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Recently I was on a photo exhibition of Helmut Newton. The text in that exhibition often mentioned that Helmut did editorial work for certain magazines.

What exactly is editorial work?

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Strictly speaking, a photo is a photo. What delineates an editorial photo from a commercial photo, a technical photo, an artistic photo, etc. isn't necessarily determined by the content of the photo. Rather, it is the way in which a photo is used that determines if it is editorial or not. Many photos might be used for more than one usage at one time or another.

The usage of a photo is considered editorial when the photo is either used to tell a story or to aid in telling a story. Photos used for editorial purposes can fall into several categories. In the news business things such as Spot News, General News, Features, Sports, Photo Illustrations, and Portraits are all considered editorial usage. This list is far from being comprehensive, but covers the most common types of editorial work. Newspapers and magazines may use some or all of these types of photos to tell or help to tell the stories they publish. Magazines such as Sports Illustrated, Newsweek or National Geographic are full of editorial photos, but so are magazines such as the National Enquirer and People and publications such as The Weekly World News.

When it is said that a photographer does editorial work for a particular magazine or group of magazines, it either means that the photographer generally shoots images on assignment for the magazine(s) in question or that the photographer shoots images of subject matter he hopes the magazine(s) will be interested in publishing as part of a story they will want to tell.

An example of an assignment from a magazine may be anything as general as documenting "America's Homeless Persons" which could cover photographing any homeless person anywhere in the United States to something as specific as shooting a portrait of the Queen of England in Buckingham Palace for a story on her 80th Birthday. It could be anything from a one day assignment to capture photos of a sporting event to spending several decades following the lives of a set of sextuplets at periodic intervals.

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In this context it's likely that "editorial content" is used to distinguish the work from advertisement content. Editorial content is the reason you bought the magazine - so it's more likely to be relevant to a specific topic.

In a magazine editorial content is likely (but not required to be) more "journalistic", with some kind of story or narrative behind the pictures. It may also be interpreted to mean that the photos constituted a whole article, rather than simply supporting photos for another article.

Addressing your question directly. Editorial content is not "exactly" anything specific - it depends on the context.

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To re-quote from Wikipedia article on editing

Editing is the process of selecting and preparing written, visual, audible and film media used to convey information. The editing process can involve correction, condensation, organization, and many other modifications performed with an intention of producing a correct, consistent, accurate and complete work. - Mamishev, Alexander, Williams, Sean, Technical Writing for Teams: The STREAM Tools Handbook, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, John Wiley & Sons. Inc., Hoboken, 2009, p.128

I'd say that photography in this context means that the work is part of a collection of assets to be combined into a final product. The photography has to adopt to the overall style and "idea" of the whole.

There could be a separate picture editor in charge for just pictures. He would tell the photographer what images are needed. "I need a full length portrait for the magazine cover", "I need an environmental portrait that spans two pages that will be overlayed with paragraphs of text in some areas", etc. Depending on the working relationship and other involved people, there could be more or less freedom for the photographer to realise his "vision". The photographer and the picture editor (or even the sole editor of the whole thing) could be the same person.

In general it's work on assignment.

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