Doing Editorial Shoots With Small Budgets

by William Lulow

With editorial budgets seemingly dwindling and large publications like Time dictating more stringent financial terms for photographers, can a photographer actually make a living shooting for publications anymore?

There are actually several answers to this question! One, according to a recent PDN article, suggests that photographers have to be more “creative” with how they do their assignments. By way of comparison, I began my business back in the 1980s. We had many catalog shoots complete with models, stylists, assistants and location vans. A typical day’s work would include fees for all of these services plus my fee, film & processing, messengers and retouching. Models fees, for instance, often ran into thousands of dollars per day (if we used more than two). So, the cost for one shoot could run easily into the $25,000 range! This was an advertising-type budget. Editorial budgets were much smaller even back then, but some of the same services were still needed. I remember an assignment I had for MONEY MAGAZINE back in the late 1970s, before I actually had a studio. I was paid something like $750 per day for two days of shooting of a day-care center in Maine. The magazine flew me up there, paid for a hotel, a rental car and the flight back! I doubt that most magazines today could afford these costs. (Of course, there are some at the high end that can, but they are much fewer than they were back then).

So, how can photographers complete these kinds of assignments successfully with today’s budgets?

I have always tried, with editorial assignments, to keep everything as simple as possible. I still provide various different “looks” from which an art director can choose, but I do it faster, with better planning and I use locations for which I don’t have to pay a fee and I use my studio more. Different lightings can add different looks. Here’s a recent cover shoot with several different images:




To add a little variety, I shot this last image on location in Westchester. I wanted the shot to look like it was made in a city, so, with careful cropping and selective focus, it’s really hard to tell that this wasn’t actually shot in a big city. Physically going to the city would have taken way too much time and cost more and wasn’t really necessary. The “location services” consisted of me, an assistant, my own SUV, one portable light, the subject and a tripod. No stylists! No location van! Not even a permit was required.

The point is that creativity these days, often means finding ways to get the kinds of images required with less money, time and effort!

For photographers, one of the great advantages of doing editorial work is that it gets disseminated so that more and more people see your images. In addition, even though the pay may be less than you’d like, regular assignments create some revenue flow that you might not otherwise have. For photographers who own their own businesses, regular income is a welcome thing. We used to get that kind of cash flow from doing big catalogs. But now, many of those companies have taken their photography needs “in-house” and the number of studios doing that kind of work has dwindled, especially in the New York area.

Editorial work is creative in other ways as well. Meeting different people from different walks of life is stimulating in and of itself! Preparing for “celebrity” shoots by doing some research on who they are and what their interests are, is a “creative” process, too!

So, the bottom line is that I’m always interested in doing editorial shoots even if the pay may not be as good as corporate or advertising work. It has other redeeming features that make it very worthwhile.