How to Become a Magazine Photographer

November 2021

If there's one dream that all of us photographers share, it's that we all want to see our work on the front cover of a magazine. For many, it's an exciting milestone moment that proves our capabilities not only to ourselves but also to the gatekeepers within our industry, and it also doesn't hurt that our work will be seen by thousands of people either. 

With professional photography becoming more competitive by the minute and the number of magazines sadly dwindling down, it isn't easy to get a gig shooting for a publication. In fact, 99% of the people who send in their portfolios won't even get the job. 

My most recent cover shot with Decibel Magazine, featuring world-touring doom metal band Khemmis

As an editorial photographer who has worked for various music, city, food, and business-focused magazines for nearly 7 years with published work in The Financial Times, Decibel Magazine, and 5280 Magazine, I've been fortunate enough to see many angles of this ever-changing industry. I've also had many beginning photographers ask me questions like: How do you become a magazine photographer? How do you contact a magazine? How do you even prepare? I will take the time today to answer all of these questions and more so that after this tutorial is done, you will have a fighting chance at getting published.

One of my Comstock's Magazine cover shots, featuring Outerloop Records and Artery Records President Shan Dan Horan, sitting on a shelf at Barnes and Noble.

Build a Starting Portfolio

The first step to becoming a magazine photographer is to choose your niche and prepare your portfolio. Most professionals who have been in the game for a while will have multiple niches, but if you're a beginner then just start by focusing on one. 

Shoot strong, relevant content on your own time (for example, if you want to be a wedding magazine photographer then obviously shoot tons of content related to weddings) and as you create your images, compare them to the ones that you see being published within the magazines you want to work for. Many magazines have fine tuned their brand for decades and have a specific look that satisfies their audience, so being able to match that aesthetic while also injecting your own creative flare will make you a far more attractive option. 

Behind the scenes photographing a Nevada horse wrangler for Sierra Living Magazine. 

Your portfolio is ultimately a visual resume, and to a magazine staff it will show your skill level and experience. Make it look the very best you can, keep it cohesive and delete any images that do not impress, and of course, have it presentable on a fully functioning website. 

Start With Smaller Magazines First

Now that you have your first portfolio it's best to gain some hands-on experience working for an actual magazine, and considering that you still need to learn what an editorial assignment is like, I recommend starting small with free magazines first. Most major cities will have multiple free magazines around and you can also find many online. Approach these publications and show them your portfolio, and then shoot with them for a couple months. 

Behind the scenes with singer and beatboxer, Butterscotch.

Music was my first photography niche, so in order to gain more experience before approaching paid publications I first shot for Submerge Magazine, a free monthly print music magazine. 

Now as expected, free indeed means free, so you won't receive any pay for these assignments, however they will help you gain a massive amount of insight and earn some tear sheets very quickly. The tear sheets in particular will help you later on when you approach larger paid magazines because you'll have some form of proof to your work. 

Submerge Magazine cover shots featuring: Joe Kye, James Cavern, Adrian Bellue, and 2UGLi

Once you feel like you've mastered working with free magazines it's time to move on to paid assignments. As a person who has to make a living you can't shoot for free forever, and the next reachable step is to apply to a legitimate city or regional publication. Most city magazines (like my city's 5280 Magazine for example) cover a wide variety of topics ranging from local events, to businesses, to artists, food, and more, and if you take a deeper dive into their websites, you might also discover that they have wedding and home magazines as well. These types of publishers are the ones that can give you stable monthly assignments and are a perfect springboard for approaching even larger national publications. 

All three of the above images (featuring a female politician, a bottle of gin, and a stage director) were created for Sacramento Magazine. City and regionally-reaching magazines  cover a wide variety of topics that can diversify your portfolio very quickly.

Master the Cold E-Mail Pitch

As you move up in your editorial photography career, you'll have to get better at cold e-mailing, and for many people, not just photographers, cold e-mailing can be a daunting task. It doesn't always feel natural to email someone you don't know, and regardless of how easy some of us veterans claim the process is, we were all a little afraid of it at first. In our profession, though, we have to put ourselves on the line and overcome that fear quickly, because cold e-mailing is an essential part of pursuing new opportunities, and if you don't jump on it, someone else certainly will.

One of the biggest mistakes I see being made by beginning photographers when they cold email magazines is that they write their messages far too long or they think they have to use impressive vocabulary, but the real trick is to actually keep it straightforward and simple. Mention who you are, what photo genre you specialize in and where you're based, tell them very briefly why you would be useful, attach 5-10 of your best images along with your website link, and then (if applicable) give them a short rundown on your editorial client history. Magazine staff members, especially the editors and art directors who will be reading your emails, are very busy people who receive hundreds of these requests every year, and if your email is too long then it can be seen as inconsiderate and increase your chance of being overlooked entirely.

Behind the scenes during a beer/vacation-themed photoshoot for Sierra Living Magazine. 

Also, probably the most crucial thing to learn about cold emailing is to not be afraid of failure. In fact, it's going to be guaranteed. Most larger companies even with the most incredible marketing budgets claim that their average cold email success rate is 1%, and even the most accomplished photographers can get rejected simply because of situations that are out of the magazine's control.

