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Your Photojournalism Survival Kit

Lesson 7 of 12

How to Write a Successful Pitch Letter

Ron Haviv

Your Photojournalism Survival Kit

Ron Haviv

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Lesson Info

7. How to Write a Successful Pitch Letter

Lesson Info

How to Write a Successful Pitch Letter

So the picture water is basically going to be your your proposal to to the editor to the client is going to be about you selling the idea selling yourself but also selling the idea and this's really you know this is really important because this is often especially today editors are so inundated and as the media world has become decimated editors of many editors of loss of jobs so the editors that remain and people that remain in the positions where they're going to say yes or no to an assignment are fewer so their time is super limited so you really have to find the right way to kind of engage them so they're no sum basic rules and then there are things that you can kind of choose what you like and what you don't like that that work for you um so so basically on this stuff is also in the bonus material but you know as the pitch letter is the key to present the idea in a concise and interesting matter usually I do a picture letter basically in two forms going to do like a short one and...

email just to get the attention of the editor be like maybe a paragraph or so you know it's gonna have this basically they think he information like why is this important why why should you guys be doing this now and why's his peace timely this's so important so many photographers don't do this how is this story interesting to your audience meaning that if you're going to pitch a story to fortune magazine or business week, it should have a different pitch, a different tone and different idea than if you're pitching it to geographic or if you're pitching it to vice or somewhere else so it has to be like this isn't points for your your readers no one knew about business and things that are related to business so pitching a story like I just want to go somewhere I want to go to haiti and cover the earthquake and you picture to a business magazine and that's all you're saying we're gonna be like what does that mean to our audience if you want to go and talk about how the impact on the economic functioning of the countries because of the earthquake and so on and use the right words then off some there's like ok you understand us this is really you know this is really important and then it's like basic journalism rules what where when why how are you going to do it all of these things? And so this is a lot to put in a short paragraph but you can do it but you have to write it well if the right it's distinctly you have to have good grammar and you have to really you know, pitch it correctly but really the timeliness and interesting to audience what's the hook like why should they do? Like one of the things that photographers so often forget is that well, you're so happy to get funding for your story and it's always like you us with their hands out but in reality it's not right because they're giving you the assignment there behind your story because why? Because it's going to help them it's going to bring leadership to their magazine so it's not like this it's like this so you have to approach this as ah partnership and that we're going to do this together so like you have to figure out howto make how this is going to make that publication better and I guarantee you if you bring to an editor an idea that's going to sell magazines or bring viewers to the site or whatever they're gonna love you why? Because they're going to look good because look what I found, they go to their boss and then and then you become an integral part of that that success. So this is really important about also about the your your presentation, your attitude in the way that you're right it's not like I really loved like can you give me one hundred dollars just like do it straight up like you really like I'm giving you something that's super valuable, which is an idea and it's my interpretation of the idea and if you like my idea my work then this is like it would be natural for us to work together so that part too it's more in depth let's say that you send the e mail out they go yeah, that sounds really great let us know more about it so now you're going to actually be a little bit more structured you're going to go to your mind map shot list you're going to start to create like this is what I'm going to do this is what I'm going to see maybe you're going to do some research already maybe you'll talk to your potential subject or somebody that knows about the subject you put in some quotes you put in some statistics you make them have like a better fuel for this story now again going back to this idea right that nobody wants to invest in something that's not going to pay off anymore this used to be like yeah let's give it a shot here's some money go out for five days sounds like a good idea but it might not work that's ok today no they want to know because they have a budget they've committed, they have somebody saying, why did you just spend five thousand dollars and we're not we can't even run this so it's like this is this is the beginning of that of that sail right like this is this is gonna work I've talked to these people this makes sense and again kind of going back to that idea of the end of journalism where you're sort of going out to explore and see what it's going to come out they want to know now what's sure what's your conclusion so it's a little bit I find it's still a little bit strange, but that's the reality of today is like, okay, this is going to go spend time like I did a story for the new york times magazine a couple years ago about gangs in l a so the writer and I were talking and and the times like, okay, so you're going to spend this amount of time you're going to get access to these gangs and tell us exactly what your conclusion and we're like but the point is we're going out there to see like where we have an idea, but we can't guarantee it because maybe they're going to tell us something totally different like no no, you need to like tell us like this is what wei need to see like what's the end result so this is it's a little bit conflicting but it's a reality so you need to have a least good idea and then you can put in the caveat at some point like well may or especially as time goes on and things are shifting as long as you keep them in the loop hopefully things will be okay but this is definitely like it's amore substantial piece right this's really it's not you know, writing this story and if you've already kind of started to shoot something like remember I talked about earlier partials stories can help sell then you would include that like oh, I've been working on this story and I want to take it to the next level so here like five images plus the pitch letter so you have an idea both visually and with words on where the story can go so couple of things you know that you need to kind of really pay attention to like indicating your key sources uh showing that you could deliver the piece so basically hopefully that you have you got your website you have other clients I mean these kind of things that are really important so that they