Why You Shouldn't Submit Your Photographs to Magazines

Why You Shouldn't Submit Your Photographs to Magazines

Vanity magazines are a popular place for photographers to submit images to when they are looking to take their photography to the next level. Eager photographers who want to shoot fashion or beauty will scour the Internet for fashion magazines that accept submissions in the hope that these publications will be a rung on their ladder to success. Unfortunately for many photographers, rather than climbing the ladder, they’re merely wasting time and money.

There aren’t many road maps out there for photographers who want to work in the commercial and fashion side of the industry, but there is one thing everyone wants, and that is to see their images published. For most photographers, let alone new fashion photographers, the cover of a magazine like Vogue is only a dream. So, where do these photographers most often start their journeys? In the vanity magazine.

A vanity magazine is a publication, digital or print, that exists by making money from the work of featured artists, rather than making profits from advertising space and off-the-rack sales as most well-known magazines do. Established magazines can earn money this way because they have wide distribution of print magazines and website readership, whereas vanity magazines earn their income from the artists who submit images and then buy copies once the magazine publishes, or from website advertisements if they grow large enough. These publications rarely ask for submission fees, and they do not pay the artists, but their existence is predicated upon a flow of quality imagery they can acquire for free.

There are certainly benefits to having your work published in vanity magazines, but the drawbacks often prove to outweigh them. What, then, are the benefits of having your photographs published in a vanity magazine?

Model: Brittany Ball, MUA: Kimberly Clay

The Benefits

One of the largest benefits of having your photographs published in a vanity magazine is that, at least in the larger and more respected magazines, the photography has to have reached a certain level of quality to be accepted. If the work is accepted, it’s a justification of your skill and effort, and that is a good feeling. If your work is not accepted, you know that you've still got some growing to do.

Another important benefit is that the submission process forces the photographer to think through, plan, and photograph sometimes very complex stories. Photographers learn to conceptualize, gather and work with a team, plan their shoot and carry it through to completion. If vanity magazines provided no other benefit, the learning process alone might be worth it.

A final and more controversial benefit is social currency in the form of likes and shares. However, the only time this may make much of a difference for a photographer looking to earn a living by photographing fashion or beauty is if the reach of the magazine is high enough to earn them a substantial number of followers that may make them desirable enough for a client to want to leverage that influence.

Because the benefits of vanity publishing are so tenuous, it’s important to look at the drawbacks to find out whether or not taking the plunge is actually worth it.

The Drawbacks

It doesn’t pay; this is a rather large drawback. Photographers will spend their time planning, shooting, and retouching the editorials they submit. They’ll spend money sourcing garments, building sets, renting studios, getting permits, hiring a team, and ignoring their other work to see their images published in a magazine. The problem is that this kind of editorial work doesn't pay. Vanity magazines exist on the backs of artists, so they cannot pay those artists for their work. A few well-known vanity magazines even request submission fees for the honor of deciding whether to publish the work.

Another drawback is that most vanity magazines don’t have a large or diverse enough readership to turn potential clients on to the photographer's work. All the effort and money spent to produce a high-quality editorial is worth it if the images bring in paying clients. However, vanity magazines rarely, if ever, have a printed presence in stores, and their readership tends to be constrained to photographers, artists, and their friends and families. So, the likelihood of a potential client finding the photographer’s work via a vanity magazine, and then hiring the photographer, are incredibly slim.

The value of an image to a working photographer is its ability to generate income. Either the image sells on its own, or it inspires a client to hire the photographer to create new images. One of the other problems with submitting images to a vanity magazine is that the photos can be tied up in the submission process for months, which means that the capability of the image to bring the photographer revenue through viewership is damaged unless the vanity magazine has an incredibly high viewership.

