Monday, February 23, 2009

What Does A Magazine Owe You?

I've been sitting here at my desk looking at a particular magazine. I won't say which one, because it's not relevant. But, I've been calling colleagues I know to get their take on it for awhile now. It's a mainstream magazine, and the photos are shot by a well known photographer, and the photos are horrible. They are poorly composed, the lead photo - a double-page spread - is soft, and other images have nasty color casts that could not ever be construed as an artistic style.

This photographer was on assignment for the magazine. Why didn't they just kill the story? Or, at least, the opener that was soft - the image was of a news event, and I know over a dozen photographers who have a far better image of the same thing happening that is sharp, and better composed. Yet, the magazine published a crappy photo.


(Continued after the Jump)

I called around, and talked to other photographers, and more than one photo editor about this. Sadly, I knew the answer, but these guys reaffirmed it. The photos played because of politics. They had to run these photos, and not get a better image from stock. But, isn't that what a "guarantee against usage" is supposed to be for?

For those of you that don't know, there's a term in the magazine business that is mostly applied to Time, Newsweek, US News, Business Week, and maybe Forbes, People, and a few others. Specifically - if you are assigned a shoot, and you get a $500 assignment fee, plus expenses, that assignment fee is a "guarantee against space". That means that if a magazine normally pays $500 for a 1/2 page, $1,000 for a full page, and $1,500 for a double-page spread, if your image ends up being used just a half-page, you still get the $500, but if you produce a great photo, and they use it as a double-page image, then you get the larger amount - $1,500. If the publication runs two of your photos 1/2 page, you then get $1,000. You get the idea.

In this case, the photographer did a poor job on the assignment, and it showed. Some of the images were lit portraits that no one likely got (and I use the word 'lit' very loosely), so, as bad as they were I understand that they had to run them. However, they could have atleast color-corrected the horrible color casts on them in post, but they did not, and this was not a printing error either. Those you can tell.

Why did the photographer get the play that they did? Yes, I know, politics. But that leaves the readers with a crappy image to contemplate. The magazine felt they owed it to the photographer, but they didn't, not when they had options, and they did. In the end, the obligation is to the readers who in turn patronize the advertisers, and thus, the lights at the magazine stay on, and the editors get paid, and so too, the creatives.

Did the photographer do anything wrong? Yes, a few things. First, I have it on good authority that they used a prosumer lens for the job, and also a prosumer camera with a filesize that could not support a double-page spread. Further, the photographer should have known better than to try to complete a component of an assignment that they have little current experience doing. If you're a boxing photographer, but, well, back in the day, you used to shoot horse races, don't think you can return to your glory days and still make a great image. If you disagree, then don't have your first horse race back be the Kentucky Derby - re-flex your muscle-memory at a few smaller events where everything isn't on the line until you get your sea-legs back.

The best photographers make an assignment look easy. This photographer, generally speaking, makes their assignments look easy, but in this case, bravado got in the way, and the assigning editors didn't have the balls to call shenanigans on the bad photos, and find replacement images, or just kill the story.

In the end, the magazine didn't owe this photographer anything other than the assignment fee and expenses, and they should have done right by their readers and used better images where they were available and this photographer failed.

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Anonymous said...


You sum this article up for us with;

"but in this case, bravado got in the way, and the assigning editors didn't have the balls to call shenanigans on the bad photos, and find replacement images, or just kill the story."

Sometimes The Peter Principal rules,sometimes the right nose in the right place is king and sometimes politics just screws up a good thing.

These are not the best economic times, especially with regards to anything in print, to turn a blind eye to quality imho.

Maybe it isn't bravado. Maybe it is someone in dire straits needing help. These are desperate times and you did say a prosumer lens was used.

Bless him if he does.

Anonymous said...

I'm not jumping to conclusions that this is the story you refer to, but talk about weird colors: the NY Times Magazine "Obama's People" story a few weeks back had such a terrible magenta cast to it I wondered if it was a printing error. The same photos on-line were neutral.

Anonymous said...

John, when your posts take this tone and direction, it makes it difficult to return to your blog. For whatever reason, you often feel the need to belittle others to illustrate your point. I don't know why this is your style, it really isn't needed. You could get your point across in a classier way.

You have a lot of professional photography business experience to offer. I wish you could share it in a professional way.

Take a look at the ALEXA traffic trends. Other knowledge based photography blogs are seeing upward trends in their 3mos rankings. Yours have dropped by 10%. Ask yourself, why?

Anonymous said...

Please keep posting in just this style... You were not cruel or mean-spirited, just honest about your thoughts, while protecting the identities of the guilty.

I go to Scott Kelby for sunshine posts - I come to you for the real meat of photography thought.

Panos said...

The problem with this post is that without knowing which article it is referring to, it is more or less invalid. It does not allow the reader to see what the problem is. So it is all has to be taken at face value and in blind trust.

But one thing I do not understand is this statement: "a prosumer camera with a filesize that could not support a double-page spread". Regardless of the semantics of what a prosumer camera is (anything below a 5D? a 5D? What?), I find it very hard to believe that there exists a camera today that is incapable of producing a filesize sufficient for a double spread on a typical sized magazine with typical scotch-tape quality paper, when all you need is not even 6MP for that. In fact, I'm sure you can even do some nice double spreads from a 4MP D2H. So what is this camera then?

