My Dream Photo Editing Job

- - Working

125 blank pages of edit with an additional 85 pages of ads (yeah, it’s a dream but we still gotta turn a profit).

A line-up with a wide mix of interesting subjects to assign: far away places, inspiring people, beautiful objects, crazy ideas, elite sport, humor, conflict, mystery.

Complete autonomy with the selection of photographers and final images.

An unlimited budget to get it done (not because I want to spend stacks of cash just because I don’t want to think about the budget when it comes to approach on a subject).

I’ll shoot everything except events, action and landscapes. I like to use pick-up for action and landscape because they’re so condition and weather dependent, but I’ll shoot it if there’s nothing available that I like.

Working as a Photography Director means the decisions about who I hire will be heavily influenced by 3 important groups of people (since I have autonomy from co-workers in this dream): the competition, the audience and the advertisers. Thinking about this bigger picture and articulating to everyone how our photography serves those groups is a big part of my job.

When I look at the competition the first thing I always do is identify their core group of photographers and try to stay away from hiring within that group. If I want to bump someone out of their group I can hire them on a regular basis and usually the competition will stop using them (that is unless they don’t consider my magazine competition). I’ll also think about their overall use of photography and come up with way to differentiate what we’re offering the advertisers and audience. If they use heavy lighting and conceptual images to get ideas across I’ll try for more available light and real subjects as a marked contrast when we cover the same subject. This is even more important on the newsstand where I firmly believe in hiring a couple photographers to shoot all the covers to create a distinct style that readers can pick-up on month after month.

I have a couple goals when it comes to hiring photographers with the advertisers in mind. First, create an environment where they want to be seen. This can involve hiring photographers out of the same pool of talent they draw from and when possible, using those photographers in a way, because of client constraints, they can’t. Next, I feel it’s important to challenge the aesthetics of the advertisers in some of the shoots you commission. If advertisers wanted to hang out with a bunch of sycophants they would just make their own magazine. Including challenging or controversial photography in the mix ensures that advertisers understand you know your audience better than they do and you’re willing to do things they wouldn’t to reach them.

The number one goal with the audience is to present a range of photography styles that will keep them engaged, entertained, challenged and provide fresh entry points into the stories. I think it’s a huge mistake to do to much of any one style of photography so keeping the mix lively is a priority for me. For the average reader presenting challenging imagery over and over turns reading your magazine into homework and needs to be balanced out with pictures that entertain and surprise.

Now, keeping all those factors in mind I can begin to make assignments for the issue. The story mix is never ideal so pieces that would normally have a similar approach running in the same issue need divergent styles from within a genre to avoid repetition.

So, there you have it, the brass ring that photo editors everywhere reach for every month, the perfect mix. Throw in budgetary constraints. overbearing owner, a late breaking assignment, stories suddenly dropping out or any number of curve balls and you’ve got a real mess to figure out. The amazing thing is that I’ve come close to grabbing that ring several times in my career. It always keeps you coming back for more.

There Are 21 Comments On This Article.

  1. tim_darwish

    It was interesting that you said 125 pages of edit. as that just made me think of 125 magazine. Quite a bit different from what you are suggesting in that almost everything is submission but I think it is a pretty great magazine for photography.
    I’m a fan of the pay for play concept for magazines and feel that it brings out some really good work, I really don’t feel as though editorial should be a revenue source, once you take money for the photos it becomes a job if you are paying it becomes yours but the promise of publication gets you better talent and crew to realise your photos.

  2. You had me at autonomy. I shoot for a number of Editorial Clients and the politics they are dealing with does not encourage much creativity. The AD’s are always looking over their shoulder and trying not to rock the boat.

    Rob, now that you are freelancing, I’d like to hear about your experiences with balancing getting the job done and doing something creative or gratifying.


  3. Dreams: A perfect world from the dreamer’s perspective. Unfortunately, the things that screw them up are those pesky dreams of perfect worlds from other people’s perspectives. Oh well.

  4. At book I work for, we just got blessed with a double edit package for our August issue. Since we’re an auto-lifestyle title that’s been stuck in a deep niche/rut for so long, I’ve been pushing to make this issue more photo-heavy, with a good mix of personalities and cars that are aspirational along with attainable. With double edit pages though, it becomes a double edge sword since we’re on the same deadlines with the same budget for freelancers as other months.

  5. Just_Another_Snapper

    Tim: Have you considered that editorial is good business – even if not as good as it used to be – for publishers who charge high fees from advertisers? Don’t you think that revenue deserves to be shared w. the creators?

    As a photographer – as opposed to a DP/videographer for example – every image you take is yours. The idea that you have to sacrifice in order to produce good work is complete bs and I suspect it somehow has puritanical /religious roots.

    I think personal and fine art projects should be the ones that cost a photographer money, not actual jobs – be it for an ad, or a magazine cover (BTW, how is a mag cover different from an ad?)

  6. tim_darwish

    just another shooter
    there is no mistaking that I do shoot editorial for $$$ but it never really lives up to expectations so its either pay me and I’ll take your input and waterdown what I really want to do or just pay my expenses and let me do what I really want to do.

    This plays back to the pay for play post and it really only works for fashion and beauty. Its getting your personal work out there to reap the benefits of catalog and ad work. I’m not saying its right but in my real life it works.

