Breaking into photography: how to pitch to photo editors

Tips from the industry on how to pitch a photojournalism project, stand out from the crowd and get hired by a photo editor.
Two washing machines and a tumble drier are set up on a pallet on the edge of a dusty mountainside. Next to them is a red sofa, facing away from the camera, with two men sitting on it.

Israeli photojournalist Naama Stern believes it's crucial to have something new to say when pitching to photo editors, but also to be able to frame your work within a wider story. Her documentary project ADAMA highlights the lifestyle of farmers living in the Judea and Samaria mountains. "These individuals trusted me and allowed me to enter their lives, which are perhaps being shown for the first time," she explains. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV at 35mm, 1/500 sec, f/16 and ISO 200. © Naama Stern

Pitching a photography project can be an intimidating task. Of course you want to make a great first impression and get your hard work noticed, but it can be difficult to stand out from the dozens, if not hundreds, of prospective stories that photo editors receive every day. If you've got an idea – or maybe have already started, or even completed a project – do you know how to take it through to publication?

We've spoken to numerous photographers and photo editors with decades of collective experience working in the industry – receiving photographers' pitches, commissioning and reviewing portfolios. Here's their best advice on what you can do to improve your chances of success when pitching a photo story.

 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. © Paul Hackett

Make sure editors can access your images

It might seem obvious, but if you are sending photos to an editor, it's essential that they can access them – preferably with the minimum of fuss. When trying to make a good first impression, don't just send a mass of images and hope for the best.

"The visibility of a photographer's project is very important. Upload your project to your website or organise it neatly in a PDF," says Naama Stern, an Israeli photojournalist and documentary photographer who participated in the 2022 Canon Student Development Programme (CSDP). "No editor will waste their time opening a bunch of email attachments that have to be downloaded one by one."

Fiona Shields, Head of Photography at The Guardian and regular CSDP mentor, agrees. "Include something that's easy and accessible to view the images in, like a PDF," she says. "It's important to include captions, 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."

Be selective with your images

When it comes to choosing what to include in your pitch, be selective and try to make it as strong as possible. Thomas Borberg, photographer, teacher, former Photo Editor-in-Chief at Politiken and regular CSDP mentor, says that this will increase your chances of success.

"I think you have to see photography as food in a way," he says. "You have all these images like ingredients, you have to take the best and let it boil, and make a beautiful presentation. Serve it in a way that makes me curious… Think that you only have 30 seconds or one minute to serve the food you have created."

Being selective with your image choices doesn't mean omitting context or variety in your compositions, though. "I receive lots of story submissions and I often find the range of the images is very narrow," says Magdalena Herrera, former Director of Photography at GEO France and CSDP mentor. "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. 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."

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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.

German-Iranian photojournalist Shirin Abedi was one of Magdalena's mentees at the 2020 CSDP. A selection of images from each mentee's story was shown in a book produced by Canon, titled Encourage. This image is from Shirin's May I Have This Dance series, which documents the members of a ballet group in Tehran, Iran, who are determined to keep on dancing despite opposition from the authorities. 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 ISO 3200. © Shirin Abedi

Take the pyramid approach to pitching

The photo editor you are pitching to often needs to know exactly what you're proposing as quickly as possible. To make things easier, present your pitch in a pyramid form. "Give it a headline, then a brief outline [also known as a standfirst] and then go into depth and indicate why that pitch is topical and useful at that particular point," Fiona explains.

Naama takes a similar approach with the images in her pitches. "I recommend attaching the final project link or PDF to the email itself, as well as a photo of the best image from the project series. This gives a small glimpse of the project and can attract the editor's interest before they even open the email," she says.

Include a strong bio

One of the most important parts of a successful pitch is a strong bio that represents who you truly are as a photographer, what you've done, and what you are able to do for a publication. "Your bio should indicate any specialisms you might have, for example if you're an underwater photographer. Additional skills are helpful to know about," says Fiona.

Be sure to add your contact details, including your mobile number and location. "Show your published work, as publications want to see if you can fit with their style. At the same time show the more risky work you may choose to do – that you can also think originally," she continues.

"It's becoming more and more 'old school' to present a story shot only with a handheld camera and one or two lenses," adds Rickey Rogers, Global Editor at Reuters Pictures and CSDP speaker. Incorporating technology such as drones, remote cameras and even VR video is a good way to make your work stand out from the crowd.

"It's increasingly rare for us to assign photographers who don't have a drone and pilot certification to stories about natural disasters or conflict," he says. "You should keep abreast of the latest technology and include it in your portfolio and bio."

A man stands in the doorway of a synagogue on a farm in the Judea and Samaria mountains.

Naama applied for the 2022 CSDP to push her career to a new level. "I was very lucky to take part in this amazing programme. To have the chance to meet photographers and colleagues, to show my work and be known more internationally," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV at 35mm, 1/500 sec, f/1.4 and ISO 125. © Naama Stern

Make it personal

"Don't be shy to show who you are," says Rickey. "Imposter syndrome is real but remember to be authentic and situate yourself in your context and reality, and have faith in that."

Naama says, "In my opinion, it is integral to expand on the topic that you as a photographer studied and documented. Your project probably touches a topic that concerns you, that interests you or that is connected to you physically or emotionally. When people can relate to and identify with the subject, they will be more interested. It matters more to them, and they are drawn deeper into your story. The most important thing is to create a connection with those who are interested in hearing about your project."

Target your pitch

"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'."

