I want to shoot for Real Simple.
March 6, 2010 3:55 PM   Subscribe

How can a become a magazine photographer?

I have gotten more and more into photography over the past few years. I'm good with my dSLR and decent with Photoshop. My favorite things to photograph are plants, food, babies and children. I thought I might want to get more into fine art photography, but as I've talked to some professionals I have consistently gotten the feedback that my work looks commercial, like stock photography, Martha Stewart, Real Simple, and cookbook-y.

I think they meant that as an insult, but I took it as a compliment. How can I become a photographer for magazines and cookbooks? I'm located in Chicago and currently work full time, so this would be a side job for me on evenings and weekends.

Thanks in advance for any advice on how to connect with magazine editors, gain assignments, and make some money with my photography.
posted by bonheur to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Well, if you work looks like stock, why not shoot and sell it? I earn a big chunk of my living that way...
As far as "magazines and cookbooks" go, that's actually a broader topic than you'd think. What magazines? What subjects? Do you have a niche? Cookbooks - are you a top notch food stylist? etc. Specific advice would be easier to offer if we could see your work - care to post a link?
posted by blaneyphoto at 4:18 PM on March 6, 2010

It would be helpful if you could post a link to your portfolio so we could see your work. If you don't have a website with a polished portfolio you need one before you do anything else.

Even if you do have a fantastic portfolio, it's pretty hard to break into the photography business. To shoot the kind of things that you want to is probably going to be pretty impossible if you already have a full time job. The market is already far too saturated with established, professional photographers.

A more realistic goal might be to dabble in stock photography. On sites like istockphoto your admission is solely based on the quality of your work. Then you get a certain percentage of the stock you sell. There are numerous other sites as well.
posted by kylej at 4:23 PM on March 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is a pretty broad topic. The oversimplified version of how you shoot for magazines is: put together a portfolio, find out who hires photographers at the publication you want to work for, and then market your work to them. You would be competing against people who specialize in the types of photography those publications use, who do not have day jobs, who make images and then find ways to get them in front of the right people all day.

I would start by reading the A Photo Editor blog to get some insight into how editorial photography works.
posted by bradbane at 5:31 PM on March 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding bradbane's suggestion of Aphotoeditor and also worth reading is http://www.heathermorton.ca/blog/
posted by blaneyphoto at 5:45 PM on March 6, 2010

Best answer: You want to shoot for Real Simple? Here's how.

The first step is not to connect with magazine editors, that is absolute last step. If they haven't heard of you, you have zero chance of getting in the door. How would they hear of you? If you assisted a photographer who worked for them. Or you get big enough that they call you first. Otherwise, please do not waste your time or theirs.

First, look through every issue from the last several years. Do your homework. See what they shoot, what the columns are, what the yearly cycles entail. See who shoots for them. Write down the name of every photographer you see in their pages. Then, look up those photographers, their personal websites, their tearsheets, the other publications they shoot for. You'll get a very good idea of what it takes, what the industry standards are. Maintain this list, but DO NOT contact those photographers yet. Then get a subscription to RS, because this is going to take a while.

Research every photographer in Chicago who might shoot something similar in subject matter as RS. I don't know anyone there who actually shoots for them, almost all the major editorial photographers are based in New York because that is where the main magazines live. But starting local will be easier. Contact each and every one of those Chicago photographers and beg, beg to assist them. Whatever it takes.

Personally I recommend finding studio still life photographers and starting there. Who wants to take pictures of hand creme? No one. However, you will learn how to light in a dark room, which will be the single most important skill in your repertoire. If you can make it look like natural light, you will be extremely successful. Nothing personal to all the natural lighters out there, but when a big project is on the line, one rainy day and you're fucked. Who cares if you're good with your DSLR. Those things make everyone look good, from time to time. But look great, even when the conditions are at their worst? Not even close. And besides, you need to think long term, ie advertising shoots, where the real money is. On the national level, those people won't hire you if you can't light. Period.

So you get in with a Chicago photographer. Work hard for them, be proactive on set. Soak up as much as you possibly can, about how they shoot, how they interact with clients, how they run their business, everything. I would say, 1-2 years.

Then move to New York.

That list of shooters you made earlier? Beg to work for them. And by beg I mean show up at their doorstep and camp out, babysit their kids, stalk them, whatever. Assistants are struggling these days. In fact, out of this entire plan, starting to assist a photographer who shoots for a place like Real Simple is the single hardest step out of this whole plan, because it will require them taking a chance on you. And they will never hire an assistant who has no experience. They're shooting at a level where they can't afford rookie assistants. They need someone who really knows their shit. Remember that part about knowing how to light? If you know how to light on your own, doors will open wide. Anyone can schlep cases, but emulate the sun? You will be like a god among assistants.

