Magazine photography is one of the most exciting assignments you can get as a photographer, and—depending on the size of the publication—it can pay very well.
Back in the days when magazines had larger budgets and staffs, magazines typically sent two journalists on assignment—the writer to report the story and the photographer to illustrate it.
But things have changed. With skinny and sometimes nonexistent travel budgets, magazines are more interested in hiring a “singer/songwriter” combination: someone who can deliver both the words and the pictures. If you haven’t yet learned to write, learn. (If you’re already a good writer, improve your photography.) Take classes, attend workshops, and get critiques.
If you aren’t interested in writing, you can still pitch magazines photo essays. Do your research. Spend a few hours in the large local bookstore, flipping through magazines to see which ones run photo essays. Photo essays tend to be a quick way for magazines to fill editorial space, so are often in demand on their own.
Once you’ve identified several magazines that are interested in photo essays, study their guidelines. These are the specific rules magazines post online letting you know what kind of topics they cover, what kind of photography they like, and often how much they pay.
After you’ve studied the guidelines, track down the magazines’ media kits. These online packets (usually in PDF form) are meant for advertisers. They outline the demographic the magazine is targeted for (male, female, high discretionary income, etc.).
Next search for the yearly issue list. The yearly issue list is your guide on what topics they’ll be covering over the next year. A travel magazine, for instance, will usually have an annual “Best Places To Live” issue, which is the perfect place and time to pitch your story about the expat life in Costa Rica. They might also have an annual Caribbean issue (often over winter months). Knowing what the magazines are covering each month helps you target them more precisely.
The last piece of intel you’ll want when preparing to pitch a magazine is to look at their advertisers. Flip through the pages and see who is buying. If you’re seeing a lot of ads for the Mexican Yucatán in a travel magazine, you can bet they’ll be interested in a photo essay on snorkeling the cenotes (water-filled sinkholes) or exploring the Maya ruins.
By this time you’re probably picking up on the order of how you land work in magazines. You don’t come up with an idea like horseback riding across Mongolia and then approach magazines looking for the right fit. Instead, you study the magazines and then you develop a photo essay based on your research.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a photo editor at a magazine was that “editors buy photographs they need; not photographs they like.” You could have the most incredible photo essay on cruising down the Nile on a luxury barge, but unless you can find a magazine that has advertisers and a demographic that fits with that experience, you’ll have a very tough time finding a home for it. Shoot to the market—don’t try and fit the market to your photography.
If you haven’t previously worked with a magazine, you should email the photo editor a short pitch, just a few paragraphs. Your pitch states right away what your photo essay is about, such as snorkeling the cenotes in Mexico (or even better, add a twist: snorkeling at night), when and why it’s a perfect fit, and why you are the best person to shoot the story. If you have one, attach a link to a similar photo essay in another magazine. If not, edit a similar photo essay and send the editor a link.
What do you do after you’ve emailed the pitch out into the nether? Get right back to work with another pitch for another magazine. It’s a game of numbers. The more pitches you make (and the more targeted they are), the better your odds are at getting published and paid.