Editing Photographs: Top Considerations for Editors Choosing Visuals for Publication
Many people are surprised when they learn that editors (like me) often choose the photographs in a publication. Rather than the art director or designer or production team, the editor on many projects will develop a “photo manuscript” (a list of all the photographic requirements for a publication) and choose among the options gathered for each need (often gathered by a photo researcher, a specialist). Sometimes authors will wonder why a certain photo was chosen. Here are key factors in choosing:
- visual quality
- reproduction, design qualities, and more details
- price and availability
- big picture
A well-chosen photo can be worth a thousand words. So, every client wants to get the best and the best service. To see what I mean, here’s more about each factor:
- content—Unless a photograph is purely decorative, the photo is considered “content,” the meat of the publication, and equivalent to text, so it must work with the text to meet the goals of the publication. Based on those goals, an editor might ask for a specific photo (e.g., Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” from the 1930s), a photo of a specific subject (e.g., migrant workers in the United States or Depression-era poverty), a photo of a general subject (e.g., woman and children), a photo of a subject to illustrate a concept or mood (tired desperation), or even a photo to illustrate the craft and art of photography (e.g., “need an example of early photography—black and white, realistic, social commentary”). The editor should have a clear idea of each photo’s function and how broad or narrow the search can be—and might even suggest possible sources. For example, the editor might ask for “first Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ and then a photograph like ‘Migrant Mother’ but present-day and from any non-US location; the combination of photos is to illustrate a comparison of the US Depression vs. global economic factors now.” When the options are gathered, the editor chooses among them to match the photo manuscript.
- visual quality—Between 2 equal options, the editor will try to choose the better photo based on visual criteria—clarity, colour and/or contrast, and composition. It helps if the editor has taken the time to develop an eye for these aspects. The editor should be able to defend his or her choice with more than “I like it.” (“I like it.” “I don’t like it.” These statements are the bane of photo researchers, designers, and experienced editors. On their own, the statements are not useful in choosing photos or directing the search for more, better images.)
- reproduction, design qualities, and more details—The editor has to ensure (or ask others to ensure) that the photo will reproduce well—e.g., that the image resolution is high enough. If the shot is unique and fulfils a specific need (e.g., photo of Anne Frank), grainy is defensible; if not, editors choose the best resolution. As well, the editor should consider where the image falls in the layout, what other visual elements it must work with, will it serve the layout or not, etc. For example, if a person in a photo will seem to be staring into the book’s gutter, will that work? If not, can the photo be moved in the layout or flipped? Lastly, the editor must check the photo against any restrictions for the publication—e.g., no cigarette ads in a photo for a school textbook, no digitally moving the pyramids in a geography article about Egypt, no digital splicing of historical photos in a history web page.
- price and availability—Does it fit the budget? If a price is high, is it worth it for a unique shot or are there many options available? Can hi-res (high-resolution) be available in time? If there are outstanding release forms, can they be signed in time?
- big picture—So, overall, what will the publication look like? Are most photos black and white? (and was that intended?) Are too many simple head shots or mainly landscapes devoid of people? Collectively, do the chosen images give a good mix of subjects, sources, and perspectives? Are the images familiar and over-used? new and fresh? Will the photos engage someone flipping or skimming? Are there unintended trends or foci or gaps? For example, if a book is for a Canadian market and about Canada, does it show diverse, male and female, young and old people? If a web page focuses on Western media and the Vietnam War, does it include pivotal photos that would be expected? Does a publication by and about Aboriginal peoples of Canada show a wide range of peoples, include Elders, and draw on First Nations, Métis, and Inuit sources as well as mainstream sources? Do photos about G20 meetings only focus on summer 2010 in Toronto or should they include photos from all G20 meetings?
Choosing photos is a complex business. If you would like to learn more or ask about services, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.