Picture Editor: A Guide to This Essential Newsroom Role [2022]

In the latest from our Essential Guide To The Newsroom series, we examine the role of the picture editor.

Understanding what the picture editor does is critical if you want to succeed in public relations.

Images are all important in the media – whether it’s online or offline – even the very best stories need high-quality images.

The picture editor sits alongside the news editor deciding whether or not the images you have provided with your story meet the mark.

If they don’t you won’t get the media coverage you are after.

Every media relations campaign must be image-focused.

Even if you know how to write a press release, it’s not enough – your PR plan must take account of the images you will provide.

In this guide to the picture editor, you will understand how they work and what they are looking for from you.

Who Is The Picture Editor?

Picture editor - camera

Pictures are key to the way stories are told, developed and presented.

The editor is passionate about their work and photography in general.

This role requires rigid adherence to deadlines, ambitious vision as well as strong communication and visual skills.

The picture editor will work alongside the news editor and editor. Together they ensure the right quality of images are collected for publication.

From the first moment a story is discussed, they will be thinking about how they represent the story visually. How best to complement a story. This is discussed with the team.

More importantly, the picture editor is the eyes of the whole publication. They instinctively know what picture style and content is right for their business.

What Does A Picture Editor Do?

He/she is efficiently organising the image library whilst ensuring the photographers are allocated work.

Every story needs a picture. But not every picture is taken by a ‘team’ photographer. Images are sourced from a range of places.

It is down to the drive and business acumen of the picture editor to source these pictures. They must be able to make strong and fast decisions.

Images may derive from agencies, individuals, businesses and of course freelance photographers.

Today many publications are also using pictures from social media.

It is the picture editor’s job to source the right picture and to negotiate fees. This means they must be able to manage a budget. Crucially, they need to understand the business needs and objectives.

The Legal Responsibilities of The Picture Editor

Picture editor and the law

Once sourced, the picture editor must ensure the correct permissions and rights are sought to use the image.

Copyright disputes can lead to achingly long and expensive legal exchanges. Therefore, a picture editor cannot afford to be blasé about who owns a picture.

Once a good image is obtained and ownership agreed, it is their job to correctly file it. They will ensure it is captioned and credited.

If the picture has arrived at the desk already captioned and credited this must be double-checked.

An incorrect or misleading caption can result in legal action. Omitting a credit on a picture is also a serious issue.

The pictures will also have a source contact. This means it can be linked back to its origins. A phone number or email will suffice.

A picture editor will have a picture library that is foolproof. This means the most junior reporter can access pictures at a moment’s notice.

The caption will tell them what the picture is, where it was taken, subject names and who took it. There will also be information about whether a credit is required and the photographer/source details.

As well as maintaining an extensive library, they are responsible for commissioning content.

Hiring Photographers For The Picture Desk


A picture editor will have a pool of talented and reliable photographers who will often have specialisms.

These photographers are usually booked in advance. They are provided with clear instructions.

This will include a full description of the job. Detail includes; who, what and where with clear instruction as to how the picture desk wants the image taken.

The freelancer is required to deliver a range of images following instruction.

The picture editor will liaise with the news desk on picture progress. On receipt of the picture, it is their job to ensure the image quality is strong.

They also need to ensure the picture registration and settings are appropriate for publication.

The picture editor may need to crop and adjust the picture. They will certainly work with the sub editor to ensure the picture clarity on a page.

It may also be their job to train new photographers, appraise staff and ensure all equipment is in good working order.

How Do You Become a Picture Editor?

A picture editor is most likely to have spent time as a photographer. They understand the challenges facing the photographer.

They will have a keen eye for detail, a visual instinct and be superbly organised.

The picture editor is familiar with the latest photographic equipment and software.

What type of skills, responsibilities do they have?

The picture editor must know everything about photography.

They will have strong managerial skills as well as a keen ability to organise. They will be proficient technically being able to use a whole range of image software.

It’s important they understand what images will print well and why and which ones don’t, and why.

They must have extensive contacts within the industry.

And they are responsible for ensuring the news desk has all images required to deadline.

The pictures must be properly filed, captioned and credited. Any external images must have the appropriate permissions to use in the context intended.

The picture editor will manage the workload ensuring that staff or freelance photographers are tasked with relevant work.

He/she must assign appropriately. It’s no good sending a fashion photographer to a wildlife shoot, or a photographer who specialises in art photographer to a public protest.

The picture editor will usually attend news conferences contributing to the news/features/sport agenda.

He/she will be a creative individual, able to come up with ideas for shoots and stand-alone picture stories.

They will always deliver to deadline.

What’s The Difference Between a Photographer And Picture Editor?

The picture editor is focused on commanding the desk.

They are the eyes of the whole publication. They will source all images and ensure quality is maintained.

The photographer is out on jobs. In fact, it is a rare sight to see a photographer in the office. Unless of course, they are a studio photographer.

And it’s relatively rare for a picture editor to be taking photographs. They are busy commissioning, filing, reviewing, editing and manipulating pictures.

The photographer is following instructions from the picture editor to take the images required. And the picture editor will liaise with the photographer to ensure jobs are going to plan.

If the job is being conducted in the in-house photo studio, the picture editor will often attend.

And if the job is deemed important enough, the picture editor will certainly attend an external shoot to direct the job.

A picture editor will ensure the photographer has all props and equipment necessary. They are likely to arrange hair and make up for the subjects.

The picture editor will ensure the photographers have access to shoots. So, if a picture is being taken at a train station, permissions must be sought. There’s most often a fee to be negotiated as well.

The picture editor will brief the photographer on contacts, names and any other special requirements.

Should I Email My Pictures To The Picture Desk?

The picture editor will always be interested in external pictures. They are looking for picture ideas 24/7.

It’s always worth emailing a picture through for possible use.

Make sure you know how to write a media pitch – which always includes great images!

Also, look out for any special campaigns the publication is running. Are they running a ‘picture of the day feature’, a ‘weather pic’ or are they looking for people portraits?

This can be a great way to introduce yourself to the picture desk and start to build a good relationship.

So there you have it – the complete guide to the role of the picture editor.

And if you’re ready to take your PR work to the next level grab our PR Starter Kit.

Our must-have kit has every template, script, strategy and guide you’ll ever need to do PR – all in one place.

Good luck!

About Alistair Clay

Alistair is a former national journalist with 20 years’ experience working in the media and PR. He is the founder of UK healthcare agency Arc Seven Communications and a registered member of the PRCA.