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What Is Editorial Photography?

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What is editorial photography? We can look at this from two different perspectives.

The Stylistic Perspective

Editorial photographers will seek to illustrate a story with their photographs. The story may be purely visual, or the photographs may accompany words.

An editorial photography shot of tricycle taxis in Chiang Mai carrying female Indian passengers in the annual Flower Festival parade.
This is an editorial style image. It is part of a story on the annual flower festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

The Legal Perspective

The legal perspective accounts for how photographs are licensed and where they get published.
Legally, you cannot use editorial use only images for commercial or advertising purposes. Photographs sold with an editorial license will usually contain:

  • Recognisable people and/or
  • Some sort of copyrighted material.

A photograph sold under an editorial license is not always an editorially styled image.

Four Energizer brand AA size alkaline batteries isolated on a white background.
This photo is sold though photo stock agencies with an editorial license. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

What Is Editorial Licensing?

Professional photographers will license their images for either commercial or editorial use. And the two different types of license determine how images can be published.

Stock Photo Definition of Editorial Use Only

Newspapers, magazines, websites, textbooks and some other publications can use editorial licensed photos. Editorial use only photographs can illustrate a story, but not sell a product. Generally, these go with articles that are newsworthy, informative, or educational.
Photographs of products, private property or people often sell under an editorial license. If the photographer has an appropriate model or property release for the photos, these may sell with a commercial license.
Stock photo agencies usually have disclaimers attached to editorial images. This is because they cannot control end use of the photos they sell. The disclaimer states the buyer is responsible for how the photo is published. They are plain about separating their company from liability for use of the photos.
In most countries, you are legally allowed to photograph anything you like from a public space. The general exception is that you cannot infringe on the rights of others or abuse their right to privacy. And some countries forbid photographing military facilities, power plants, and other infrastructure.
The main legal issues surrounding photographs, however, concern how and where they are published.
If you are buying photos to use and are not sure how you can use them, check with the stock agency before you make a purchase.
Even under creative commons agreements licensing, you must be careful how you publish.

An editorial photography shot of someone parasailing over the ocean at sunset
This photo can be sold with an editorial license because the people are not recognisable.

You Can Use Editorial Use Only Images:

  • In a newspaper or magazine article
  • On a blog or website for descriptive purposes
  • In a non-commercial presentation

You Cannot Use Editorial Use Only Images:

  • In any kind of advertising or promotional material.
  • For any ‘advertorial’ purposes. That is, in publications where a fee from a third party paid for placement of the photo.

Stock agencies and publications have their own sets of rules on post-production of editorial photos. The generally accepted standard is minor colour and tone balancing is okay. Cloning or any other manipulation which might change the meaning of the photo is unacceptable.
An editorial license does not cover the publication of a photo for commercial gain. For example, if you want to sell t-shirts, mugs or the novel you have written with someone else’s photos you must buy a commercial license.
Monetized blogs and even newspapers and magazines fall into a grey area. This happens because they publish photographs together with articles, but the publications exist for commercial gain.

A Buddhist monk sweeps the temple grounds. Editorial photography.
Stock agencies sell this photo with a commercial license because I have a model release from the monk. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

Commercially Licensed Stock Photos

Any stock photo can sell under a commercial license if:

  • It contains no recognisable people.
  • It contains no copyrighted material.or
  • An appropriate model or property release accompanies the photo.
  • Recognisable people.

If a person can identify themselves in a photo, you need a model release from them to license the photo commercially. A person may be silhouetted, out of focus, or otherwise blurred in which case a release is not normally required.

Copyrighted Material

Anything that is commercially owned is usually copyrighted. For example, you could not sell a photograph with a McDonald’s logo in it under a commercial license. The company owns and controls the use of the logo design.

An editorial photography shot of a large M sign above the entrance to a McDonalds store in Seoul, South Korea.
This photo can only be sold under an editorial license because of the obvious branding in the picture. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

Photos of products like cars, even if you cannot see the logo, cannot be sold commercially. Copyright laws apply to the design of the products. If you are taking photos and want to sell them through stock agencies you need to be aware of the many copyright issues.
Branding often appears on things like zipper pulls, buttons, sunglasses and many other fashion items. These are all things you must be careful to avoid. It is usually not possible to obtain property releases for such things.
It is generally permissible to clone out logos, people or anything else from an image to be sold with a commercial license.

