Life on a picture desk (and how photographers can get published): industry insights from a magazine Picture Editor

First published:
March 9, 2021
February 20, 2024

Life on a picture desk (and how photographers can get published): industry insights from a magazine Picture Editor

First published:
March 9, 2021
February 20, 2024

Emily Anderson at Country Life magazine talks to us about what it's like to work on a picture desk, and shares some key tips on how photographers can get their images published

With her wealth of experience, Emily Anderson tells us about life in the picture industry, and also provides us with some top insights on how photographers can stand out from the crowd. We also asked Emily to share with us some of her favourite images from Picfair photographers.

Can you tell us a bit about your role as Picture Editor at the magazine?

I have been working for Country Life Magazine for six years as the Deputy Picture Editor. Country Life is a weekly, perfect-bound magazine and is a quintessentially British title covering subjects such as wildlife, art, gardens, food, architecture, and history. Ultimately, my goal as a Picture Editor is to find the best images to bring the magazine’s features to life.

The variety of content in Country Life makes it a great title to work on, and certainly keeps me on my toes. I don't know what I’ll be working on from one week to the next. I could be picture searching vintage tractors one week and the next, celery. Yes - celery - try filling three pages of content on that!

Luckily, the pictures team and I work closely with the editors for each section of the magazine so there’s a lot of expertise to guide us. As a Picture Editor, I read the briefs, discuss the concept with the Features Editors and Designers, and then go online to find images that suit. This means finding images that both fit the brief but also the visual style of the magazine. However, this can often be quite broad unless it's an interior's brief, which often demands more specific requirements.

As well as picture research for features, I have regular pages to work on, which might involve calling in press pictures. I also commission illustrations, work on picture searches for in house ads, liaise with writers, editors, subs team, art team, photographers and picture libraries.

Cover of Country Life magazine March 15 2017 issue
The cover of Country Life magazine featuring an image by Scott Anderson on Picfair

What does a typical day look like for you?

A typical day would see me working on the current issue due to press at the end of the week, and I also have a set number of regular pages that I work on daily. The good thing about working on Country Life is that only a few regular pages are time-sensitive, and the rest can be worked on in advance. We often work on the next few week's issues simultaneously.

There are often quick image searches for pages that require just one or two simple shots (such as a cut-out image for the 'tool' on the 'In The Garden' page). I will then work on finding the images for upcoming features. If we can't find what we need online, we may decide to commission photography, or get in touch with a regular pool of contributors where we have agreed on fees and rights in advance. We put these systems in place to make working in this fast-paced environment that bit easier.

We also love getting images in from professional photographers that really stand out, and for special situations, we will. Some features may need images calling in, not just from photographers or libraries, but also more specialist sources such as museums and galleries.

One day a week, we also have a meeting with the art and features teams. This is where we discuss what is coming up in the magazine over the next month and discuss ideas. It is a creative, open forum for ideas, and provides an opportunity for the pictures team to get some background information on upcoming features.

As well as the day-to-day of putting the magazine together, there is also a lot of admin. I’ll make sure images are pushed through our systems so that the art team can access them. I’ll make sure anything from the art team is high-res and that we are happy with the layout. I also check the credits and captions have been added for the subs team, and purchase orders for photos have been raised or paid.

Summer reflections at Glencoe, Scotland
Summer in Glencoe, Scotland. Photo by Stephen Taylor
Why I love this image:

This gorgeous image is perfectly composed. I like the strong reflection which has cut the image straight down the middle horizontally. The house on the left would mean this would work beautifully on a double page spread as the gutter would run down the middle and wouldn't cut out the main focal point of the image, it would also work just as nicely on a full page. The picture is also super sharp and you can see subtle ripples on the water. The lighting is glorious and warm.

How many images do you look at per day and how do you choose which pics to use?

I search through hundreds of images a day, and I may only be looking to select 10-20 shots across the features I'm working on. I know the magazine so well now that I know exactly what I am looking for. Over time, I have learnt what keywords (tags) will bring up the images I need and what images will work in terms of a page layout.

The images I choose will depend on various factors. For example, how well they fit the brief, how well they fit the page layout, and what other images I’ve found that could work alongside each other.

If we take something simple, like an image of a snowdrop, this is how I choose between millions of images of snowdrops; I will pull off maybe 10-15 images from a picture library for the art team to try. Then they'll narrow it down to a few options, and between us, we will decide what looks best on the page.

