Every time we come out with a special issue highlighting the skill of Canadian Geographic’s Photo Club, I get asked the exact same question from a photographer whose photo was shortlisted for the issue but didn’t make the final layout of the magazine: why didn’t my photo make it in?
Laying out a magazine is a collaborative process that’s far more art than science, and the answer to this question isn’t a straightforward one. I’ve seen some of my favourite photos shunted out of a working layout because the rest of our team disagrees with my assessment, and I’ve seen photos I’m lukewarm on brought in to a layout because the rest of our team loves them. I may be the editor on our special issue, but the majority (and our creative director) rules.
The technical quality and aesthetics of any photograph we’re considering are obviously very important, and as we work towards our initial layout, there are always 30-40 photos that rank so highly in these categories that they are included in the layout by consensus. These are knockout images that are tack sharp and well composed, with the sort of perfectly balanced colours that make you feel as though you were standing with the photographer when they took that photo.
Photos also need to be large enough to print in the magazine. Camera sensors 12 megapixels and above get printed far more often than those from cameras with a smaller sensor. The smaller sensor doesn’t automatically exclude an image, but it limits the size at which we can print an image, and as a result limits the potential places an image would fit into our layout.
If you’ve submitted a shot that’s similar to one of these knockout images in content or composition, but not quite as high quality, the chances of that image being included just went down. We can’t run a whole bunch of photos that look like each other; no matter how much we like them!
Simply put, if you’ve been asked to submit a photograph of Lake Louise for an issue on national parks, your photo is in competition with all of the other photos of Lake Louise. We get some pretty great shots of Lake Louise, so the competition on that one is stiff.
Conversely, we get far fewer images from parks in the East and North. So if you’ve got a great shot from New Brunswick’s Fundy National Park or Kluane National Park in the Yukon, it will be in competition with far fewer images, and will have a greater chance of being included in the final layout of the magazine.
The same basic principle holds true for any of our special issues on photography. In a wildlife issue, we’ll only run two or three of images of an eagle or a polar bear, but we get dozens of great images of both of these animals every year in our annual photo contest. Year in and year out, there are fantastic photographs that we’re unable to include.
Other animals are more rarely submitted to our photo contests: lynx, wolves, caribou, spirit bear, muskox, hares, insects, narwhals and cougars among them. Photographs of these animals will face less competition in the selection process, and have a higher chance of being included.
When two (or three, or four ) similar shots are being considered for a single spot in the magazine, there’s often very little difference in quality between them. Sometimes the distinguishing factor can be that one photographer happened to be there on a day with particularly good light, or happened to catch the location with particularly pleasing clouds.
Unfortunately, we can’t include every image from the shortlist in the final version of the magazine, but if Canadian Geographic (or me personally) requested an image for one of our special issue, take it as a compliment. It means that it was an image we thought would look good in our layout.