Becoming a Photo Editor

- - Working

A friends daughter dropped by the office for a little career advice a little while back. She recently graduated from college with a degree in the arts and is interested in becoming a photo editor.

(Okay, first off I find it fascinating that someone would choose photo editing as a career path. Aren’t we all failed photographers? Ha, ha, industry joke.)

She landed an internship at a magazine’s photography department which is the obvious first step and it sounds like a good job because they’re understaffed so she will have many duties not usually given to interns… unlike the boring shit I make our interns do: sending out tears, returning art and calling PR flacks for photos (editors idea).

Anyway, my whole point here is that I came up with a few tips for any aspiring photography editors out there:

1. Develop your eye for photography. Unless you were born with the golden eye you need to edit tons of photos because wading through all the crappy images to find the gems is what develops your eye for what makes a good image. It’s also helpful to track images from your edit to the final printed product so you can see which images make the final cut… unless, your editor and/or art director suck and then all the great images never make it on the page but that’s another story.

2.Keep a list of editorial photographers. You need to begin learning the names of all the great editorial photographers and try and keep track of the various shoots they’ve done over the years. This means visiting the newsstand and writing down the names of photographers who’s work you like. If the only photographers name you know is Annie Leibovitz, who by the way is under contract with Conde Nast, you’re up shit creek because you will never land her to shoot a 1/4 in the front of the book. I’ve tried. It ain’t pretty. The list of top editorial photographers is not long and you should know who many of them are.

3. Work on your institutional knowledge of photography. Being able to recall the photographers who shot Demi Moore in the last 5 years is valuable, not only if you need to find pickup images that aren’t in circulation but also to help inform how you will photograph her for the story you’re working on. Also, as an aside, editorial story meetings generally devolve at some point into a pissing match where people try to outdo each other with their knowledge of who wrote or shot this and who’s cool and what has appeared where… etc., etc. Rapid fire name dropping is a great skill to have (just don’t be that annoying guy who does it all the time).

4. Develop relationships with photographers. In the end, you will be hired to work at a magazine based on your relationships with great photographers. Not everyone can work at a glamorous magazine with massive budgets and movie stars to take pictures of and so you will need to develop relationships with photographers, especially when they are young and hungry, so that later on you can rely on them when you’re in a bind.

There’s more but by this time I think she was completely bored out of her mind. Oh well maybe she’ll try and become a photographer first.

There Are 49 Comments On This Article.

  1. Haha, when I interned at an agency (one on your list actually, maybe we have spoken) the boring shit they made me do was call photo editors and get tears. I’m glad to hear that that was passed on to another intern.

  2. Peter Taylor

    I never understood how someone can graduate from college and step into being a photo editor. I mean what do they know? It’s like the kids who get a masters right after their BA and then become photo instructors!
    That is great advice to get the internship and to develop your eye. But that kind of thing takes YEARS, not one or two internships. I have done some live sporting event shooting and editing and looking at 10 rolls of film from the first half, you just have to be able to pick out those great images right away, no time to look it over 3 or 4 times. Experience is the only way to learn this.
    Great advice and a great blog, It has become a daily read for me. Keep it up.

    pt

  3. “….photo editing as a career path. Aren’t we all failed photographers?”

    Sometimes I feel like it’s the other way around. Since I don’t have those skills you prescribe for a good editor, I have to stay busy shooting continuously since that’s the one thing I can do!

    • @Scott Dickerson,
      I know you said you don’t have th skills for a good photo editor. My question is this what if it is the opposite way around, what if a photo editor wanted to be a photographer, I edit photos on my spare time, I use two different photo editing software although I have been doing photo manipulations for I’d say almost three years. Granted there are somethings I still need to learn, but how does a person transition from a hobby to a job. Currently I am trying to get my creditentials in Visual Communications. So please feel free to contact me with any and all advice that you have.
      Thank you

  4. “….photo editing as a career path. Aren’t we all failed photographers?”

    I’m surprised to read that, as I’ve never heard that, nor even supposed it.

    I have a friend who’s a creative director director and he always waxes poetic to me about how being a photographer is the best job ever. I don’t know, photo ed or C.D., you guys have to put up with photographers, and photographers have to put up with themselves. And all the fuss for, as a man much wiser than myself once said, tomorrow’s fish wrappings.

    Tongue in cheek, of course.

  5. Thanks for a great refresher course… I haven’t been a photo editor in about 10 years, and I’m not looking back….

    Great blog!

