What’s It Like To Shoot For Real Simple Magazine?

What’s It Like To Shoot For Real Simple Magazine?

Real Simple  is a women’s lifestyle magazine aimed at helping its readers manage their time, energy, and money. The magazine offers advice on everything from cooking to home decor, health, beauty, and fashion. Brian Madigan, Associate Photo Editor at Real Simple, took the time to answer all our nitty-gritty questions about the magazine’s photography – so if you’re curious about what the photo team is looking for, or want to know what it’s like to work for a top magazine publication, read on and indulge in their gorgeous photo spreads.

How do you characterize Real Simple‘s photography style? 

Our magazine’s style is clean, modern, and graphic while still maintaining a warm and feminine quality. We try to create images with clarity, simplicity, and strength.

How much post-production is done for the images that appear in the magazine?

For conceptual or photo-illustration type shots, like the below story photographed by Geof Kern, there might be a good deal of post-production. Otherwise, we do what we can to get the images where we want them to be on camera.  Through lighting, great makeup, and talented stylists, it’s amazing what you can do so that Photoshop isn’t necessary. We like our photos to look inviting and be relateable to our readers, and part of that comes from the people or objects that look real and believable.

That being said, there are always minor tweaks that need to be done, and we ask the photographers who took the images to oversee retouching and make sure that the finished product is something that they are happy with.

What is Real Simple‘s relationship like with its photographers?

We have a number of photographers that have been with the magazine for many years. Roland Bello was Real Simple‘s first Creative Director when the magazine launched in 2000. Photographers like Martyn Thompson and Mary Rozzi have been shooting for the magazine from the beginning.

Part of what we tried to accomplish with our redesign two years ago was to nourish the relationships with the photographers we have, but also bring new people in to further our voice.

Then how often does Real Simple hire new photographers?

New photographers get hired because someone on the team – a Photo Editor or Art Director – really loved some of their work and thought they would be a great match for what we were picturing for a story. We might come across them through their rep’s site, through a story they shot for another magazine, or through a promotion that they previously sent us.

Is location important in whether you hire a photographer?

For the most part we only work with photographers in the New York City area [where Real Simple is based]. Most of our stories require an Art Director or Photo Editor to be on set to make sure the photo works with the editorial content. There are a few exceptions, mostly with our portrait photography, where we’ll go over a shot list with the photographer ahead of time and then let them go off and shoot the story. In those cases the photographer can be anywhere in the country since we can talk over the phone and then fly them to the location.

So what’s it like to do a shoot for Real Simple

A story first starts with an Art Director and Photo Editor who will brainstorm what we want to see in the included art. In an ideal world, the photographer then comes in to get briefed, talk through the ideas, and either propose an alternative or develop the story further. We also talk about the team of people that will help (stylists, set people, models, etc.) and then secure those professionals. If we can’t have a meeting in person, we’ll do it over the phone and through emails.

As for shoot volume, shot counts differ a lot depending on the subject matter. For a food shoot, because the food stylist is cooking the meals, we might not be able to get through more than 6 or 7 shots of any given recipe in a day. For a fashion shoot, each outfit gets a little bit of tailoring and with hair and makeup adjustments that can take up a lot of time. For a constructed still life, we may not get through more than 3 or 4 in a day.

Do photographers retain creative license on the photos that they’re commissioned to shoot?

Every photographer that we commission retains the rights to the photographs. There are certain restrictions however – one being an embargo period so the images are first seen in our publication and nowhere else. The other major one is the magazine’s cover photograph. If a photo runs on the cover of Real Simple, the photographer retains the rights to the work but can only use it in their portfolio or another instance of self-promotion. They can’t license it to anyone.

Does the magazine also license stock photography? 

We have about five pages per issue (each issue is usually 150 pages total) where will license stock images. We work with some great agencies like Art & Commerce, Trunk Archive, Gallery Stock, and Magnum Photos to find high quality photos.

Beyond that, any other stock photos in the magazine are found through photographers’s websites, gallery websites, photo festivals, blogs, or books. We make an effort to bring in fine art or personal work from photographers that we know as much as possible. Sometimes we’ll license an existing image right from a photographer, but more often if we see something we like then we’ll contact the photographer and ask him or her to do an original shoot for us. But I think it’s important for photographers to submit their work to as many places as possible. I’m always visiting photo blogs and galleries to see what’s new and what people are talking about.

How does your team decide whether images should be commissioned or licensed from stock? 

Aside from those five pages whose images are consistently licensed from stock, we plan on shooting everything from scratch. Our goal is to make a cohesive package so that all of our stories make some connection with our readers visually. That’s also what makes the stock photo research so hard – not only do we have to find that one photo for a story that will work, but it needs to fit with the rest of the issue. For food specifically, the photos we need just don’t exist. Our food department creates the recipes from scratch every month, hopefully giving our readers a unique meal that they haven’t had before.

How does Real Simple feel about pitch & promo emails from photographers?

E-mail promos and physical promos both have their pros and cons. I think that if you really believe that you’d be a good fit for a magazine, send a physical promo. If you walk around our offices you’ll see lots of physical promos hanging on our walls. I may not have a story for those photographers at the moment, but it’s a nice way to remember who is out there when the time comes. If you’re just testing the waters and want to kind of introduce yourself, e-mail promos are great. I keep a folder in my inbox of e-mail promos to go through when I’m looking for something new.

