Few aspects of a magazine, except perhaps the overall quality of the design itself, can drastically impact the reader experience — positively or negatively — quite like the quality of photography used in an issue. At its best, photography can act in a kind of synergy with the magazine’s layout elements, lending a sense of artfulness and professionalism to an otherwise-solid design sensibility. And at its worst, low-quality shots can undermine all the hard work the magazine designer has put into his or her creation. This article is intended primarily for new magazine publishers who need some help getting their photography up to snuff.

Start With the Right Camera

Thanks to the advent of digital optics, the subsequent obsolescence of film and the ubiquity of smartphone technology, photography has essentially become a throw-away activity for most of us. Remember the old days when you anxiously waited a week or more to see how your thoughtfully crafted (and relatively expensive) film prints or slides turned out? Not knowing until it was too late that you had your thumb in front of the lens when snapping that gorgeous shot of the Tower of Pisa? (That actually happened to me.) The whole idea seems laughable now.

Magazine design samples
Click here for a slideshow of samples of high-quality photography use in magazines.

Obviously that era is long past, and today almost anyone with a cell phone can snap photos at will of almost anything for virtually no cost. That’s a good thing in some respects — affordable technology has made the wonder of photography accessible to more people than ever before, and shutterbugs can view their photos instantly, right on screen. On the other hand, the spontaneity with which many photos are taken these days seems to have removed much of the art and skill that once was required with slower, more methodical and more costly film photography.

And while smartphone photography certainly earns high marks for speed, convenience and affordability, it isn’t necessarily what publishers should be featuring in their magazines. Cell phone cameras have, admittedly, gotten better in recent years, but the truth is that today’s smartphones just can’t replicate the performance of a good digital SLR camera. So if you’re a small publisher who chooses to handle photography in-house, be sure to start with the right digital camera, including a high-quality flash, and learn how to use your equipment properly. That includes making sure that the photos you take are captured at the highest-possible resolution and quality (settings usually found in a camera’s menu options).

Let There Be Light!

Good lighting is also essential to ending up with magazine-quality photos — and one factor that many new publishers neglect to consider when taking their own photos. Learning how to light properly is an art in itself and usually requires a totally new set of equipment, depending on your subject matter and photo shoot locations. On a bright, sunny day, you might be able to get away with outside shots with no lighting equipment or expertise (maybe). But for more challenging lighting conditions like indoor shots, product shoots, portraits, etc., you might want to consider finding a how-to book or two on just how a good photography lighting setup works. A decade or so ago when we started doing product photo shoots for our magazine clients, I spent a lot of time researching lighting equipment and techniques, and it made a huge difference in the finished products.

Consider Hiring a Pro

With more complicated lighting setups and important shots like feature story photos and cover photos, sometimes it’s well worth it to bring in a professional photographer. Again, a dimly lit subject or improperly color-balanced interior photo will overpower any amount of good work your magazine designer puts into an article, so keep that in mind when allocating your budget for issue production.

If you do decide to bring in some help, be sure the photographer takes photos at the highest-possible quality and that they deliver the high-resolution photos to you. Oftentimes photographers will provide you with low- or medium-res versions of photos, in the interest of reducing upload and download times and being able to email the shots to you, but you definitely want to ensure that you get the high-res versions for use in print. Most printers recommend a minimum resolution of 300dpi (dots per inch) at size for the best printing quality, and using high-res photos is essential to meeting those specifications. (For more printing advice, see our Top 10 Printing Tips for New Publishers.)

Use Stock Photography to Your Advantage

Of course, for many of the magazines we produce, stock photography is a key part of the design process — and thanks to developments in the stock photo marketplace in recent years, stock is more affordable and of a higher quality than ever before. The amount, variety and quality of stock photography is simply staggering these days, and at least one stock site offers royalty-free photos for as little as $1.00! Should a magazine client not have photography available for a given story or stories, we’ll happily search through the stock sites to find just the right shots for the subject matter. So even if investing in a digital SLR, some lighting equipment or a hired photographer isn’t in your budget, we can always find affordable stock photos to liven up your magazine designs and enhance the overall professional quality of your publication.

Have questions about using photography in your magazine? Please be sure to leave us a comment!