Not a day goes by that an exchange like the following doesn’t occur at a publication somewhere:
Photo editor: Can you cut the editorial down so we can make the photo larger.
Editor or reporter: No way! It will affect the integrity of the story.
Photo editor: Well, then, the page is going to be gray and ugly.
Editor or reporter: Well, maybe we can cut a little bit of the story.
Photo editor: I think we should cut a lot, but a little will help.
Editor or reporter: Let’s cut the photo way down.
And this continues until some kind of compromise is reached.
When the photos are so spectacular, however, that they tell the story without needing much narrative — if any at all — then a photo essay is clearly a good option.
Newspapers run photo essays regularly, often in the Sports, Travel and Features sections, when dramatic or moving events can best be told through visual tales. I also run photo essays on our website in addition to stories in the paper when we cannot fit all of the photos in the hard-copy edition.
Online publications run them, too, but call them slideshows or online galleries. And magazines also run them, but less frequently because the format is prohibitive.
Pitching a photo essay to an editor is different from sending in a query for a solo story or a package that contains both a travel story and photos.
Your idea for it needs a bit more explanation in a way that articles with photos don’t.
You need to tell the editor how you envision the photo essay working. Will it work better in a linear layout — with all your photos in a chronological line? Would it be better with one giant photo and five small? Is it something that would work in black and white?
I like it when a photographer offers an outline of the “narrative,” such as it is, and gives suggestions for layout, including which photo he believes will work as the lede photo.
In this way, a photo essay pitch is like a regular story query. The photo you envision as your best one, the photo that would be the large, top photo on the essay, is in effect your lede to the story and to the query. It should be the first one attached in the email, and the one you refer to as the primary photo.
Here are a few more tips for sending a photo essay query…
** Send low-resolution images. Remember that editors receive a lot of photos, and sending an email filled with high-resolution images has the potential to shut someone’s system down. (And make them cranky.) Send no more than three low-res jpegs.
(Note: If you don’t know how to do this, simply do a Google search for “how to resize a photo for email in Lightroom” or whichever photo editing program you’re using.)
** Give the number of photos and a brief description of their contents. For instance, if the photo essay is about a road trip through the Florida Keys, you would say, “The essay offers eight shots depicting landscapes, characters and wildlife chronologically from a drive that starts at Key Largo and ends in Key West.”
** Do not send the whole package. Tease the editor a bit with two of your best photos and a third that gives a great detail shot. The important thing is to pique the editor’s interest into wanting to see the whole series.
** Include captions with the three images you send. Flesh them out a bit. These captions are going to be more information than the basic “5 Ws” of who, what, when, where and why. Write them with more description, dynamic language and ear for storytelling than you would normally in a caption — where brevity is usually desired — because you’re pitching a photo essay this time. Not a story. And in this case, more is better. You want to really convey the flavor of the tale with this pitch.
** Put the photos in a Word document or other format to show layout. Use whatever you’re comfortable with. But Word is easy for most people to open and use. It also lets them see the photos in succession and at once, so they can get a sense of how they look together, and to read the copy in one sitting, as well.
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