Anonymous said...

First of all, I understand why you don't mention the magazine, the photographer, or the story by name.

However, as one who has no knowledge of this situation except for what I read here, it seems like your entire post is based on speculation and, at best, second hand information with a dose of bitterness thrown in on the side.

I've seen plenty of spreads in magazines over the years that I couldn't for the life of me figure out the rationale for using those particular pictures. But I'm not sure I'd pass the kind of judgment you do here without actually knowing what transpired.

Anonymous said...

I think it's pretty obvious that John is referring to Annie Leibovitz's "Enter Obama" spread in Vanity Fair.

Anonymous said...

Is this where you are getting the info on the camera gear from??

Anonymous said...

Since she owes quite a bit of money to retouchers and rental outfits maybe Annie couldn't find anyone to rent her lights. I guess she needed a consumer camera for the pop up flash.

Unknown said...

I did sense a little bitterness in your post, but the tone would only offend "Softies".

I also do believe that you jumped to conclusions on why the images are subpar. (I wish I knew what Publication you're referring to.) Who knows, maybe someone jacked his camera gear an hour before the shoot and he had to use his point and shoot. Maybe the Publication screwed him over by cutting his fees and he works under the practice, "You get what you pay for". Or maybe he unexpectedly had 5 minutes to photograph a tough subject.

John Harrington said...

Gregg --

Thanks for your note. I made the point with a real-world example, and I didn't belittle the photographer because I didn't identify that person. So often, people just talk in the hypothetical, and then the point can't be made because someone will say "oh that would never happen." All to often, the truth of a situation seems like greater fiction than reality, so we use reality since it did happen, and thus, the message points are validated as a teachable moment.

It's frustrating that you think that the way in which I conveyed the insights in this "teachable moment" were unprofessional. Just like a doctor can talk all day about a medical case, how they approached it, and so on, provided they do not release the patients' identity, because that would be a breach.

Lastly, I have never written with the objective of gathering every tom, dick, and harry to the blog. There are people who come to this blog and leave because they don't get it, don't want to get it, aren't ready for it, don't like my criticisms of Getty/et al, or otherwise choose not to read anymore. People come to read what I've written because it's straightforward without any BS, and I am not afraid to challenge the status quo. If my Alexa ratings are down, so-be-it. My RSS readers have continued to grow, as does my Google Analytics figures. I would much rather reach 100 people with each post that take concrete action based upon the advice or insights, than 10,000 people who react "hmmm, nice read. Nice ideas, but I'm not interested in doing that...".

Panos --

Yup, the message is a solid one - about what magazines owe you (or don't), as a photographer. While I did not make up the situation/photographer/magazine, I just as well could have, since the purpose for it was as a jumping off point for the concepts in the piece. I am not asking anyone to take what I have written from a perspective of blind-trust, but rather, to learn from the points, and see how they apply to your business, or to alert you to bad practices by others.


I based what I wrote not on second-hand information, but firsthand "good authority" insights. Beyond that, I was writing about the quality of the images as my opinion, and further, as noted above, this was a jumping off point to discuss the "what does a magazine owe you" concept.

Photo --

I know the gear wasn't jacked and thus, replacement gear being used; no - this photographer gets paid well, and I have that on good authority too; and lastly, they had longer than 5 minutes to shoot and even if they didn't, heck, when I do an Oval Office event, I have 20 seconds amongst 20+ of my peers, and I have to perform all the time every time, so if you sent into that situation someone who has little experience working that fast, then you (the magazine editor) made a mistake.

Lastly, feel free to continue to speculate about the publication, but to do so, as I repeatedly note above, misses the point. Assume, for a moment, that we all agree the photos were crappy, and take at face value the other facts as outlined, and take the discussion in the direction that the post was titled - WHAT DOES THE MAGAZINE OWE A PHOTOGRAPHER WHO MEETS THESE CRITERIA!

Anonymous said...

Annie has a long history of not being able to shoot anything that moves. She should have given her seat up on the pool truck. How do you blow such a loaded assignment? Everyone else on the truck made historic photos. If a staffer at a major newspaper/wire service came away with that picture from that assignment, they would be shooting pet of the week for the next five years.

That is what you get when you send a celebrity photographer to do a photojournalists job.

VF is a joke.

Anonymous said...

The culprit.

Anonymous said...

John I'm sorry, but you crossed the line into Vapidville when you didn't just use the scenario you gave to defened yourself to Gregg. Your "rant" pranced around the shooter's identity and yes belittled them, with your comments about what kind of camera they used and hinting at which publication it was. It was gossip and little girl chat beyond. I'm sticking with Gregg. Next time just bring out the argument with good solid questions without making assumptions based on your second hand trusty insider info.For example,
1) Are there times when magazines have no choice but to run images from a story?
2) Does it matter what camera or how many megapixels a photographer utilizes?
3) Is there a standard of quality which could include, but don't necessarily have to, fidelity, focus, and respect for the subject matter that the consumer of particular publications expect?

