There’s no better feeling than seeing your photography published by your favorite brands. Discover our top tips to pitch your photography and get published.
One of the biggest perks of being a photographer in the digital age is that if you create something, you can also publish it. There’s no better feeling than seeing your work on the pages of a prestigious publication or the Instagram of your favorite brand.
Not only does that open up the opportunity for making money and gaining exposure, but it helps you share the stories and ideas you care about with more people. Pitching your photography, whether it’s archival work you’ve already shot or a dream project you can’t wait to shoot, is an excellent way to stay creative at home. So how do you pitch your photography and get your photos published?
While I wouldn’t call myself an expert in photography, publishing, or marketing, I do have the unique experience of having worked in all three fields simultaneously. I’m a documentary photographer, an editor at a small independent magazine, and a producer on commercial shoots for a number of large outdoor brands. Perched at this intersection of pitching and being pitched, I quickly learned what it takes to communicate and sell your photo project ideas effectively.
Pitching your photography during COVID-19
With the current global outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) requiring creatives, freelancers, and photographers to practice social distancing, it’s a great opportunity to review old work and spend some time crafting dream pitches to work on in the future. For the time being, we need to stay indoors and flatten the curve to promote the safe wellbeing of the global population. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t get inspired to pitch new creative projects when the situation normalizes.
No matter what kind of photography you do, there are steps you can take to help your idea stand out. In this article, I’ve coupled advice from some of my most trusted mentors and industry friends with my own experience to help you better articulate your ideas.
Tip #1: Nothing Kills A Pitch Faster Than “Sameness”
“I am most drawn to stories that are unique and unexpected,” says Jeanine Pesce, the Founder and Creative Director of RANGE Mag. “It’s hard to cut through the noise right now, especially when anyone with an iPhone is a ‘photographer’ going on an epic adventure. At a certain point, all of these adventures start to feel inherently similar. What makes your story distinctly yours will likely be the thing that draws me to it.” Nothing kills a pitch faster than “sameness,” so consider ways to tell your story through a new lens.
Finding unique stories
For example, when the federal government was first considering shrinking the size of Bears Ears National Monument, my photographer friends and I wanted to find a way to give that area relevancy to people all over the country. Since people everywhere love to run, we decided to gather a group of activists, athletes, Navajo community leaders, and friends (some who had never run a day in their lives) from all over the U.S. and relay run 250 miles across the monument, documenting the journey through photos and film. It was an emotional, funny, powerful story that hadn’t been told before — and because we were excited about it, brands and publications mirrored that energy.
“Whether it’s polished or refined, vulnerable or confident, if I can feel the human connection through your visual narrative, I’m sold,” says Pesce.
Tip #2: Pitch the Story to the Right Place
While you have to start somewhere, you also have to be realistic with where your work is best suited. Getting photographs printed in National Geographic would be a career highlight, but editors there famously work on an invite-only basis with the top photographers in the world. If you aren’t quite at that level, then it probably makes sense to pitch your story to more accessible magazines in the same adventure category, such as Sidetracked or Beside, to build up your credentials first. Alternatively, maybe you’d have better luck pitching your story to a more specific digital arm of National Geographic, like its travel blog.
When pitching brands, do some research on how your target brand works with creatives. Some companies offer insight to this right on their website in an FAQ or Contact Us section, but it might also be worth reaching out to someone on a brand’s marketing team to learn more about their process before pitching. If a brand only works with inhouse photographers, then it’s probably not going to be worthwhile to pitch them on a campaign shoot.
Aligning with a nonprofit
If you’re working on a purpose-driven project, aligning yourself with a nonprofit could help elevate your story, especially if a brand is already involved with that organization. “Through our 1% For the Planet membership, we sponsor various film and photo projects through the year, but to get our support, those projects must be associated with a 1% for the Planet nonprofit,” explains PEAK Design’s Chief Marketing Director Adam Saraceno. “So if you’re working on a purpose-driven project, we recommend looking for alignment with a 1% organization.”
Tip #3: Make Research Part of Your Pitch
Editors can receive hundreds of pitches per week. There’s no quicker way to sabotage a potential relationship than to waste an editor’s time. Budget an hour into your pitching process to do research on the brand or publication you want to work with. Seek out free issues of a magazine at your local library or find out if they offer digital versions via ISSU. Check out what Instagram posts have performed well for a brand and spend time reading their blog. Reference recently published stories in your pitch to show you’ve done your homework. Here are some basic questions to ask yourself during this process:
- When is the last time they covered a story like mine? What did it look like? How can I make my version more compelling or timely?
- Why does my story need to be told right now? Why am I the one to tell it?
- What section of this magazine could my story fit into? What product or message is this brand selling that fits authentically into my narrative?
- Does my style of shooting mesh well with the existing tone of this publication or brand?
