Editorial Photography: All You Need to Know

(Last updated on June 22nd, 2022)

A photo is worth a thousand words. A great photo tells a story. Editorial photography shows the story. This genre of photography is everywhere yet we do not often think about the work that goes into creating the images. They appear in print or in online publications. In magazines and all across social media.

Though similar to commercial photography, the goal is not to convince you to buy a product. The goal is to make the viewer feel emotion by crafting a specific tone or mood. Editorial photography must stop a reader’s eyes and allow the story to unfold visually.

What Is Editorial Photography?

In short, the images that run alongside written text to educate the readers and help show a story. Think of Vogue or Outside magazine. These two periodicals work to sell the concept of fashion and outdoor adventure. Without photography, it would be a challenge to highlight the upcoming season’s latest trends in fashion. Or the appeal of camping in the backcountry.

Additionally, food publications like Saveur often rely on editorial photographers. We all consume food. What we eat and how we eat is a pivotal part of our culture and identity. Food photography often taps into this by selling food as a culture.

Editorial image of a fruit and cheese platter
Editorial image of a fruit and cheese platter.

Bon Appetit is a magazine dedicated to cooking and recipes. There is a product, but photography does not sell the product. The images throughout the publication, both online and in print, help market the concept of fine home cooking. The images of the food do not necessarily sell you a particular ingredient; they convince the reader to make a given recipe. To live a certain lifestyle. In this way, editorial photography becomes about culture.

Key Steps to Becoming an Editorial Photographer

  • Planning is essential
  • Remain Fluid
  • Know your Equipment
  • Check the Weather
  • Pack Snacks!
  • Remember the Brief and Show the Story.
  • Bring Help
  • Scout the location

A Brief History Lesson and Some Inspiration

Photography has forever been linked to storytelling. From empty streets and eerie portraits, photography captures the moment. These moments create a story. Be it Mathew Brady’s images of the Civil War or images in today’s news stories. Photography has become ingrained in our psyche as a storytelling tool.

A screenshot from the AP News homepage showcasing the amount of editorial photography used in news
A screenshot from the AP News homepage showcasing the amount of editorial photography used in news.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce created the first photograph, known as a heliograph, in 1826. Since then, the medium has come a long way. Genres have developed, some have died, and some have reigned. Editorial photography fishes from this deep pool of history.

Photo of the First photograph by Joseph Nicephore Niepce
Photo of the First photograph by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce

Photojournalism is a close cousin to editorial photography. However the difference is unscripted events versus the intentional crafting of photographs. Successful editorial photography will include the elements of a photo essay: overview, transition, detail, and intimate images. Highly successful editorial images will feel unscripted and genuine.

Including these storytelling elements brings editorial photography from concept to an emotional response. Photojournalists have honed their craft to create powerful images of newsworthy events as they unfold. This year’s Pulitzer-winning photographers are a great place to see this concept in images.

Now that you have some inspiration, here are some good places to start.

How Do I Get Editorial Photography Work?

Becoming an editorial photographer takes patience, practice, and hard work. Yet it is not unattainable. Studying other work is a great way to improve your photography and develop your creative style.

Be active on social media so editors can see who you are before you even pitch them. Follow them on various social media platforms and engage with their content. Comment on work they share and follow the photographers they have worked with in the past.

Without being pushy, make yourself known to editors before you even pitch them. Once you go to pitch them, you may stick out among the crowded field. With a strong portfolio, do not feel bad about shamelessly promoting yourself. You are working towards a career in editorial photography.

With any type of photography, having a strong portfolio is important. It is something that you can start putting together as soon as you have a body of images. A portfolio does not have to be large. It does not have to be your most refined and strongest images. Your portfolio should showcase you as a photographer and having one built around your target niche will make you stand out. 

Build your portfolio around the niche of editorial photography you want to create. You will land clients quicker and begin networking within the specific editorial field. For example, if you want to create lifestyle images, gather a group of friends, find a location, and create a series of images. These images should reflect your style. When presented together, they should showcase both your work and the type of editorial photography you want to create. 

With a strong portfolio in hand, it is time to seek a client. The best place to start is the masthead of magazines. This is the column of names, usually in the front pages, that highlight the editorial staff, writers, creative directors, and photographers. Usually within this body of words are contacts for pitching yourself as a photographer. Find the magazines that serve your niche of photography and reach out to the photo editor and/or creative directors.

