Monday, August 28, 2006

Consider commercial photography

Commercial photo by © Mark M. Hancock for Sertinos Cafe

Ed note: this post is about a subject that is NOT photojournalism. It's actually the exact opposite. Some PJs, particularly freelancers, accept commercial gigs to help pay the bills and stay in the biz without starving. Others finance their more ambitious journalistic endeavors with income earned from commercial gigs. Staffers should check with their employers to know company policies BEFORE considering freelance commercial gigs.

Most people understand the difference between television news and television commercials. Most people also understand the difference between editorial photojournalism and advertising.

As TV ads are called commercials, the photography used in print advertising is called commercial photography. The point of commercial photography is to increase commerce by selling products and/or brand recognition.

Often, this is accomplished by simply showing the product in flattering light. Occasionally this is done by showing something other than the product. Drug manufacturers often employ flowers, waterfalls, meadows, etc. rather than a photo of a pill or box of pills.

More recently, this trend has included sports-related products. Often, a subtle placement of the company's logo is all that distinguishes an ad from an editorial photo. Oh yeah, and the fact that the image is absolutely perfect - the light, the placement of elements, the colors, the layers, etc.

In other words, it's fiction.

Elements couldn't possibly exist as harmoniously as they appear in commercial photographs. As long as everyone knows the images are fiction, it's OK.

Why hire PJs for commercial shoots?
I don't do many commercial shoots. However, when it won't conflict with my newspaper work, I like to accept the challenge and enjoy the creative license.

High-end commercial shooters are worth every penny when it comes to large, product-based national ads. These shooters have hugely expensive equipment and lighting expertise for delicate, complicated projects.

However, regional and even some national accounts have turned to PJs since the digital convergence began in the late 1990s.

The reasons for this shift vary. Obviously, PJs are slightly less expensive because our overhead is much less than large commercial studios. Also, PJs are renown for our speed from call to delivery. PJs, who accept last-minute commercial gigs, can literally get a call in the morning, arrange the location and models, and deliver pre-pressed, absolute-released (model and property released) digital images around the globe within a few hours.

Additionally, commercial photographers tend to congregate in large, industrial cities. Consequently, PJs in more rural settings are often the best qualified professionals for hundreds of miles.

All this aside, PJs have a major edge over traditional commercial photographers particularly when a client needs to tell a story. PJs are story tellers. We've seen how this applies to wedding photography, but advertisers are starting to apply this talent to commercial applications as well.

Tell a fiction story
As mentioned above, commercial photography is fiction. It's not a large step for a journalist to write a fiction story. After all, journalists tell stories every day. They understand dialog, pacing and all the other elements of a good story (factual or fiction).

The same holds true for PJs. PJs can tell stories for any client. Although most of us prefer to tell honest, factual stories for newspaper and magazine readers, sometimes it's fun to tell a fictional story for a commercial client. This is precisely why they go the extra mile to hire PJs - to tell a story about their product.

Often advertising stories are rather two-dimensional (no pun intended), some superficial characters (actors) meet for lunch at a place (typically the client's) and have a laugh or toast some fictitious milestone.

Other stories actually get to tell a deeper story (although not too deep). The story might be about a hard-working co-ed softball team challenging the city champions, winning and enjoying their favorite beverage at some local hangout.

The previous example sounds simple enough to most PJs. We've shot the real thing over and over. So, we know what typically happens. We could easily tell actors how to behave to mimic (or perfect) our best shots from the real versions of most of these stories.

Idealistic PJs probably just started squirming. Remember these images are for a commercial client (i.e. fiction). If we don't make the images, someone else will. Either way, someone is earning a few grand for the shoot. Breathe, it's NOT news.

Unlike the reality we've shot so many times, we get to select the players, the field, the time of day, where they are arranged, etc. The only thing we probably don't choose is which beverage they choose for their celebration.

The product for this shoot is probably the beverage. However, depending on our contract, we might be able to swing secondary sales with the uniforms they wear (sponsors), the local hangout or even the vehicle they use to move from one place to another.

Extremely high-dollar clients won't allow piggy-back work on the shoot. However, if we give smaller clients a break, they actually prefer the arrangement. Not only do they save on the initial shoot/model fees, their product may be seen in another ad. It's a win/win for smaller clients.

From the shooter's point of view, it's better to glean $2K each from four clients simultaneously than $4K from one client. It creates a little more back-end work (after the shoot delivery), but it's works out amicably for everyone.

How to approach a commercial gig
Unlike news PJ, commercial photos rarely have cutlines or a narrative. Typically, the images are expected to tell their own story and allow the viewer to imagine themselves in the place of the models.

Consequently, it's easiest to think of a commercial shoots as stills from a movie. Frequently, the photographer is also the artistic director of this mini-movie, but sometimes the client employs an art director to handle the shoot.

We can talk more about art directors some other day. For brevity, we'll consider this a shoot for a local client and the PJ must deliver everything for the client (this makes it more fun for us).