The final nail in the coffin of magazine submissions is that, more often than not, clients don’t care whether the photographer has tear sheets from the magazines that have published their work. Not once have I ever been asked for a tear sheet, nor have I ever been turned down from a job for removing my tear sheets from my website. Clients rarely care if your work has been on a magazine cover unless the magazines you’re working with are of a high enough caliber to warrant the attention. At that point, cover photographers are hired rather than found through a submission process. Clients are interested in consistent, quality images that have a strong voice, not that your photo is on the cover of a magazine they’ve never heard the name of.

Image from the fall campaign for Spear and Arrow Apparel

Rather than spend valuable time and money producing images for vanity magazines that don’t pay and don’t bring you paying clients, it may be more valuable to spend money in areas that have a higher likelihood of producing a return.

Purchasing an email list of art directors, editors and art buyers, producing a promotional mailer, designing marketing promotions, strengthening your platform, entering the right kind of photography contests (where you at least stand to earn some kind of a prize, be it money, gear, or having your images published in a respected industry magazine with a wide enough readership to matter), and investing in education all stand a better chance of producing a higher return on your investment than does submission to vanity magazines. Networking will do almost as much as all of these things put together.

While vanity magazines can provide valuable learning experiences for photographers who are set on climbing the ladder, the same skills can be learned by other means and, more often, to better effect.

Log in or register to post comments
Pawel Witkowski's picture

Just read this post while waiting for answer from another submission... I got a bad feeling that you're right, yet I don't want to get it into my mind.. bleh...

Howard Ashton-Jones's picture

Excellent article.. very very true.... :)

Derek Yarra's picture

I disagree. As an emerging photographer you should be shooting as much personal work as possible to keep your book top notch and regularly updated. If you're going though the effort of making the work, why not give it some additional life and try to get it in a publication? Do these pay? No. But no emerging photographer, or even many established photographers I know, are fully booked getting hired to produce work that is a true execution of their vision. So every photographer needs to test and create fresh personal work.

If you're going though the effort of making the work, why not give it some additional life further than just your website and try to get it in a publication? Quality tear sheets always looks good and show potential clients that you're working. Of course, time and effort needs to be spent on contact building, marketing, and other things you mentioned are incredibly important, but constantly creating new work and getting that work out there is imperative to your growth, both creatively and professionally.

Sure doing catalog/look book shoots for local designers like that Spear and Arrow shot are great jobs and pays the bills, but if your goals are to shoot for titles like Vanity Fair, GQ, or other high end publications, that's definitely not the kind of work your book should be full of.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

And I'm not sure that vanity publications are right places to publish your personal work and/or ask them evaluate it...

David Mawson's picture

Derek Yarra - 4 hours ago NEW
I disagree. As an emerging photographer you should be shooting as much personal work as possible to keep your book top notch and regularly updated. If you're going though the effort of making the work, why not give it some additional life and try to get it in a publication?

Derek - did you read the last couple of paragraphs of the article? They answered exactly that question. If you disagree with the author's reasoning, that's fine - but she did answer your question, even if you skipped that part of the article...

David Moore's picture

All the stuff you mentioned might be good to instead, but it isn't taking photos. The way you make it sound is you should never take photos, which sounds silly to me.

Nicole York's picture

Oh, not at all, David! You should be constantly producing work and pushing your boundaries. What I am saying is that vanity magazines very rarely have a return on investment that is worth the effort it takes to submit to them. I suggest using other methods to get your work out. A well maintained Instagram account will likely get more eyes on your work that a small vanity magazine.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Oh yeah... What could be better demotivator than spending time, money and soul for a photoshoot, and then be rejected by someone who may be good in marketing a media, but, most probably, can't care less about your photos.

Josh Showell's picture

Definitely agree with some of your points, but overall I think I disagree. It is important to be constantly producing work and anyone that is a working photographer knows you don't always get to shoot the fun stuff, sometimes money is money, so it is important to produce personal work that helps your creativity, helps you learn and grow.

