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Magazine Photography

Updated on March 9, 2011

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The United States has exerted a strong influence on the styles and methods applied to magazine publishing in other countries. There is a world-wide tendency to follow the established patterns of American practice, on which this article is based.

Since the big picture magazines emphasize the picture story, it probably could be called the basis for magazine photography. It is the picture story which has been popularized most in latter years, and it is the picture story approach which holds the interest of most of the younger photographers.

Most general magazines which feature text also use pictures and many have one or more picture stories in every issue. The specialized, trade publication is also a major market.

Despite the growing, widespread interest in pictures for publication, the increasing number of photographers in the magazine field makes it a highly competitive one.

The Photographer

The average magazine photographer is a freelancer. In the United States the majority are concentrated in New York City, with the second largest group deployed in and around Hollywood, but most major cities have one or more photographers who use them as bases for specializing in magazine photography in regions often consisting of several states.

Many magazine photographers have studios, with thousands of dollars worth of equipment. They usually specialize editorially in fashions or portraits or home suggestions, and may do most of their work for advertisers. Many others work with only a few small cameras but, since the advent of electronic flash, a travelling photographer may be so weighted down with paraphernalia that transportation becomes a serious problem.

To light up the whole arena when a circus appeared at Madison Square Garden in New York City, one photographer using colour employed 2,800 pounds of electronic flash equipment. A radio remote control set-up was also used, with a transmitter on his camera and a radio receiver activating the electronic flash. Flash bulbs are seldom used by the magazine photographer, whilst much of his work is still done in natural light.

Many magazine photographers spend most of their time travelling. In one ten-day period, one freelance reported having shot hockey in New York one night, baseball near San Francisco the next morning, football at Los Angeles the next afternoon, another baseball game on the Mexican border the next day, a horse race at Santa Anita the next morning, another football match at Los Angeles the following day, and three ski stories at Sun Valley the next three days. Then, following a quick flight to New Vork and back to Los Angeles, he covered a travel story on the Pacific, en route to Hawaii.

The American freelance may be independent, or be represented by a picture agency. He usually works for a day rate, which may or may not be supplemented by a space rate, or for a story guarantee. Almost always, expenses are in addition to payment for his time. Although most photographers naturally prefer not to, some will work on speculation. They may or may not be members of the American Society of Magazine Photographers, which began as a professional society but changed its status to that of a union; it is seeking acceptance of a code which has as one of its central features a minimum daily rate of payment for magazine photographers.

The Pictures Wanted

Generalizations are difficult because magazines use all types of photographs, but a great deal of work (both black-and-white and color) is done in 35 mm. and 120 size. In color, the editors favour as large a transparency as the subject matter allows for best results, but not at the expense of editorial impact.

With its beginning in 1936, the pioneering American picture magazine, Life, presented this credo: "To see life, to see the world, to eye-witness great events, to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud, to see strange things, machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man's work, his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed; thus to see, and be shown, is now the will and new expectancy of half mankind."

Since then, television has whetted even more the desire of a visual-minded public to see as much as it can. And although the public is absorbed vitally in important events, it is just as interested when photography gives significance and meaning to the familiar, the commonplace, the ordinary. A magazine photographer can find dramatic, exciting, moving pictures in everyday life and day to day events.

Magazines of this type see pictures from all the major news services and are a focal point for submissions from the agencies and established photographers- but they are usually interested in contributions from anyone who thinks he has a printable picture, amateurs not excepted. In general they should be addressed to the Contributions Editor, but in the event of a major news break the nearest staff representative of the magazine could be contacted. If pictures which are submitted are trimmed, it is always a good idea to send a set of contact prints too.

Despite the general emphasis on the picture story, many magazines are also a market for outstanding single pictures. In Great Britain and other countries many of the leading illustrated magazines, have, in fact, ceased publication in recent years. There is today a greater demand for material suitable for specialized publications, rather than for the general features magazines, and also a greater market for single pictures and small features, instead of photo-stories.

