How to be an editorial photographer

by Garry Cook (published in Freelance Photography Made Easy magazine, Aug/Sept 2006)

You might think that with an edition everyday, getting your pictures printed in a newspaper would be easy. Well, think again. In the fast and furious world of daily newspapers there’s no time to think and even less time to pitch.

Freelance photography with national newspapers is only for the brave. Work can range from stalking a celebrity to sitting outside someone’s house for hours or days waiting for a murderer’s wife to emerge. But it’s not always as glamorous as that!

At the sharp end it can be brutal. If you’re not available for jobs at the drop of a hat or if you haven’t got the right equipment or expertise don’t waste the time of the men on a national picture desk. It’ll do you more harm in the long run should you later be in a position to offer a picture.

Getting that first bite can be tough. Firstly, you must know the market. All the tabloids have frequently recurring themes. Be acutely aware of them.

Ideally you need to approach a picture desk with a brilliant picture in the bag which is what they’re after and can’t get themselves.

Opportunities, be they an event, accident or catastrophe, are not easy tocome by. Luck can play a huge part. But luck only works if you are prepared for it.

Remember the oil depot explosion at Buncefield in Hertfordshire a few years back? That is a classic example of opportunity knocks – provided you happened to be near the depot and had your camera to hand, as a couple of amateur cameramen were. In similar situations – major fires, accidents or riots – the picture desk will be desperate for defining photos and few people are likely to have them.

But don’t despair if there is no major catastrophe on your doorstep over the next few weeks – there are still a few ways you could get your pictures into print.

The red tops, and the Daily Mail and Daily Express for that matter, often use a bikini beauty on the beach to illustrate the start of a heatwave or Indian summer.

An infant panda or a baby bat feeding from a bottle of milk are classics, but neither are easy produce. That’s the point. It will be something equally unusual, interesting or new which will get your foot in the door.

Know your local area. While news desks get inundated with press releases telling them of events and picture opportunities, they are not always covered adequately.

Jon Snape, deputy picture editor at the Daily Star Sunday and Sunday Express, says: “Even though we have deals with some of the large agencies there are many occasions when ‘the picture’ is missed by them if they weren’t even at the event so freelances are vital.”

Look out for any events which might be worth attending. These could include celebrities opening a shop or community centre, or a promising sportsman tipped for the top who is appearing locally. Even your MP could be on his way into a high cabinet office.

Three years ago I went along to a run-down sports centre in Bury to take photographs of a then 17-year-old boxer tipped to go to the 2004 Olympics. He was unknown at the time. Now there are very few people in Britain who have not heard of Amir Khan. The pictures have since been used several times.

Specialising in one particular area can help.

If you’ve heard the immortal line ‘we’re going to use it’, your next worry will be what to charge. You must not be afraid of asking for the going rate. Being a member of a union can boost your confidence in negotiating.

The NUJ’s freelance rate guide states that a national newspaper should pay £90 for an ordered photo. It’s a disheartening figure but it should be used as a starting point, not a maximum amount. However, many picture desks self bill, basically meaning you take it or leave it.

Daily Star Sunday man Snape says: “If you disagree strongly with that amount paid, you can always call and try to get it increased. This is not the case with exclusives where a fee will normally be agreed beforehand. You can put a rider in the caption stating a minimum usage fee but this may put people off depending on the figure.”

He adds: “We sometimes need people to do pictures for us and will commission a freelance to do the work. If your work is known then you should be in the frame for a call.

“Make sure when the picture is sent, you attach details of what the picture is about, a detailed caption if is it is sent on spec.”

On copyright he adds: “Most papers hold a library of the pictures they have used but the copyright holder is kept with it and if there is a re-use of the picture you will be paid again but as a repeat fee so it will be less. Copyright should only become an issue if the newspaper wants exclusive rights.”

It is vital to include accurate caption details with any submissions. In most cases, submissions can be made by email. ISDN and File Transfer Protocol (FTP) are other options. Snape warns: “Just make sure that files are jpeg’d down so you don’t clog up the inbox – the easiest way to p*** people off on deadline!”

