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Photography

Bleeding Off the Spread: Speaking the Language of Magazine Photography

Congratulations on landing the magazine gig! Now, if you could just understand what the assignment means—something about a quarter spread with gutter and bleed allowances, and negative space for text? And you thought you just had to get the best photograph possible of the monument in the town square.

As with most fields, print publishing has its own jargon. However, with some context and a few definitions, you can be talking about double trucks and submitting your commissioned photographs with confidence. This article will help you get there with a quick overview of what a magazine art director needs from a photographer and with a glossary of the most common terms used in print publishing.

Getting the Brief

It’s rare that you’ll get a simple request from a magazine’s art director asking just for your best photograph of a certain subject. By the time a photographer receives a magazine assignment, the magazine staff have planned the issue, determined what the contents will be, and sketched the layout of most, if not all, of the pages. Therefore, an art director is likely to be precise about what’s needed in the photograph.

Jane Corbett is the Art Director at Ottawa Magazine, a city-based publication that covers a wide range of topics. Ottawa is Canada’s national capital, so the magazine covers everything from social events to controversial politics. The magazine’s stories need photography of food, homes, people, places, events, landscapes, and more. Jane stays on top of it all and so is an ideal person to provide context for magazine photography.

I asked Jane what would typically be included in a brief for a magazine photography assignment. While the range of requirements varies depending upon the story, Jane offered the following list.

Deadline

Because photographs are requested after the stories are delivered, photographers usually get their briefs with two to three weeks’ notice. If the magazine is publishing a big or special issue, photographers may get requests as much as six to eight months’ before publication. In any case, a deadline is a deadline. Printing presses are reserved well in advance and publication dates are exact. Subscribers, retailers, and distributors all work on a precise plan with guaranteed delivery dates. If you’re the kind of photographer who struggles against fixed deadlines, magazine work is not for you!

Look

A magazine photograph tells or enhances a story that has already been written or at least drafted. An art director may offer the completed story to the photographer to read or, more likely, will give the photographer an overview of the story and describe the mood and look needed in the photograph. A story about fund-raising for a new cancer wing of the children’s hospital will require a completely different photograph of children than a story about fund-raising for a new local park, for example. The story may also direct whether a photograph will be printed in colour or black and white, an important consideration for evaluating the range of tonal values you’ll need in the photograph.

A fun group portrait
A serious group portrait
The same scene can be set up to tell different stories.

Size and Shape

Size and shape take into consideration the dimensions of the magazine’s pages and where in the magazine the photograph will be placed. For example, the assignment could be for a full-page placement or for a photo that will be just one or two columns wide. The shape (often identified as the crop) could be landscape (horizontal), portrait (vertical), or square, and could further be refined by proportions. For example, a landscape photograph needed for a quarter spread might need to be a 4:3 proportion, but the same photograph used as a band across the full spread might need to be proportioned 16:9.

Information about size and shape will also include directions about allowing for bleed—a small amount of cropping that takes place as a normal part of publishing. An art director might also request that the photographer provide an image larger than needed in order to give the art director some flexibility in determining crop and placement.

A diagram showing subject placement
A diagram prepared for a client to show size, proportions, and subject placement needed for a series of photographs. (But don't expect a diagram from art directors. They will expect you to understand their directions.)

Subject Placement

Many factors can influence where you need to place a subject in a photograph. For example, an art director may tell you that the photograph will be placed over a gutter, which is a warning that a portion of the photograph will be lost in the magazine’s binding. Thus, the focal point of the photograph would need to be clear of that area. An art director may also ask you to include negative space in the photograph so text can be overprinted on the image. And, as with size and shape, an art director will likely want the subject placed with enough room to provide options for cropping and placement. 

Photograph marked for a mock magazine assignment
The original photograph taken for a mock magazine assignment. Note the placement of the centre of interest, which allows cropping and the addition of overprinting.
Photograph cropped and placed in magazine spread
The photograph, cropped and placed. Because readers look at the left and right pages together, magazines are designed in spreads

Portraits

Subject placement will be particularly relevant when photographing people for a magazine assignment. The art director may ask for a head and shoulders, full face, or full body photograph. You may be asked to ensure your subject is facing left or right; sitting or standing; indoors or outdoors; in business clothes or casual attire. The art director may also ask for two or three different set-ups so the portrait can be included in the listing of contents and in the main story without having to re-use the same photograph.

