What is Editorial Photography?

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Editorial photography involves images that depict real events, such as this photo of colorfully dressed women dancing.

Many people confuse editorial photography with commercial photography, documentary photography, and photojournalism, but there are important–though subtle–differences. Let’s start by defining editorial photography, and then we’ll discuss the differences with the other genres.

What is Editorial Photography?

Editorial photography tells a story with images. These are frequently used by magazines or newspapers. An editorial photographer produces a polished image, one that might involve some alteration, but the intent is to illustrate a concept rather than to sell a product or service.

Editorial photography conveys a concept through images, as this photo of the terracotta warriors in China conveys a concept of antiquity or Chinese heritage.
Editorial photographs convey concepts, such as the concept of antiquity or heritage conveyed with this image.

What is the Difference Between Editorial and Commercial Photography?

Both types of photography involve polished or altered images, but unlike editorial photography, commercial photography is meant to use images for advertising purposes. This genre serves commercial clients. That means photographing products or depicting expertise–as might be the case with corporate portraits–for commercial purposes. 

Documentary Photography

This is probably the most similar genre to editorial photography. Like editorial photography, it is telling a story with images, but this genre lies between editorial photography and photojournalism in terms of how much leeway the photographer has to modify the scene and direct subjects.

Editorial photographers have more leeway in their efforts to produce a polished image. Documentary photography strives to take more objective images, although they do have some leeway to change the scene, modify the lighting, and direct subjects–just not as much as the editorial photographer. 


Photojournalism is the most objective of these genres. Photojournalists have virtually no leeway to change the scene or alter things like the lighting conditions. They are solely documenting what is happening–or what they are seeing–in images with no alterations. 

To sum up the differences between these genres, the main differences lie in the freedom of the photographer to alter the scene, whether that is achieved by directing subjects or changing something like, for example, providing better lighting. On a scale from most objective to least objective, the line up would be as follows: 

  • Photojournalism
  • Documentary Photography
  • Editorial Photography
  • Commercial Photography

Like photojournalism and documentary photography, editorial images document real-life issues, current events, and human interest stories in a truthful manner, and these images are frequently used to strengthen magazine or newspaper articles. Editorial photography, however, is not used for advertising purposes.

Editorial photographers document real places and events, but they can use those images to convey concepts, like this image of Big Ben, which could illustrate a story about England.
Editorial photographers document real places and events, but they can use those images to illustrate a broader story–as this image might strengthen a story about England.

Unlike documentary photography and photojournalism, the editorial photographer has more leeway to change the scene or modify it by directing subjects or altering the exposure, for example. The goal is to produce polished images that will help to tell an important story, but the image must maintain the realism of the subject. That means that, although the photographer might tweak the exposure, contrast, or alter the color slightly, it is not permissible to do things like add filters or apply artistic treatments. 

A Few Examples

It might help to illustrate the differences with a few examples: 

Consider an event like a presidential visit to another country. Photojournalists would document each stage of the visit exactly as it occurred.

Documentary photographers might also document the visit exactly as it occurs, but their images might be used to accompany a story about the importance of presidential visits abroad to national security, and so they might ‘clean up’ the images to polish them for that story. Photojournalists would not alter their images in any way.

Meanwhile, editorial photographers might use images that are not even part of the presidential visit to illustrate a concept or idea related to the contents of their story.

For example, the President sits down with the Queen of England for tea in a meeting where reporters are not allowed. Photojournalists and documentary photographers might publish images of the Queen and the President walking into Buckingham Palace, where they will have tea. Editorial photographers, on the other hand, might use an image of a teacup to illustrate the part of the story related to the prominence of afternoon tea in British culture.

Let’s take another example–consider a story about fashion. Whereas the editorial photographer might use models wearing a particular clothing line in scenes that are set up to illustrate the fashion element of the story, the documentary photographer would take images of real people wearing the clothes.

Editorial photographers have more leeway to modify scenes and direct subjects in order to tell their story, as seen in this image of a woman in fashionable apparel.
Editorial photographers have more leeway to modify scenes and direct subjects in order to tell a compelling story.

Both are photographing real clothing lines, but the editorial photographer has more leeway to set up the scene using models, good lighting, and props.

The documentary photographer would take images of real people wearing the clothing–possibly that he or she is directing or in a scene that is set up but not to the extent that happens with editorial photography.

And the photojournalist would simply take pictures to document the actual fashion show without directing anyone or setting up any scenes. Or, the photojournalist might take pictures of real people wearing the clothing, but again, without any direction or scene modification.

