Freelance photography tips: magazine publishing

Man putting CD into envelope

With 1000s of titles published every month, magazines are the most accessible market available to budding freelance photographers – here are our tips for success

Think of a subject and chances are there’s at least one magazine title in print that deals with it. Photography, gardening, canoeing, caravanning, walking, camping, fitness, food, wildlife – the list goes on and on. Despite the shift from print publishing to digital, these magazines still have a voracious appetite for photographs – they couldn’t survive without them – and the vast majority are supplied by freelance contributors. Getting your shots printed in magazines doesn’t have to be difficult, you just need to know how to approach them…

Don’t send editors a huge collection of images in the hope that there might be 1 or 2 that strike a chord…

Don’t assume that only professional photographers stand a chance of getting published in magazines. Editors are constantly looking for new, inventive and fresh photography, and it may just be that your particular vision coincides perfectly with theirs. However, don’t go to the other extreme and assume that as soon as they see your work editors will be fighting to get to you first. There are any number of great photographers out there and you’re just one of them – no matter what you might think about the quality of your images.

Brilliance and style are important, but patience, persistence and willingness to study the needs of the magazines you’re approaching are what really count.

The easiest way to start selling work to magazines is by targeting specialist titles that deal with a subject you know something about. Photographic magazines are an obvious choice, but you may also have other hobbies – restoring classic cars, backpacking, angling, and woodworking. They’re an ideal market because you’re bound to take photos while you’re involved in those other hobbies so you may have material on file already.

Before making a submission, spend a little time analysing magazines that you could target. Specialist interest magazines almost always rely on freelance contributors and though the same names may crop up month after month that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a closed shop. Editors tend to rely on regulars who they know can come up with the goods, but they’re also keen to use work by new photographers as well.

Improve your chances

DON’T send editors a huge collection of images…

… in the hope that there might be 1 or 2 that strike a chord. What actually happens is any really good images that might be in there will be obscured by a fog of mediocrity. That’s assuming the editor even gets as far as looking at them all. Any editor will have a glance at 6 photos, might be losing interest at 12 and if faced with dozens may not even bother to start.

DO try to pick 5-10 of your best images…

… and concentrate on the ones best-suited to the magazine and its readership. If you’re photographing a car restoration project, the readers might tolerate 1 or 2 ‘arty’ shots, but mostly they’ll want to see that the door decal (for example) has been positioned exactly the right distance from the sill. And if you’re submitting a manipulated landscape shot to Digital Camera or PhotoPlus, say, then it won’t hurt to include the ‘original’ shot too and maybe a couple of different variations, so that the editor can see how it might form an interesting story. This is an important point. You might be used to thinking of photographs as single, static images, but magazines are actually about ‘stories’.

DO consider the mechanics of magazine reproduction…

… as full-page photos often need space for headlines or other information and pictures used across a double-page spread need space for the ‘gutter’ in the middle. While you might not submit pictures with this kind of space initially, it wouldn’t hurt to shoot variations with this in mind.

DON’T stop at supplying images either…

… why not write the words too? You may be surprised to learn that pitching articles is a much easier route into magazines than photography alone. Many special-interest magazines are happy to run complete features from contributors and obviously, you get paid more! However, before you spend hours or days working feverishly at your computer to produce a literary masterpiece, it’s worth emailing an outline of the feature, along with a small selection of images.

DO think about seasonality…

… as an important factor to consider is the ‘lead-time’ magazines work to. This means anything seasonal has to be supplied well in advance. There’s no point sending autumnal shots into a photographic magazine in October, for example, because they’ll usually be required back in July or August.

DON’T be too pushy…

… when you’re approaching editors, as you need to be aware that they work in a hectic environment. Phone calls aren’t necessarily the best approach because the editor will often be in an open-plan office, juggling a big stack of mail on an overflowing desk and with a phone already wedged under one ear. Email or letter is often the best first approach – with a link to or example of the best and most relevant images, of course. If you submit by post, send a CD including high-resolution images. Also include a shot of yourself, a caption document and a thumbnail sheet. If your submission is already complete and ready to use, it may increase the chances of getting published.

DO make sure that all the materials you send have your name and contact information on them…

… including covering letters, contact sheets, prints and CDs. These can easily become separated in a busy office – the editor might keep a covering letter, say, but pass a CD over to the art editor to take a look.

Common mistakes

OK, so you’ve sent in your submission and you want to know what’s happening. An editor might consider a quick phone call after a couple of weeks reasonable, but most would prefer an email and none will like being harassed – that’s probably the quickest way to get this and any future submission thrown out.

If you intend to send your pictures elsewhere, you need to make that clear. You must not send the same work to competing titles at the same time. Magazines don’t necessarily check with you that it’s OK to use your work. They assume that what you’ve sent them is being offered to them exclusively. If two magazines use the same image at the same time, you’ll be unpopular.

Don’t send magazines shots identical to those they’ve already used either! You may have seen a dozen images by now of old wooden jetties on mirror-like lakes at dawn, but that doesn’t mean you should send more. Editors want something that’s both relevant and new.

What will you be paid?

Many specialist newsstand magazines pay by the page, so the proportion of the page taken up by your photo determines your fee. If you were submitting both words and pictures you could get anywhere from £60-200 per page, depending on the magazine. Clearly, you’re not going to get rich quick with fees like this on offer, but if you build-up a relationship with several different magazines, given time the returns can be surprisingly high.

If you do have work accepted then you need to know the ‘rights’ the magazine is buying from you. It’s common for magazines to insist on full rights in perpetuity. This means they can re-use the image in reprints, digests, foreign editions and so on. You still own the picture, but they’ve bought the right to use it. The terms vary between publishers and it’s important that you’re absolutely clear what you’re selling.

Whichever route you take there are no guarantees of success, and initially you’ll probably find that most submissions are rejected. However, if you learn from your mistakes and keep trying, eventually you’ll see your work in print. Once you’ve achieved your first sales, it’s surprising how easy it is to repeat your success.