February 4, 2011 / Photography / Winter 2011

Improve yearbook coverage with a good photo editor

Written by Jill Chittum

From high school and college to the professional work world, the time I spent working with photo editor after photo editor helped shape my own vision as a photographer and made me into the photojournalist I became.

When shooting assignments, each of those photo editors had their own eye for a great photo. Put every one of them on the same assignment, and they would come back with very different photos. Just like their variety of vision, each of those photo editors had a specific management style.

Though today’s yearbook photo editors are choosing images on a computer screen instead of using a grease pencil and a negative sleeve, the qualities of a photo editor remain the same: they have to be a compassionate communicator, knowledgeable, dedicated and motivated.

Each spring, as advisers and editors prepare to choose students to fill staff positions, it is important to keep in mind a few key characteristics for a great photo editor. It is a given that staffs will need a strong editor-in-chief, but advisers and editors need to find an enthusiastic, dedicated photo editor.

In making this selection, realize that the photo editor does not necessarily have to be the best shooter on your staff. There’s a difference between great photographers and great manager-editor types. Although great managers can be great photographers, it sometimes does not work the other way around.

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Reflections photo editor Lauren Reardon (left) shoots an assignment at journalism camp with rookie staff photographer Addie Dolan (right). Reardon helped many new photographers by attending assignments with them to help troubleshoot and help them get comfortable using the camera. (Photo by Jim McCrossen)

The photo editor really has to be the point person when it comes to coverage – this requires organizational skills, communication skills, technical know-how, motivational skills and a nose for news. Faces sell yearbooks, and compelling photographs have to be shot before they can be published.

One of the top qualities to look for in a photo editor is organization – on two fronts.

The first front is file organization.  A photo editor needs to be able to organize and manage files in an increasingly digital publications landscape. The old days of three-ring binders with negative sleeves neatly organized by date are long gone for most of us.

A great photo editor knows not to save homecoming photos like this: homecomingpics!.jpg.  You chuckle, but trust me, it has been done.

Photo editors should be willing to work with advisers and editors-in-chief to devise a workable system for naming and saving images, and most importantly, they need to be able to teach their system to the rest of the staff. It takes a lot of time and energy to work out a system, test it, write handouts for it and demonstrate how it works. But all of that energy on the front end pays major dividends after the first few weeks of the semester, when the photo staff is working like a well-oiled machine and page designers can find the selected images without screaming across the room. A good photo editor knows this.

The second front is staff organization. A photo editor needs to be able to organize the manpower on the photography staff – to know who is shooting what assignment and when, as well as how to contact that shooter if something about that assignment changes. Do not consider someone for this position who never uses their planner or assignment notebook. Unlike stories that can be reported later if absolutely necessary, missed photo assignments cannot be made up. Most events do not happen more than once.

Once the assignment has been shot, editors-in-chief and section editors depend on the photography editor to be knowledgeable about what makes a great photo. Communicating this to sections editors helps increase the depth and breadth of the photo report.

Great photo editors also know how to collaborate with reporters from the second the story is assigned. They are not afraid to be part of the brainstorming and story-planning process, and they know that sometimes they might need to initiate the process if the photographers are being left out of the loop.

The photo editor needs to be a hard worker. Because of the nature of the job, photo editors will most likely have to put in more time than section editors, and applicants need to be aware of this requirement. My yearbook photo editor this year, Lauren, attended at least one event with every one of our new staff photographers this year to help them acclimate. She assisted them with camera settings when they needed it, demonstrated the best positions to be in while shooting certain sports assignments, and helped them get in the habit of collecting solid caption information.

When she first offered to do this, I was dubious. There was no way she could find the time to do all that, right? Well, she did, and the results have been tremendous. What a difference a year makes in the quality of photos in our publication. I can directly attribute that success to her willingness to take the time to work with others.

In addition to management skills, look for a photo editor who has technical expertise with your cameras. They need to know how to be in control of the camera, such as shooting on manual mode, and can teach others. There are a million resources out there about photo gear. If you can find a photographer who is also a tech geek, that is a bonus.

There are great photographers on every yearbook staff. I wish you luck in finding the great photo editor among them who can lead your staff to bigger and better images and coverage.

Jill Chittum

Jill Chittum, MJE, is currently a Walsworth Yearbooks sales representative in Oklahoma and Arkansas, as well as an accomplished guest speaker and presenter at yearbook workshops across the country. Prior to joining Walsworth, Jill taught journalism and advised the yearbook and newspaper at Blue Valley High School in Stilwell, Kansas. She also spent five years as a photographer at the Wichita Eagle, the largest newspaper in Kansas.