Tip #4: Put Relationships First
According to Wondercamp photographer and filmmaker Greg Balkin, who regularly works with brands like REI and organizations like The Wilderness Society, the most difficult aspect of pitching a project is cutting through the noise. “In the era of social media, there are a million ways to reach brands or publications — direct messages, tagging on Instagram, email, phone calls, LinkedIn, etc.,” he says. “It can be challenging to get to the right person and be heard by them, enough to where they’re willing to build rapport and trust whatever pitch you’re throwing their way.”
Be specific and intentional with photography pitches
When I’m hiring a photographer on behalf of a brand or publication, I’m most receptive to pitches that feel highly specific and offer a collaborative approach. I respond to pitches that demonstrate the photographer is looking for a long-term working relationship with the brand, not easy money or free gear for his or her trip. I can’t count the number of emails I delete that say: “Hey! Love your brand. I’m going to Hawaii in a few weeks and would love to shoot some of your gear.” Come up with a story that fits the brand or publication and convince me of it — don’t make me do the work for you.
Once you build rapport with an editor or brand manager, take care of that relationship by regularly pitching them thoughtful, collaborative project ideas. Respond to emails quickly, invoice promptly, and be professional. Tag your editor when you share the project on social media (trust me, they never get credit). Remember: an editor is much more likely to hire someone he or she has worked with before than take a chance on someone new.
Tip #5: Create A Deck and Keep It Simple
Being able to communicate your ideas well is almost as important as the ideas themselves. Building a pitch deck isn’t always necessary, but it can serve as a great jumping-off point. “Building a pitch deck helps refine what’s important and can aid the conversation because you’re giving something tangible to the creative team or editor to look through and assess,” says Balkin. When creating a pitch deck, remember to:
- Show Your Personality: “While your ideas might be super rad, people are going to keep hiring you because of you,” says Balkin.
- Lay Out the Details: Share any relevant information about the shoot, like dates and locations.
- Focus on Emotion: Communicate the feeling of the shoot as best as possible. “Try to get the buy-in on the emotional connection as opposed to saying ‘we’re going on a cool road trip!’” Balkin explains.
- Include Relevant Work Examples: Sprinkle in examples of past work throughout the deck, but tailor them to the project you’re pitching. PEAK Design’s Saraceno needs to see proof photographers have experience shooting product photography: “Product photography — lifestyle and studio — has its own set of best practices when it comes to lighting, styling, composition, and processing.”
- Suggest A Budget: Lay out what assets you’ll deliver and what you’d like to be paid. Some people choose not to include this, but it can be a helpful tool for setting up the conversation.
Design your deck on a platform you’re comfortable with
When building the deck itself, don’t reinvent the wheel. If you don’t know how to use Adobe Illustrator or InDesign, there are many resources for creating stylish, professional decks quickly, such as Beautiful.ai or Shutterstock Editor. This is a good time to update your email signature, Instagram bio, LinkedIn profile, and website. Consider having a logo designed for your business. You can add it to your decks, email signature, social media and website to really elevate your online presence. Here’s another resource for creating beautiful photography portfolios.
Tip #6: It Pays To Take Risks (And Sometimes Work For Free)
Unpopular opinion: it can benefit you to work for free — at least the first time. When I’m juggling a smaller budget for a brand or publication, I’m more hesitant to hire someone new because I have no idea if my investment will yield usable photos. I love it when a photographer offers to shoot something for free or for a small fee so we can work out the kinks of working together. It shows me they are interested in a long-term relationship.
“If we can get a production or concept sponsored or underwritten by a brand, great,” explains RANGE’s Pesce. “Everyone wins. But if we’re paying out of pocket our budgets are typically limited to around $200-$500 per asset, max. I’ll often try and come up with deals that work for both of us.”
Flexibility is key
Be flexible on budget during your pitching process and you could set yourself up for priority consideration later. I’ve worked with some photographers for years now — I trust them and they get my vision, so I’m more likely to come to them first when the opportunity for a higher paying job comes along. Be in it for the long game.
“I love abstract stories that explore lineage and self-awareness,” continues Pesce. “One of my favorite photographers is Brian Merriam. He navigates the complexities of profound, transformational grief through his photo essays in remote regions like the Himalayas and Alaska. I can feel the full spectrum of emotions when I sit with his dimensional landscape photography.”
The most important advice I can give about pitching is this: Don’t play it safe. Be smart and strategic (and make sure you can actually deliver on your idea), but avoid limiting yourself. Every single photographer has a highly specific and unique set of skills, circumstances, and experiences that set him or her apart from anyone else. Maybe you have access to a story no one else has considered or are going on a unique trip. Perhaps you know how to take photos underwater or have a background as a stylist. To effectively pitch a story, define and communicate what you offer that no one else can.
All images by writer and photographer Johnie Gall.
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