  6. “(Okay, first off I find it fascinating that someone would choose photo editing as a career path. Aren’t we all failed photographers? Ha, ha, industry joke.)”

    Firstly, I just found your blog and am thrilled. Secondly, you may find this crazy but I went to school for photography and have always wanted to be a photo editor… Which I now am. And I feel like people always expect me to be a “failed photographer” who happens to be a photo editor. Whenever I meet with photographers, this idea seems to come up. Perhaps I haven’t hit bitter and cynical yet, but is it so wrong to want to be a photo editor that photo editors always seem to profess some strange shame at it?

    • @randi,
      i just came across this old page today. And I am also a recent graduate who studied photography with the intention of a photo career “without the camera”. I am glad to hear that you don’t view yourself as a failed photographer!! Also, may I ask how you got started and ended up where you are? Thanks!!

    • @randi, I too enjoyed this reply. I went to CCC and met photo editor at Trib and instantly knew that I wanted to be an editorial photo editor when I graduated. To be able to look at all those photos, to have the knowledge to say which would work and be able to say why is something I pride myself in. And I still shoot and have fun with it. Next step AD.
      Thanks for an awesome blog!

      • laura elvis

        @Kristine,

        I dont have any photography experience but i do have a great eye for it and now im thinking about becoming a photo editor i dont necessary want to be a photographer but i would love to be a photo editor and look and edit photographs. I just dont know where to start. Let me know if you have some guidance.

    • Doug Tindall

      @randi, I see that you’re an photography editor and just had a real simple question for you: What major issues do you have dealing with photography and/or photographers when dealing with submisions, stock photography, etc.?

  7. Don’t forget that those “photographers” you went to school with probably don’t have health insurance, much less an office, can’t collect any unemployment (for when work gets slow) and still probably live in the same apartment with the same roommates they had when they were in college. Not to mention the benefits employees of SOME corporations (*cough timeinc*) give their employees while they pay freelancers doodley squat.

    So don’t feel bitter or cynical. My only other suggestion would be to become an advertising creative director instead or maybe an agent. They make a lot more money.

  8. 4.Develop relationships with photographers. In the end, you will be hired to work at a magazine based on your relationships with great photographers.

    Sigh….how nice it would be to live in the rarefied world of the photographer who’s courted by editors hungry and appreciative of his/her work. Although I certainly have great relationships with my editors the idea that I’d have to be sold on doing a job and wooed to accept an assignment (from a later post) sounds like some heavenly situation not unlike having to choose between fresh foie gras and caviar.

  9. I want to thank you for your presence on the internet.
    I am learning so much from you.
    Could you possibly do a post on the general structure
    of a national magazine in regards to photography work?
    (that’s worded poorly, let me explain)
    For instance, you are a photo editor and apparently it is your job
    to hire photographers for your magazine, correct? then what? Do you see
    the photos first? Does a team see them? Do you make the decisions
    as to which photos are used or is there someone else who does this?
    Or a team of people? And what are their titles?
    And is the structure and system basically the same at a newspaper?
    I guess I’m looking for a general overview on how things work.
    A post about this would be terrific!

    Right now I do volunteer photography for a weekly paper here in Seattle called ‘Real Change’. It’s a homeless issues/social justice paper, wkly circulation 15,000) My editor calls me, tells me what he needs and
    when I make the photos I simply email them back to him, usually
    giving him a choice of between 2-6 photos. He chooses which photo
    gets in the paper and that’s it. I guess I had no reason to think it was
    different elsewhere but apparently it’s A LOT different and more complex than this. I think it would be very good for me to understand this business more.

    Anyway, thanks again for your posts and being so open to our questions.

    Katia

  10. editors at most magazines do not want photo editors. they do not respect the position nor the OPINION of the photo editors. its a changed enviroment from days gone by. photo editors, the good ones help shape the vision of the magazine and partner with photographers to bring in a great shoot, next!

  11. I’m a photo journalism major and was considering looking into the career of a photo editor however after reading most of the above it seems a bit daunting…I was also thinking about a creative director, which I think would actually suit me and my skills more, but do you think I could do that if my major is photo-j? It’s almost time for me to find an internship and get into gear brainstorming what I will be doing after school, so I’m lookng for any advice.

  12. Amelia Ong

    Such as randi, I am also eyeing a career in photo editting even though I am still in my first year in college. I never knew this position really existed until I came across a really awesome picture with the description that it was photographed by whom and editted by whom. I am still strongly considering this.