Pitching is a fine art in its own right. Think of it as selling yourself, your product, and your brand. Self-confidence is important but not all pitches are accepted. Accept denial, it is a regular part of the job. When writing out a pitch be sure to include the following:

  • Why you? What makes you the ideal candidate?
  • Showcase your work – always provide links to your previous editorial photography.
  • Highlight your experience – this is pivotal. The editor needs to know you have the experience and tools to complete the job.
  • Make it personal – I always begin a pitch that relates the story or project to who I am as a photographer. 
  • Name drop – if you have networked your way to an editor be sure to include names of people they may know. 

Clients are looking for a photographer who can create the images without making extra work. Make sure this is evident in your portfolio. A pitch and portfolio needs to exemplify that you will produce the best images for a project. The work will be created in a timely manner (potentially ahead of a deadline) and you are a professional who values other people.

What kind of editorial photographer do you want to be? Do you want to create images around fashion or pop culture? Or prefer outdoor settings and activities? Do you enjoy documentary-style photography or precise studio photography? Answering these questions will help guide you toward clients.

Use existing photography experience to your benefit. As a longtime landscape photographer, I have learned how to translate my experience to become a stronger editorial image maker.

For example, I use my understanding of natural light to help craft a certain mood when working on editorial projects. Any photographic background could lead to creating compelling editorial images for magazines such as Forbes and National Geographic.

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How Much Should You Charge?

If you are just beginning a career in the editorial realm, do not let low rates hinder your motivation. Seek opportunities that align with your professional goals and personal philosophy. This fringe benefit will make you more mentally and emotionally invested in the project, resulting in stronger work.

Editorial projects have smaller budgets than commercial work. The average salary for an editorial photographer is about $47,000 a year. If more money is what you want, build your portfolio by supplementing your editorial work with other photography gigs.

Learn how to negotiate pay rates. Focus on creating a solid portfolio over monetary gain in the early stages of your career. This will build rapport with clients and  your portfolio will begin to work for you. Earning low rates is hard. But having self-confidence and a strong work ethic will pay off in the long run.

This simple chart serves as a pathway towards earning more as an editorial photographer.

ExperiencePer HourDay/Project Rate
Beginner$25-50$300-400
Amateur$50-75$400-600
Semi-Pro$75-150$500-700
Professional$125-300$800

Determining how much to charge comes down to your workflow. I find a day rate more conducive to editorial photography because it allows me to spend more mental energy on producing the work. I am not hindered by calculating how many hours I put into a project when it comes time to invoice a client.

Setting your prices is challenging but the key is to be competitive. If you are just starting out, do not think you have to undersell yourself. Charge a wage you are comfortable with that also meets your financial obligations.

There are many online calculators that help in choosing a rate. These are a great place to start. Remember that after several projects or months, it is wise to review your rates and progress. Consider updating them to reflect your growth and the current economy.

Success Lies in Having the Right Tools

  • The Camera
  • The Lens
  • The Tripod
  • The Light

A beginner’s mindset is a great place to begin editorial photography. A new photographer will most likely lack the bad habits of honed experts. Without bad habits, there is plenty of opportunity to learn how to do things correctly.

The Camera

For editorial photography, a full-frame DSLR or mirrorless camera is recommended. Having a larger sensor provides greater resolution and image quality. These sensors perform stronger in low light. Allowing the photographer to work in various lighting situations while producing images that suit large printing projects.

Photographer creating a portrait in a lighting studio
Photographer creating a portrait in a lighting studio.

Do not get hung up on a company. If you have been a Nikon photographer, there is no reason to switch to Canon or Sony. Each company produces a solid line of full-frame cameras that perform when creating editorial images. Rent a Sony a7iii for a day and get a feel for how it works. Try a Nikon D5 next. The important part is to get a camera that facilitates your creative workflow.

Mirrorless cameras are relatively new to the scene. These cameras often offer a whole new range of buttons, settings, and practicality. There is plenty of information out there comparing a mirrorless to a DSLR camera. Cost is a huge consideration and it is best to work within your budgetary means while also considering any existing gear you may already own.

The Lens

There is neither a perfect lens nor focal length. Every lens offers something different. With that said, prime lenses are ideal for editorial photography. Given the controlled nature of a creative photography set, the need to zoom in and out via a lens is less important. The photographer  often works closely with the subject. A prime lens more often than not produces higher image quality.

A fast prime, or fixed focal length, lens with the widest aperture of f/2.4 or f/1.8 helps create separation between the background and subject. The aperture refers to the opening in the lens when the shutter releases. A lower number creates a shallow depth of field and vice-versa. 