Once you get in with a regular shooter, you're in good shape. Hopefully they also shoot for other publications, because otherwise they'll be flat broke and can't pay you. After taxes and overhead, a thousand bucks evaporates like you cannot imagine. Anyways, stick with the photographer, learn how they do what they do. Do this for another 1-2 years, but not for too long because you have a goal in mind, remember? Don't get stuck as a terminal assistant - you have to keep the momentum.

Ok, so at this point you've actually been on set for many Real Simple shoots. The editors know you by name, they might even like you. The people there are exceedingly nice, and love to help people who are starting out. Discovering a photographer is every photo editors dream. Once you know them, they will in fact go out of their way to review your portfolio, make suggestions, and even call a friend who works in a lesser Time Inc publication. But, they are still not going to hire you.

While you are assisting, build your portfolio. Shoot every single day. Network with other assistants, they will soon be your peers so don't fuck anyone over. I once heard this, and it is so true, but if you are going to fuck someone over make sure they're old school and established, because the young guys will remember for a much much longer time. Nothing wrong with a friendly rivalry but bad news travels really fast in this industry.

Start to approach smaller publications, take jobs that don't pay well but get nice tearsheets. Test with talented stylists, they will make you look really, really good. Over time you'll build up experience and a nice portfolio. Keep your site fresh. Make a nice print portfolio. And by nice I mean, you're going to need a credit card with a higher limit. Anyone can build a site these days, all the more reason why print portfolios really stand out.

So you have a nice book, a nice site, and some nice connections. Use them. Congratulations, you've taken the last step! At this point you've got a 50-50 shot of shooting for Real Simple. And I mean 50-50 because you will either shoot for them, or will want to be shooting for somebody else. It won't matter, because you will be a professional and you will make money taking photographs.

It's that easy. Real simple, eh?
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 6:00 PM on March 6, 2010 [120 favorites]

All of the previous answers are good.

All I can add is, don't quit your day job any time soon.

It's one thing to get you work published in magazines, but another thing to make a decent living at it.

Nearly all of the editorial shooters I know bankroll their passion for that kind of work by either also shooting commercial jobs or having spouses who subsidize them, or both.

Rates and terms for editorial photography are generally worse now than they were 20 years ago.
posted by imjustsaying at 12:29 AM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could also try to get work at a stockhouse. I worked at a well-established house for a while. While there, I had to shoot 3 assignments, pull content, retouch. I also met all the amazing photographers that they repped, one of whom wanted me as an assistant. Unfortunately, the work was not consistent and I had to get a job out of the industry.

imjustsaying isn't lying. I just spoke with an assistant this week and he was saying that all the assistants he knows have been saying that the industry has never been this bad. Anyone with $300 can buy a great digital camera, photograph their own products and have that photo on their website, and rates have gone through the floor. Additionally, all those people with great digital cameras have to spend no additional money once they buy that basic camera. When I started shooting, I was laying out huge money every week for film and processing (slides). That cost limited the number of people who could do it. Now, you buy that camera and you probably already have a pc, and can pump out a thousand images a day for free and really improve on what you're doing. So the pool of available shooters is bigger, you have more competition for jobs, and the jobs you land will pay less.

None of this is to dissuade you, just to let you know that you're up against a pretty serious time in photography. If you're good and consistent and work your ass off, you can still make it.

I can't echo enough what infinitefloatingbrains said, and that this needs to be stressed: you need to know how to light. I shoot both natural and studio. It's great to have a nice natural light space and make some beautiful images, but you needneedneed to know how to make a shot, and then do the same exact thing tomorrow, even in a hurricane.
posted by nevercalm at 1:04 PM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Honestly you may do better to shoot for stock (like istockphoto.com) if you don't want to make this a career. I suggest figuring out where the "void" is (like which keywords bring up really terrible pictures or few results) and try to fill that.
posted by radioamy at 7:34 AM on March 8, 2010

Ditto everything that infinitefloatingbrains and nevercalm said, especially about the changing dynamics of the marketplace.

There are only a few ways to be a successful editorial/commercial/advertising photographer (things are different in photojournalism and direct-to-consumer aka weddings/portraits). This is the easiest, which is by no means easy:

1. Assist other professionals to learn the art and the business
2. Be willing to work some other job, in the industry or not, to finance your career for the first few years
3. Invest more time and money than you, your significant other, your landlord, and your credit card company think is reasonable on creating new work and marketing yourself
4. Schmooze shamelessly.
5. Rinse and repeat until you can consistently put good work in front of the people who are both want to buy it and are empowered and have the money to do so. This can take as few as 3 and as many as 10 years.
6. Reach step 5 before going broke or giving up
7. Fend off the thousands of recent art school grads and trust fund babies with nicer gear than yours who are willing to work for "exposure" (note-- in editorial this is often actually a good investment, *if* the work will be seen by the people mentioned in step 5)
8. Grow your business enough every year to offset the downward price pressure exerted by the kids in step 7.