  7. “I have a couple goals when it comes to hiring photographers”
    Sorry to keep harping on this, but you are actually unemployed.
    You are hardly in a position to be hiring anyone.
    In fact, upon close reading of your blog, it appears you may not be in a position to purchase dinner for your friends.
    I found your blog interesting in the beginning as you were someone
    who could actually push the button on an assignment.
    The flights of fancy and paranoia that now comprise the majority of your posts are less interesting as it is what I am faced with anytime I am dragged along to a party in Williamsburg.

  8. Just_Another_Snapper

    Hotdog: Respectfully disagree: Rob may not be able to throw you an assignment any more but I think he has something to say and contribute to the community. Isn’t it what ultimately a blog is all about?

  9. warmdriver

    The best magazine photographers of all time, and most successful, do their best photography on assignment. The myth that the legends were doing something more important on their own dime — a myth to which the legends themselves often subscribe — is an utter delusion.

    No matter how much Avedon or Ritts — arbitrary names that pop to mind — ranted about their exasperation with the supposedly one-dimensional editorial powers that be, their legacies tell another story; a story of fantastic creativity, of their best work, fostered and encouraged by dedicated, awestruck, infatuated and sometimes legendary editors. Their occasional and underwhelming pursuits outside of that supposedly genius-bankrupt system — when they weren’t laying back in the Hamptons (a GOOD thing) — are only a small part of how they will be remembered.

    For those who approach shooting assignments as a big compromise, I say get out of town — go cure cancer, or tell it to Larry Gagosian — maybe you deserve to be rich for your art. When a magazine picture is mediocre, it is always the fault of the photographer. You can’t have it both ways — if a photographer (rightfully) deserves all the glory when things go well, why is it so difficult to take responsibility when a lazy art department and small budget are able to lull you into that depressed, day-job state-of-mind. The whole reason they hired you was to give them a jolt of electricity and remind them why they got in to this business in the first place. Hitting all the bullet points on the call sheet has to be a GIVEN.

    Here’s the thing, at any moment, in every generation, there is always a handful of shooters who will elevate beyond belief in EVERY situation, whatever the cost, whatever the risk, and that energy enervates everyone in the loop. If your work isn’t original, or emotionally potent, or you’re not smart enough to make sure the catering is nice, even if it’s out-of-pocket, or you don’t have such incredibly beautiful eyes and a gentle spirit that everyone’s gonna fall in love with you no matter what you hand in and give you as many chances to blow a gig as you need until you get it right, I say find some other line of work.

    Achieving lift-off, elevation, impact, within the constraints of a commercial enterprise — any commercial enterprise — is very sexy. When that happens, careers are made. Plan on doing what it takes, however unfair the paradigm. After rock star and movie star, then there’s photographer. The super-duper originals — the Helmut Newtons and Bruce Webers. The Moriyamas. These are aberrations. The business would’ve chugged along whether or not we were ever graced with their visions.

    There was never enough work to go around and there never will be, so my sense is if you’re incredibly talented, that’s great, but the most important thing is that you really have to WANT it.

    Energy spent blaming photo editors and art buyers for being … photo editors and art buyers :) …. would be far better spent blowing their minds with your talent, energy and unwillingness to show them — and shoot for them — anything less than something equal to the best picture you’re capable of taking.

  10. warmdriver

    “Enervates” may’ve been a Freudian slip. In that line I meant to convey the exact opposite, something like “Inspires”.

  11. Dang, warmdriver, you make me feel good about my job.

    I’m constantly thinking about the audience when I tap a shooter, but I’ve never actually consciously thought about the advertiser – that’s an interesting point and maybe it just shows my greener horns, but I’m going to start doing that.

    Rob, I’m interested in the ‘competition’ third of your approach. I actually don’t look at any of my direct competition when it comes to photography, but I do look WAY up the status ladder to magazines 10 times larger than mine for talent. And I”ve been lucky to work with a few of them because they’re attracted to the content of my title. But, I know I’ve alienated some of my core audience because they don’t ‘get it.’ I don’t lose a wink of sleep over that, but what are some good ways to exploit my title’s work with these bigger names so that I can continue to push us into better markets, better advertisers, better readers, better better?


  12. @ Stoner: You get to educate an entire industry about the power of quality photography. If you don’t hire from the competition’s pool of photographers, which you don’t, then advertisers can see the difference (FYI, advertisers don’t read magazines).

    It works. They sold a ton of advertising at the last magazine I worked on as a direct result to the changes in photography.

  13. fashion shooter

    Hey Rob, what is a good salary (or salary range) for a NYC photo editor at a magazine? I shoot now, but when thinking about what happens when I am sick of this, photo editing comes to mind…thanks.

  14. Well, have to ask the question. If there was truly no budget, and the concept is to please the advertisers, wouldn’t we probably see the list of photographers that get the high paying jobs working for your dream magazine – Liebowitz, Gorman, LaChapelle, etc, etc, etc?

    Remember a few years ago when Vanity Fair had Irving Penn shoot Nicole Kidman if I recall right. Made HUGE headlines and probably made the advertisers extremely happy. Not the most inspiring of photographs but they were nice. Sales of the magazine were through the roof.

    So, is the allure and potential sales from using “big name” photographers better than interesting photos from “no name” photographers?

  15. “Throw in budgetary constraints. overbearing owner, a late breaking assignment, stories suddenly dropping out or any number of curve balls and you’ve got a real mess to figure out.” The bane of my picture editing life, that…