The dos and don'ts of pitching to photo editors

What should (and shouldn't) you do when pitching a photo story? Four top photo editors offer essential advice.
A selection of student portfolio images laid out on a table.

The Canon Student Development Programme offers talks, workshops and coaching with some of the most experienced and influential figures in the industry today. In this photograph, a selection of student portfolio images are laid out on a table ready for professional feedback. Photos in this article not otherwise credited are © Paul Hackett

Photo editors receive dozens, if not hundreds, of emails a day with prospective photo stories. If you've got an idea – or maybe already started a project, or even completed it – do you know how to take it through to publication?

Pitching to photo editors at a website, newspaper, magazine or agency can seem a daunting process. Here we speak to four photo editors – Magdalena Herrera, Thomas Borberg, Francis Kohn and Fiona Shields – who have decades of experience of receiving photographers' pitches, commissioning, and reviewing portfolios.

These key industry figures were also either mentors or lecturers on the Canon Student Development Programme (CSDP) 2020, in which 230 students from more than 100 schools and universities were given invaluable tips and guidance on following a photographic career.

We asked their advice on what you can do to improve your chances of success when pitching a photo story.

Do… say something new

"When you're proposing a story on a subject, you have to say something new about it," says Magdalena. "You can't cover something just because you like it or are interested in it; you have to show why it's important to tell this story now. You must demonstrate what you are specifically bringing to the story that we don't already have."

Don't… be too narrow in scope

"I receive lots of story submissions every day on Geo and I often find the range of the images is very narrow for us. Looking at them, it's often not even clear where we are – the photographer goes straight to the people or the activity. We don't see the context – the houses, the streets, the environment in which people are living. For our kind of documentary story, you need to bring as many visual elements as you can in terms of establishing shots, portraits, details and different points of view, to make a complete body of work."

Magdalena Herrera. Photograph by Ahmed Hayman.

Magdalena Herrera

Magdalena spent 10 years as art director and head of the photo department at National Geographic France before joining Geo France as Director of Photography in 2009. She has been Chair of the World Press Photo contest and runs workshops and seminars organised by World Press Photo. Portrait © Ahmed Hayman
Two female dancers in robes and headscarves reach out to embrace each other in front of a blue hut, with a row of flagpoles in the background.

Shirin Abedi, a German-Iranian photojournalist, was one of Magdalena Herrera's mentees on the Canon Student Development Programme. A selection of images from each mentee's story is shown in a new book produced by Canon, titled Encourage. This image, from Shirin's documentary series May I Have This Dance?, which focuses on a ballet group in Tehran, Iran, shows two members of the group posing for a social media photo. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/2 and ISO3200. © Shirin Abedi

Do… pitch your idea to the right publication

"Photographers should always take the time to get to know the publication they are addressing with a pitch," says Thomas. "Sometimes I get a group email with an idea that could go out to anyone – a magazine, a newspaper or even a book editor. I feel like saying, 'Hey, if you want to use my time, let it be something you really want me to print or publish, not just anyone'."

Don't... waste picture editors' time

"I'm not being arrogant, but my time is precious. I probably receive between five and 10 stories per day. So if a photographer submits a story which is not even halfway done, consisting of, say, 40 images I have to skip through, and I can see there's a lack of editing, I just throw it out. I'm not there to edit their story. They should do that by themselves," says Thomas.

"But I like it when people take a constructive approach if I say no, and respond, 'What should I have done to make this a story for you?' Maybe it's the editing, maybe it's the timing or something else. I like to give them something that they can develop from in the future, because it's helpful to both of us."

Thomas Borberg. Photograph by Paul Hackett.

Thomas Borberg

Thomas has been a photojournalism teacher, examiner and visiting lecturer, a photo editor on book projects and a jury member for leading photo contests. He is currently Photo Editor-in-Chief at Politiken newspaper in Denmark.

Do… be clear about what you want to do

"I worked as an AFP Photo Director so I mostly worked with staff photographers I already knew, and I would sit down and discuss ideas with them. However, we also have photographers from outside the agency pitching stories, and I always looked for someone who could present an idea in a very clear and professional way," says Francis. "It has to be concise, and if I don't know the photographer they should include some photos, not necessarily of the project but of what they do generally [to give me an idea of their typical style and approach]. As a photo editor, you can sense whether a story will work or not very quickly."

Don't… suggest impractical ideas

"It's good if a photographer pitches a creative idea to me that I've not heard before – a different approach to a topic that will get my attention," says Francis. "But the story also has to be doable. Sometimes you get a photographer asking you to do a story that can be a bit crazy and not well thought through in practical terms. The budget is also an issue, but if it's a good story that can be discussed."

Francis Kohn. Photograph by Paul Hackett.

Francis Kohn

Francis joined Agence France-Presse (AFP) in 1979, covering conflicts in Central America and Mexico. He later became an editor-in-chief, then was AFP's Photo Director from 2012 until 2017. He chaired the World Press Photo Awards jury in 2016.
A black and white image showing pilgrims, many holding candles, leaning forward to touch the feet of a giant statue at the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, Ghana.

Ghana-based photographer Nipah Dennis, another Canon Student Development Programme participant mentored by Magdalena, took this picture as part of his story Coming to Maria. These images were made during a three-day trip to the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, a place of Christian pilgrimage in Ghana's Volta Region. "I thought his story was interesting as a starting point and I encouraged him to go back and develop it further," says Magdalena. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 6D Mark II) with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/60 sec, f/3.5 and ISO5000. © Nipah Dennis

Don't… send download links

"Include something that's easy and accessible to view the images, like a PDF. If I have to go through the palaver of downloading files from WeTransfer or Dropbox, which then drop in without any captions... That is just hugely elaborate. A PDF is straightforward," says Fiona. "It's important to give caption information, so that we know who, what, when, where, then I can swiftly make a decision about the quality of the work and the relevance of the story, and we can move forward."

Do… use the pyramid approach

"I receive about 250 emails a day. I'm totally overwhelmed, so when the pitches come in, they have to be really precise," says Fiona. "I was taught something on a management training course about getting the attention of a very busy person: start with something that is like a headline, then expand a little bit (just a couple of lines), and then you can go into more detail a little bit further on in the pitch. It's hard to catch any of us on the phone, but if you don't hear from me it's usually not because I'm being rude or want to dismiss your project, it's that I haven't gotten to your email. I would suggest gently nudging."

A headshot of Fiona Shields. Photograph by Paul Hackett.

Fiona Shields

Fiona is Picture Editor and Head of Photography at the Guardian newspaper in the UK. Prior to this she had over two decades of picture editing experience, covering news stories such as the Arab Spring, the 9/11 terror attacks and the growing refugee crisis.

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