Model and Property Releases

Photos used for editorial purposes do not need model or property releases. This makes it much easier for photographers to produce photos to for this type of licensing.

An editorial photography shot of a man in red posing in a busy street scene
Even if I have a model release for the man, this photo could only be sold with an editorial license because of the commercial logo and other copyrighted material in the picture. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

Commercial or Editorial Photography?

There is no clearly defined line between editorial and commercial use. It is up to the publisher to take the risk when they use a photo with an editorial license that contains people or things which may be subject to copyright. Ultimately only a court ruling can decide a case.
If you are selling your photographs casually or professionally you need to be aware of these legalities. Now we have got them out of the way, let’s move on to talk about editorial photography from the perspective of style.

Crowds of people enjoying an afternoon at a hot air balloon festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Editorial photography.
Branding and people mean this photo could only be sold with an editorial license. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

What Is Editorial Photography Style?

Purists will say that you cannot set up or pose an editorial photograph. I disagree. Journalistic photographs are not posed, not set up and not manipulated. That’s because those are news photographs.
The purpose of editorial photography is different, as they illustrate a story.

A hand adding pigment to water for dying thread.
This set up editorial style photograph is from a story about hand made fabric production. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

I started my photography career in the Illustrations Department of a daily newspaper. It was our job to produce photographs illustrating the story they were to be published with.
Not every story and photo in a newspaper is hard news. Most are not. Most are human interest stories. These are often about people or events in the community. To illustrate this type of story well, you generally need some set up.

Phrao, Chiang Mai, Thailand - July 11 2013: A woman prepares raw silk before she spins it in north Thailand.
This is another set up photo. I needed to include an image of this part of the process so I asked her to show me how she worked with the raw silk. Photo By:Kevin Landwer-Johan

For example. Maybe my assignment was to photograph a portrait of a soccer goalkeeper the paper was running a story on. Rather than making a plain portrait I would ask the goalkeeper to put on their jersey and gloves and bring a ball to hold.
This way the photograph contains strong visual reference to what the person does and what the story is about. I have manipulated the situation. And I have staged the photo. This is, however, still an editorial portrait because it illustrates a story.

Editorial Photography vs Photo Journalism

A Buddhist monk takes a photograph during the Poi Sang Long festival. This is an annual event when young boys who will enter the temple as novice monks are dressed in bright coloured costumes and make up and paraded around on the shoulders of male family members. Journalism or editorial photography.
This photo falls under photojournalism. It is unstaged and unmanipulated coverage of an event. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

There is a difference between editorial style photos and photojournalism. Photographers working for newspapers or news magazines will usually produce both styles. The nature of the story they are covering will determine the style.
Photojournalism is generally hard news photography. Any manipulation is not acceptable. A journalistic photographer should not set up or stage a photograph in any way.
There are also very strict guidelines for post-processing allowed in journalistic new photos. You cannot post process a news photograph in a way that alters the meaning or content of the image. News publications have varying standards and policy about the level of acceptable manipulation.
Strong industry competition and the desire to have their work known can ruin a photographer’s career if they break the rules. There are frequent stories of photographers who have pushed the boundaries and broken the rules.

Families take part in the Poi Sang Long festival. Editorial photography.
Families taking part in the Poi Sang Long festival. Photo By:Kevin Landwer-Johan

As I explained earlier, editorial photography illustrates a story. In this genre of photography set up and staging are acceptable common practice. Digital manipulation of editorial photos is sometimes acceptable.
The photographer usually has some creative input into the photograph’s design. Choice of location, props and the way people pose all contribute to the story.