    It may seem ridiculous, but my interest in this is birth from current times. My photography lecturer said that with everything heading towards the digital age, with digital cameras, people are learning the basics of composition etc. etc. really quickly with a many clicks of the cam. But the difference here, I was told, that the quality changes because the fear of wasting film does not exist. And he says that photo editing softwares just can’t make it as real. True, true, true. But are we trying to make photos look real? In my opinion, the most impressive photos are the most surreal.

    Photo editing softwares nowadays are amazing! How do you make a photograph of a heart mechanically operated? I’ve seen it. People are doing it now.

    I love photography but I love editting them more.

    “….photo editing as a career path. Aren’t we all failed photographers?” No, with both positions at hand, the most wow pics (pigs) come to life.

    Why would randi wanna turn to be a creative director? Love or money? Passion births more money than the chase for it.

    Thanks for your post sir. I respect and admire your job postition :) You’re gonna hear my name in the near future! :P

  13. Do you need a portfolio to become a photo editor? If so what does it consist of? Is it just a book full of photographs?

      • @jess and Lindsey—-If you have no pix of your own or have not worked with a photographer—I would compile a notebook–something lively, maybe a slide show on your Mac or iPad—of photographs that you think are beautiful, inspiring, shocking, fascinating, etc. and include many genres of work so that it is clear that you have done your homework. And once you’ve compiled that grouping…show it to 3 or 4 people, including photographers, other picture editors, designers (sometimes these folks have more open opinions) and someone who is not in the photo world as this represents your audience. Maggie Steber

  14. A portfolio of all the work you’ve published and photographers you’ve worked with. If you have not worked with photographers before then you’re probably looking to intern and start climbing the ladder. If you’re a photographer bring your personal work so they can see what kind of eye for photography you possess.

  15. b.t.w. has anyone seen retoucher Bianca Carosio’s work. That’s one I’d consider!

    • @andy,

      Yes i do know her. She is doing pretty good, better than 90 % of the photo retouchers I know or have been in touch with these past years. And I receive dozens of emails a week. Seems like it’s not that easy to find photographers to collaborate with, since those kids are struggling to find freelance assignments.

      Sandee Pawan (French Fashion photographer)

      • laura elvis

        @Sandee Pawan,

        But is retouching the same as photo editing now im confused and yes Bianca is a friend on fb love her work.

        • @laura elvis, I’m french, so I may not be the best person to ask, but as far as i know “editing” means “changing” right ? I know some photo retouchers who call themselves photo editors and photo editors who do not do any photo retouching at all…

  16. Love your blog. I read each and every post (a couple of them I read twice). I still feel a bit let down on the “freelance photoeditor” front, is there more info to be had on who’s who and where’s what in the world of freelance photoeditors?

    Also, any advice on how to handle clients who don’t see the need for photo editors but are perfectly happy to point and click at whatever first page results they get from Getty?

    With a little bit of imagination you can see how the two points in my reply are connected.

    Cheers, Robert in Tokyo

  17. I am also a first year college student,as amelia also stated, that has not yet figured out what major I should really be taking up. I definitely have a eye for photography. My first as a photographer was at the age of 15. I am currently enrolled in courses to obtain a degree in mass communication. I would like feed back from anyone who would like to comment. I basically want to know if that is the right degree path to get me in as a photo editor…………..

  18. Im so into learning everything about digital and design but everything that has to do with pictures i just love…im still looking for what career to follow cause im not sure what specificly i want to do or what there is, the closest thing i found was digital media technology cause its general but i was looking into photo editing as well i think its something that i would like to do…but how do i start when i dont want to become a photographer exactly???

    i need some help!! i have no experience except for using photoshop lol and im looking for a good institute.

  19. hi

    dear all,

    i have been into photography since last 10 years, now i want to move on to editing job, could anyone suggest me any workshop or intership available in the end of 2009…

    regards
    syed

  20. I like everything about editing photos,I started at high school during my free-periods even missing Lunch breaks just for the love of it, on the year 2007 i decided to start a business.I’m currently doing editing daily for my clients.

    I would Love if i can get any photo editing school so that i can get a recognised qualification. I’m also intrested in a photo editing competition.

    • laura elvis

      @Lubabalo,

      OMG me too….i look at photographs all day not my own but from different photographers ive been told i have a natural eye for photography.. i would love to become a photo editor but havent found a school in chicago that is just for that….