believe that you're that you can deliver today everybody that has one of these says I'm a photographer so it's a little bit more if the prove it a little bit more supposed being with somebody is going to invest money and this also is the big difference between everybody that has one of these and saying that you're a photographer because this is where the definition of being a photographer comes in this is where being a photojournalist, thes air the key things like this is your ability to tell a story, right that's, like not just going out with your iphone and taking pictures, but it's like putting the work together, combining it with words or captions or visual motion, or all these different elements to tell the story and that's where, you know, that's, where you're able to stand out that's, where, you know, that's, where you're going to be different. Um, so this is really this is really, really important, so again, like, you know, indicating the voices, so hopefully you'll have some quotes, people you're talking to assuming that there's no sort of secrecy or anything, name your sources in the pitch. Now you're also you're taking a chance, right? Like we're always you can't copyright ideas, so you're taking a chance that you're dealing with a reputable editor, a reputable company, and they're not going to, like, take your idea and give it to another photographer. It happens, doesn't happen a lot, but it's something to be aware of. So if you're dealing with somebody that you really not sure they're like, kind of maybe it's a new company or you don't really know much about them, you kind of had your bets a little bit, be a little bit mohr cryptic in some ways, but not to the point where you're you're making the pitch week, but this is the reality of work, of working so sort of kind of kind of pay attention uh, to that, I think that's really, really important cutting with a question from online, and then we also have some in the studio audience, which is awesome. So grab a mike, and then we'll get ready for that. So a lot of people, we're going into developing the pitch letter, but if we if we take a step back, how is it that you actually can go about knowing how to get that first pitch letter out to someone so specifically jason joseph asked, how would you go about landing the first photo journalism job? Is it better to find your own stories that I want people to know about? Or is it better to commission a cover story? So how are you? How are you thinking about that as a new gun, new person, right? Well, it goes back to the earlier conversation when you're combining things that you're passionate about, with the reality of, like, you also need to sell stories, right? So I think that one of the things that you was a photographer when you're working, you're often going to be working on multiple stories. At the same time so then there should be stories that are passionate projects that you know, you're really you just care about that story and the commercial aspect commercial being selling of it is not as important you just want to get that story out there but then there's you need to get stories that you care about but the stories also have a market and so this again depends on how you're running your business and when you're doing uh when you're going to do what? At one point but I think that in reality you know you want to be able to sell the story you want to be ableto at the very least break even if not hopefully make money so you have to understand stories that have commercial viability to them and then match them on a match them with the right story and it's about understanding the market not only the market in america about the market around the world because it's a worldwide market and the beauty certainly in terms of still photography is that it's universal language is not the issue and so it's also understanding like what? What works where so for example many many magazines are very nationalistic now and have been for quite a while nationalistic meaning that they want to tell stories through somebody from america, they're american magazine or a german if they're german magazine and so so like a really great example a great way to think about this is using uh mary claire because you're familiar with the magazine mary claire so women's magazine they do a variety of different stories of them the magazine itself and there are mary claire additions all over the world mary clear america very clear france, germany, uk, south africa various other places so the story you would pitch to mary clear america wouldn't be the same story you pitch to mary clear friends but let's just say you wanted to go into a story about people going to haiti after the earthquake to help and then say you're you're in haiti and you find this german nurse who flew there on our own money to just a volunteer her time so the idea instead of calling or contacting a german magazine to say hey, do you want to do a story about the earthquake in hating its after effects would be like no do you want to do a story about this woman who I found this german woman who flew on our own dime to come and help the haitian people and tell the story about the earthquake that way and you would pitch that to german publications and they would be much more interested in seeing it that way versus some sort of generic story that everybody around the world uh is doing so it's again it's going like pitching talk about earlier but why's it timely and how isn't interesting to your audience and so for a lot of people are kind of a nationalistic connection can be incredibly helpful it's not the only way to do it there plenty of times when people are interested in just really interesting stories it doesn't matter where they're from but often kind of as a bit of ah shortcut there are times when that can be can be super helpful was wondering when you started out wasn't difficult to know who to pitch to which magazine and was there initially a huge success rate for your story ideas? It was difficult and it still is difficult to know exactly when and where to pitch stories too I mean part of the idea of marketing yourself and learning about the business side is understanding who are the right people in different publications and because of today's business those people are often changing dramatically so you might have a connection and well magazine with an editor and then two weeks later they're gone and they pop up somewhere else another magazine so there is an aspect of the business part of this is understanding the way the business is working and who who you need to contact but I will say that even though it's constantly difficult when you have a really good idea and it will, it will help and in some ways in photography that is one of them or democratic kind of ways of working which benefits somebody just starting out and kind of doesn't do a lot for somebody like myself has been doing it for a long time meaning that if you and I both goto a magazine within would do different ideas and we and your each person has like a certain level photography where you're competent you could do something good most most magazines doesn't run of your idea's terrible but her idea's great so we're going to give her the job and so well that really is great like at one point there's like there's no sense of waco once you reach a certain point all the