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What picture editors want

THE "most important thing about a photograph is that it tells us as much as it can about the story we're covering", that it can "encapsulate everything" about that story.

Helen Healy; Photo: Miss Gemma Young

Helen Healy

What do picture editors want from photographers? The October LFB meeting heard from Helen Healy (@hheals), who has been Head of Pictures at the Financial Times (FT) for the last three and a half years. She has previously worked with - among others - the Independent when it was still on City Road, for the Guardian and the Times - and has freelanced for many other publications.

The FT picture desk works across the print and web editions. Other newspapers such as the Guardian still have "an online team and a print journalism team". Pretty much all nationals have a Digital Asset Management system now.

The FT has an international and a UK daily print edition. Its print news section is "not that big" in terms of its number of pages. They do a lot of finance news and geopolitics, but they don't cover much crime, for example.

They use standalone photos - just a photo with a caption story, not illustrating any other news story on the page - less than most newspapers do. It's unlikely the FT will use photos of celebrities at photo calls, or photos of the weather or photos from a local interest story, for example. If the FT runs a standalone photo in its UK pages it usually relates to an arts and culture story.

Questions of taste and death

Compared to the FT, says Helen, the Guardian is much more daring in terms of featuring death in its front page pics. When she worked at the Guardian they ran a photo of Saddam Hussein hanging from a noose when he was executed, taken on a mobile phone. "Maybe we shouldn't have done - there was a long debate" about that.

What about the "many distressing images from the Vietnam War" that made front pages? Helen is "not sure whether many newspapers would run those photos now" The FT also didn't immediately run a photo of Alyan Kurdi - the Syrian child refugee found dead on a Mediterranean beach. But the FT did run in the newspaper the picture of Salvadoran man Oscar Avalos and his daughter Valeria found drowned on the banks the Rio Grande in June this year.

The newspaper does often use a front page photo to flag up an important story inside for which there isn't room on the front. For example, they'll put a photo of Angela Merkel on the front to illustrate a German fiscal policy story inside.

Staff and freelance

Charlie Bibby is "our one staff photographer" at the FT, says Helen. There are now "very few staff photographers" left in UK newspapers. "It's a shame" and the pay is "very low". The profession is "largely freelance these days" and fees for photographs are not as high as they used to be.

Helen does commission from freelances "quite a lot of photos in other parts of the world, some in London: we don't commission so much stuff as other newspapers". She can use many more pictures for long-form journalism online, where there's space to "illustrate quite widely" compared to the relatively small print edition. The web "invites much greater use of photography".

Occasionally Helen will commission a shoot. An example might be to illustrate a piece on the impact of Brexit on a Greek deli owner. Photos for that assignment would need to include what they sell, shots inside and outside the shop, some customers...

On the FT's websites, as with most websites these days, "the main default pic is cropped as as a landscape", which means that there are now fewer photographers taking portrait format photos. It is, says, Helen, important for photographers pitching to photo editors to "observe how each newspaper uses photographs" both in print and online, and to "be aware of the style of photography that a newspaper uses".

Tabloids will favour a "straightforward... in-your-face photo", while the "qualities" might "use something less obvious" - a "slightly different take on photographs".

Making your picture findable

Then there's metadata and captioning. From a computer's point of view, the tones and shades in your photo are data: also in the file is information about the image, which is metadata.

It's "really important that everyone... puts as much information as possible on their pictures." Editors need to know who took the picture, and where and when the picture was taken - always have a date in the caption field, at the top of the photo caption (as well as in the date field of the metadata). Your photograph will get lost unless there's lots of information on it.

Keywords are of key importance, particularly if you hope to resell photos through an agency: "if your keywording is good, picture editors will find your photograph". The British Press Photography Association offers a visual guide on how to fill in the relevant metadata fields in Photoshop.

When tagging photos with metadata, visual journalists should add information in the caption field - it's "really important to know when a photograph was taken". You should set your system up so that your credit in the "Creator" metadata field is filled automatically.

Some people "can overuse keywords". The Getty Images Creative website, for example, has "very, very little caption information, certainly no detail on the date" but, then "there's an over-generous use of keywords... the photographer's thrown in some keywords that are really, really general." This is especially true with stock photography. "I've spoken to Getty about that," says Helen.

Make sure to claim credit

Also check that your name is filled in, in the correct field. Picture desks all use "quirky"content management systems in which sometimes "for some reason the photographer's credit falls off. We have to fill it in again". Often there will be others working "out of UK hours" who "aren't necessarily photo editors". These people may sometimes leave off a credit. Helen runs workshops for the overnight sub-editors on how to do photo credits and metadata.

Helen and her team have a signalling system that tells them which photos they're handling are free to use because the FT has a subscription with the picture agency that supplied them. Others are flagged with a "red pound sign" that "means they need to be paid" for an image. When the picture desk uses such a photo from the archive, they contact the photographer to remind them to send an invoice.

Helen is "critical as well of the size of bylines... I think they are too small... credits are not big enough" This is the production editor's decision, not hers. Ensuring photographers are credited adequately can be "an uphill battle".

How to get a picture editor’s attention

On meeting photographers and looking at their portfolios, Helen says, "I don't really have time to meet the photographers any more." She tends to look at photographers' work on their websites.

How, then, should freelance photographers approach the FT? "Email me, send a link to your website" which Helen will look at. They use their staff photographer and regular freelances - they "don't have enough work to give new to new freelances" right now, although "I do try... I try to give more (work) to women."

For international work Helen will contact photographers through the Blink network and its "upload location" feature. Helen will go to Blink to look for, say, a photographer in Kathmandu, then "I'll have a look at their portfolios". Of Blink, Helen says "I would advise photographers to use it." While photographers in the audience said they tended only to put their location into Blink when they were going abroad for work, Helen said "it could be useful" for photographers to fill in their location in the UK, especially if they are outside London: "We often need to find photographers in other British locations,". More and more photo editors are using Blink, she added.

Agencies such as Getty are "used a lot", while "we try to use independent agencies if we can," but "we're up against budgets". Also, declining newspaper sales "make it harder to fight for photographers".

Photos from social media

If something happens that's very urgent - the "classic breaking news story", Helen will "have a quick look on Twitter" and contact whoever's taken photos of what's happening. Agencies often get in there as well soon after it happens, so such photos appear on the wires rapidly. She often runs "Twitter pictures first" - if you can't get them direct from photographers than an agency will. Often the "quality will not be great at this point". And "we always offer money to citizen journalists".

With the 2017 Westminster attack, for example, there were "quite a lot of photographers around". Helen ran a photo taken from Portcullis House, with the permission of the photographer who happened to be there covering a meeting. Then after that she ran photos of the "forensics" in the street, followed by shots of flowers and a memorial. Other recent breaking news photos she's chosen have included "the bomb in the bag at Parsons Green" and "policemen running at Manchester the other day" following a stabbing attack at the Arndale shopping centre.

Helen noted that "we're all seeing the same photos" appearing in different newspapers reporting the same story, especially if a single photo "can encapsulate every aspect of the story" in one picture. Could it be, she asked, that photo editors "all have similar sensibilities"?