(This article originally ran in the September, 2013 Camera Bag column in Railfan & Railroad Magazine.
It has been updated for presentation here.)

Fortunately for the railfan photographer aspiring to see her or his work published, there are over four dozen magazines devoted to some aspect of railroad interest, be it railfanning, modeling, or historical. And all have an on-going need for photos of railroad subjects, many relying heavily on their readers to supply those photos. But you cannot simply stick some of your favorite photos in an envelope and send them in and have much chance of getting one published. There are many variables that determine whether or not a photo is chosen for publication.

Fill the Need
Of course, it should go without saying that all photos need to have sharp focus, proper exposure and good composition. But no matter how technically correct they may be, all must meet one very basic criteria: an editor has to NEED your photos. For example, you would not have much chance of selling Beautiful Railroads magazine a photo essay of the XYZ railroad a month after they have just run a full feature on this operation. They simply do not need your photos now, no matter how eye-catching they may be. Six months ago when planning the article they might have needed your XYZ photos.

This photo was one of my 12 images published in the November 1981 issue of Rail Classics magazine along with my article "The Roundhouse and the Smoke are Still There" (about the Denver & Rio Grande Western narrow gauge in Durango, Colorado in 1980). Writing a good article and supplying the photos to illustrate it is the best way to get your photos published.

But considering that an average railroad magazine may use anywhere from around 40 to 150 or more photos (not counting in advertisements) per issue and is published four, six or twelve times a year; editors have a continuing need for a considerable number of good photos to illustrate feature articles, news items, and general photo essays.

To start getting an idea of the type of photos editors routinely need and how they use them, in addition to the publications you regularly read, visit a large magazine store that carries several railroad related publications. Or a hobby or model railroad store, as model magazines need to present good photos of the prototypes their readers are modeling. Also look outside the railroad field. Travel and outdoor magazines and state tourist publications might like to see some dramatic train photos for a feature on train travel. Photography magazines too can also be buyers of railroad photos as, after all, railroads are a great subject to photograph.

Create the Need
This is probably the single most important step to follow! Aside from individual news photos or an occasional photo essay, in your perusal of railroad magazines you may have noticed that most photos are illustrating an article, and have been supplied by the article's author. Take a tip from this, and write your own article or photo essay feature. If the editor wants to publish it, he or she will need your photos. Without the article, even if the editor liked your photos, there may be no reason to use them. In effect, you will have created a need for your photos! Any editor will be glad to see and publish a well written, informative and interesting article with good photos on a subject they have not covered.

Do not limit yourself to only publications in the railroad field. A 1990's issue of Outdoor & Travel Photography magazine used two of my photos (one was this image of UP on Sherman Hill in Wyoming) and my article (co-written by Stanley Trzoniec) "Iron Road Revisited" about the hobby of railroad photography.

Ideas on Writing an Article
A railroad you normally railfan is an obvious choice to work up an article on, but consider alternatives. If you are a model railroader, an article with photos could be put together illustrating how you use trackside photography to relate to your model layout.

The subject of a previously published article might even be re-hashed again in the same or different magazine, especially if operations have greatly changed and it has been a few years since the railroad was first covered. As an example, there have been three different articles on the Louisiana & North West RR in Gibsland LA in three separate magazines, in addition to my article on this railroad in a Rail Classics issue.

Old articles can also be used for information for your new article. This does not mean you can copy word for word (a violation of copyright law), but if, for example, a published article on a mountain railroad lists elevations, distances, and other characteristics, your article or photo essay can use those same facts (facts cannot be copyrighted), but expressed in your own words and with your own photos. A great place to find old articles is your local library if they carry one or more railfan magazines. They will usually have a supply of back issues going back several years you can look through for ideas.

Feel you are not capable of, or have no interest in, writing an article? Team up with a budding author who is looking to get published. He or she may be inexperienced with photography and could likewise need someone to supply the photos.

Articles with photos taken inside railroad machine shops, locomotive facilities or rail yards, as well as industries that have rail shipping yards (such as factories or gas refineries) that are off-limits to the general public are more interesting to readers than trackside articles (that "need" factor again). Call the railroad or business and explain that you are planning a magazine article on their operation and would like to come on the property for photos and research.

One way to increase the odds of obtaining permission is to get a letter from an editor on the publication's letterhead verifying you are doing a feature for use in the magazine. Many businesses will be more likely to extend permission if they know you have a valid reason for being there, and the chance for widespread free publicity in a magazine article is also very appealing to a business.

