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A Photographer's Guide to Working with Magazines

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This post is part of a series called Photojournalism.
The Comprehensive Guide to Shooting Photo Stories & Essays

So, you're looking for more exposure for your work? Are you wanting to get a good collection of clips from publications?

Magazines present a great opportunity to have your work seen by many people in diverse places. Magazines, like most of the journalism field, have had their ups and downs over the past years, but many still exist and are always in need of great photography. This article will help you understand what magazines and publishers are looking for in terms of photos, quality, standards and editing.

A stack of magazines.

Does Photo Size Matter?

With recent changes in DSLR cameras from cropped to full frame, picture sizes continue to increase and megapixels continue to go up. For some of the top-of-the-line cameras, way up. But, what does it take to fill a magazines glossy pages?

The real answer is it really depends. For news/sports/editorial publications, a picture from a standard DSLR will work quite well because megapixels aren't as important as they use to be.

Ken Rockwell, a photographer and avid gear reviewer, deciphers the "megapixel myth", a myth that you need a camera with a high number of megapixels to produce high quality prints.

Today, even the cheapest cameras have at least 5 or 6 MP, which enough for any size print. How? Simple: when you print three-feet (1m) wide, you stand further back. Print a billboard, and you stand 100 feet back. 6MP is plenty.

Any modern DSLR (10MP and up) can have pictures used for a double-truck spread (or two pages). If your camera shoots less than about 10MP, your pictures can still be used to fill up a full page. As with any kind of photo print, it's less about megapixels and more about quality of the photograph.

Horizontal vs. Vertical

A comparison of horizontal vs. vertical images.

The above picture shows a horizontal picture cropped to a vertical image. In this case, the picture would not work as a vertical.

A magazine is a much different canvas for your work than a typical print. When you print your photo, you can frame it and hang it any way you please. It can be 8x10 or 10x8. With magazines it's different. Most magazines are designed for vertical pictures. Otherwise, you'd have to really crop a picture down.

Inside a magazine, horizontals will be found, but many of photos are verticals because they allow for better text wrapping and layout design. And 9 times out of 10, the cover shot will be a vertical (unless the magazine has a unique layout or they crop down a horizontal).

Remember this when you're shooting. Or, do like many professionals and take a photo both horizontally and vertically, to cover all your bases if your not sure how the photo will be used.

Editing Pictures

Watch out when editing pictures so the toning looks good in the CMYK color space.

Toning Tips

Professionally produced magazines use the CMYK color process, and unless your monitor is toned for CMYK, it can be a pain to ensure the perfect tone.

This is why magazines hire photo editors who can ensure that the magazine's photos look good and showcase what the magazine is covering. Don't let this stop you from toning on your own, but be aware that they'll probably retone the photo to match their in-house standards.

Take Care With Editing

In recent years, many magazines have had big gaffes with picture editing. In the commercial photography world, airbrushing and extreme editing is commonplace, but not so in the editorial and photojournalism world. Make sure you know the standards and practices for the kind of magazine you are dealing with. This way, everyone is on the same page and the pictures are treated appropriately.

You don't want to end up on Photoshop Disasters, a website all about bad editing in Adobe Photoshop.

Ownership & Rights

This is one of the trickiest subjects to discuss. The big question is: after you shoot something for a publication, who owns it?

In the United States, copyright can work one of two ways. Most of the time for photographers, either you (the author) own the work under the Copyright Act of 1976, or it's work for hire. Work for hire is a common place practice, but many photographers dislike it and have given it a bad connotation.

Work for hire is defined in United States law as:

"A 'work made for hire' is— (1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or (2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire. (17 U.S.C. § 101)"

For more information on work for hire, Dan Heller has written a great post detailing work for hire for photographers. So, where does this leave ownership of the photos you've shot?

It really depends on how the contract you signed is worded. Note how they have everything spelled out. Are the clients getting a lifetime license to use the pictures in any medium, or are they granted a one-time use in print? Photo Critic has written a great post on different licensing types for photographers.

The key with ownership is to know what you're signing and to make sure both parties are aware of the setup.

Tack Sharp Pictures Matter

This pie picture was shot to be tack sharp.

Magazines are one of the few media where non-sharp photos will be very obvious.

Photo editors want photos that will pop off the page and draw readers interest, for this reason they need tack sharp photos (the highest level of sharp photos a photographer can shoot).

When shooting pictures, make sure your hand is steady so that your photos are crisp to begin with. If needed, sharpen in Adobe Photoshop afterwards.

If you are shooting something like an interior photo or a landscape, use a tripod and a shutter release remote to help improve the camera's stability and steadiness.

Nail The Deadline

As with any job or photo assignment, deadline is key. If a magazine hires you, make sure you clearly know the deadlines so that you can deliver a quality product on time.

Magazines and publications use a much different timetable than newspapers and corporate clients. Be aware of the publication's art deadlines and know when they send it off to print. Make sure to communicate with them while working and preparing for any assignments so they know what to expect.

Start Local

This photo was shot for a local lifestyle magazine.

Before you try and approach a national publication such as Time, start locally and build up your portfolio.

Now more than ever, local magazines that cover local interests are popping up. Since you're in their coverage area already, you should have a better chance of getting in and shooting local subjects without having to worry about transportation and added expenses like food, lodging, or travel fees.

Work locally to gain experience and a sampling of work which ought to help get you more jobs in the future and possibly more local photography business.

How Do I Break In?

This photo was during one of my first contract assignments.

The most important part is getting your work seen and published.

This is something you have to figure out on your own as you market your skills and business. Find a niche, or something you can shoot better than anyone else, then market yourself to magazines that fill that niche.

Example niches would be food photography, interior photography, corporate head shots, etc. Find something that you specialize in really well, put together a special portfolio of just that and then send it to various magazines you hope to work with. Magazines routinely hire freelancers to do shoots, especially when it's too expensive or impractical to send their own person. In other words, get in on the ground floor of your own special focus, and hopefully you can work your way up.

Thoughts to Take Away

Some magazines.

Breaking into magazine photography isn't as hard as it seems. With so many magazines out there, find a niche and shoot it well. Then, approach a magazine and start your portfolio of print work.

And remember, deadlines are always important. This is even more true in magazines, so think before you shoot to make sure your pictures will work in the layout and you won't have to worry about last-minute changes. It also makes you look more professional when they have to do less editing on their end.

Further Resources

A magazine masthead.

Here are a few sites to help you launch your magazine career:

Mastheads provides a comprehensive listing of magazine mastheads, where information such as editor and photo editor are listed.

Photo Business News & Forum provides a great resource full of business advice and tips to help you with best practices.

Have fun, and best of luck shooting for magazines!

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