Photographers: don’t back down

WHAT DO photo editors want? The June London Freelance Branch meeting heard advice from Sarah Gray from Magnum Photos. Before that she worked as a features photo editor at The Times - that is, for News International, described in Russell Miller's book on Magnum as "one of our biggest enemies of all time".

© Sara Haq
© Sara Haq

Photographer Miranda Gavin (centre, upper pic) and Sarah Gray of Magnum Photos (right, upper) addressing the meeting (lower pic).

So what advice did Sarah have to give?

Portfolios: "Your portfolio needs to be impeccable". Is there a need for a physical portfolio? "Photographers come in with their little Macs, do a slideshow, that's very nice. I just want to see great photography. I want to see 20 images, not 40." Don't throw out too many images, though. The worst portfolio Sarah ever saw had just five photos of "random things". Sarah warns that "other picture editors say they've looked at people's portfolios when they have not". What about tear sheets? Only the very, very good ones. Include the work that "is you".

Websites: "Unless they know your work, the chance of a photo editor searching your website are remote... Keep it very simple. And clean. Nice design... think of yourself as a product. You are your own agency. Do you want to be seen as a portrait photographer? Only put portraits on. Many photographers put so many little things on their website, leaving picture editors asking "so what do you do, then?".

Tell a story: What features would Magnum be interested in? "A story you're interested in. This will show in your pictures. The difficult part is finding the angle that can sell. That might well be a mainstream story handled in a different way".

Sarah gave an example of a photographer who did a feature on what happened to all that aid that arrived after the tsunami. Be prepared to collaborate with writers to pitch a photo story. "You need good photos and good writing".

Pitching: "Imagine you only have 30 seconds. Don't bombard them with printouts - sell your story very quickly and very precisely. I was thinking you should show them about 10 pictures". Consider pitching to the features editor as well, or ring to check which editor(s) you should pitch your story to. If you have your website you can make a page for the project and send a link with a one-liner - "I have this story, it's about this, here's a link".

Trends: The "huge rise in celebrity portraiture on practically every single cover of every publication in the UK and the world" has meant there's more demand for portraiture in general, not necessarily celebrity portraiture.

Stock agencies: "You want to get your pictures in a recognised library - like (good for travel) or - yes, do use alternatives to Corbis - check BAPLA for specialised agencies."

Money: For digital photography, you must charge for scanning, processing and correction - if you don't do it now, you'll lose it forever. When I was at The Times they "were trying to impose a day rate - about £145... For anything that took longer I used to pay a lot more. But they don't do that any more."

More recently "A friend called me from Times features, needing photography in Switzerland - could I give them one of my contacts?

"Sure. What and how much, I asked? £125 for a big feature, all in, they said. Nope, I'm not calling any of my friends for that". The Times day rate for photography has "gone down £20 or £30 since I left... Don't back down. Because once you do it'll stay down".

Someone in the audience had heard rumours of photo editors getting bonuses for cutting their annual spend on photographers. Sarah once told a photographer "not to sign" to give the publisher exclusivity with 50 per cent of syndication for next 100 years. "I refused to sign up for this... That's the pressure picture editors are under."

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