Lens Focal LengthLens TypeCommon uses
Less than 24 mmExtreme Wide AngleArchitecture and Landscape
25-40 mmWide AngleLandscapes, Large Group Portraits
40-70 mmNormalStreet, Editorial, Landscape
70-100 mmMedium TelephotoPortraits, Editorial, Sports
100-300 mmTelephotoPortraits, Wildlife, Sports
300-1000 mmSuper TelephotoLong Distance Subjects, Birds

Many times, the project determines the focal length. An 85 mm or 105 mm lens is a perfect choice for a portraiture project. However, a wider 35mm is ideal for real estate or food. This wider lens creates a documentary feel. Allowing the viewer almost to feel a part of the scene.

A zoom lens is just as valuable for an editorial photographer. A telephoto lens offers the flexibility of zooming in without physically moving, which the creative brief may dictate. It comes down to having a fast lens that provides flexibility on the set.

The Tripod

Another key piece of equipment needed is a solid tripod. Working in lower light is not uncommon with editorial photography. Having a tripod will help keep images sharp and well-exposed.

Busy photographer using a camera on a tripod to create editorial images
Busy photographer using a camera on a tripod to create editorial images.

A tripod is made up of the legs and the head. The legs are self-explanatory. Some lock with a twisting mechanism while others lock with a switch. The head is the part that rests on top of a tripod and holds the camera and is worth getting a higher quality.

A ball-head provides the greatest flexibility in a small compact package. A simple ball-head with one or two knobs allows the photographer to avoid getting bogged down by knobs and dials when creating images.

The tripod itself can vary. Things to consider are the overall weight of the tripod. How high it expands, and how much weight the tripod can support.

The Light

Simplicity is important to the workflow of an editorial photographer. However, sometimes creative briefs require the addition of more light. Knowing how to light a set with one or many lights is a great skill. Even using a single light can open up creative doors for the photographer.

Photo of the lighting set up on an editorial set
Photo of the lighting set up on an editorial set.

Understanding how to use two strobes can elevate your portfolio to new levels. It will also further refine your style and creative approach to your workflow. A strobe light is a more powerful flash unit that can produce regular light pops when activated by the camera’s shutter. They are most often used in editorial and studio photography.

Putting It All Together

Christopher Malcolm is a phenomenal photographer. He also writes about photography, particularly how to grow as a photographer. I recommend studying his work; he has helped me advance not only my photography, but my writing as well. 

One thing I learned from him is to try new things. Particularly when you have mastered the old.

This concept guarantees growth as a creative person. When it comes to equipment, make sure you can operate the camera with your eyes closed. By building muscle memory between your eyes and hand, you can react quickly to subtle changes in light or action. When this happens, you can fold new tools into your workflow.

However, do not try something new before the project goals have been completed. After I have satisfied a creative brief I use the extra time to try something new. Whether it is a lighting technique or new equipment, this extra time (which I planned for) allows me to grow my skills as a photographer.

You Just Received Your First Creative Brief; Now What?

Imagine you are on a road trip and want a cup of coffee. There are several ways to get there. Most of us would pull out our phones and search for the nearest coffee shop and follow the directions.

A few intrepid vacationers would pull to the side of the road and ask a local for directions. Each option will end with a cup of coffee. But the latter will expose you to a different route and parts of the town you may not have visited.

Photo of a map with a notepad and camera
Photo of a map with a notepad and camera.

This comparison is similar to a creative brief from a client. The creative brief is the vision of the client. It outlines what they want from the project and how the images should look. In this case, it is the cup of coffee. As the photographer, you choose the route.

When following a brief, learn how to dig deep into the topic and show the story. Know who the characters are and go beyond selling something. How can your images expand the narrative? How can the images portray a subject?

Whether editorial photography is produced in a controlled studio environment or a documentary manner, the goal is to create a series of images that shows, rather than tells a story.

Briefs set out to accomplish several things. First, they describe the subject and goals of the project. Editors will also highlight the target audience. The most important part of the brief will be the deliverables, or the set of images you hand over before the deadline.

It is important to consider these elements when preparing for production. Being prepared is just as important as knowing your equipment.

Ask a lot of questions. What’s the story about? Who is the person or subject? What’s the mood or tone of the story? Is there a desired color theme? When is the deadline? Determining the creative leeway an editor provides will ultimately help you in the long run.

Photo editors know what they want, and photographers are tasked with bringing the creative vision to life. Through preparation, implementation, and editing, the photographer creates the vision. Blending the ebb and flow between editor and photographer is vital to developing your style as a photographer. Bend the brief but allow your creativity to be showcased.

Anticipation Is Your Best Ally

Preparation is vital for success. Start with research when you land a client and the creative brief arrives in your inbox. Photography is a saturated field, and chances are images already exist within your project. Seek these images out. Proper preparation will help you anticipate how a project could unfold.

