10 Tips for Breaking into Commercial Magazine Photography

The following post on commercial magazine photography is by Atlanta based photographer Zach Matthews. Learn more about him at the end of this post.

Every amateur photographer who’s ever flipped through a magazine has shared the same fleeting thought:  I could do this.  I am this good.  And who’s to say that’s wrong?  With the advent of digital image-making, cameras have become not just tools to record and describe, but tools that teach. The mean of photographic quality has skyrocketed in recent years, as a casual perusal of Flickr or a photography hobbyists’ board will immediately illustrate.  What, then, is holding amateur photographers back?  Why aren’t they selling images to magazines and commercial clients?  Why aren’t you?

The difference between a working professional and a dedicated amateur is fairly minimal these days, and it has a lot more to do with business decision-making than talent or equipment.  A number of important differences jump immediately to mind, however.  The way I see it, there are two types of professionals: full time, and everyone else (and by that, I mean you, too).  The full-time professional starves his way to the top.  Typically a full-time pro goes to photography school, where he learns darkroom techniques, film chemistry, light physics, and the hard, cold reality of living paycheck to paycheck for decades.  Most full-time pro photographers share one thing in common: they’re broke.  But not all.  A sizable population of working professionals make a living at photography, and they do it with the same business acumen necessary to operate as any entrepreneur.  They set up a shop, build a client list, hire employees, and above all, they shoot their tails off.

Full-time pros of my acquaintance in the outdoor photography world spend as much as 40 weeks a year in the field.  In my business, that’s in far-flung locations, involving international travel, injections, passports, broken gear, and hard deadlines.  It isn’t an easy job, and it’s a long climb to the top, but eventually these pros tend to top out and make a respectable living.

There’s only one problem: chances are, this isn’t you.  Full-time professional photographers won’t be reading this article; they know the route to success, they are logging their hours as we speak, and they’re aware of the rules of the game.  But here’s the question: would you really want to be a full-time pro?  What if you could have all the benefits, including international travel (for money), access to the best locations (for money) and the respect and praise of your peers, sometimes even for money, all while keeping your day job?  It’s not a bad option, is it?

Breaking into commercial magazine photography is becoming easier every day.  The main reason is magazine contraction: as profits are drained inevitably into the swamp of the internet, magazines have had to scramble to cut corners and restrict costs.  The primary way they do this is by paying less for the same product, just as in any business.  You can take advantage of this.  The following are ten not-necessarily-exclusive tips to help you break the ice:

1) Become an expert on something.

My expertise is fly fishing.  It’s paid off handsomely.  I didn’t get my start in professional photography by taking pictures; I got it by writing articles, on the internet, about fly fishing, my passion.  One of the symptoms of magazine contraction is that many small-market players now search for contributors who can both take pictures and write.  That way, the magazine only cuts one paycheck (and we do twice the work).  My writing editor was the first person to suggest that I ought to purchase a digital SLR camera, which were just then overtaking the photo sections of every major outdoor magazine (with the exception of specialty outfits like Arizona Highways).  And that leads to the second point:

2) Learn to express yourself, preferably in writing.

If you can’t do writing, however, then learn to express yourself visually.  There are only two roads to getting that editor’s attention the very first time: you either impress him with the practicality of hiring you to perform a given task, or you blow him away with your sheer talent.  Some amateurs are good enough to stun even a seasoned photo editor.  But the first question the editor will ask himself is: can he or she do this on a deadline, for what I’m willing to pay?

3) Be willing to sacrifice artistic integrity to get the image that will work now.

Many amateurs are unused to the pressures of needing an image by tomorrow.  Commercial magazine photography isn’t the daily news, but cycles are still fast.  When a photo call goes out, the editor isn’t going to be sympathetic to the photographer who snaps off a quick email promising to get to it by next week.  By then, that door of opportunity will have closed.

4) Begin building an archive.

The best and easiest way to satisfy a photo editor and get your first publication is to be able to immediately provide him with a host of on-topic choices.  Don’t waste the editor’s time with images that don’t meet the call guidelines.  Don’t try to impress him with how good you are at something other than what he needs.  Give him the goods, and step back.  If he doesn’t bite on the first call, wait for the next one, and keep building that archive.

5) Know what the editor will want before he does.