You’ll notice that both examples above don’t discuss the role of the commercial photographer. But editorial photography basically walks right up to the line of commercial photography. In the fashion example, the editorial photographs could conceivably be used for advertising the clothing line, and in that case, the images would have a commercial purpose. The difference there is in the intent for the use of the images. 

The editorial photographer is doing it to illustrate a story about fashion, but the commercial photographer’s intent would be to sell the clothing line. The images may be identical, but the intent is what distinguishes commercial photography from editorial photography

And, that intent makes an important legal difference. If you’re using an image to promote a product or service, you must have signed release forms from any models used–whether these are professional models or simply people in your image–and you must have a signed property release form from the owners of any property that is visible within the image. The word property would signify the clothing in our example here.

Here are some examples of where you can and cannot use editorial use only images:

Editorial use only images can be used in the following contexts:

  • Newspaper or magazine articles;
  • In a blog or website for descriptive purposes;
  • In non-commercial presentations; 
  • Textbooks; 
  • Documentaries; 
  • Essays and journal articles;
  • News broadcasts; 
  • Editorial features;
  • Stock photos. 
a religious festival.
Editorial use only images can be used in contexts like documentaries about religious festivals.

Editorial use only images cannot be used in the following: 

  • Advertisements or promotional materials;
  • Advertorial purposes where a third party pays for the placement of the image.

Both of the latter (advertisements and advertorial purposes) would constitute commercial photography, and as such, they would require release forms for any people or property depicted in the images.

Editorial Photography Tips

With that understanding, here are a few tips on taking good editorial photos:

  • Have a Concept in Mind: Consider the subject and the backstory, and have a few concepts in mind for the photos you want to get. 
  • More than Pretty Photos: Images may be gritty or tell a story that isn’t particularly pretty, but that’s the realistic part of editorial photography, and this lets you get really creative. 
editorial image of a family.
Editorial images are more than just pretty pictures; they often depict the grittiness of real life.
  • The Pressure is On: You have to be ready to handle pressure. The timing may be short, the weather may be bad, and the subjects may be uncomfortable, but the best editorial photographers are versatile enough to roll with the flow. 
  • Get the Point: The most important part of editorial photography is that the images need to illustrate the main concept of the story. 
  • Connect with the Subjects: The best editorial photographers are the ones who can connect with their subjects and help them relax. 
  • Practice: Doing all of this takes practice–so practice taking photos for stories you have in mind. That will help you develop these valuable skills.

One of the best things about editorial photography is the ability to get creative with your images. You’re telling a story and that gives you a lot of leeway in choosing the subjects and locations for your shots.

As an editorial photographer, you have greater creative license to choose your subjects. An image such as this temple could convey ideas about a particular religion or broader concepts like faith.
As an editorial photographer, you have greater creative license in choosing your subjects–this image could convey an idea about a particular religion or the broader concept of faith itself.

It also allows you to have more versatility with your photography because you’re not just documenting what is happening, you’re expressing concepts with your images. What’s more, as you develop your own creative editorial style, you’ll learn to document the story in a way that few people get to do. That makes editorial photography one of the more exciting and rewarding genres!

Frequently Asked Questions:

What makes editorial photography different?

The creativity it gives you as a photographer. Photojournalists and documentary photographers are more objective, commercial photographers need to please the client, but you’re telling a story.

What are the main types of editorial photography?

The main types of editorial photography include:
Editorial street photography
Editorial wedding photography
Editorial fashion photography
Editorial travel photography
Stock photography

Each type demands a slightly different style and skill set, but you’re still telling a story with your images.

What is a magazine editorial?

A magazine editorial is an article written by the senior editorial staff or publisher of the magazine. It might express an opinion of the writer or the publication on a particular topic, but editorials frequently also address letters to the editor. 

How much does an editorial photographer make?

The national average salary is $34,041 (as a base pay), but it depends on your area and the publication for which you work. Higher-end salaries pay up to $60,000 per year or more, and you can also make additional money by freelancing–for example, by producing stock photos.

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Catherine Gaither is a professional photographer and bioarchaeologist. She has traveled the world photographing archaeological sites and artifacts, and studying human physical remains. She has written numerous professional publications. She continues to work as a forensic consultant and author.
Catherine Gaither is a professional photographer and bioarchaeologist. She has traveled the world photographing archaeological sites and artifacts, and studying human physical remains. She has written numerous professional publications. She continues to work as a forensic consultant and author.

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