your radar, perhaps making it onto “the list.” Must be hard to freelance when you are not in the magazine’s offices going head to head with the other editors… or, perhaps it’s easier… in any case, those of us out here in netland will be watching and reading and learning… thanks again for your valuable efforts, much appreciated.


  4. Well, I don’t want to make participation in the blog about staying on my radar. I try to provide an additional resource for all the photo directors and photo editors who visit and that may be a good reason but I’m waiting to hear if anyone lands a job because they were discovered here.

  5. Oh gawwd LOL! At a non-profit, I am asked to find the same 3 pix all year long, but different each time of course: multi-cult candid classroom shots from K-college; (model-releases never crossed their mind) multi-cult workforce, also candid but can’t be blue collar, and human rights but show neither the abuses nor the demonstrations. Somehow I find them, but each time they get more and more inferential–tough sell for a very literal employer. . .

  6. I call this a $600 hole. Seems like we ought to find something good to put in it. As a photographer, seems like I ought to be able to think of something to create for it… seems like it should be obvious… seems that it’s not… the hole wins… damn!

  7. Sounds like there is still a niche or two that needs filling out there.

    Or is it that there is an obsessive compulsive photographer shooting precisely what is called for, but their work is impossible to find?

    It seems to me, having done niche stock successfully for ten years now, that everything has not been photographed. There are actually many stories and subjects that remain.

  8. Art dept Google image searching is the bane of every photo editor/researchers existence. As is the ensuing 20 minute conversation wherein you try and explain copyright law and how Google images is NOT actually a free photo agency.
    I have felt your pain. Oof.

  9. Sounds like a job for…Assignment Photographer! :)

    Nah, just run that 500×300 pixel jpg. :)

  10. Why not ask for reader content? You know, sorta like the weather channel, local and national news orgs do. Why spend time and effort looking for shitty photos that don’t exist, just have them sent to you directly?

  11. Oh God… I work at a magazine and I must second this post. The worst is when an editor or cd gets it in their head that a very, very specific photograph exists, and it’s your job to find this figment of their imagination. It happens more often than you’d think, people, and the photo editor always comes out with egg on his face.

  12. Try working in educational publishing – you can’t even imagine the insane requests we get from the Editorial department. Then you can layer on the educational restrictions for image content set by state board standards and you have a nearly impossible and not at all fun job.

  13. I helped put together an entire book that was based on an idea that was impossible to illustrate.

    It was about the 25 greatest something (I don’t really remember) in NFL history. All the word people thought it was this great idea, and it fell on my desk to find the images. The problem was, all the images that writers and editors had in their heads of these plays weren’t still images…they had oft-repated footage from NFL Films in their heads. But because people were unwilling to shelve an idea, the book came out looking like crap, and cost my publication a lot of money to put out.

  14. “…I haven’t uncovered the one decent photographer who happened to take a picture that makes this subject look good.”

    I guess maybe I don’t understand why all the effort to find something already done and available. If you know what it is you need, hire someone to shoot it. If it’s a national magazine then I don’t want to hear about the budget crisis.

  15. @ 14. Michael: The “I’ve seen it somewhere” syndrome. Yeah, on TV. That’s not a photo. “Can’t you do a screen grab?”

    @15. Guy: Well, I don’t know it’s never been shot until I look and by the time I find out it’s never been shot it’s usually too late. I should add “make an assignment” to the meeting graph tho. Assignment, kill or illustration in that order.

  16. We constantly joke about “” whenever a very specific and non-existent photo is sited… but my favorite two all time requests both happened when I was on the agency side at Corbis.

    First, when a very young photo researcher called and asked if we had any new portrait sessions with Osama Bin Laden with Corbis Outline.

    Secondly, when a researcher requested images of God giving the thumbs up sign, her editor had seen it somewhere and it definitely exists… (and he didn’t mean homeboy Jesus from Kevin Smith’s comic shop).

    Very entertaining… and thanks for the list…

  17. dang, don’t we wish it was as easy as ‘just assign it!’…

    considering you, the PE, had realized in enough time that the image in question was going to be impossible to find, there’s still that pesky little budget thing. not sure precisely what your nat’l mag budget was, but i know that when the DOP from MJ or O(utside) comes calling, any photog will expect – and not bend for less than – TOP dollar, no? budget crisis or not, i’m sure the bosses weren’t psyched to shell out that kinda cash to assign a 1/4 page front of the book non-ad-generating pic… especially after paying (HOWMUCH?!??!) for Chris Buck and Kratochvil to shoot your features.

    having DOP’d for arguably one of the stingiest nat’l(ish) mags EVER…. (HOTO… mm-hmmm?)… the BUDGET (all caps) wasn’t merely an inconvenience for me… it was a cancer. so, after sifting thru the 1000s of cheap irrelevant stock pics (Getty and Corbis were even usually too pricey for us), my last hope wasn’t to assign the image, or even have it illustrated – i’d have to grab my camera and undercut everybody myself. …usually rushed to do so in a half-assed, less-than-quality way.

    it was a shitty job, cuz alot of those photogs i undercut, underpaid, undervalued, were at one point my friends. not to mentioned how much it sucked to publish sub-par pics – with or without my name on them.

    is it ironic that the miserly HOTO is dead now? or is it just karmic?

  18. My favorite request ever: 11 year old Hispanic girl in front of Mt. St. Helens, watching the eruption and sketching it in her diary

  19. So what you’re saying is that it’s a good idea to actually use flickr’s tagging feature beyond just ‘cat’, ‘bikini’, or ‘car’ descriptors just in case you might be in panic-mode and need one of them?

    There goes my weekend.

  20. […] Mostly because I’ve done so much of it and partially because I like doing it (exceptions here and here). This is what I think makes someone good at stock research: The ability to identify great […]

  21. How do you get on the stock lists???? We are a new stock agency and would like to be on your list. Thank you.

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