How to pitch for work: insights from the industry

Photography can be a difficult career to break into, but these seven tips from experts can help you ace your pitch and land the job.
Three young scouts and one older scout leader stand waiting at the side of a country road.

This image, Waiting for the Next Task, is taken from reportage, portrait and documentary photographer Stephan Lucka's series, Das Gefühl, das nur wir kennen (The Feeling Only We Know). It documents and explores the continued popularity and pull of the Scout Movement in Germany, of which there are 260,000 young members. Stephan is a recent graduate of the Canon Student Development Programme, participating in 2020. Looking back on the experience, he says: "I got very valuable advice from my mentor, Daniel Etter, about the editing of one of my projects. It made my portfolio stronger and helped me with pitches." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens at 1/800 sec, f/7.1 and ISO400. © Stephan Lucka

Lady Gaga, following her Best Original Song Academy Award win in 2019, said: "If you have a dream, fight for it. There's a discipline for passion. And it's not about how many times you get rejected… it's about how many times you stand up and are brave and you keep on going."

That's as true for making a career in the photography business as it is for succeeding as a performer. Getting your foot in the door and becoming established in this competitive world can be a challenge. However, there are several ways you can increase your chances of getting work in the industry.

During a discussion at the 2021 Canon Student Development Programme, experienced industry figures gave invaluable advice on pitching for work. The panel members behind How To Get Hired as a Photographer: Insights from the Industry were Canon Ambassador and photojournalist Gulshan Khan; photo editor-in-chief and staff photographer at Danish newspaper Politiken, Thomas Borberg; Global Editor at Reuters Pictures, Rickey Rogers; and The Guardian's Head of Photography, Fiona Shields.

Drawing on their own experiences and lengthy careers, these experts provided key insights on how to set yourself apart from the competition and how to put forward a memorable pitch that will help you get hired.

Fiona Shields, Head of Photography at The Guardian.

Fiona Shields is Head of Photography at The Guardian newspaper, where she receives around 250 emails a day. "We're looking for photographers who can show initiative, and are self-starters," she says.

Rickey Rogers, Global Editor at Reuters Pictures.

"Most of our staff photographers have come into the job by being freelancers first," says Rickey Rogers of Reuters Pictures.

1. Apply for portfolio reviews and enter competitions

Gulshan, who is a South African photojournalist based in Johannesburg, said that if you're trying to get hired for the first time, it is vital to get your work seen. "What really helped me was portfolio reviews," she said. "Apply for portfolio reviews and for funding, such as from the Open Society Foundations, Everyday Africa and Women Photograph."

Fiona, who has previously worked as a picture editor, student mentor and judge on various photography awards said, "I do portfolio reviews all the time and it's a great way of discovering new talent. Don't be afraid to enter competitions, because often the judging panels are really broad and varied.

"You'll come across photo editors for news publications, but also curators for exhibitions and museums, so there's the doorway into the art world as well."

2. Catch an editor's attention

Picture editors are deluged with emails on a daily basis, so when you're emailing a particular editor or publication, the subject line and opening paragraph are crucial. You can make or break the pitch with your first few words.

"Try to make sure the subject line doesn't say something like: 'Hi there!'" said Fiona. "Consider that you want to include the subject in the topic of your pitch, consider the topicality, the relevance to the publication. Be concise and pitch when relevant."

Rickey, who is based in the United States and oversees the Reuters Pictures team, said: "Less is better when it comes to presenting yourself, but you need to present a wide variety of work."

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3. Include a strong bio

One of the most important parts of a successful pitch is a strong bio that represents who you are, what you've done, and what you're able to do for a publication.

"You must include a bio about yourself that indicates a specialism you might have, for example if you're an underwater photographer. Additional strings to your bow are helpful to know about," said Fiona.

Be sure to add your contact details, including your mobile telephone number and geographical location. "Show your published work as publications want to see if you can fit with their style of photography. At the same time also show the more risky work you may choose to do, perhaps a little more artistic, and show that you can think originally too," continued Fiona.