Armenian photographer Anush Babajanyan is a member of VII Photo Agency, a National Geographic Explorer and 2019 Canon Female Photojournalist Grant winner, as well as a mentor for the CSDP. Battered Waters, her long-term project exploring the climate crisis in Central Asia, was a 2023 World Press Photo Contest nominee. "As a photographer, I know how hard it can be to pitch repeatedly and to keep receiving rejections," she says. "But the only way to succeed is to keep trying. It is important to understand what type of stories the publication publishes, to know if there is potential for your story. You should also be able to explain it in a few brief sentences and make clear why it needs to be told now.

"One example of a successful pitch was my suggestion to the publication Rest of World to photograph and interview IT workers moving from Russia to Armenia, since the start of the war in Ukraine," she continues. "This unusual angle fitted the tech-oriented publication."

Three young scouts and one older scout leader stand waiting at the side of a country road.

This image, Waiting for the Next Task, is taken from reportage, portrait and documentary photographer Stephan Lucka's series, Das Gefühl, das nur wir kennen (The Feeling Only We Know). It documents the continued popularity of the Scout Movement in Germany, of which there are 260,000 members. Stephan graduated from the CSDP in 2020. "I got very valuable advice from my mentor, Daniel Etter, about the editing of one of my projects. It made my portfolio stronger and helped me with pitches," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens at 1/800 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 400. © Stephan Lucka

Keep it newsworthy

Rickey says that keeping up to date with what is happening in the world is vital when pitching photojournalism stories. "Focus your efforts on stories that are relevant to the most important, ongoing news topics, not ones that have already been heavily reported on," he says. It's important to be discerning here – issues that were hot talking points even a few months ago may not cut it any more. "Make your pitches about the impact on specific people, whose stories put a human face to the news."

Be practical in your expectations

Ideas are cheap; executing them can be rather more expensive. It's all very well pitching an ambitious project, but you have to be able to pull it off.

"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 former AFP Photo Director and past CSDP speaker Francis Kohn. "But the story also has to be doable. Sometimes you get a photographer asking 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."

A black and white photograph of a boy sitting on the floor of a classroom filling in a form on his lap, and looking upwards at the camera.

This image from Alabi's Students of Ibadan series shows a boy sitting on the floor during a leadership program organised by the Fashioned and Made for Excellence Foundation. Alabi says he has been encouraging his colleagues in Nigeria to apply for the CSDP. "I got to learn, meet and network with great people. The experience for me was very satisfying. Canon gave me an opportunity and I'm forever grateful for it," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS 250D with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/4-5.6 IS STM lens at 18mm, 1/15 sec, f/4 and ISO 800. © Alabi Samuel Anjolaoluwa

Use social media to your advantage

Alabi Samuel Anjolaoluwa took part in the 2022 CSDP, receiving useful tips on how to develop as a professional photographer as well as mentorship from Canon Ambassador Ilvy Njiokiktjien. He advises incorporating social media into your pitches as a great way to show off more of your work. "You could use it as an additional portfolio," he says. "It's fast and a single picture could blow up online. You never can tell who's watching and paying attention to your work. All it takes sometimes is a DM, email or phone call. Do your thing!"

Naama agrees. "It is no surprise that today, social networks are an integral part of our lives. They are like a landing page for who we are. It is the way photographers and editors communicate, photographers and photographers communicate and how photographers communicate with their audience. Therefore it is important to keep live and updated social profiles."

Anusha adds: "In addition to looking through images you attach to your pitch, an editor may want to take a look at your social accounts to get a better idea of how you work."

Participants in the Canon Student Development programme sitting around a table with staff at the Stern magazine offices in Hamburg, Germany.

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Apply for portfolio reviews and enter competitions

Canon Ambassador Gulshan Khan, a South African photojournalist based in Johannesburg, says that if you're trying to get hired for the first time, it is vital to get your work seen. "What really helped me was portfolio reviews," she explains. "Apply for portfolio reviews and for funding, such as from the Open Society Foundations, Everyday Africa and Women Photograph."

Fiona, who has previously worked as a picture editor, student mentor and judge on various photography awards says competitions are a great way of discovering new talent. "Don't be afraid to enter, because often the judging panels are really broad and varied," she says. "You'll come across photo editors for news publications, but also curators for exhibitions and museums, so there's a doorway into the art world as well."

Hear more insight from industry professionals in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:

 A group of teenagers laugh and dance around outside, packed in closely together.

Young scouts enjoying themselves in this image from Stephan's The Feeling Only We Know series. Stephan says of his long-term project, which was shortlisted for the Festival della Fotografia Etica Student Award: "The scouts form their own socio-cultural microcosmos, and by looking at it we can learn something about society in general. About how we want to treat each other, how we want to live together." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM) at 24mm, 1/160 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 4000. © Stephan Lucka

Follow up and develop connections

Fiona adds that it's worth following up on pitches in a professional manner. "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," she says.

Stephan Lucka was a participant in the 2020 CSDP and is now a freelance photographer who has had work published in German magazine Stern and on the Der Spiegel website. His portfolio includes a photography project exploring the Scout Movement in Germany titled The Feeling Only We Know.

Stephan has these additional tips to share: "Try to make your portfolio as good as you can, as short as needed, as long as necessary," he says. "Be persistent. Sometimes it doesn't work, but don't be frustrated, and try to establish relationships with people. It's not only about the quality of the work, but also about human connection."

Thomas adds: "I like it when people take a constructive approach if I say no, and ask, '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 in the future, because it's helpful for both of us."

Time to get pitching

Ultimately, there's no one secret that will guarantee a commission. However, taking these expert tips into account will certainly boost your chances and give you a solid foundation on which to work. Remember to always be professional and polite and also keep in mind the knowledge that even the most acclaimed photographers get rejected sometimes. Now, get pitching.

David Clark, Emma-Lily Pendleton, Ashvin Tiwana and Will Salmon

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