  21. Robyn Humphreys

    About becoming a photo editor…these are all great tips but what else do you need for education apart from photography? Do you need any type of publishing or design? And then do you just go around cold calling various magazines with a portfolio? What other type of job titles are associated with photo editing? How do you work your way in?

  22. I read this some time ago and in going back through the archives of your site gave it a reread. I graduated from photoj school a few years ago and am now working as a photo researcher in the photo editing department at a national magazine, hopefully soon to move up to a photo editing position. I agree with a lot of your advice you give here except for the note that all photo editors are failed photojournalists… after I tried my hand at shooting for several years in school and at several newspaper internships, I decided it just wasn’t for me and decided I wanted to take my skills and talent instead to photo editing. I’ve spoken with a lot of photo editors at my current job, many of whom ended up here for the same reason. You definitely need the eye for it, but not the lack of success. It’s frustrating when there’s a general assumption that you failed or gave up something better (photographing) to land in photo editing – this is a much better fit for me and I absolutely love it.

  23. Having been a photographer in NYC for 25 years, it is a pleasure to sit on the other side of the desk as a photo editor. If I had not shot for all those years and felt content with what I had produced I never could have made the switch successfully. Would have been too envious of those I assign, especially when they are my kind of shoots. It helps alot having been a photographer as I can relate to most shooters I hire and know exactly what they will be up against and what they try and get away with. I get it so much it makes me more critical but in the end, get better images.

  24. Though I can edit pix beautifully but sometimes it’s as if Ideas for doing it better doesn’t come at times. So what I do is to review the Pix I’ve designed before and try to make it more colorful and better. I think continuous look on a pix gives u an Insight of what to do next time.

  25. I am so happy to stumble upon your blog and read all the comments. I’ve started out a blog just a couple of days ago entitled The Retoucher’s Journal where I could open up and share things regarding my experiences, career and photo retouching updates. My degree is Industrial Technology major in Architectural Drafting which haven’t led me into the same field rather I tried different non-related jobs until I was hired as a photo retoucher. I’ve been in photo retouching for almost 3 years, being employed in a multimedia studio for 2 years and now working as a freelance photo retoucher for quiet sometime specializing in real estate photos. I’ve earn my skills and develop an eye for “wow factor” images through my eagerness and willingness to learn, I really love my job. I do believe as they say that “if we love what we are doing we can do the most out of it”.

  26. Well, excellent posting and I’m gonna repost it. Here’s some advice to anyone interested in working in editorial photography: I have been a reporter/photographer (first job on a small paper), a picture editor at AP NYC, rising in the ranks, a photographer working mainly for magazines for MANY years and a regular contributor to NGM, a director of photography at the Miami Herald, and an educator. You know what really influenced me the most and something I think should be required whether you learn in school or on your own? THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY! This as much as looking at contemporary photography of all genres can prepare you to be a much better, even inspired picture editor. Photographers need good picture editors and they still are far and few between, as most people want to be shooters. Studying this history not only informs and makes reference in your own work but it prepares you to help others be better, to choose the most evocative pictures and maybe even to move on to curating. If you are American—LOOK AT EUROPEAN STORIES AND HOW THEY ARE SHOT AND EDITED because they are more open, more existential and fresher. And the final suggestion, no matter what you do with photography—if you don’t ideas, fresh, innovative ideas or new innovatives ways to tell stories, find something else to do. ONE MORE THING: Can we throw that stupid line out, joke or not, about picture editors being failed photographers. Being a sometime picture editor has made my career longer, wider, richer, much more exciting and exihilirating.

    • forgot to mention this: you cannot imagine, even though I am known mostly as a photographer, how many PICTURE EDITING POSITIONS, including being THE BOSS, I have been offered over the years, at both major American newspapers AND magazines. This has given me a very well-rounded career and if you hope to have longevity in this business, you should think about doing more than one thing in it. Cheers.

    • Hi Maggie,

      Thanks for your comments here. I wrote this post years ago and need to make a new one since I get asked all the time how to become a photo editor. I’ll incorporate some of your suggestions.

    • Jim Colton

      Well said Maggie…my sister. We were AP brats in the 70′s and learned from the best. Much has changed in the industry since then but the one thing that will never change…is passion. If you have it (be it for editing/shooting…or any profession for that matter)…you will succeed. As someone who has been on the “other side of the loupe,” for 40 years, it still thrills me to find the gem in the box. Photo editors are treasure hunters…and I’ll be digging in the sand until I’m six feet under it! PS: Terrific site Rob. Jim Colton