Search for content, post, videos



Photo Archive News Interview: Phil Coomes picture editor At The BBC

Name: Phil Coomes
Position: Picture Editor and Photographer – BBC News website.

How long have you been with the BBC?
A long time. My stock answer is that I’m on my fifth Director General of the BBC so you can work it out.

What were you doing before that?
A little assisting, freelance press photography and having a good time.

How many people work on the news picture desk?
Let me see, there’s me and there’s Emma, that’s it, two.

Are you able to work remotely?
Yes and no. When working as photographers we can of course transmit our pictures and text for features back to the office and I can edit and publish my photo blog ( when outside the office. But the main production system we use to create pages and picture galleries for the BBC news website ( require us to be logged in to the BBC network.

Do you get most of your content from photo wire services?
The majority of the pictures used on the BBC News website are indeed from the main photo wire services we subscribe to such as PA, AP, AFP, and Getty Images.

On top of that there’s our own material from reporters, correspondents and grabs taken from video, something that is much easier to do now that all our video content is available on the desktop. We have a system that grabs key frames live from News 24 so it’s a fast turnaround. Other material comes from other sources such as freelancers, other Picture Alligencies, handouts, all usual suspects.

How many staff photographers does BBC News have?
There’s Jeff Overs who works mainly for television news and Emma and myself on the picture desk of the website.

By how much did footage content grow on the news site in 2009?
I’m not sure of the actual growth, but it’s certainly on the increase. I’m told we are now serving around 1.8m video hits worldwide every day with approx 750,000 daily unique users, of those 70% or so is in the UK. So there you have it.

Do you actively source images from independent picture libraries for news features?
Yes of course. We regularly source pictures from a wide range of libraries.
As you would expect we use whatever source has the pictures we want. Many pictures are sourced from local news agencies and although the main wire services, and of course their vast archives, provide us with a lot of what we need, there are times when you need a different type of Picture Allind we use agencies such as Magnum, Rex Features, Mary Evans regularly and many others from time to time.

Agencies and freelance photographers regularly pitch features to us and some of these we buy in, depending on the quality and if it fits our site. Often we get sent a strong picture story but have to turn it down as we have already covered the story on the site, in text or video. That said, if there is a new angle then we may well run the pictures anyway.

Do you only use agencies you have established pricing deals with?
No, we do have deals with some of the big agencies and set prices with others, but we have a standard rate card and are happy to negotiate.

How would a picture library approach you for the first time to introduce their images?
A quick email with link and follow up with a call.

Describe the first hour of your working day?
The day starts at 8am, so usually coffee, a quick browse around our site and other news websites and glance through the diary to see what stories are on the agenda and ensure that any galleries and features planned for that day are ready.

Check the front pages of our site and the pictures being used on the main stories to see if we can improve them. Check the inbox for any emails via the blog, complaints or comments.

Then, depending on news priorities, we start to produce our three images of the day and so on…

Is there a BBC ‘style’ of image?
Images that illustrate a news story on the website do have a style that’s true, but this is to some extent governed by the fact that they are fairly small, so wide sweeping shots do not work. Crop tight, and then crop tighter, discard anything irrelevant from the frame and make every pixel count, that’s what we keep telling all our journalists when they are preparing their pictures for their own stories.

Picture galleries and features use larger photos so you can be more expressive, but unlike a layout on the printed page where you can have one dominant picture backed up by smaller ones, the web usually means that you will view one picture, click to the next and so on. Thus the pictures have to flow, wide, mid, long shots, sequence them, this is especially true in an audio slideshow.

Do you work to a brief when choosing picture content?
Not really, there’s obviously the news agenda or at least a news angle, a peg. Otherwise it’s down to what we like, and if the images are from freelancers have they done the research on the story, have they got good captions, quotes from people in the pictures, etc.

Which independent picture library web site has recently caught your eye?
I have always loved Mary Evans collection, and of course Magnum Photos is where my initial love of photography came from some years ago.

How is your personal photo project 64 x 64 going?
It’s going well so far. I set out to publish a photo-a-day on Kodachrome 64 for 64 weeks to mark its passing and as a way to shoot some pictures for myself. It’s a good way to get the film camera out again and take pictures I’d otherwise overlook. So far, as you’d expect it’s a mixed bag, but my aim is to edit it down to 64 images at the end of the year. You can follow it here: www.64×

Do you get time to shoot stock?
Thorny issue. I do try to shoot stock when out and about and then upload to the BBC library, but I have to confess the pictures often just get dumped to my hard disk. Must do better!

Are you submitting any of your personal images to libraries?
No, pictures I take for the BBC belong to them so they remain in the archive and my own stuff just stays with me.

Which websites do you visit daily other than
Obviously the BBC, Flickr, Twitter, Flak Photo, a number of Picture Alligencies, the Guardian, NY Times and loads more…

Which newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to?
We get all the newspapers in the office so I tend to read those there, otherwise I use online. Magazine wise then Foto8, Publication, BJP and I usually pick up the latest copy of Dispatches.

Cinema or pub?
Tough one, well ok mine’s a Guinness.

Ideal Sunday afternoon?
Given that I’ve got two young children then I’d have to say with the family, long walk, the pub and maybe a game on the Wii, and I might take a few snaps along the way too.

Lastly, what photo agency website feature would make your life easier as a picture editor at the BBC.
Tough one. Many of the big agencies have pretty good sites now. The main challenge is wading through the thousands of pictures on offer, making initial selections and then breaking those down to the image we want.

In terms of content, then more real life stock pictures to illustrate stories that are, how shall I put it, visually challenging. So repetitive business stories, UK based education and health issues and so on, so many stock pictures are just too glamorous to be of use to us.


Phil Coomes is a reader and subscriber