Which Comes First – the Pictures or the Text?

Which comes first, the pictures or the text?
It is true to say magazines prefer the whole words and pictures package for non-fiction work but which comes first, the image or the feature?

I started using transparencies rather than print film whilst on holiday in Lincolnshire some fifteen years ago. As well as providing holiday memories my intention was to use the slides to illustrate talks to groups. During the next few years I increased the range of subjects and gave a few talks, a surprisingly scary experience for one whose career had been spent in the classroom. At the end of one of these I was asked if I wrote about my subjects and so the seed was planted.

Initially the subject for an article was dictated by the photographs. Having chosen a topic I would write a piece to submit to a magazine on spec. Some made it into print and most used my photographs although a few magazines still preferred to source their own. For example, an article on working windmills for which I felt my Lincolnshire pictures ideally suited was illustrated by pictures of mills from around the country. First lesson learned – for a national magazine try to have pictures from a variety of locations.

As the gallery grew it became clear a number of articles could be generated from a single subject. Around the country there are many regional and county magazines. With sufficient examples within an area you can submit an article on Mills of Blankshire for example. Grouping your photographs not only by subject but also by region may suggest publications to target but sorting the photographs in this way involves a lot of time and space. I realised an easier way had to be found. I opted for listing images on the computer using Excel. If you have a large collection making a database by subject which can be sorted by county or any other criterion may help you make choices

My earliest camera, a Brownie 127, used films offering just 8 prints a roll. These black and white photos were very small but I had enlargements of the best ones. The market for Sixties black and white prints would be limited I thought but sorting through I found several depicting local history including pictures of the notorious 62-63 winter and a toll-keeper at work on a road in Hampshire. A picture of my grandmother with her brother standing beside the well in his garden prompted memories of the day I refused to drink the well-water. I could see plants growing inside. The day was chiefly remembered for a walk with my Great Uncle. He introduced me to the beauty of our wild flowers, a passion that remains to this day. I wrote of this for a competition on childhood memories. I didn’t win a prize but an expanded piece found publication, along with the photograph, in The People’s Friend. Other pictures from this small collection have inspired more fillers for publications using nostalgia and personal features.

When I switched to a digital SLR the number of photos taken on a week away rose tenfold. Keeping track of such vast numbers makes cataloguing a necessity. I often store photos in their original date order and copy them to subject folders. If a magazine requests photos be transmitted digitally making up a separate folder to send helps keep the material together and can be combined with a copy of the text.

Photos do not have to be about locations. I have taken pictures of unusual or quirky signs, gardening problems and even illustrated reader’s tips and submitted them as magazine letters. The rate of pay per word or image is vastly superior to that offered for many articles.

Writing about photographs kick-started my writing but writing is just as likely to trigger photography. Research before day trips and holidays often reveals unusual stories. When Swansea was our destination I learned of a dog whose life-saving exploits in the 1930s lead to a public memorial being raised on his untimely death. I researched the story and made contact with various bodies verifying details. It only remained to take suitable pictures of the memorial and an article was ready for submission. With a piece already published in a dog’s magazine another slant to the story has been submitted to a different publication requesting stories of unusual statues and memorials

The guidelines for photographic requirements have changed over the years. Most used to ask for transparencies or black and white prints. Now the majority ask for digital images of 300dpi. Keeping up to date with latest guidelines is particularly important. If you have photographs in a different format, however, it is worth contacting the magazine to check their suitability.

Recent writing about exploring locations using old town guides or photographs involves trying to replicate earlier shots, showing both changes and retained features. Starting with photographs inspiring the writing, progressing to photographs illustrating the writing I have finally come around to writing about taking photographs. So, which comes first, the pictures or the text? In truth each can be the inspiration for the other. A group of pictures may inspire a whole range of topics for different markets. A single story may require a number of pictures to illustrate it for a variety of publications. Even the taking of pictures can be an inspiration for writing.


> Take a fresh look at your photographs. Can you group them by subject rather than location?
> Do you have several linked photos from a single location that could inspire a local feature or photos on a single subject from a variety of locations that may provide material for a national publication?
> Catalogue your photos. Do not rely on memory. Prints and slides should be clearly labelled. Create digital folders for specific subjects.
> Don’t overlook old photos. They can be used to inspire and illustrate historic or nostalgic features.
> Check you are using up to date guidelines on submitting photographs and do not send your only copy.

Written by Wordsmith

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Article by wordsmith

A contributor of largely illustrated articles to a range of national and local magazines on topics ranging from parentcraft and lifestyle matters to nostalgia and social history.
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