If you can't back it up in print with facts, then it's just conjecture or worse, gossip.

Anonymous said...

David Burnett shoots a Holga (as do many outstanding photographers). Are you going to attack him for that?

We photographers are known for saying "it's not the equipment" and here you go using the choice of equipment against a fellow shooter.

In the past you've put shooters down for using Alien Bees to bolster your use of Hensel.

The only thing that matters is the final image and not the equipment used to produce it. Critique the soft focus, poor composition and lighting but not the gear a person chooses to use. Let the folks at Nikonians, Ken Rockwell, etc. to that. It's what they live for.

Instead of keeping your post on subject, must a magazine publish the images they contracted for or can they supplement with images from another source, you strayed to attack on equipment and to make a determination on what defines artistic choice.

Anonymous said...

This article seems very true to me. In fact it even happens in the local newspapers.

I shoot lots of high school sports for my daughters varsity teams.

I often send in pictures to the sports editor for the local paper. My pictures are often better than the pictures thier photographers turn in....yet they always take thier photographer's pictures vs. better pictures they can get!

I think editors are just stuck with thier photographer work. Hopefully thier photographers are not getting paid much for thier inferior photos!

kickstand said...

Well, if it is Leibovitz, or somebody of that stature, then I can see an argument for running them. The point of hiring an artist is to see what vision the artist brings to the subject. If the artist's vision is not technically "perfect", it's still their take on things.

Anonymous said...

"We photographers are known for saying "it's not the equipment" and here you go using the choice of equipment against a fellow shooter."

Those are two totally different contexts. Good equipment does not make you a good photographer by itself, that's true. But that doesn't mean you should run out and buy the crappiest lenses and cameras you can find because "Hurf durf it's not the equipment, it's the photographer." If your lens is throwing distortion and CA and flare everywhere, you're going to get crap photos whether you're a rank amateur or you've been shooting professionally for decades. Equipment does matter, and always has.

You wouldn't be a very successful wildlife photographer with a Pentax K1000 and a 50 while your colleagues all have Canon 1VHSes and 70-200s.

If you're choosing inappropriate equipment, you should get called out for it. If you know it's going to be a doubletruck (or you're going to crop the hell out of it), you pick a camera with enough resolution and a lens that isn't made from discarded Coke bottles. To do otherwise is irresponsible.

"In the past you've put shooters down for using Alien Bees to bolster your use of Hensel. "

And rightly so. The Bees ain't bad lights, but they're not Hensels or Profotos or Elinchroms either. They shift significantly as you stop them down, there's noticeable shot-to-shot temperature variation, and the recycle times aren't great.

If the job calls for a professional light, Alien Bees aren't going to cut it. Are the Bees never useful? No. But there are many circumstances under which they're going to be a bad choice and the wrong choice.

Anonymous said...

You overshot the points by miles. Tsk tsk tsk

Anonymous said...
"We photographers are known for saying "it's not the equipment" and here you go using the choice of equipment against a fellow shooter."

Those are two totally different contexts. Good equipment does not make you a good photographer by itself, that's true....

Anonymous said...

Here, maybe a good analogy can help.
Let's look at restaurants. what the customer expects is based on their interpretation and expectations of the menu. If Chicken Fried steak is on the menu does the average clientele for that establishment really care what mechanical devises were used in the preparation of their meal? I would sell hell no.
Now let's shift to the higher end. Do you think the average clientele of the Inn at Little Washington, John I know you have been to this place,really cares what kind of saute pan the chefs utilize while making their Scaloppini of Veal Sweetbreads Saute with Three Mustard Sauce? Probably not. However, they would EXPECT, based on the Inn's reputation, that they of course would use something of a higher end devise. BUT, they know it's not the pan that makes the meal, it's the operator and everything they bring to the experience and in the end it's ultimately the dish itself.
The product has to mach up to the expectations of the final consumer. There, how's that?

Anonymous said...

The real issue on these photos-I think it's pretty clear by now what magazine is being discussed- Is that according to the editor's note, that issue of the magazine was on the press already when the picture was being made. Imagine press guys sitting around waiting on that last photo that the editors had figured out how get there just in time. No second guessing allowed. Also explains a little bit about the color correction.

Anonymous said...


Your general point point is well taken, but I think that you were being purposefully naive to make a point.

I was in the checkout line at the grocery store yesterday and checked out the Obama story in VF, and I too was shocked by the poor quality of the double-page shot of the Obamas walking down the street, although I liked the composition and the moment that it captured. While the shots of his staff with studio lighting were interesting, I agree that the color casts in the others were horrific. It's as if she's never heard of white balance and mixed lighting. She needs to spend a few days on Strobist to get up to speed. These pictures were more about access and less about being artful or even visually pleasing.

That being said, we're talking about AL and VF. They don't formulate stories using the best available shots. They create stories around the fact that they were shot by AL. Your comments would be accurate for almost any other type of publication or any other photographer, but my impression is that VF essentially exists to give AL a venue for covers and photo essays with people who are often hard to get time with.

Still, it was a thought-provoking post, and I appreciate the leadership role that you are playing in photographic community by shedding light on the business side of the business.

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