Ask the Pros: To be a photo editor, do I have to be a photographer or have studied it?

Ask the Pros: To be a photo editor, do I have to be a photographer or have studied it?
To help prepare you for the real world, our Ask the Pros series is here to help answer some of your most common questions about interviewing, job-hunting and working in the world of publication and media art and photo departments.

Got a question you want answered? Send it to us at and we'll put it to our experts! A varying panel of professionals will give you their take, and then it's up to you to put their advice to work.

And if you're a working professional yourself, we'd love to hear your opinion too ... don't hesitate to add it in our comments or email us to be on one of our panels.

For the next few weeks, we're talking photography and photo editing ...

To be part of the photo department of a magazine, do I have to literally be a photographer or have studied it in school, or can I just have very strong interest in photography?

PRO: Leslie dela Vega - Director of Photography, Fast Company
Have a strong interest!! It's more important that you are passionate and interested in it. Otherwise, what fun is that for any of us. If I see that you're enthusiastic and filled with passion, I would hire you in a nano-second compared to the photography degree graduate who is only interested in getting paid!

PRO: Whitney Tressel - Associate Photo Editor, Budget Travel
Having a very strong interest in photography is more than fine, but the interest in pursuing this particular industry is a must. Being in the photo department of a magazine is a very niche role and working in one "just to have a job" won't cut it; the strong interest is imperative. 
    As for your background, photo editors come from everywhere: I may have majored in photography, but my current photo director was an anthropology major on the east coast and my previous photo director a moving film & video major in the midwest. 

PRO: John Toolan - Photo Director, Field & Stream and Outdoor Life
Bear in mind that almost every photo editor I know didn't start out intending to be a photo editor. Nearly all of us planned on being something else and just kind of fell into this career. That's not to say it's not a great job, but it's not something you really go to school for. It combines many different disciplines: photography, editing, organization, budget management, etc. 
    I started out wanting to be a photographer and worked for newspapers for a couple of years, before landing an internship at People. That was the turning point for me. I realized I could still be actively involved in the process of making images, while collecting a paycheck and benefits at the same time. It was a real revelation, and the best of both worlds.
    The most important qualities to have in order to land a job in a magazine photo department are not at all different from what you'd need to work at any job: be friendly, reliable, dedicated, professional. It seems too obvious, but those are the main things we're looking for--someone who's great to have around, and someone who really makes our quality of life better on a day-to-day basis.
    Some of the best interns I've met were people who didn't know much about photography, but who worked their butts off and clearly cared about making a good impression. They made themselves such valuable members of the team that when their internship expired, the thought of losing them was so painful, people found a way to keep them on board, either through full-time or freelance.

PRO: Stephanie Kim - Photo Director, Woman's Day
You do not have to be a photographer or have studied it, but I do feel that most of us who work in this field love photography and love magazines. We all come from different backgrounds and have different stories on how we became involved in magazines. As with anything, it can be very stressful so you have to really love it to continue to work in it. 

PRO: Michele Ervin - Senior Associate Photo Editor, Popular Mechanics
I have an Art Therapy degree, not a photography degree. You need to have a strong interest in photography, and you need to have a good eye for finding talent. That said, you should know about lighting and understand how it's done and what goes into photographing different types of images. You need that knowledge to be able to assign and direct shoots.

PRO: Yvonne Stender - Photo Director, Sunset Magazine
Having gone to school for photography is very helpful on so many levels. But it's not the only path to get there.There are many paths to visually educate yourself. I have worked with people who have degrees in art history, graphic design, anthropology, film history, etc. Being well-organized, having a good eye for composition and lighting, understanding the photographic process from concept to assigning to editing, and most importantly, understanding how to tell a story are equally as important to a degree in photography. It's more important to love magazines and photography and be able to communicate your understanding to an editor or a photographer. Lastly, you have to be willing to work hard. This is not a 9-5 business.

  • בת שבע סיידר

    I just read this article above, and it was brilliant and so awesomely inspiring to me, that I am interested to try and pursue this as a career. I did not do any Tertiary studies in Photography, but I did study art in high school right up to Metric, and loved it. I did a min course in Photography, and have been shooting since. I have been told that I have an eye for composition. I am going to brush up on Photography and doing a portfolio. Wow. Thanks for this.

  • Bethany

    If you take your own pictures, and want to get them to a magazine but the pic you edited and wrote an ispirational quote on there now where do you choose what magazine?

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