"Don't be shy to show who you are," added Rickey. "Imposter syndrome is real but remember to be authentic and situate yourself in your context and reality, and have faith with that."

Thomas Borberg, photo editor-in-chief and staff photographer at Politiken.

Thomas Borberg is photo editor-in-chief and staff photographer at Danish newspaper, Politiken, where he says they have a "standing prohibited" rule for photographs. "It's so boring when all these politicians are standing in pictures. We tell our freelancers, we need activity, we need people to move!"

Canon Ambassador and photojournalist Gulshan Khan.

Photojournalist Gulshan Khan advises new photographers to always work on personal projects in addition to paid work. "It shows authenticity, it shows what you're interested in, it shows your range," she says. © Amr Alfiky

4. Make your pitch a pyramid

Often, the person you are pitching to needs to know exactly what you're proposing as quickly as possible. To make things easier and more straightforward, present your pitch in a pyramid form.

"Give it a headline, then a brief outline [also known as a standfirst] and then go into depth and indicate why that pitch is topical and useful at that particular point," Fiona explained. "Show a PDF of your images so that any photo editor can see at a glance the quality of your work and can visually sense what they can expect if they commission you."

5. Choose your images like food

When it comes to choosing what to show in your pitch, you must be selective to make it as strong as possible. Thomas, who is also a teacher of photojournalism, said that thinking like this will enhance your pitch and increase its chances of success.

"I think you have to see photography as food in a way," he said. "You have all these images like ingredients, you have to take the best and let it boil, and make a beautiful presentation. Serve it in a way that makes me curious.

"When you receive an email and 50 images are attached, it's a no-go. A PDF is your religion when you go to an editor. Think that you only have 30 seconds or one minute to serve the food you have created."

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6. Keep up with the conversation

"Language is changing as the technology is changing as the world of photography is changing," said Gulshan.

To keep up with these changes, it's necessary to seek advice and feedback from others, especially people within the photography community.

"We depend on that relationship with truthful and honest photographers," said Fiona. "Keep up with technology, stay relevant and understand what conversations are happening within our photography community and the communities of pitch editors. That's where you learn how to behave, what's important, and those ideologies are changing all the time and you need to remain current. Follow the brief but once you've got that in the bag, take the risk."

Thomas added: "The camera is a universal key into people's lives and you have to use this key to tell important stories, stories that matter. Use your curiosity to create nice ideas and concepts, and know that you will become better."

Hear more insight from industry professionals in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:

A group of teenagers laugh and dance around outside, packed in closely together.

Young scouts enjoy themselves in this image from Stephan Lucka's The Feeling Only We Know series. Stephan says of his long-term project, which was shortlisted for the Festival della Fotografia Etica Student Award: "The scouts form their own socio-cultural microcosmos, and by looking at it we can learn something about society in general. About how we want to treat each other, how we want to live together." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM) at 24mm, 1/160 sec, f/2.8 and ISO4000. © Stephan Lucka

7. Be persistent and develop your connections

Stephan Lucka was a participant in the 2020 Canon Student Development Programme and is now a freelance photographer who has had work published in German magazine Stern and on the Der Spiegel website. His portfolio also includes an ongoing photography project exploring the Scout Movement in Germany titled The Feeling Only We Know (see image above, and also at the beginning of this article).

Stephan has these additional tips to share: "Try to make your portfolio as good as you can, as short as needed, as long as necessary," he says. "Be persistent. Sometimes it doesn't work, but don't be frustrated, and try to establish relationships with people. It's not only about the quality of the work, but also about human connection."

The overriding message then is simple: when pitching for work with a publication, you need to catch the editor's attention, be clear about what you're proposing, make sure the subject is relevant to the publication, and present your best work as examples. It's not easy to flourish in a competitive environment, but if you follow these tips you'll stand a greater chance of success.

Kirjutanud Ashvin Tiwana

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