The Role of a Photo Editor

Photo editor working at lightbox

Jon Feingersh / Iconica / Getty Images

Photo editors oversee the photography that appears in a magazine, primarily working as a point person for communicating with and hiring photographers. Photo editors also work for newspapers and other publications that feature photography. But the job of a photo editor is more important than meets the eye because what they do is subliminal.

A photo editor's real job is to create a full, rich experience for the reader or customer—to enhance the customer experience visually. It's no different than the world of the culinary arts: the best chefs will tell you that "you eat with your eyes first."

The Role of a Photo Editor

A common misconception about photo editors is that they act as photographers. Unlike magazine editors, who may often write for a magazine, photo editors very rarely take pictures for their magazines.

Instead, photo editors conceive of the visuals. What that means is that they hash out ideas with editors about what photos will be used and how they will complement the text they'll accompany. Then they go about hiring the right photographer for the job.

But it doesn't end there. The job of a photo editor also includes allocating and coordinating assignments and approving images. They are also tasked with selecting, editing, and positioning photos, as well as negotiating fees and rights to photos and obtaining permission to shoot photography. For example, if a photoshoot were to take place in Strawberry Fields in New York's Central Park, it would be the job of the photo editor to get permission from the VPs at Central Park.

The Skills You'll Need

Although photo editors aren’t actually shooting the pictures, they need to know everything there is to know about photography. They must have a good business sense (to negotiate contracts), and it's imperative that they have extensive contacts within the industry. That's because they need to know what kind of photographer will be the best one for each particular shoot.

For example, if the shoot calls for various photographs of a family, that will likely require a family portrait photographer which is quite different than a beauty shoot of a consumer product like shampoo. A consumer product shot is very different than a high-fashion photograph that will appear next to a story about Chanel. Also, while you may know the best fashion photographer in the business, they may be booked on another assignment so you need a big arsenal of names to draw upon. 

What It Takes to Excell as a Photo Editor

A deep-rooted passion for photography and the industry is a must because it can be a highly competitive industry and it's easy to get burned out if your hearts' not in the game. One also needs to be flexible and have tough skin because sometimes your concepts may not be to the liking of your editors. You may have a great vision but will need to re-evaluate (or change) when necessary.