As for the promo itself, I think photographers should definitely include more than one image for us to check out. If there’s only one photo and we don’t love it, we kind of move on. If there are three and one of them is great, we’ll hang on to it. Every promo should have your name and web address in a type face that’s easy to read. If you are doing an e-mail promo, then embedding the images inside the email is probably better than attaching them. It doesn’t make a huge difference – just keep the file size of the email down. It shouldn’t clog my inbox.

What are some of your favorite photographer websites? 

James Wojcik, Ryan Pfluger, Yasu + Junko, Jonny Valiant, Tom Schierlitz, and Sang An are just a few photographers who have sites that I love.

What do you like about them?

All of them have clean, clear, and easily navigable sites. Drop splash pages and flash animations, and just keep the interface simple and straightforward. Do not put music on your site! I’m not looking to hire a composer, and it adds nothing and only distracts from your work. I’d also stay away from bright, jarring colors. I should also be able to “right click” a link to open it in a new tab or window. A lot of times I’m comparing one story to another, so I need to be able to view them easily side-by-side.

Can you give a few other top tips for what photo buyers want in a photography website?

  • Photographers should divide their work into clear straightforward categories. “Portfolio 1”, “Portfolio 2” and “Portfolio 3” tell me nothing of what’s in there and, when I go back looking for a photo I remember seeing, that type of naming doesn’t help me find it at all. Thumbnails at the bottom are great. I need to be able to scroll forward and backwards through the gallery, not just one way. Photos should also load quickly; there are ways of getting large beautiful photographs on your site without 5 second load times.
  • Please have an area with clear instructions on how to contact you. List at least your email address and then also your rep or gallery’s name, agency, phone number, and e-mail. If I want to hire you, I need to know who you want me to contact.
  • The work you put up should reflect your interests and talents. If you hate doing one type of work or want to move in another direction, then don’t put it on your website. Or at least don’t make it the focus.
  • A section of “new work” is always nice. I do check in from time to time to see what photographers are up to and that’s a nice, quick way of seeing it instead of scrolling through all the old work that I already know really well.
  • I really like seeing personal work on a photographer’s site. I think a lot of times photographers get stuck in doing certain types of work. We [as photo editors] get nervous to let them experiment on our dime, so seeing what they do on their own helps us look at them in a new way. It also helps us  creatively. We’ve done a number of stories that either started with ideas derived from photographers’s personal work, or we licensed their work directly. Craig Cutler did some amazing photos with just simple glasses of water that worked perfectly as the opener to a story on hydration and Ilan Rubin did a time study of a bouquet of tulips that was great for a story we did on aging.


What are some of your all-time favorite images that have appeared in the magazine? 

The first here we called “Comfort in a Bowl” from the January 2011 issue – Photographer: Con Poulos, Photo Stylist: Jeffrey W. Miller, Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

Jeffrey Miller worked really hard getting backgrounds that evoked visually the ingredients in the meal. And Cyd, the Food Stylist, did a fantastic job styling the food in a way that mimicked the patterned cloth. Con’s lighting for this story was really beautiful and he decided to use film, which always blows digital away. It was a perfect mix of idea and execution.

Another favorite is “Increase your Flexibility And Improve Your Life” from August 2010 – Ph: Robert Maxwell

I thought the combination of black and white and color photographs was stunning and this was a great example of photography that is crisp, clear, and graphic as well as warm and inviting.

This is called “The Decoder: High-Tech Fitness” from December 2011 – Ph: Jamie Chung, PS: Megan Caponetto

When Jessica Weit (the Art Director at Real Simple) and I were given this story to work on, we kind of cringed. It’s really hard to make an exciting photograph out of technology. Conveying technology and fitness seemed tough, especially since some of the points are all generic, non-physical items like “apps”. Jamie came up with the idea to turn the Wii remote into a fitness character, and he and Megan did an amazing job constructing it. The attention to detail was perfect. There are even beads of sweat dripping off the face. It was just perfect.

Finally I wanted to include “A Sense of Wonder” from September 2011 – Ph: Kurt Markus

For our September 2011 Fashion Feature, Photo Director Casey Tierney thought of approaching Kurt Markus to do the story. She’s always loved his work, and when he said he was up for it we were really excited. He came in to the office for a meeting and was a great guy to talk with. You could tell that he was strong enough to see a vision through, but was also willing to work with us to make sure we would get exactly what we were looking for.

I flew out with our Creative Director Janet Froelich, Fashion Director Victoria Sanchez-Lincoln, and a hair and makeup team to Montana for the shoot. I hadn’t traveled through middle America before and Montana just blew me away – the landscape is absolutely amazing. Over five days Kurt, his family, and crew made us feel at home, taking us sight seeing to the lakes and plains, thrift stores, and marinas. It was one of the best shoots I’ve worked on and definitely something that made me thankful that our magazine and company is willing to put the time, and more importantly, money into their stories.

Thanks to Brad Madigan and Real Simple for the insights and insider tips!

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There are 8 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: Shooting for “Real Simple” Magazine | Project 52: A Weekly Photographic Assignment
  2. Patrick House at 9:20 pm

    What a great article! I love the way Casey Tierney describes the middle america she was able to enjoy. He is one of my favorite photographers. I am sure it will be a time she will never forget. Blessings.

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  5. Kristi McMurry at 10:33 am

    What a great post! I love the crisp, clean shots that I often see in Real Simple. I eventually want to switch gears in my career and do more still life work, so this was an incredibly useful article for me. Guess I better get to work!

  6. Becky Reams at 9:48 pm

    Great piece, thank you! I would love to shoot for Real Simple, and have always admired the publication, so when I saw this article I was jazzed! It’s always helpful hearing from photo editors, and their individual preferences.–especially Brian Madigan

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