With this in mind, you're producing this work and putting all this energy into keeping your portfolio current and improving, why not send it somewhere that has an audience? It can be better than just posting it to instagram or your website. It also has the benefits of opening doors to work with better models, better agencies, better teams.

It can definitely be disheartening when you receive rejection emails, but thats life... I am sure there are jobs you pitch for when the same thing happens.

Different strokes for different folks.

Pawel Witkowski's picture

Reality of submissions looks like a long wait till any results of your work is published at all, this is pretty painful where you could try to get attention in different ways now, not in like a half year where some subject might be already outdated that time.

Nicole York's picture

I'm not at all saying that photographers should shoot less, just that they should evaluate whether vanity mags are actually doing them any good. A vanity press has to have a very wide reach for the submission and publication process (preferably a viewership that includes your potential clients) to be worth it, and most do not.
I could care less about rejection letters, but I *do* care about the time my images spend in limbo when they're doing nothing for me.

Dave Coates's picture

As a newish photographer that has only been pursuing this for a little more than 18 months, I really appreciate someone coming out and saying this. I have found that the more I shoot, the better I get, but it can be discouraging to not have an "outlet" for your work except for social media.

Alfie Goodrich's picture

Get published in a couple or three of the best of these, use the pics/PDF/screengrabs of the magazine on a 'published' section of your website, then it'll help you approach some better, paying magazine jobs. Every photographer at the beginning has a few lower paid or free things they've done. It's fine. Just dont make a long-term habit of that sort of work as it makes a rod for your own back in being able to charge decent rates in the future.

Dave Coates's picture

Thanks! Sounds like some hard earned wisdom.

Bryan York's picture

I thought it was well written and I understood your point. I think a good point that should have been mentioned is all the hassle in communication it often takes! I shot some photos in February this year that I was trying to get published for my team. Long story short it never happened and the line to communication died.... I do agree with some of these nah sayers that publication does have it's place and sometimes you can hit pay dirt with a free publication. However, I agree and speak from experience that it often is not worth your time. Keep up the great work! :)

Matthew Saville's picture

Magazine publication is not the only culprit. Literally EVERY online photo contest I have seen in the last few years has had something in the fine print to the effect of "by entering this contest, you grant us and our affiliates a full license to use your image in any way we see fit, even if it goes beyond the promotion of this contest"...

Simply put, don't enter tons of contests with your best photos, if you value your best photos and want to maintain their overall value in the market for possible licensing or print sales.

The same general rule applies: If you're looking for exposure, and if you know you can do better work next time, then there's no harm in submitting a few photos here and there to contests or publications. The exposure could be totally worth it.

But, at a certain point, all you're doing is providing these large corporations with an unlimited supply of free image licenses, and are de-valuing the market as a whole.

johnnymartyr's picture

Thanks for pointing this out Matthew, there are more bogus photo contests out there than I can count! These and vanity publications are just vultures who make 100% of their money from artificially bolstering the confidence of aspiring, inexperienced photographers. When one pays to submit to these phoney contests and publications, one is basically just buying their way into a spotlight, not actually being recognized for talent by experts.

When someone is willing to pay a photographer for their work, this is the true mark of valid belief in ones work.

Carlos Garcia's picture

I agree with this article as I also found myself wasting much time, resources and finances into getting the 'prestige' of being a 'published' photographer. The truth is, the magazines are laughing all the way to the bank off of your work. You get ZERO money out of it and little to no one cares if you are published. This promise of exposure from the magazines are an antiquated form of trying to be a recognized photographer. Social media has basically killed print out magazines. You can become even more recognized that way than these vanity magazines. I've been published multiple times and can honestly say, it is a waste of time in the end and I prefer to shoot for myself on personal projects than bend over backwards for these magazines. Until you've done it, you'll believe otherwise.