Working as an Editorial Photographer

The World Press Photo Foundation recently took an international survey of editorial photographers. Respondents typically said they loved their work. But they struggled to generate adequate income from their photography.
It’s difficult to generate enough income as an editorial photographer. Especially when you are first starting out. A lucky break can, in fact, make a huge difference. And if it’s what you want to do, go for it!
Seek the enjoyment many editorial photographers find in the genre. Make the most of the skills you have doing something that you love. For me, it was a far better option than working in a warehouse, shop or office.

 Women preparing silk thread for weaving in rural northern Thailand.
Another editorial style image from my story on handmade fabrics. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

These days newspapers and magazines have fewer photographers on staff than in the past. I had a lucky break landing a job at a daily newspaper. At first, I was just doing desk work, running errands and such. I was working in the Illustrations Department, and that is all that mattered to me.
Every now and then I would receive an assignment. Usually, a job that none of the photographers wanted. Like taking a new head and shoulders mug shot of a politician or businessman. Other times, when all the photographers were on assignment, I would cover breaking news.
This was a fabulous training ground. There was never a question of coming back without a publishable photo. The pressure was immense at times, but a good inspiration to do well.

Silk worms feeding on leaf in northern Thailand. Editorial photography.
Silk Worms. The origin of the handmade fabric. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

Six Qualities of Good Editorial Photographers

1. Always Follow the Brief

If your assignment is to cover a rugby game, do it. Don’t decide to cover a tennis match because you find it more interesting.
If your brief is to illustrate a story on plastic waste pollution, make sure your photos are clear in their meaning. They must support the story. There would be no point in returning to your editor with photos of glass waste or vehicle pollution because these would not be relevant.

Women weaving silk on a traditional loom in northern Thailand. Editorial photography.
A Buddhist nun weaves fabric in north Thailand. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

2. Consistently Generate Good Photo Concepts

It’s not merely a matter of knowing how to use your camera. You must be able to come up with story and photo concepts. You need to plan these through carefully. Make sure they are practical and have a set of compelling images.
Stay close to the news happening in your area, or where you can easily travel to, and you’ll come up with relevant story ideas.
Being a dependable supplier not just of good photographs, but of great story ideas, will sell you to an editor.

Hand winding silk thread in preparation for weaving.
Hand winding silk thread in preparation for weaving. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

3. Punctuality Is Crucial

You will need to meet deadlines. There is no point in producing awesome photographs if you don’t deliver them on time. Missing a deadline is unacceptable.
Slowing down, when you are able and without deadline pressures, is necessary too. Take time to think about and gain a better understanding of the story you are illustrating. Consider your options for how you can portray it photogenically. Choose your equipment well and employ the best photographic techniques you know.

Spinning silk thread by hand. Editorial photography.
Spinning silk thread by hand. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

4. Take Your Work Seriousky

Research, connect with people, understand them. Be passionate about your work.
A relaxed or removed attitude can mean unappealing results.  This is especially true on bigger assignments where you must produce a significant body of work. Stay close to your work. You will find it most rewarding because you will be producing the best photos you can.

Close up shots of a Thai woman working on a traditional loom weaving silk.
Close up shots of a Thai woman working on a traditional loom weaving silk. Photo By: Kevin Landwer-Johan

5. Have a Diverse Skill Set

You will have to produce publishable photos of whatever you are assigned to. You may have to photograph sports, politicians, destitute families, foreign refugees, and celebrities.
Be diverse in your technical abilities also. Know how to record and edit video. Carry a GoPro with you. Use your smartphone when needed.

Macro editorial photography shot of a hand preparing the loom for weaving.
Preparing the loom for weaving. Photo By : Kevin Landwer-Johan

6. Learn How to Post Process Editorial Photography

You will need to know what is ethically acceptable and what is not and follow those rules. Additionally, delivering well post-processed photos that follow the guidelines is not enough if you don’t do so in a timely manner. Be fast but don’t compromise on quality. This will mean new assignments coming your way.


Editorial photography can mean different things to different people. If you are selling your photographs you need to have a good understanding of the various license types. This means knowing what editorial or commercial licenses involve, and the individual publishing restrictions that come with both.
At the end of the day, choosing to work in an editorial style is all about illustrating a story. Whether or not your photos will be published with accompanying text, they must tell a story on their own.

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