8 things a Picture Editor looks for in a good photo

First published:
January 18, 2023
January 31, 2024

8 things a Picture Editor looks for in a good photo

First published:
January 18, 2023
January 31, 2024

Landscape Photographer by Ian Francis

Do you want to get your work published? Knowing what a Picture Editor looks for in photos might just give you the edge over the competition

Whether it’s in digital form or print, getting your photos published isn’t easy. To maximise your chances, it is always useful to put yourself in the mindset of a Picture Editor’s role so that you can determine what they look for in an image.

Here are eight things that a Picture Editor looks for when searching for photos:

1 Well composed shots

Lone tree in the sea. Image by Matt Sheumack - f/5 | ISO 100 | 10s

It might sound like an obvious thing to say, but above all, Picture Editors want great photos. Photos that have been taken in gorgeous, well-balanced light, with an interesting subject and composed well.

This is important for print use (like books and magazines) as you also need to factor in the middle of the magazine or book (i.e. known as the gutter).  For example, if you put your point of interest right in the middle of the photo, then it’s unlikely that it will be used as a double-page spread (DPS) as the main subject will be lost in the gutter. By using compositional techniques like the rule of thirds you can ensure that your photos are well-balanced and easily adaptable for print use.

2 Essential editing done

Factory Butte, Utah. Image by Luke - f/2.8 | ISO 100 | 1/180s

As someone who looks at hundreds of photos a month from prospective photographers, nothing irks me more than seeing shots where basic editing hasn’t been done. Not only does it mean that I won’t use that photo, but it might also discourage me from working with that photographer in the future as it shows laziness.

Always make sure that you fully check every photo for issues before you send to an editor. That means checking that dust spots have been removed, the image is straight (pay special attention to horizon lines) and cropped carefully to make the image look as good as it can (i.e. ensuring that random limbs on the edges of the photo are cropped out).  

3 But not over-edited

Fog settle. Photo by Primpaul

While it’s important to edit your photos, it’s also crucial not to over-edit. Too much contrast, saturation, vibrancy, or sharpening can make a photo look worse than the original. Any editing should be done to try and enhance the photo subtly. If you add too much of any of the above, your photos can end up with unsightly artefacts or not look like a photo at all.

One of the most common examples of this is if you oversharpen a photo where you will begin to see halos appearing around the edges of objects. Another common example is too much noise reduction which can make the image appear too soft and without clear sharp details.  The way you edit your photos is even This is even more essential if your photos will be printed, as things like “banding” in the sky become apparent on a page.

Colour banding is another common side-effect of too much editing. It usually occurs when you add too much saturation, or you are too aggressive with the dehaze slider. Banding becomes visible when you have different gradients of the same colour next to each other but rather than a smooth transition between them, a clear divide occurs (like if you were to place different tiles next to each other).

A good tip is to step away from your computer and the photos for a few hours and then come back and have another look. The reason for this is that sometimes if you spend hours editing photos, your eyes get used to what they are looking at. So, for example, you may not be able to tell that your images are far too saturated until you’ve taken a step back from them.

4 Room for copy

Loch Faskally. Image by Cliff - f/4.5 | ISO 100 | 1/160s

There is a huge difference between photographing for yourself as a hobby and taking photos with the aim of getting them published. When you are taking photos for your own enjoyment, you can just shoot the most pleasing composition that works for you, without worrying too much about where your main subject appears.

But when you are taking photos to sell, you also need to consider where the image will be used and whether you need to leave room for copy. For example, when images are used online, generally, text will not be on the image itself. But if an image is used for a cover of a magazine or as an opening spread, it will have text overlaid on it. So one of the key things that Picture Editors look for are images with clear space where headlines and copy can be placed. If your images don’t have that space, they won’t be considered for covers or opening spreads.

5 The right moment

Kingfisher. Image by John Joseph Freeman - f/3.5 ISO 400 | 1/5000s

I think as photographers; we are all sometimes guilty of getting attached to shots even when they may not be perfect. This might be because the shot was difficult to capture, or you remember something special about that moment. But when you detach yourself from your photos and think like an editor, you suddenly become far more ruthless. So try to think like an editor and be critical of the photo. For example, does your subject have eye contact in your portrait? Or is the animal’s head covered by foliage? A really good question to always ask yourself when looking at your photos is if you managed to capture the perfect moment.

6 A new take on familiar shots

Swim wild Scottish highlands. Image by Simon Willis - f/2.8 | ISO 100 | 1/240s

While you should always cover what are regarded as classic shots of familiar places, if you want to maximise your chances of selling a photo, try to capture something different. It is one of the hardest types of shots to achieve, but if you can find new or interesting compositions or angles from familiar destinations, you may just find that your photos will stand out from the crowd.

It is something that I always look for whether I’m out shooting or looking through lots of photos trying to find something that I may not have seen before.

7 Capture a variety of shots

Windowed Tower. Image by Rik Shadbolt - f/4 | ISO 100 | 1/250s

This tip will serve you well whether you are shooting photos for your store, website or on assignment for a client. Whatever type of shoot you are doing, you should always look to try and maximise your output. So rather than capturing 20 similar images from the same shot, look around to see if there are any other viewpoints and compositions. A variety of shots will give the picture editor more choices and they will appreciate the range of options you give them.

8 Full captions and locations

Passiflora vitifolia. Image by Eduardo - f/8 | ISO 640 | 1/80s

This last tip might not be about the photo itself, but it might just be the most important point in this article. Captions and locations of your photos are incredibly important. Yes, they are mundane to do, but without the right information, no matter how great a photo is, it might not even be found by the right people (for example Picture Editors searching online for images or places or specific subject). Even your image is found by a Picture Editor, it won’t be used if they don’t know where it is, or for example what species of plant or flower is in the shot. So always make sure that you note the vital information like accurate locations, including street name, species and even names of people. if you can. Because you never when an editor might be looking for exactly that photo.

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