Delivering Your Work

You’ve taken your photographs and now need to get them to the art director for review. Making this stage as easy as possible for the art director will help you get repeat work. Understanding an art director’s world will help you understand what you need to do to make it easy.

Jane Corbett described a typical week for her and most art directors. Assuming it is not a deadline week, Jane is usually working on at least two magazine issues at a time with ten to twelve stories in each issue. In addition, she’ll be working on the special issues that come out each year, one on food and the other on interiors—both image-heavy publications. Plus, Jane is always coordinating seasonal shoots in anticipation of issues that are planned for a year later. For example, she recently asked a photographer to complete a shoot with snow; the photographs will be used in a magazine issue planned for next winter. Oh, and in spare minutes, Jane meets with new photographers to review their portfolios and assess their suitability for magazine assignments. In other words, an art director sees a lot of images every day and must keep track of when and where and how those images will be used.

Edit Your Work

I asked Jane to identify the most annoying thing a photographer might do with a magazine shoot. Without hesitation, she replied, “Give me too many options!” When I asked her to identify the best thing a photographer might do with a magazine shoot, she replied, “Give me just enough options.” When you think about the art director’s world, you can appreciate why Jane would expect photographers to do their own editing. 

Your goal as a magazine photographer is to deliver the best five to ten photographs that meet the art director’s request. Begin by weeding out the photographs that are not your best; for example, people with eyes closed, interiors with dark corners, anything under- or over-exposed or out-of-focus. Then eliminate the photographs that don’t meet the art director’s brief. If you were asked for a portrait with the person on the right of the photograph, don’t include photographs with the person on the left. If, after that process, you still have more than ten or twelve options be your own critical editor and pick out the best.

From Proofs to Final Copy

Art directors expect to receive your selected photographs electronically. This could mean sending files by email or posting the images in an online gallery. In either case, make access to the photographs as easy and reliable as possible. If you’re using an online gallery, ensure the art director can easily download the files at the resolution she needs. Ask if you're unsure what resolution is required.

An art director may ask you to do some processing on chosen images. Art directors know how photographs will print in their publication, so trust them if they ask you to lighten a photograph, decrease or increase the contrast, desaturate the colours, or shift the white balance. You may have some concerns about your artistic vision being changed, but trust the art director to know the process and visualize the end result.

Preparing the final images, including image changes, if any, needs to be done quickly. Unless otherwise directed, prepare your final images as high-resolution JPEGs. Keep your colour space simple; for example, sRGB. The art director will apply a specific colour profile to the photograph before publishing to ensure what’s intended in the image is what is delivered on the printed page.

Upload your final images at an FTP site or into a shared cloud folder and look for your next assignment!

Magazine spread with text and photos

Glossary

As you grow increasingly comfortable with the terminology and process of print publications, you’ll grow more confident in delivering magazine photography assignments. This is not an exhaustive glossary, but it is a list of the most important terms.

Bleed—When an image will run right to the edge of a page, the image will be placed so that a portion of it extends (or bleeds) past the edge. This ensures that the image completely covers the page edge when the pages are trimmed to their final size. Depending upon the printing process, a bleed could be anywhere from one-eighth to one-quarter inch wide.

Crop—Cutting the edges of a photograph (or other artwork) in order to produce a better image or to fit a given space.

Double truck—An image in a book or magazine that extends across a full spread, which is over two pages and across the gutter.

Gutter—The inside margin of two facing pages (left and right). The gutter is always the margin on the bound edge. Depending upon how a book or magazine is bound, some of the gutter may be enclosed in the binding.

Gutter jump—Text or images that cross the gutter. A double truck always jumps the gutter, but an image that jumps the gutter may not be a double truck.

Negative space—The space between objects or the parts of an object; for example, the area between a cup and its handle. Negative space also includes the area around an object, and between the object and the edge of the image.

Overprint—Print placed overtop of an image.

Safe zone or safe area—The area that is far enough away from the edge of the page or the gutter to be considered safe from trimming or binding. The size of the safe zone depends upon the printer’s manufacturing equipment, but is often about one-quarter inch away from the anticipated page edge or gutter.

Spread—Two facing pages of a publication. The pages within a spread may be referred to as the verso (left or backside page) and recto (right or front page). The verso page is usually even-numbered and the recto page is odd-numbered.

A sample spread marked with publishing terminology
A template for a magazine spread

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