Alfie Goodrich's picture

If they're using you, use them back. At the beginning when you're trying to get out there - which is a damn sight easier now than it was 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago - it can be handy to have a few of these sorts of things to put in the 'published' section of your website. You need the sprat to catch the mackerel. Cherry-pick two or three of the best mags, get yourself published and use that to lure in the bigger, paid jobs.

No shame in this. Every photographer has lower-level, cheap or free work stepping-stones at the start of their career. Just dont make a long-term habit of doing this sort of thing.

Fact is that after that, you may as well start your own magazine. InDesign, Photoshop and the global publishing mechanism of the web (Issuu, HP MagCloud) are all very cost-effective ways to get yourself out there compared to what you needed when I finished art school in 1990: film, chems, a darkroom, a publishing deal, an agent, an exhibition tour - the list goes on. You can do it all from your phone now, to be honest.

David Apeji's picture

Not all these "vanity" magazines are equal...

Nicole York's picture

That's absolutely true. I am actually interviewing the editors of a couple of the better ones, along with the director of a modeling agency, to get some great info for the follow-up article, so stay tuned for that one!

Pete Whittaker's picture

Looking forward to your follow up.

David Hynes's picture

Yes to all of this.

I stopped publishing my work to random publications. They do nothing for me financially and have had just more luck posting my work constantly on social media. I honestly think that no one really cares about you being published - they care about quality and consistency of your work.

At risk of sounding like a douchebag - I've seen a lot of garbage being published these days and I really don't want my hard work next to someone else who hasn't taken the time to learn their craft properly. I also don't want to be spending the extra time emailing publications (with their own submission requirements / sizes etc) when I get nothing out of it besides wasted time.

Just keep pumping out solid work, refine your skills, and don't stop!

Chris Lonsberry's picture

I have to admit that, when I hear "vanity magazines", I think of.. you know.. fashion-type mags. But, as I read your article, it fit some magazines that I've had some dealings with. They were not fashion-centric in any way. And yet the methods seem to be identical. It makes me think that maybe the vanity here is our own. I'm a little dismayed at how many publications are happy to use your work.. unless you ask to be paid for said work. Then.. [crickets]. As far as photos being tied up in limbo... yeah.. feeling a lot of that pain.

Bill Merritt's picture

Shoot it for free and you will get all the work that you can handle.

Kirk Darling's picture

I think the headline for the article should have been "Do Not Pay Money to Have Your Photos Published in Vanity Magazines."

Kirk Darling's picture

I think people are missing something important here--the definition of "vanity magazine."

"A vanity magazine is a publication, digital or print, that exists by making money from the work of featured artists, rather than making profits from advertising space and off-the-rack sales as most well-known magazines do."

If YOU have to PAY for them to publish your image, that's a "vanity magazine," and that's not going to get you any work for the money you pay. That's essentially like paying a prostitute to say, "I love you." Real paying editors know them for what they are.

Thatiana Terra's picture

Hi Nicole, amazing article. It has really opened my eyes to some details I have never thought about. This industry is a jungle out there and it's normal to be a bit lost. I was wondering, when is the follow-up article going to be published? Thank you!

Nicole York's picture

Hi Thatiana! I'm glad it helped you think about things! More than anything I just want photographers to feel informed.
The follow up article to this one has already been published, please give it a read and let me know what you think.


Kavak Agir's picture

Agree with some parts, But if you want to get results from editorials & submissions, Is to look the name of the magazine you want to send your work on MODELS.COM database! if its there, great. try to have minimum 3 publication ( editorials ) which the magazine is listed in models.com then when you have more than 3 publication like this, send a request to models.com and mention your editorials ( its their rules ) You will be accepted to be on models.com database, and thats the ultimate exposure every fashion person can get! Cuz models.com is the biggest database for true fashion and pro people.
Hope it helps you

Macintosh Smith's picture

One point that wasn't made is the value of the image drops after first time publication use.

This is a really good article! Many of the points made are what I've felt instinctively. But this article really reinforced my initial thoughts about vanity publications.