The prospect of supplying the readership with interesting, accurate and full "ready to go" features (a complete text and photo package) will delight any editor. And being known as one who consistently has great photos can also lead editors to seek you out for photos they need. In effect, they will "need" YOU!

Shoot for the Cover
We all dream of seeing our train photos on the cover of a national publication, and often the cover photo is associated with an inside feature. So always submit some photos with a cover use in mind if you are preparing an article. This usually means shooting in a vertical composition (some magazines use two horizontal photos on the cover, or a square format photo) that leaves blank space at the top for the magazine name, as well as some space for cover "blurbs."

This photo of UP 3985 by the Cheyenne, WY engine house was used on the cover of the May-June 1987 Locomotive & Railway Preservation magazine to help illustrate my article on "Union Pacific's Unplanned Preservation." After being seen on the magazine cover, a stock photo agency requested the photo for use in a book and by Tommy Boy Music for the Rap group "Stetsasonic" on their CD and record album covers.

Submission Guidelines
All magazines will have a set of guidelines that you should request and follow before submitting anything. Look in the masthead page for how to obtain the guidelines. If by mail, send a SSAE / SASE ("stamped self addressed envelope," or "self addressed stamped envelope"). Or look on their web site under "Contributing," "Guidelines," or similar link. Always follow the magazine's contributor guidelines for submitting, but in general a proper package of an article and photos should consist of just four main elements:

1) A cover letter that briefly explains, on one page, the interesting aspects of your submission; number of photos; a brief statement about the rights you are offering (usually, "one-time only" rights); payment rate expected (such as the publication's "standard rate"); and how long the submission can be held (such as "three months" or "as long as needed") before acceptance or rejection and return.

2) A maximum of about 20-30 photos, with digital photos on a DVD / CD, or slides in 20 slot pages. Each photo should be numbered, with complete caption information on the disc keyed to the number of the photo. For prints, computer print or type the caption on a piece of paper and tape to the back of each print.

3) Your manuscript (article or essay) on the same DVD / CD, along with a double spaced print out of the manuscript for the editor's ease of use in editing.

4) A SSAE / SASE of the same size as your submission mailing, with proper postage affixed, for return of your material when the editor is through with it.

Packaging: Place all items (except the SSAE / SASE) between two sheets of box cardboard slightly larger than 8x10, and bind with rubber bands, not tape or staples. Place everything into a heavy manila or other form of padded envelope. This makes a simple yet attractive and functional package that is easy for an editor to open and handle, while providing good protection for your photos.

This image of a Union Pacific local switching at dawn in La Salle, Colorado was used in a Peaker Services (railroad equipment manufacturer) calendar (I targeted the need of calendars for singular, eye-catching images of railroading); in the "First Class" photo essay in the September 1987 CTC Board magazine (I targeted their need of miscellaneous photos for essay use); and was part of my photo essay on "Decisive Moments from 30 Years of Railfan Photography" created specifically for use in the June 2011 Railroads Illustrated magazine.

Think Like an Editor
Finally, if you could only know what an editor is thinking, you would know exactly how he or she judges submissions for their publication. Since you cannot sit beside an editor to learn this, to be sure you understand the reason for a publication's submission guidelines, close your eyes and pretend that you are an editor....

* Your job is to produce a quality magazine presenting the best possible information on the subjects. You have tight deadlines to meet, to get each issue in the hands of readers and magazine stores by the dates your advertisers were promised. Therefore, you hope to receive good quality photos and articles to choose from, while poor quality material just wastes your time.

* A photo package bound with strong tape instead of rubber bands is a hassle to cut open.

* 35mm slides sent in the 20 slot plastic pages let you preview all in a few seconds, while a box of loose slides takes time and are a real irritant to look at, one by one. And you do not want to see many almost identical images that vary only slightly in exposure or other factors, and be asked to "choose the best one."

* But you do like to see both vertical and horizontal compositions of the same subject, as this allows you flexibility in designing the layout.

* You like to see an 8x10 printout containing small "thumbnails" of about 2 inches high of each digital photo for quick examination.

* You appreciate a proper SSAE / SASE with return postage attached, as you find loose stamps enclosed for postage another hassle you do not need.

OK, open your eyes. If you were an editor, how would you have chosen photos in the above situations?

Back to Top     Back to Index Page