What is the relationship of photographer with picture editor?

I’d been wanting to write something about working with a picture editor for a while. Exactly what to say hasn’t been clear to me, until now.

I thought about bemoaning the loss of picture editors at publications, based on this and other comments: “And the sad truth is, as the industry has shrunk and the economy has soured, the first thing to go has been picture editors... from the outside that looks like a job that a page designer or a copy editor can do.”

No question, publications have robbed their picture editing staffs for a variety of reasons. They have to create web content so why not pull from the photo staff; anyone can pick pictures so why not turn that over to copy editors or designers; a lot of picture editors aren’t good at it so why not get rid of them. Bemoaning the reasoning behind these decisions won’t change them. So I continued to ponder the subject.

Then another photographer wrote: “Editing is such an interesting skill set, and it would be insightful to hear more about the relationship between editor and photographer from someone who is a successful editor.”

Now that I can speak to in a way that might be helpful.

First, let me define picture editor: Someone who helps bring out the potential in photographers by expanding what they’re capable of seeing and saying with their pictures, from the conception of a subject matter through approach to that subject, establishing a structure for the set of pictures and then selection and sequencing of images. An equal role is advising photographers on what they’re doing well and what they could do better.

Within a publishing environment, a picture editor creates an environment where photography is a voice equal to words and design. The picture editor advocates for strong photography and is heard.

A good picture editor is like a good movie director.

When working with a picture editor, you are either stuck with or blessed by that picture’s editor’s depth of ability to see and feel and understand you and your photography. A picture editor can trample photographers by inflicting them with his or her way of seeing, in the same way that a director can trample actors by forcing his vision on them, instead of coaxing their best from them.

Bad picture editors have images in their minds and expect photographers to make those pictures, verbatim, and then try to force those pictures into an edit; good picture editors work with the photographer to determine the qualities that should come from a situation and let the photographer’s skill come to play in creating images that convey those qualities and then through editing elevates the story telling further.

Bad picture editors cow to the needs and wants of the publication without setting a visual bar, a standard; they routinely make photographers compromise their work. Good ones establish a standard for photography and utilize a variety of ways to explain those standards in measurable ways that become clear to writers, editors and designers, while offering solutions that do meet the publication’s needs.

In other words, good picture editors bring the best out of photographers to create bodies of work that a publishing environment recognizes will compel its audience.

That said, none of this is black and white.

There are good picture editors in bad environments, where no matter what they do, photography gets stabbed in the back because of word-driven choices. I saw a newspaper recently that had nearly identical, not very interesting portraits on three different section fronts - apparently because word editors thought those were the best topics to present in lead positions, photography be damned. This is hardly unique.

And there are lesser picture editors who work with great art directors who elevate the work beyond the picture editor’s ability.

And there are settings where word editors support strong photography but art directors mutilate the potential.

If you’re lucky, you get to work with someone who knows what they’re doing.

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