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Octavia Lamb, Picture Editor: Be a Champion for Great Images and Photographers

This post is part of a series called Conversations With Creative Collaborators.
Craig Oldham, Designer: Idea, Intention, and Image

In this series we look into how people in creative industries view and engage with your work. I had the fortune to meet Octavia Lamb, a freelance picture editor who has sourced images for the likes of Penguin Books, BBC and Geographical Magazine. I asked Octavia about her role as a picture editor, where she finds images and her relationship with photographers.

Hi Octavia, could you briefly explain your role as a picture editor?

Basically, as a picture editor I find or commission images, currently in a digital space, but previously for magazines, newspapers and books. Then I arrange licences for use of those images, clear the copyright and negotiate a fee.

What led you to becoming a photo editor, are you a photographer yourself?

No, I am actually a hopeless photographer! A lot of photo editors are brilliant photographers, but I just love looking at other people’s photos. Really—I’m probably the only person who’s happy to be subjected to other people’s endless holiday snaps.

I come from an Art History background so I’ve always been interested in composition and light in images. And an Art History degree is in a large part being trained to look at pictures, so when I discovered picture research and photo editing existed as a career I jumped at the chance to do an evening course at the London School of Publishing.

How do you go about finding images? Do people come to you or do you have certain agencies or photographers that you work with?

I go anywhere and everywhere to find the right image. The amount of time I have for a project (half an hour or 2 months?), dictates the depth of my research. A first stop will always be a handful of online archives, but then it’s great to have the time and opportunity to call in photographers’ books too see what existing shots they have or if they’re suitable for commissioning.

There is a list of about 10 online agencies that are my go-to for starters, with adjustments depending on subject matter. I also have a bank of photographers built up over the years, again specific to subject matter with different strengths and styles. Quite often I have discovered a photographer’s whole body of work after licensing one image of theirs from an online agency, or if they have contacted me to show me their book or website.

The Wake by Jeremy Page book cover

How closely do you work with photographers, do you get a chance to commission work or publicise previously unseen imagery?

Working closely with photographers and getting exposure for their work is one of the best parts of the job. As well as commissioning for specific jobs, be it a celebrity portrait or a plate of food in a restaurant, I love looking through a photographer’s portfolio or website and finding an existing shot which I have the opportunity to breath new life in to by licensing it for a completely different use. 

There’s an example I use quite often to demonstrate how important the photographer/photo editor relationship can be because it’s so neat and pleasing. I was Picture Editor at Geographical magazine when we used a great young photographer, Venetia Dearden, for a Rwanda story, and we then asked her to join our Photographer of the Year judging panel. Years later I was Picture Editor at Penguin and looking for something perfect for the cover of a new high-profile novel. Without the budget for commissioning, but after something little-seen and unusual, I called in several photographers’ portfolios and found the perfect shot in Venetia’s from a photostory about her local neighbourhood in Somerset. It’s a great example of how as a photographer it’s important to cultivate relationships with photo editors (and vice versa) over the years, and of how there’s loads of currency in a photographer’s work across a range of media.

What do you look for when you're selecting an image for a story?

I make sure it’s telling the story it needs to, whether it’s going to be a thumbnail or a double page spread. This will depend a lot on the audience it’s catering to. I am drawn to well-composed images, and can get quite obsessive about juxtaposition and rhythm in a photograph (but only when I have the time!) 

How has your work changed over the years? Is it harder, or easier, to find good pictures now?

When I started out we were still using transparencies and getting envelopes stuffed with negatives biked across London, so the fact that most of it is online now has seriously cut down on waiting time in a lot of cases. 

Several things make this up for, however. The sheer number of images available in online libraries and agencies means there is a lot to sift through, and unfortunately very often some agencies and some photographers have done a bad job of keywording their images so the wrong things keep cropping up. On the flipside, of course, it means it’s much easier for photographers to get exposure, and for photo editors to discover new and exciting work.

What are the greatest challenges you face as an editor?

The invention of Google images means that anyone thinks they can be a picture editor, and don’t understand that taking a screen-grab and saying “I want that picture” doesn’t mean the job is done! 

The other challenge is not to be too precious about the work you’ve put in to something (which I am sure photographers must get accustomed to as well). Very often I think I have found the perfect photo, but final word very often rests with a publisher or editor or art director (and they can often be wrong, in my humble opinion!)

Do you feel there is still a high value placed on the imagery within the wider press?

Yes, I do, very much so. Everyone involved knows how important imagery is to tell a story, sell a book, or grab the attention of an audience. Any publication worth its salt places a high premium on getting it right.

What advice would you give to aspiring photo editors trying to find their niche?

Spend time getting to know all the resources available to you, which includes finding and making contact with a range of photographers. It’s great finding photographers at the start of their careers who you can then champion throughout your career too.

Use your imagination, search high and low, and keep your eyes wide open. 


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