assignments come to you it's not like that you have to constantly keep working so again coast this ideas like it's the idea it's your presentation that pitch letter that will really kind of bring you to that point and that's good it means that it's very hopeful for anybody if you have a good what a good idea that makes sense for that place it's gonna work so just just to clarify build on that one this question is from craig pulsipher and a lot of questions to what you're talking about right now so do you pitch the print department or the photo department with so many on the mass had the photo editor the assistant editor the managing editor how do you identify the right person to pitch, especially when much of the editorial calendar is print driven that's a really good question, and I think of that like we spoke about before the power in the end really rests with the text, senator. But at the same time there is protocols so you as a photographer are expected and should go to the director of photography or a photo editor to pitch to pitch your story. This is why I also there is a benefit like in terms of the collaboration. Then when you collaborate with the writer, especially if there's a writer that already has so you don't have a relationship with that place on the writer does its better for that writer to pitch and bring you along, even if it's your idea rather than you doing it in reverse. In the end, for most places, it's going to be not the photography department that will make the decision. It would be the text people, but if you're not collaborating with a writer, it's still behooves you to go through the photography department as you are a photographer. But that being said. You know, if you have a strong pitch and it's and it's it's capable, then the director of photography will try and and they liked the idea they'll sell it to their editor that's their job because they want to do that story curious? Um, just starting out when you're starting to the pitch letters, how true do you stay to the pitch? Like when you start getting immersed into the project, if you find that potentially khun go off on a completely different tangent than what you initially presented, do you go back and try to shift gears with amore? Do you create a whole different project? Or is it really just a case by case, depending on how the circumstances come up? Well, it is case by case, but if you decide like you have this premise and it's actually not working out or you found something more interesting, then you have to have a conversation with your editor. You can't just show up at the end of the assignment, go oh, yeah, remember that pitch that I sold you on that didn't work, and I could here's a completely different story that's going to be a problem, but if you're talking to the editor and you're saying, ok, this is what I found, this makes more sense, or this is more interesting, or maybe we need to, like, extend the assignment by a couple days because I'm being taken in a different direction he's air conversations that you can have and if the editor says no like or if you said with the premises the promise and it works but this is more interesting there like no we just want that premise that you promise us then you do that you execute your assignment and then you take the other part and you re pitch it and do it and do it again for somebody else it is completely different than what your original part wass there's a lot of fluidity to it but I think what's really important is keeping in conversation we're the people that you've that are that are funding you and of course if you're doing it on your own then it's completely up to you you're not obliged to do you might have an idea at the beginning you're my map when you lead you somewhere your pitch might have let you somewhere and then wait this is well this is much more something else is much more interesting. So being a bill being flexible you you shift gears and I need go somewhere else you have you know, when you're on your own you're only responsible to yourself and to you know, to your budget so one of the more difficult things again kind of going back to this idea that you know these editors are being overwhelmed with pitches and deadlines themselves and working that you don't quite often you don't get a response I might doesn't also doesn't even matter where you are on the you know quote unquote photographic food chain they might just like we can't answer you so then what do you do? You're sitting there waiting for an answer that and a story that you want to get going or there might be a time consideration to the story so to be fair is like giving giving a deadline to the editor saying like you know, I I really love love your magazine I want to work with you uh this story's happening now I'm going to war is happening next week so I'm going to give you you have two days please respond to me within two days or whatever timeframe you think is legitimate and works and say ok if I don't hear from you I just assume you're not interested and you're gonna take it somewhere else because you can't sit around waiting for weeks and weeks for an answer that in the end when they find they read your email they come back oh no we're not interested because for whatever reason people it's probably in all aspects of the business but I find it incredibly frustrating especially in photography where people just don't seem to like even want to take like the one minute to say yeah, we're not interested thank you so much for considering it's so more often than not that doesn't happen so you bye you putting in a deadline into your pitch which is a completely legitimate thing to do that way you you have the ability to kind of control control uh the moment but at the same time things saying to the editor is part of the pitch I love your magazine I really think this story is right for you guys so you're the first person I'm coming to its exclusive for you you know, at sweetening the hook a little bit more, making a little bit more special um can be a good marketing thing uh to do so in the actual pitch letter you make sure you're being really focused on this story um and also kind of be decorative in your statements as you spoke about earlier how people they want to know thiss khun b done, they want to feel confident in your pitch so using words like may might likely our flags like you say I'm going to talk to this person I'm going to talk so I mean, obviously you're not lying this is your intentions but just just say you're going to do it and then if there are difficulties later on, you could have that conversation with the editor which is expected but at least in the initial in your initial pitches should be very decorative and confident that's that's important and then don't forget to include your contacts so I know that sounds really, really kind of obvious, but so we had, uh, creative live how that we had a pitch pitch writing contest where people send in their pitch, their pitch letters and there were a number of people that didn't have all their contacts. You want to have your phone number, you want to have your email and you want to have a website and there are people that might have one of those things to those things, but very few people at all three of those things there, times when there doesn't have to go to your website to find to find your phone