I will always choose well-composed images with excellent lighting, vibrant colours, with an unusual angle or way of viewing the subject (macro, for example). And I'll pay attention to what might be in the background of the image. See this example from a bird of prey feature:

Bird of Prey tearsheet from Country Life magazine
Birds of prey feature in Country Life magazine with images from photographers Ian Duffield and Agami on Picfair

What are the top three visual elements you look for in an image when you’re searching?

1 Nice lighting: For me, this means natural, dynamic lighting - like early morning sun. This could also mean well-lit so the subject is seen clearly without too many shadows and distractions.

2 Composition: I look for images where the photographer has taken the time to think about the composition. I ask myself; what is in the background, have they got the whole subject in the frame or does the angle work, where does the image sit in the frame (i.e does the image follow the rule of thirds)? It is apparent when the photographer has taken their time in composing their image.

3 Focus:
High-res pin-sharp images are a must. I see the number of images that look great; well-composed, beautiful lighting, and vibrant. But when I download the high-res file, I find that the image isn't sharp or not crisp enough that it will not fill a double-page spread and look good.

Common toad walking toward the camera
Common Toad (Bufo bufo) walking towards the camera, taken in West London. Image by Chris Rabe
Why I love this image:

Firstly, this image on Picfair is keyworded (tagged) with the Latin name - which gives me confidence that I have the right species if I'm looking for that particular toad. The image also works because it has a bit of humour to it. By photographing it in action rather than still, the photographer has given the toad character and personality.

I also think it is very unusual to see a toad waddling along like this, especially in grass. The composition is great, there is lots of space for the designer to fit this image either on a full page, or across a double page spread. And because the bottom and top is out of focus, it allows room for the head and a sell (copy space). The toad itself is pin sharp and you can see the texture of its bumpy skin.

Can you describe the process of how an image goes from being researched to being printed in the magazine?

The editorial process begins with an idea from a writer or staff member who approaches the Editor. Who has the final say over what ideas to commission words for, and the angle that the feature will take.

These ideas will then get commissioned by the Feature Editors and assigned to an issue. Once the words are in, the Feature Editors (2 of them) will discuss with the Picture Team (2 of us) and the Art Team (1 art editor, 2 designers).

After hearing about the feature, it might be clear what to look for or need a concept for the layout. We develop ideas and discuss whether it should be a photoshoot, an illustration, whether there are contacts to call in images, press images, or a stock photography search.

My colleague and I will get the images in and send them through to the art team to work on the layout, and sometimes I discuss the pictures I've found with colleagues for approval. Once laid out, we all then discuss if we are happy with it or if we need to change or move any images.

This then gets sent through to the Subs Editor who works on the copy on the page so that the words fit correctly and it gets fact-checked. The picture team then checks whether the images are all high-res, sends captions for the photos and any photographer or agency credit information to the subs editor to add on the page. In-between that, we have to pay for any images used, which may involve some negotiation.

The final pages get sent around to a few other editors to double-check for any mistakes in the copy or pictures, and the Managing Editor or Editor may want to change something.

Then it gets sent to print... all that in a week!

A shooting star over Sycamore Gap, Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, England
Shooting star at Sycamore Gap, Northumberland. Image by Maclbawn
Why I love this image:

I'm in awe at the patience the photographer must have had to achieve this image, how long did he wait for that shooting star? To make this image work, the composition needed to be simple and the foreground silhouetted (it has also not been overly worked on which would have made it look too graphic-like and unrealistic) in order to make the sky pop. And the photographer has managed to do this beautifully.

When searching for images, are there any search terms you commonly use? What is most important to you when searching?

I first search quite broadly for images relating to the subject of the feature (i.e. 'Robin') and I wouldn't usually look any further than the first 10 pages of a search. I then go through the copy picking up key words such as 'Robin red-breast' or 'Erithacus rubecula', 'Robin Christmas card', 'Robin Winter' etc. By doing this, you can get a sense of what might make a good picture to accompany the copy.

For example, if I see a good result for a Robin singing, I then might do another quick search for that. I find the simpler the term, the better, and I’ll do lots of quick searches under each new search term.

"On Country Life, the importance is finding not only the best image but also one that is accurate and this is where keywords (tags) are important. I am very rarely looking for generic images, the more information the photographer can provide the better."