Magazines are cyclical.  Every magazine has a flavor of image that it runs over and over.  Sometimes the flavor has to do with composition (in fishing, the technique du jour is always the “grip and grin”).  Sometimes it’s lighting, or creative use of flash, or time-delays, or, as one of my commercial clients always reiterates, “beautiful people doing beautiful things.”  So study the magazine; look at the archives online or in your local library.  Know your prey.

6) Get noticed.

The best way to make an editor come calling is to participate in the things the editors participate in.  In small-market work, be it fishing or kayaking, home repair or gardening, kite-flying, mailbox painting, whatever, the editor of the magazine is always an enthusiastic participant.  He or she didn’t get to their current exalted status without putting in the time to learn their area of presumed expertise.  So put your work out there in the community you’ve chosen.  Build a beautiful website.  Participate in online forums, and post your work.  Write legibly, even on the internet, even in email.  Remember that the internet is nothing more than a giant archive, which your potential clients will use to evaluate you.  Submit to photo contests, by all means, but don’t put too much reliance in them.  Photo contests reward one superb image. Photo editors reward consistently acceptable images.

7) Be acceptable.

Images in magazines are frequently unspectacular.  But they are very rarely over- or under-exposed, out of focus, grainy, noisy, poorly composed, or shot no more recently than 1972.  All of your images may eventually find a home in someone’s publication, so take the time to make each one count. The difference between a throwaway snapshot and a publishable image is usually exactly two seconds of reflection prior to depressing the trigger.

8) Use realistic equipment.

You don’t need a $5,000 warhorse to build an image archive you might use to sell 10 photos a year.  But you do need a bare minimum.  Most magazines publish in 270 dpi (300 dpi for artistic or glossy publications).  At 270 dpi, a ten megapixel camera can make an acceptable two page (or “double-truck”) image in horizontal orientation.  A six megapixel camera can handle one full page vertically.  Those are the baselines.  If you can afford ten megapixels, get them.  If you can’t, don’t sweat it; they’ll be affordable any day now.  Do not waste editors’ time with images made on a two megapixel point and shoot camera (publication of images like that effectively ceased three years ago).  Don’t waste their time with ancient slides, unless you were especially good at slide photography.

9) Be professional.

When you do get that first email or phone call, avoid trying to act like a big shot.  You’re a rookie.  The editor knows that.  He knows you’d probably work for free this time.  But he’s going to pay you anyway, just to keep you interested.   Don’t demand to know how much you’ll get paid.  Publication is what you want; payment is irrelevant for now.  Don’t hassle him about when you’ll get paid, either.  Don’t request any form of editorial control whatsoever (this rule goes out the window if either you or your spouse will be taking any clothes off in the image in question, in which case, I can no longer help you).  Be flexible, non-histrionic, reasonable, and reliable.

10) Never miss a deadline.

Missing deadlines causes editors to have to go pay other photographers a premium for things you were supposed to cover under the budget they already laid out.  By missing a deadline, you are screwing up your editor’s entire world.  He will get yelled at by his boss.  The magazine will lose money.  The publication will have to rush and settle for second best.  You will never be hired again.

Commercial magazine photography isn’t an arcane club requiring secret handshakes and credentials from high-end art schools.  Mostly, it’s a you-scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours kind of arrangement, with working pros helping each other out and giving boosts when the opportunity arises.  Having a good professional reputation in a narrowly-targeted field is the quickest way to publication and pro status.  That, and getting your work in front of the people who will eventually be buying it.  And when that day comes, you’ll know that you, in fact, with your kids and your day job and your hobbyist’s keen interest, were the one who did it right.

Zach Matthews is the editor of The Itinerant Angler, www.itinerantangler.com. He is a Contributing Writer with American Angler magazine, www.americanangler.com.  Along with his wife, Lauren, he has published photos and writing in American Angler, Fly Fisherman, Backpacker, The Drake, and Fish and Fly.  He lives and practices law in Atlanta, Georgia.



  1. says

    I’ve found this article very informative and realistic.Person related to freelance photography can explore and try this way with all helpful tips.
    Looking for more tips,in future..

  2. says

    Very good article, especially about the internet being a giant archive. I 100% agree and found this article to be extremely useful.
    Thank you!