Working Organization

The bulk of work for the leading American magazine is done by thirty-four staff photographers (thirty-two actually staff, two more on a contract basis for their exclusive services) and many freelances, some of whose work appears so regularly that they come to be identified with the magazine. Of the thirty-four, the biggest single group is located at the home office in New York. The others are distributed among the various domestic and foreign bureaux. Los Angeles and Chicago, for example, each have four staff photographers; Washington and Paris, three each.

Each staff photographer owns his basic equipment, but receives an annual amortization allowance. Many photographers own much in excess of their basic equipment, and the magazine also has a pool of equipment available to photographers working on assignment.

Some magazine photographers take their place among the great journalists of this day. In covering news, when the magazine is necessarily faced with following the newspapers, besides trying for better pictures, emphasis is placed on comprehensive, analytical, penetrative reportage. A picture taken from a fresh angle may be the difference. Frequently, effective layout is the answer.

Most photographers customarily work from a script presented by one of the magazine's special departments (e.g., religion, science, modern living, fashion, etc.) into which the editorial staff is divided. This script presents, as clearly and specifically as possible, the reason for the story, major angles to be developed and, when possible or necessary, definite picture ideas.

The script generally is merely advisory or suggestive. It gives the photographer a working basis for his story, but does not bind him to specific details (except in certain cases, such as a science or fashion story, where a particular point must be made in a particular way; and even in these instances the photographer may devise a better way).

All departmental scripts are presented to the picture department and the picture editor holds daily meetings with his assignment staff to consider them. When a script is approved, it becomes the function of the picture editor, with the help of his aides, to select the photographer.

Depending upon the time and scene of the story, the picture editor makes every effort to choose, from among his available staff and freelance photographers, the right man or woman for the story being considered. Some photographers complain that, as a result, there is too much "typing" of photographers. This complaint certainly has some basis but does not take into account one prominent photographer's comparison of photography to spaghetti: "It all depends on the sauce". In this case, the "sauce" is the photographer's style.

Many magazine photographers consider themselves artists- and a few are. Better reproduction facilities permit a magazine to regard a photographer's mental and emotional approach as much more important than the mechanical. A certain technical competency is assumed, but a technically poor picture which tells a story is preferable to a better quality picture which does not.

Editorial Routine

A magazine photographer is generally accompanied on an assignment by a reporter, i.e., a researcher, a junior editorial worker who helps with arrangements and writes captions. Frequently the photographer never sees the pictures he takes until they are published. The film is sent by express delivery to the darkroom, where it is processed and delivered to the negative readers who edit the contact prints into story form; this is done with the help of the photographer and/or researcher, if either can be present, or from captions. Although most of the bureaux have their ow processing facilities, the average story (in the interest of speed in handling) is sent to the central office, which returns a set of contact prints to the photographer.

The photographer may have taken hundreds even thousands of pictures, of which only relatively a few have any chance of being used, even when the story is successful. This overshooting has a purpose: greater slectivity.

In the form it is presented to the editors for consideration and possible layout, the picture story is printed full scale on glossy, single-weight paper in sizes of 8 x 10 ins. or 11 x 14 ins. for the more outstanding pictures.

A picture story ranges from a page and a half to the "photographic essay", a major presentation, of usually seven to nine pages, either in black-and-white or color, often with the photographer's credit line. In making photographs the photographer should supply some pictures of vertical, and some of horizontal, format. Each feature should have a key picture - one picture which pinpoints the essence of the whole story.

Normally, the magazine's last black-and-white pages close four days before publication. A black-and-white cover would have been selected a week before and the first pages of an issue usually close nine days before publication.

The bulk of the color pages are scheduled about nine weeks in advance, but up to six pages an issue may be allotted to "fast color", with a normal sixteen-day closing. This development offers the opportunity of presenting stories, as well as single pictures in color on a quick schedule.


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