One of the greatest pieces of advice of all time is to know thine enemy – and picture editors are often the photographer’s enemy just as much as they are yours.
Getting the images that you want into a newspaper or magazine is quite simply war. There are so many publications out there – 17,000 in the UK alone – and, unfortunately each one has it’s own way of doing things and it’s own criteria for selecting images.
Everything here refers to the papers that I work for, but can easily be adapted to just about any publication that you care to choose.
At TSL Education photographs are sourced and filtered by the picture desk team, but the final decision about which one gets used is made by a combination of editor, sub-editor and picture editor. So important decisions are made by a whole team.
Where published images come from
There are five basic ways that images including photographs end up in a newspaper, and in no specific order they are;
- Commissioned from within the paper.
- They arrive as photographs supplied from institutions or PR companies.
- A photographer sent in response to a press release.
- A freelance photographer or agency might offer up the idea.
- A library image is researched by the picture desk team.
The balance of each of these varies from week to week and from season to season and it is usually the case that the picture editor will make their mind up whether they like an image or the promise of a picture in seconds. That is not to say that they make arbitrary decisions. The experienced picture editor makes a whole series of judgments in a very short space of time,
Will it get used ?
I have broken it down ithe picture editor’s thought process into nine decisions. Each may be worth a given percentage of the whole decision.
• Is it a good picture? Worth 20% of the total this question is the first one that will be asked by the picture editor, and will be of concern to everyone involved in the picture selection. It is a very subjective decision, but the expertise of the picture editor is largely concerned with being a judge of good and bad photography.
• How well will it fit into the work flow? We can use just about any type of image from the television still, colour slide or print through to the digital image. This is where you need to know a little about the individual publication that you are targeting. Many of the glossier magazines and journals prefer colour transparencies whilst most newspapers are pretty high tech and have digital picture desks. Ours is definitely a digital desk, so to fit in with our work flow we prefer images to arrive either via ISDN, modem or e-mail. Well shot, scanned and captioned digital photographs go straight to the front of the queue scoring a full ten percent, while black and white prints that arrive in the post with the caption information on nicely typed A4 sheets or worse still separately by fax get one out of ten.
• Do we know the photographer? This question is more important if the picture hasn’t been taken yet. If we know the photographer then we know what to expect. Unknown photographers score one out of ten and known photographers score from two to ten.
• Does the image fit into the house style? This is important. Pulitzer prize winning images may well be rejected if they are going to stick out as not belonging in the paper, although our papers are fairly broad churches and we are more likely to score a one percent mark for a “line up” that would be more at home in a local newspaper.
• Who else has it? We go to press on a Wednesday night for Friday morning’s news stand, so if the nationals are likely to have the image in Thursday’s edition we are less likely to want it. It’s a difficult decision for us, often made easier by us getting a significantly different photograph from the rest. We don’t usually worry about the smaller local papers, but daily broadsheets are a problem. Ten percent goes to an absolute exclusive, one percent if everyone else has it more than a day ahead of us.
• Is it news worthy? Big question. We are often offered images of a student who has come second in the South West of England final of some competition or other. We are a national and international publication, so if we are going to give ten out of ten for this it needs to be a good strong story and of national relevance at the very least.
• How good are the accompanying words? Images supplied to us have to have well researched and well written caption information as well as good background material. If this is not supplied with the picture, then the picture must have contact details attached.
• How does this fit with our deadlines? A hot news story that happens on a Thursday or Friday score one or two out of ten. If images are shot on a Wednesday and we don’t get them until Thursday then they also score one or two. Put simply we are a newspaper with complex deadlines and our own news agenda. The more notice we get of an impending event the better, we will often shoot a picture of work in progress rather than a finished article just to fit in with deadlines. To score a ten give us plenty of advanced notice.
• Does it have a shelf life? If it isn’t hot news, will it keep for a while without going out of date allowing the picture editor to have it as a standby if a news page needs a good image with a snappy caption.
So we have nine questions, and a possible total of one hundred points. No picture editor will religiously score photographs like this, but it does give you the basic idea of how images are filtered. Some of the categories you can influence totally. There is really no excuse for badly captioned images, or for ones that turn up too late. You can apply this series of questions to images that have already been shot or ones that you are considering offering as press releases and by going through this process you can easily filter out those that have little chance of making the paper.
Quality not quantity
Many marketing and PR people assume that sending out lots of press releases to a wide variety of publications is the right thing to do. It isn’t. There is a quantity of output from a single source over and above which picture editors simply bin everything. The occasional, well targeted and strong press release is far more likely to give an organisation a high profile than a lot of rubbish. Feeding ideas through established and well known freelance photographers and agencies is even more likely to get your establishment into the paper. This method has a number of advantages. They will act as a filter for bad and un-photogenic ideas, they will score high marks for fitting images into work flow, captioning work well, being a photographer known to us and for shooting in the house style. Obviously getting the picture editor to send a staff photographer in response to a good press release is the best guarantee to getting the photograph used, but as there aren’t many of us, this doesn’t happen often.
I’ve started handing out advice already, but here are a few more bullet pointed tips:
• Target your press releases. Don’t always send the same one to a specialist publication, your local newspaper and the nationals.
• Be honest. Avoid the temptation of embellishing the prospects of a photograph. Organisations who do may get away with it once or twice, but they will eventually get a reputation for doing so.
• If you want your images to look professional, use a professional. It’s unfair to expect a keen amateur photographer in your department to produce the right sort of picture under pressure, it’s best to use a professional.
• Horses for courses. Always bear in mind the nature of the publication you are trying to attract. It’s horses for courses all the way.
• Timing. Remember that it is a lot easier to get pictures into the paper during the quiet seasons. If your picture can wait, there are times that we are desperate for news.
• Variety. If we had a fine art story in the last edition, we are unlikely to run another this week.
Remember that sometimes the paper is full with pictures that relate to news stories generated by staff journalists and that even the best pictures will always give way to those linked to good stories. If you can supply picture and story, well that’s another matter…..
Neil Turner has been a staff photographer for TSL Education since 1994, prior to which he spent eight years working as an agency photographer shooting for a variety of magazines and newspapers. This article originally appeared on his website. He has been a photographer since 1986 and an EPUK member since 1998.