The other, harder ways, if you're interested, involve winning the (proverbial) lottery, such as landing a job working for a reincarnated Alexei Borodovitch, sleeping with art directors and photo editors (full disclosure: I married an editor), and winning the (actual) lottery.

In NYC (photo capital of the world), magazines are folding, editorial and ad budgets are shrinking, you're competing with three times as many photographers for the same jobs as you would have 5-10 years ago), and 75% (at LEAST) of the folks who try to be photographers in NYC end up doing something else or moving within 2-3 years.

Oh, and I forgot to mention-- the photo industry is filled with self-important assholes. Anyone who has made it through the above gauntlet has either developed tremendously thick skin and humility (god bless em), or more often, a blimp-sized ego. Because of photography's intersections with the Glamorous Industries of Advertising, Media, and Fashion, we also have the same kinds of preening divas and internecine backstabbing BS. This applies to the whole industry, too, not just photographers: assistants, studios, rental houses, agencies, producers, editors, retouchers, etc. Hopefully you'll have the stomach for this, and can take the high road.

As an aside, I have the mixed blessing of being on the second page of Google search results for my specialty. This means I get calls from small businesspeople and PR assistants who have never bought photography before, and therefore have no idea how much it costs to produce a photograph, let alone fairly compensate the photographer. I get to be the bearer of bad news a few times a month, hopefully doing so without looking like one of those preening assholes I mentioned earlier.

Yes, you can probably find someone to take a beautiful photograph of every item on your 80-item-long menu all in one day, and retain the rights to use them online, print menus, mail postcards, buy ads in New York Magazine, etc, for your "fairly generous" budget of $200, but when you want to update them a year later when the menu changes, the dude you hired will have moved to LA to become an "artist" or gone back to grad school or moved in with his parents. But it's OK, because the pictures will be "good enough" and you'll be able to find some hungry ex-barista from Bushwick who will be happy to give you the same deal, for "exposure."

Related: see this video posted by mathowie about how even *Judge Joe Brown* knows more than a newly-minted professional (i.e. one who gets paid, not one who behaves professionally) with a digital rebel...
posted by joshwa at 3:33 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

There is some really good advice here I thought I would just add a few more thoughts.

You could also try to get work at a stockhouse.

I don't think this is possible anymore, all of the agencies have killed their in house photographers.

Remember that part about knowing how to light? If you know how to light on your own, doors will open wide. Anyone can schlep cases, but emulate the sun? You will be like a god among assistants.

I am pretty young and am about 40% assisting 60% shooting at this point. This statement about being an assistant who knows how to light is dead on. Assistants who don't know anything are a dime a dozen, truly knowing how to work light is how you get more established photographers attention. Almost all of the assisting gigs I work now are because I am very, very fluent in lighting (a side effect of assisting really creative fashion photographers in NYC for a while). My rates are higher than most of the other assistants I know because of it, and when a photographer I work for gets a call about a job they can't take (too small, can't schedule it, whatever) guess who they pass it on to?

Live like a monk, keep your overhead low, avoid getting a day job if it's possible for you, and structure your life around creating photographs. Live, breathe, and shit photography because if you don't there are a million art school grads with better equipment, bigger trust funds, and more free time than you who are getting out of bed and doing it every day.

I hope you like pasta too, because editorial pays close to nothing (man I have become such a good cook the last few years, I can whip up something delicious from even the barest pantry).
posted by bradbane at 4:02 PM on March 8, 2010

Becoming a photographer for magazines and cookbooks
can be a daunting task. Especially when they do not know
you personally ..

Could I suggest couple of alternatives?

I have a friend (amateur photographer) who visits local
restaurants and manages to convince the owner to shoot
couple of dishes. They are usually pretty impressed with
the quality of his work and he gets hired to do (redo) pictures
in their menu.

He also uses this "sneaky" technique to build his contact
lists (which is surely growing).

A second suggestion would be to sell your own photos
online using services like : istockphoto.com & gettyimages.com
who share a percentage of the earnings with freelance

Visit regularly freelance sites like odesk & elance. There
are a lot of freelance photographer jobs opening up each day.

Hope it helps.
posted by gabc at 9:53 AM on June 29, 2010

« Older Itinerary and other angst about my trip to Japan   |   Using dry ice in a cooler Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.