number, you know, it's it's kind of it's a little bit, a little bit ridiculous and then it's also, if you're using kind of like for using social media as as as the tools of branding tool part of your presentation to the world like have the same information it's it's kind of amazing to me how many photographers have facebook pages uh, about their photography? And then when you go to their email, looked for their email on their phone number, it's not listed, and then you click on their website and there it is on their website, but if editors are engaging you first through facebook or first through your website you don't have all the information you're not gonna go zooming around trying to track you down they're just going to move on to the next to the next person they have so little time so like if you're presenting yourself to the world professionally you should brand all the way across like your contact should be available so should be on your pitch letter like this how you get in touch with me phone, phone or email and here's either an example of my work that's related to this story or is built into your pitch letter or just this is and here's the length of my portfolio or so I mean that that should be like super super obvious and so also just some of the other things that I saw on um on the examples you have to and if you can't do it you have to find somebody you have to write thes well like the grammar has to be proper you have to use proper punctuation like it's important it's like it's not just sort of like throwing something together and then you also have to pay attention like we're talking about about the hook right? So the hook is why's this timely and why is this important to your publication that's gonna be up there like immediately so they immediately get it very, very important and then also an invention earlier but very important in the idea of of um why is this right for your publication? You need to do some research on that publication you can't go on pitch a magazine a story that they ran and this happens people have gone, editors have told me photographers have gone in with pitches and the story that they're pitching is sitting there on the desk in that week's magazine you have to research the publication and see like had they done a story like this have they done the exact same story which is possible or have they done it in the last year or so? Because not only will that mean that you're wasting that editors time they're going to say you don't you're not even taking a seriously you're not even reading the publication you wanna work for, so you need to research it and then if you see like yes, something was done on refugees I can't go back like going back to ashley's idea think of a different way think outside the box find another way presented the refugee story is still important figure out a different way than just going to lesbos and photographing people coming off the boats what how else do you want to do it so all these things are very important in your pitch and then in your pitch also you know you want especially in the first one you want to be short you want to be succinct but in the second one where you're doing maurin depth it's like everything that you're saying there has to be very important related to the story so in some of the examples that we got people were putting in like super personal information that was not worded properly that made no sense other people we're talking about the type of equipment they use how I use it on eos camera or d three it's like the danger doesn't care about that unless a specifically related to like oh I'm going to shoot large format because it's a different look or everything is going to be panoramic otherwise don't talk about your equipment don't talk about like where you're going to sleep all that it's not but these are people are putting these in their pitches so it's important to kind of really I understand they don't have a lot of time the information through reading it's gonna be really key and you're you're selling the story and you're selling yourself super super important so this is what so to go back to the pitch letter talking about adding examples and that second one when you're describing the project and full I've heard people talk about trying to lay out your images and like a mock leah possibly for them if you have some images he just attached his j paige bet them in the e mail how do you get the what's? The best way to get those images to them that they can see it easily um I think catching at this point attaching j pegs too an email is basically a guarantee of I think editors now have their spam filter says if it's anything larger than like fifty k or something or it automatically goes to spam so you have to be very careful about that. But if it's the second if it's the second email I mean, don't do it in the first team of if it's a second email and they're expecting it then you you know already you're in conversation this is like you're talking, they're interested right? So then it would be could be it could be a link it could be it could be embedded I would ask actually asked the lovers at that point I have some imagery what's the best way that you want to see it and people you will get different responses but sending imagery straight off in the first short and sweet pitch that's almost a guarantee that it's going to go nowhere um so you have to be very good to be very careful about that and then make sure that that when you are doing that at it that's the way that you want to shoot this story and that that's a good just a taste like you don't send them fifty pictures and then say, oh, I need you to send me back it's like it if you already shot and this is fifty pictures that's not a good at it, you're going to do damage to yourself also. So you have to be super careful about that. So say you have already shot for a publication in this story has has run, and then you come up with an idea to make it the story. The idea is you were the photographer on it, not the writer and you you have your photos and you want to take this story, make it specific to a certain industry, how would you pitch? Would you send photos and say, hey, listen, I already shot for, you know, the wall street journal, say, and and this was the story and here's how I think it could relate to this industry and you're pitching into a companies that would, uh, magazine. Oh, yeah, I think that that's there's total value in that because it's like you're showing here's here's the story did for the wall street journal on I know on the new factories in the twenty first century, and now you're pitching it to fortune where you want you want to take that approach, and and you want them to. Do you want to do a story on amazon with the same company? That would be totally fine to do that. Yeah, because you're showing your showing going back. If you remember showing your expertise and your familiarity with the story, you're going to do that both with words and visuals, so that could be that constraint in it. It's okay to include this story. If it lives online, you went to the store. I mean, if it's the exact same story than obviously it's not going to work. But if it's something that supports your visual interpretation of that idea and it's with a client, uh, client that the next client is going to respect that it's only going to help you.