Most cold emails never get responded to because a publisher might be too busy or might be full on photographers at the moment. Some larger reaching magazines might not even have any stories currently being covered in your region where you can be of use. There's also the possibility (and we have to be honest with ourselves on with this one) that the portfolio you sent just isn't attracting their attention. Regardless of the reason, don't think down on yourself because all that this can do is push you to build your portfolio even stronger and try again a few months later. Everyone experiences failure with cold emailing, but it's the people who stay persistent, learn, improve and try again that eventually succeed. I've been rejected many times in my career, but after rebuilding again and again I finally got in with some of the magazines I've always wanted. 

Be Ready for an In-Person Interview

Although most magazines will handle their interview process with you through emails and other online communiqué, some, in fact, will still want to meet you in person. This is usually done to see if your personality is a good fit and if you'll be a beneficial team player, and it can also help them see how you'll interact with future photographed guests when you are representing the magazine on their behalf. If this ends up happening to you, then handle it professionally and have yourself and your portfolio ready.

Behind the scenes during an editorial photoshoot featuring David Bradford Lee, the interior designer for the Sacramento Kings' arena luxury lounge. During this session the magazine's Art Director visited to oversee the shoot. 

Just like a job interview, show up to your meeting early and well dressed, and have your hair and other grooming essentials in order. Also, it's monumental to have your portfolio and tear sheets well organized and presentable for professional viewing. Most photographers nowadays show their portfolios digitally on a laptop or an iPad, however if you have the extra funds you can also do a print version. A print portfolio is never required, however it can give you a little bit of a creative edge. 

Be Discoverable on the Web

If all else fails and you can't get a portfolio review from the previously mentioned methods, then don't give up hope just yet because there's still one more powerful tool left up your sleeve. The power of the internet. 

Just like how I mentioned in even more detail in my blog, 10 Steps to a Successful Photography Business, have a Google My Business account, multiple social media accounts, and especially a website available for people to find. Of course this also goes hand-in-hand with continuously managing your SEO. Personally, I've had dozens of magazines find me just by searching around online and discovering that I was working in a city where they needed to cover a story but didn't already have an established photographer. If that ever happens to you then it usually means you're the first in line to fill that void, and better yet, if you do a good job you'll be sure to secure the position for good. 

Another perk to being findable on the web is that some magazines can come across your already made images and potentially seek to use them in new articles. This portrait of Stephanie Big-Eagle was discovered and requested for by Schnappschus Magazine (a German photography publication) almost three years after it was taken. 

What to do After You Get the Job

If you get an assignment from a paying magazine, then let me start by saying "Congratulations!" You've made the cut, and as we know by now it's not the easiest task. Now the real work begins, and we are going to discuss the ground rules and what is to be expected of you moving on from here.

First off, when you shoot for a magazine you'll likely be handled by an editor who will be your regular point of contact from here on out. They'll send you assignments with some tear sheets attached (to show you what aesthetic the magazine is looking for) and they'll also list the article's photography budget. It's very, very rare in editorial photography for the photographer to decide the pay rate, so there is no room for negotiation here. Most single photo assignments pay $150-$400, a large article assignment will pay $500-$1,500 and a cover shot with an article will pay $750-$2,000. The price within these windows can vary depending on how much of the page(s) your images take up, and by just how large the publication company is itself.

It's also common for the photographer to manage the scheduling of the shoot with the photo subject themselves, which means their contact info will also likely be listed within your editor's email. Naturally, this means you'll need to be flexible and accommodate the time the photo subject needs, and depending on their profession this can vary wildly. For example, I've had many shoots where I would need to photograph a CEO, but because they were so busy I'd have only a tiny ten minute window. With city magazines in particular this can happen a lot, so you'll have to get your intel, practice your concept, and possibly scout the location in advance to have your best chance of success.  

This photo of a man getting his haircut while enjoying a beer, taken for Sierra Living Magazine, had to be completed in the early morning 15 minutes before the barbershop opened. 

During your shoot session it's also your responsibility to create images that best speak to the article's story. Usually your editor will discuss this concept with you in advance or might even join the shoot to help, but after you've finished that concept make sure to capture some additional material with different angles and croppings for good measure. Your editor will thank you immensely for the extra effort because you'll be giving them way more creative options to choose from.

A portrait of The Brown Palace Hotel's Executive Chef, Kim Moyle, taken for 5280 Magazine

My final bit of advice for working as a magazine photographer is to always continue expanding your portfolios and routinely share them with your editors. As you continue to work, your portfolio will grow and diversify and that can make you even more useful to a magazine that covers multiple topics. Of course, the magazine won't know about this though if you don't share it with them. Once every 6 months, send your editors your new work so they can see what you've been up to. It might just be what they're looking for and you could receive even more assignments in the future. 


And there we have it! The most essential tips to getting you off on the right foot and pursuing a career in editorial photography. It will take time, but once you've earned your way into this industry it's one of the most exciting, varied, and rewarding genres in all of photography. There really is no feeling like seeing your work glowing on a freshly printed page with the world looking at it, and even today, it is still a highly coveted opportunity.

As I've said before, success in photography doesn't just come down to talent alone. It also requires a long-term state of mind with a constant, driven commitment. Be brave, be prepared, and don't be afraid to fail and try again. I'll catch you on the next one.

- J

Cover and table of contents images created for Decibel Magazine.

Return to the Blog to explore more photography tutorials and behind the scenes stories. 

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