Sometimes we get so caught up with making the perfect picture—tack-sharp focus, vibrant color, fantastic moment—that we forget the cardinal rule of selling photographs to magazines.
Let me share a secret I’ve learned from more than 30 years of selling photographs to magazines from National Geographic Adventure to Modern Bride: Editors don’t buy photos they love. They buy photos they need.
What does that mean?
The photo editor is your gateway to the reader: they are there not only to help craft the flow of each story, but to make sure that every image matches the magazine’s style and purpose. An editor’s loyalty isn’t to the art of photography, it’s to the art of storytelling.
Let’s say you’re trying to sell images to match a story a friend is writing about a luxury safari. The story is for one of the many bridal magazines (safaris are a good niche, by the way, since most honeymoon stories revolve around overwater bungalows). The editor is looking for romantic images. They want to see a wide opening image that shows glowing afternoon light on the canvas tents, a detail shot of a mango-filled plate beside champagne glasses on the coffee table, an action shot of a young couple in an open-top Land Rover peering through an expensive pair of binoculars.
These are not complicated shots, right? You can tick them off in a matter of minutes.
But what about that—literally—killer shot you made of the lion catching a young wildebeest? It’s going to win a wildlife-photographer-of-the-year award. It has the crisp snarl, the panicked eyes, the dust. And, best of all, it took you days to make, days of waiting, not to mention the $2,000 you spent on a new 80-200mm 2.8 lens.
It’s the most valuable image in the whole story, right?
That photo you worked so hard on, and are so proud of, gets deleted on the first pass.
It might be perfect for a Sierra Magazine story on “The Great Migration,” but the editor does not need a kill shot for their bridal magazine. They need those tents and mangos and champagne glasses.
When it comes to selling photographs, and more importantly, making money, you have to understand this basic rule. Editors are not hoping to come across a once-in-a-lifetime shot, they are hoping for a photographer that gives them photographs they need to complement the written story both in feel and style.
So, yes, get those killer shots—maybe even put one in the pull with a quick note—“I know it doesn’t work for the story, but I’m super proud of this moment.” But put most of your effort on assignment into the simple images that support the story.
The best part of this strategy? It takes away the stress of making one perfect photograph. Because, just as in writing a story, it’s not a single perfect sentence the editor is looking for, it’s the whole package.