The briefs I receive are too diverse to mean that I have regular search terms that I use, however, I do use 'isolated' after a subject a lot - so that I can easily find a cut-out image on a white background.

I might also use 'vintage' or 'black and white' if I'm looking for an image from a certain period of time. I often add 'UK' to whatever I am searching for - due to the nature of the magazine. I will occasionally use filters in picture library search to find the newest, oldest and images with/without people.

I can usually tell if what I’m looking for is going to come up in the first 2 pages. If it doesn’t, I would then either change the search term or look at a different site. If I still can’t find anything, I’ll assume what we’re looking for isn’t available. There are millions of wonderful images to be used, but we can't find them if they aren't keyworded (tagged) well!

On Country Life, the importance is finding not only the best image but also one that is accurate and this is where keywords (tags) are important. I am very rarely looking for generic images, the more information the photographer can provide the better.

Photographers should ask themselves these questions when they’re tagging their images: Where the image was taken, and when? Does it have the Latin name or scientific term? What time of day was it taken, is it humorous, is it macro, what was the weather, what's in the background?

A female Common Hawker emerging from its Exuvia
'Dragonfly Emergence' by Steve Palmer
Why I love this image:

I've never seen something like this before, and I think it is an amazing moment to have captured so beautifully. Both main subjects are pin sharp, the background is not distracting, the colours are vivid and there is good lighting across the image.

As amazing as they are, we've all seen a beautiful image of a dragonfly, probably with water droplets glistening in the sun, but have you ever seen a photograph of a dragonfly emerging from its exuvia? This image stops you in your tracks and makes you question what is going on.

Are there any mistakes you often see that photographers could easily avoid?

Adding irrelevant keywords (tags) to your images just so they come up in searches is a big no. If you add keywords that really don’t relate to your image, it doesn’t mean we are more likely to use it. If I search for a vegetable and a bowl of fruit comes up, it doesn't mean what I am looking for has changed - it's just annoying.

I frequently see photographers adding incorrect captions to their image - and the magazine relies on the accuracy of captions. If we were to publish a photo with incorrect information in its caption, it could really affect our reputation.

Photographers should always carefully check the background of their images too - they should be distraction-free. We might see a lovely image of a golden retriever, but if there's a lamppost coming out of their head in the background, we can't use the image!

"I frequently see photographers adding incorrect captions to their image... If we were to publish a photo with incorrect information in its caption, it could really affect our reputation."

Also, I often see images that have been over-edited to cover up poor quality. This can come in the form of increased contrast to make it appear sharper, or generally over-editing the colours, clarity, and contrast to the images. It's very obvious when this happens, and should be avoided.

And when it comes to colour, my colleagues will colour correct images to match our printers, saturate, and retouch to our specifications. So the closer the photographer sticks to the original image, the better.

Full frame view of Leeks
Leeks from Picfair contributor Stockimo
Why I love this image:

Leeks are such a mundane subject and although simple, it has been photographed really well and is very useable for editorial purposes. The photographer has worked with the shapes/lines and colours to compose an image that, although recognisable as leeks, has an abstract quality.

The lighting is soft which accentuates the subtle changes in greens and blues and there's no harsh shadows. I like that the leeks are natural and imperfect looking as it adds more interest. It's also pin sharp with lots of textural details.

For a photographer looking to sell their images in an online environment, what top piece of advice would you give them?

If you are looking to make money out of selling your images online and have lots of generic, everyday type pictures - upload them! These are the sort of images that can sell well online and could be very useful for advertising agencies too - which pay a good amount of money.

I would also recommend uploading any images of specific places, events, or unusual objects. If you've keyworded (tagged) them well, you might be the only person who has a picture of it available for sale... It's exciting when a bit of money starts rolling in for images that would otherwise be sat on your computer.

Suppose you have images that should be taken more seriously and a real focus on a particular subject. In that case, whether it is landscapes, birds, flora, architecture, portraiture, dogs, it is best to have a really smart-looking storefront. One that is searchable and has a social media presence.

"It's exciting when a bit of money starts rolling in for images that would otherwise be sat on your computer."

And the more you can narrow your expertise in your photography, the better. Email your store or site to any relevant magazines, websites and specific editors, and you'll soon become a go-to photographer for that subject.

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