When the photographer talks with the client, it's important to learn the exact expectations of the client. Otherwise, the client won't be happy with the final results. Our main concern on commercial gigs is to make the client happy and deliver exactly what they want.

If they want two guys shaking hands in front of a sign and they're willing to pay $4K to get it, that's exactly what they'll get by golly.

If they are open to letting the photographer have creative latitude, it can become a guilty pleasure for PJs. It becomes more work for the same pay, but it's a chance for the photographer to shine.

Develop the story
If the client leaves the details to the photographer, it's good to offer some suggested shots or develop a story line for the client. This allows the client to refine or reject ideas before it's too late.

Get specific requirements from the client while talking and write them all down. Clear up any potential problem issues during this discussion. For example, it's difficult to make motorcycles burn underwater. It can be done, but the cost is significant.

When shooting, be certain every requirement is met. Since this is a commercial shoot, there are no excuses. The camel (or whatever) must do exactly what's required because the commercial photographer can make it keep doing the same thing over and over and over until the image is perfect. Always remember there's typically thousands (or millions) of advertising dollars being spent on the back end of this deal.

When the client is considering an entire brochure, campaign or booklet, the photographer can often suggest a story line. Offer an extremely detailed story line to avoid client confusion. This requires the photographer to provide answers to the common journalistic questions (who, what, when, where, why and how).

Unlike a news story, all these factors are the responsibility of the photographer. So be careful with the details (hint:   don't suggest using a pumpkin motif in April). It's also important to discuss precise demographics of the models (age, gender and ethnicity).

If the client leaves model selection to the photographer, lean heavily toward attractive models with middle-gray reflectivity skin tones and confusing ethnicity. It makes metering easier and these models tend to be neutral enough to make everyone happy.

Before we proceed, understand logic and logistics don't apply in commercial photography. Tell the story and ignore logic. Commercial clients and their customers are happy with an illogical lifestyle. As they say, sell the sizzle - not the steak.

Know the story line
It's important for everyone to understand the story line. The commercial photographer, the client and all models must understand the story to make everyone happy.

Here's a quick story line example useful for a country inn:

A couple arrives for their blissful anniversary vacation at this inn. They breathe in the fresh air in the morning light outside the inn. Inside, they're greeted by a friendly and attractive desk clerk. Their bags are carried to their room by an attractive bellhop.

The couple sees the room and all its lush features (detail shots). The couple has a great lunch. They are served perfect meals (more detail shots).

After lunch, they lounge in a hammock by the lake at sunset (remember logic doesn't apply). Then, he plays golf with his handsome friends (don't ask where they came from) while she goes to the spa for a massage (avoid including the masseuse unless a specific gender is requested).

After the shortest game of golf in known history, they decide to drive down a lovely lane into the sunset with the top down (the sunset is stuck on pause).

They arrive in a limo at the most exclusive restaurant dressed in formal evening wear (it's a magic car). They dance. He dips her during a tango while she holds a rose in her teeth.

They meet friends from across the globe and all laugh by the fireplace. Then, they sleep soundly (smiling with perfect makeup) as the sun rises past the lace curtains.

They teleport through a clean-and-perfect-hair machine to the restaurant and are instantly served the finest breakfast (more detail shots) by a different attractive server or the head chef.

What a life. It wouldn't have been possible if this couple went to a different inn. :-)

Consider the options
Let this idea stew a little. Most PJs can see some potential clients in their hometowns. They can also see a few piggyback deals from the story above.

Again, I'll emphasize the importance of PJs discussing freelance policies with their employers before accepting gigs. Commercial gigs are a way to augment income and afford the nifty equipment we've needed. These gigs can also reduce those educational expenses we've racked up.

I plan to post more information about commercial work. Although most PJs consider commercial work "the dark side" (as in "come to the dark side"), it allows for a creative release, potential income and actually may produce future ad revenue for the paper once local businesses have quality images.

As long as no conflicts of interest are created, consider commercial options.

I back-posted a commercial photo story. The rough narrative is it's a great place to meet friends or be alone. The upscale coffee shop has meeting rooms for businesses and Wi-Fi for individuals. They offer food and custom coffee drinks for busy executives. They also offer thoughtful gifts for anyone's needs. As explained above, the narrative is fiction, so feel free to create your own story line.

Enough for now,


Jorge Grajales said...

felicidades realmente fotografia muy buenas, saludos desde Chiapas, México

CarmenSisson said...

I feel stupid for even saying this (especially for someone who derives roughly half of her income from writing), but i never saw commercial photography as a way to make up a story line. It's so... logical. I don't know why I never saw it this way. Thank you. You just gave me a handful of semi-brilliant ideas (now if I could just get this damned WRITING off my plate so I can go back to shooting.)

Mark M. Hancock said...

PJs tell stories with images. The photo talks to everyone in their own language. Although this is a post about commercial photography, the same rule applies here. The interesting thing about fictional commercial stories is that the story can be different for each viewer and it's still OK.