What makes a good photo editor

In late April, I had the honor of presenting my work to undergraduate and graduate students in the photojournalism program at the University of Texas at Austin. This PJ program is highly regarded and has produced some great photographers over the years. The last thing I did during my brief time there was an open portfolio review, primarily looking at the work of graduate students. Throughout my time in Austin (and during that portfolio review in particular) the question was repeatedly raised, “how do you make a living in this incredibly difficult photojournalism market?” Near the end, one student said something about where he might go in the future with his photography and I was all but dumbstruck by his brilliance (and my inability to respond.)

The PJ program at U of T includes great photographer/teachers such as Dennis Darling, Donna DeCesare, Eli Reed, Dirck Halstead and a myriad of other adjuncts and occasional guest lecturers. The school also has an award winning student newspaper, The Daily Texan. A student with a passion for photojournalism can learn a lot during their time in Austin. The student I was talking with worked at the student newspaper and loves photojournalism. He was clear that he wants to make it his future, but he was also worried about making a living at it. The student confessed his interest in becoming an editor, not necessarily being a “shooter”.

Some people might react upon hearing that by thinking that editors are somehow “failed” shooters, which is where I suspect his hesitancy came from. I certainly did not judge him so, nor did his peers, who uniformly attested to his skills as a shooter. I then went on to point out that even in a future full of “user-provided content,” where “staff photographers” are an anachronism there will always be need for good editors. I babbled on about the relative job security of an editor and the important role certain editors have played in my career (and in the careers of other photographers.) I saw from his face that I was giving him a bit of reassurance in terms of his future. Then he burst my pontificating bubble by asking, “what makes a good photo-editor?”

As eloquent as I had been up to that point, I suddenly found myself speechless. I stammered on, talking about the great editors I had worked with (as well as some of the duds.) I dropped a few names and told a couple war stories. Then I admitted that though I knew great editors, I was struggling to define what made them great. I promised the student that I would turn the answer to his question into a blog entry. I am doing this to help this student who posed the question, and to help any others who are thinking of working as photo-editors.

What makes a good photo editor? I have worked with some great ones and some awful ones. I have worked with editors who ended up at the National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine and Life Magazine to name just a few. Over almost three decades as a photojournalist, some photo editors have made me shine, some have humiliated me, and many have left me scratching my head in bewilderment.
The obvious answer is that a good photo editor can find the best photo amidst a large set of seemingly disconnected images, but there is much more to it than that.

A good photo editor needs to be able to explain why a certain photo works (and why another does not.) They should be able to explain that to the photographer who made the image, but they also need to be able to explain that to the editor(s) they work with (and often to the writer whose text is frequently driving the story that will include the photo(s.) So knowing what a good photo is, can be a starting point, but it is not enough.

A good photo editor is up to date on what other photographers are doing, regardless of whether the work of the “others” competes with the publication where the editor works. This is doubly so in the Internet/television age, where we encounter so much imagery in day-to-day life. A good photo editor is equally up to date on the latest technology, in terms of cameras, imaging software, and publication platforms.

An understanding of cropping is important for photo editors so they can re-organize a good image, so it becomes a great publication image. Almost as importantly, a good photo-editor knows when not to crop an image. The best photo editors know when to come back to a photographer and say, “Do you have an image with more space, one that is almost the same, but will be improved by an idea I have for an unusual kind of layout?”

Along those lines, the best photo-editors use cropping mostly as a way to teach photographers how to become better, by showing them how they should structure their images in the future. But they also know how to crop an existing image to bring out the power of that image.

A good photo-editor is a careful listener when needed but also does not swallow the excuses that some photographers give for why a given assignment did not “work out.” A lot like a coach, a photo editor needs to understand a given photographers strengths (and weaknesses) and making sure that the assignments they give that photographer plays to those same strengths.

A great photo editor is one who trusts the photographers they work with to be a journalist in their own right rather than merely someone who works in service to the writer of the story. The very best editors I have worked with occasionally let my strong images drive the final piece. They would have the writer tailor their words to my images.

A good photo-editor is someone who, like a coach, takes pride when those who work under them in the publication hierarchy, succeed. They embrace the photographer’s success as partially theirs (which it often is.) The best photo editors send notes, cards, e-mails and the like to tell their photographers that they did a good job. There is a folder in my desk drawer labeled “Letters/Good stuff,” that is filled with such notes that I treasure and look at when I am feeling down.

A good photo editor knows that working with a consistent set of photographers over time creates a kind of “institutional memory” that can make a good publication into a great one. At the same time, the editor must know that cutting out “dead-wood” and bringing in new “talent” often motivates other photographers in interesting ways.

The best photo editors treat freelancers and staff photographers as equals, (as much as that is possible.) They seek out and respect the freelancer’s input on the contractual aspects of the business. They know when to fight with management to get a fair deal for the freelancers. (This is doubly important since staff photographers are becoming a thing of the past and most photographers working for publications will soon be freelance.)

A good photo-editor is a psychologist, reading the mood of the photographers they work with and knowing when to push them to do more and when to ease up on them temporarily. They are also diplomats, negotiating the inherent competition between photographers and writers for space in the publication. The best editor can deliver bad news in a diplomatic, even nurturing way to ease the obvious disappointment a photographer may feel. A good photo-editor is a bit of a horse trader when it comes to these same negotiations, particularly when it involves the management of the publication and doubly so when budgets are involved. A good photo editor has the self-confidence to put a writer, manager or photographer in their place when needed. They also have the humility to know when they are out of their league.

So what makes a bad photo editor? Any editor who fails in one or more of the tasks outlined above. For example, I have never expected a photo editor to quit their job on my behalf. However, I would love to know that they fought for my story, rather than rolling over at the first push-back from management. I know that photo editors are busy people, but the “duds” were the ones who could not take two minutes to walk me through the process of what happened to my work and explain why. I put my heart and soul into their assignment and I expect them to appreciate that, even if briefly. The worst photo editors were the ones who used phrases like “camera” to describe me to the writer or editor on a given project, saying things like “…your snapper will be there at…”

A good photo-editor knows great photography, but in some ways that is the easy part of the job. A good photo editor is part coach, part diplomat, part negotiator, part tech-guru, part educator, part advisor and part visionary. The best editors know when to slip in and out of which role. They make the transition between each as effortless as those at the top of the editing craft make finding the best photo, buried deep in a set of images.

One response to “What makes a good photo editor”

  1. Thanks for answering the student’s question in such a thoughtful way. This should be sent to every photo editor, and everyone who supervises photo editors!

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