Class Description

Capturing a story on film is a complex process. It demands an understanding of the issue at hand as well as the ability to condense, package, and pitch the story to a distributor. Successful photojournalists make a job of nailing down the details before a shoot and being prepared for anything.

In Your Photojournalism Survival Kit, Ron Haviv brings two decades of experience in building a photojournalism career on carefully laid groundwork. 

In this course, you’ll learn:

  • How to identify a captivating story and organize a plan for shooting it 
  • How to create a budget and a pitch letter
  • How to plan for any eventuality during the shoot, and cope with setbacks when they strike
Ron Haviv draws on his long career for anecdotes and suggestions for aspiring photographers. He’ll teach you that your assignment starts before you leave your house; planning, packing and preparing for even the best-laid plans to go awry is essential. You’ll learn tricks for assessing your preparedness, safety, and support while on assignment in the field.

Your Photojournalism Survival Kit is crucial for beginners, and for current photojournalists who may need to brush up on their checklists. Learn from Ron Haviv’s early-career mistakes, and lay the foundations of your own successful, impactful enterprise in visual storytelling.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Budget and Invoice Template

Medical Kit Supplies

Resource Guide

Resources Mentioned In Class

Workshop Print Sale

Pitch Letter Template

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes


KAren OLlis

Thank you Ron and Creative Live for the thoughtful and expansive course. Even for a pro, the information was often enlightening and definitely inspirational. The best way to learn is from a seasoned professional who knows how to teach in an organized manner. Appreciate the support materials as well. Will be out shooting stories no doubt! All the best, Karen Ollis, Karen Ollis Photo

Connie Kennedy

Ron Haviv presents his generous insights and experience in a wonderfully paced and very clearly delivered manner. Combine him with the Creative Live platform and you have a magical educational experience. I'm so grateful to attend this course. I wish I had heard a presentation like this years back; it would have spared me some mistakes. If you're sitting on the fence buy this course. Tap into his wisdom. Enjoy.


I've been a following Ron Haviv for years. Love his expressions in delivering explanations. It's amazing to see and hear from the photographer behind the photos. Well structured course. Having Kenna's facilitation makes this workshop so worth watching. Thank you creativeLive for this great sensory experience!