If the creative brief calls for a body of images highlighting the opening of a new pizza restaurant, do some research. You are not selling the pizza with your photography. Rather you need to sell the dining experience at this particular pizza joint. For this example, this pizza parlor  serves artisanal wood-fired pizzas crafted from local ingredients.

Conduct visual research relevant to pizza, local food, wood-fired ovens, and lifestyle around fine dining. When you create new images, having these images in your mind will inform your composition and lighting decisions. Try not to repeat what has been done, but innovate and improve upon previous images.

Build a Mood Board and Draft a Plan

A mood board is visual brainstorming. Cinematographers and directors use them all the time when planning a production. It is best to work with the client during this phase. By having them involved, the overall vision for the project can come to life. Everyone will be on the same page, which is extremely important.

The mood board helps concepts get ironed out and ideas visualized. This level of planning will also guide you along your chosen creative route. If possible, print out the mood board to get a feel of how the images look on paper. Bring it with you on photo day to refer to creating the images.

A photographer and editor discuss an editorial projects mood board A Flickr photo courtesy of Foam
A photographer and editor discuss an editorial project’s mood board. A Flickr photo courtesy of Foam.

Editorial photography is about more than the images. Details must be refined and processed before pressing the shutter button. Beyond the mood board, make sure everyone involved is on the same page.

This is where relationship building becomes so important. In editorial photography, you will be working with people you most likely never met before. Be respectful and understanding and practice open communication.

Smiling editorial team reviewing images in the camera
Smiling editorial team reviewing images in the camera.

Scout the location at the same time you plan to photograph. This is so important; scouting leads to greater success. When doing this, pay attention to how the light falls on the surface. This information will inform your gear selection. It will also get you thinking about how to incorporate the location into the images.

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Choose Your Licensing Wisely

Editorial photography licensing is not the same as commercial photography. When you license your images for editorial use they will not be able to serve a commercial use. This helps with planning and strategizing the creation of your body of work.

By following a mood board you know ahead of time the images you need to create. Any extras you could license for commercial use and not editorial use. However, if there are models involved you have to consider the release.

Editorial photography does not require a model release. Commercial photography does require a release. Plan accordingly. It is best to reach out to any models involved to break the ice ahead of time. Establishing a rapport with a creative team is best done as early as possible. An established relationship ensures that on production day, things go seamlessly.

A Few Final Thoughts

Plans will change. The best mood board could be abandoned. Remain fluid because flexibility is too rigid. Things may go awry. Anticipate this happening. How you handle challenges or problems in the field will say a lot about your work. Be professional and respectful; these two traits go a long way when working with people you may now meet until minutes before creating their portrait.

Be creative within the bounds of the editorial brief. Remember the brief is a destination and you get to pick the route. Work with the editor to draft a mood board that reflects the creative vision of the project.

The key to success is to stay calm, in the moment, and always be professional. Your work is your brand. Your brand is your product. Your photography is your livelihood. Becoming an editorial photographer has immense rewards. But the work, blood, sweat, and tears, must be devoted to creating the best images you can.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is editorial photography?

Editorial images are printed or posted alongside words to help show and tell a story. The images range from fashion magazines to newspapers. They differ from commercial photography by having a different license and are not trying to sell anything.

What makes a great editorial photograph?

A well-lit and composed image that shows, rather than tells, the story is a great editorial photograph.

How do I become an editorial photographer?

The best place to start is by creating images and a body of work around a specific story or subject. Be it fashion, food, or lifestyle. Create a sample portfolio that showcases your strongest images and creativity. Then go out and find a client.
Be active on social media so editors can see who you are before you even pitch them. Follow them on various social media platforms and engage with their content. Comment on work they share.

What equipment do I need to become an editorial photographer?

The basic equipment needed for editorial photography is a full-frame digital camera, a lens, a tripod, and a small light kit. While all of this is not essential, they open up creative options for the photographer.

How much should I charge as an editorial photographer?

How much you charge depends on your initial investment, experience, skill set, and how much you want to make. Hourly rates range from $25 to over $100. It helps to consider the going rate for the industry as well.
Editorial projects have smaller budgets than commercial work. The average salary for an editorial photographer is about $47,000 a year. If more money is what you want, build your portfolio by supplementing your editorial work with other photography gigs. Learn how to negotiate pay rates.

What is a creative brief?

The creative brief is the vision of the client. It outlines what they want from the project and how the images should look. Consider it the X on a map and as the photographer you have to determine how to get there.

How do I find work as an editorial photographer?

Becoming an editorial photographer means growing your network. This network becomes a potential client list. Start with the masthead of magazines to find the photo editors and creative directors.
Oftentimes there will be contact information and sending a cold email highlighting your work may land you a gig. Be creative in finding work as it will crop up in the most unexpected places.

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