Unlike magazines, newspaper print allows for decent reproduction of quite small files.

Snape points out that newsrooms are almost entirely digital now. “If you are going to submit pictures on hard copy make sure that the office has capability to scan them – sounds stupid but in the digital age scanners aren’t really needed any more.

And once you’ve made contact with the desk, they will be more open to your submissions.

“All freelances submit live pictures on spec. Pricing varies massively between titles and newspaper groups,” says Snape. “If approaching direct, always find out a contact name and email address but don’t over use it. Sending in good pictures on spec is one thing, overloading the email with any old crap will only wind people up.

“Bear in mind that most journalists like a tipple or two so once they get to know your work, invite them out for lunch – you lose nothing by meeting face to face and most will be impressed that you’ve made the effort even of they can’t make time. But don’t push it and ring every week. There are a few photographers that nobody will speak to because they are renowned for pestering.

“The other route is to get in touch with the local news agency and they are normally prepared to syndicate on your behalf – for a cut of course.”

Depending on experience, you might find a local news agency or local newspaper a more achievable entry into print. In the local press deadlines aren’t as tight, digital media is not as crucial and (hopefully) an editor will be more approachable.

Local newspaper’s pay poorly, if at all, but the boost to your portfolio is immeasurable. It is definitely worth getting in touch – and keeping in touch. If they know you’re about, are reliable and able to step in at the drop of a hat the call will come.

A letter to the picture editor is fine, but the real impact comes from being seen. When an editor turns to his photographer and asks ‘who can do this job for us?’ it’ll be your name that is mentioned. You already gave the photographer your business card when you bumped into him at the county cricket final…

Have confidence when approaching a picture desk. Don’t apologise for calling or pre-empt your pitch with the words ‘I’ve never done this before…’ or ‘I usually just take pictures as a hobby…’

Attend as many events as possible. The experience will be worthwhile, the contacts you build could be crucial.

Enjoy talking to people. If you’re not a conversationalist you’ll never find anything out. Chit chat also makes the people you a photographing feel at ease.

Send a brief letter with an example of your work on disk and on paper. When you do call in for the first time with an offer, a picture editor will at least have a vague idea of who you are.

Keep buying papers to keep yourself familiar with what’s going on.

Constantly think up ideas, subjects and themes to photograph. And follow them through. I remember a local photographer got great exposure in a local paper in Lancashire through his hobby of photographing gas towers. As well as getting his pictures printed, the nationals picked up on the quirk factor and ran the story too. He would have got money for that and also from British Gas who decided to pay for an exhibition of his work.


Waste a picture desk editor’s time with unsuitable offers. Make sure the picture you are offering is suitable and at least has a chance of getting in the paper. If you’ve not seen similar shots in a particular newspaper, don’t even bother. The Sun are not going to publish your beautiful landscape… unless there is a credible news angle.

Turn up at events unannounced. Contact the press officer or secretary in advance, ask for accreditation. Be honest about who you are, explain you’re a freelance trying to build up your portfolio. They’ll probably let you attend as a photographer, for free.

Undervalue your work. The going rate is the going rate. Know what it is. Any union has examples, try the NUJ. Don’t offer a cheap rate or agree to one. And never offer to do anything for free because ‘you’ll just be pleased to see your picture in print’. As well as making it harder to get paid of that company in the future, you’re also devaluing the industry and effectively
taking money out of the hands of established freelancers. The professionals will not thank you for it.

Call a picture desk if you don’t have the right equipment. Newspapers are incredibly fast moving environments. If you offer a picture, you must be able to deliver it within hours, not days. In almost every instance you must be fully digital and able to email or ISDN pictures there and then.

Be put off. You might have heard this one before, but it’s true. Only the determined and thick skinned will keep putting themselves up for rejection. If you haven’t got a thick skin, go out and get one fast. A great picture can be rejected for many reasons, some not in your control like bad timing. A major news story can clear out all that day’s pages.

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