Brand Photography: Whose Responsibility is the Brand, Anyway?

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Too many photographers fear that asking questions makes them look less skilled or capable. It’s up to the photographer to ask pertinent questions that assure the client that the photographer is using all this information to create a compelling visual storytelling of the client’s brand.

Sarah recently began adding brand photography to her offering. Her previous experience as a family photographer had been honed into a comfortable system where things stayed pretty much under her control. In fact, the tedium was one reason for the move to brand photography, where she looked forward to added variety.

Since we were children, we’ve been told to be careful what we wish for. On Sarah’s second brand engagement, she began to understand what it meant.

Her assignment was to produce venue and lifestyle images for an assisted living facility. Her understanding was that this would include exterior and interior scenes of the property, and that some scenes would include residents, activities and amenities.

This seemed pretty straightforward, even though David, the manager and her point of contact for the engagement, had not completed Sarah’s requested questionnaire designed to assist in preparation and overall success of the project. Not surprisingly, the manager had no real additional input at the time of the assignment, deferring to Sarah with “You’re the expert, I’ll leave it up to you.”

The few shots that David specifically requested seemed almost an afterthought and they spent a bit of time wandering around looking for suitably exciting settings and attractive details.

After the appointment, the processing and editing of the photos, Sarah felt confident she was delivering a product that met the needs of the client. Her crops created good composition, her style was cohesive, she had at least one good photo of each area David pointed out as important.

Considering the overall impromptu feel of the session, she was relieved to present the photos. The presentation did not, however, end as happily as she had hoped. As David critiqued the scenes, Sarah had uncomfortable flashbacks to the postpartum mother unhappy because the photos still showed her “baby fat” or because the children’s dresses weren’t as elegant in the photos as the mother remembered them in the shop.

Overall, the manager’s grievances were not huge, frustrations for the placement of things that should have been noticed during the session, scenes that didn’t appear as epic in a photo as expected. The technical aspects of the photos were not in question. Aspects of various scenes, however, let the mood down.

All’s well that ends well and Sarah cashed the check and closed the file. She did not, however, stop thinking about the manager’s comments each time he saw something worth mentioning. The thing that bothered her most was the comments about the scenes she called afterthoughts, ideas the manager and staff came up with as they went along during the session. In particular, the photos in the dining room where some prepared dishes had been brought forward and photographed. The manager’s criticism had not been about shadows or colors or angles, but about the knife blade that was turned, according to him, in the wrong direction.

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The experience bothered Sarah so much that she finally asked for advice. She knew where she had fallen short, that the main problem had been the failure to manage the client and understand each other’s expectations. The questionnaire she had thoughtfully prepared would have solved a great deal, as she would have had a specific list of requested shots and been better able to ask questions and prepare in advance.

Sarah vowed to never move forward again without the completed questionnaire.

The one area that remained in doubt was over the details in the shots themselves. How much responsibility should she assume for the details that might go unforeseen? Her contract currently did not address who was responsible for dressing the shot. Moving trash bins, closing doors, and changing furnishing angles was not the issue. Her question was whether or not she should consider hiring a room stylist, or make this the clear responsibility of the client, or some other option.

Also, with regard to “afterthought” shots, should they be limited to subject matter? For example, excluding food or other speciality shots that typically require more preparation.

Sarah essentially wanted to cover all the bases to ensure that she never had another disappointing experience like the one she just had.

I asked Sarah if she did walk-throughs of the space during the consultation phase of the project. Or if she made scouting trips before the actual appointment. Did she know what to expect or was she relying on the client to decide what exact scenes he wanted? There were obvious advantages and disadvantages to either arrangement. The client might have his heart set on an area that is, for lack of a better word, not photogenic. This is where the photographer’s skills are forced to compensate, either the technical skills to salvage the photo, or the soft skills to convince the client that you’ve got a better photo option in mind.

Using our own live sport and sport brand business as an example, I explained that the two use different approaches. For live sport, we do a thorough review of routes and venues because once we set a position we are stuck with it. The client might want to include certain reportage aspects but it’s still up to our photographers to use their judgement on the best shot.

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Sport brand is very different, with much more control of every photo. When we consult with a gym or club, we make suggestions for what-should-be-where and how to best prepare the space for the shoot. The final styling is left to the client, with necessary touches by the photographer during the session as needed.

Regardless of whose responsibility any task falls upon, very clear expectations from both parties will prevent disappointment, confusion, and misunderstandings. Learn from each experience and don’t be afraid to ask questions ahead of time. Too many photographers fear that asking questions makes them look less skilled or capable. It’s up to the photographer to ask pertinent questions that assure the client that the photographer is using all this information to create a compelling visual storytelling of the client’s brand.

Sarah’s concern about such specifics as the food shots makes sense. Food photography is itself a very specialized genre and it is one photo that truly can be “harder than it looks” when the photographer is restricted to the ambient conditions.

Such situations, however, are just another day in the life of a brand photographer. Think of brand photography as the commercial equivalent to wedding photography. As a photographer, you must work with the scenes as they are presented. A wedding photographer must excel at portrait, documentary, macro, action, and every genre in between.

With brand photography, if the client is an athlete, you are a sport photographer. If the client has a service based business, you are a lifestyle photographer. A boutique? A fashion photographer. And if the business uses its meals as part of its brand differentiation, as in Sarah’s case, then, yes, she is a food photographer.

But Sarah is not a cook.

The person making that dish needs to know that Sarah expects the most perfect plate they have ever presented, and have it ready for Sarah to photograph. If Sarah does exteriors, the client needs to be sure the lawn is mowed and the bushes are immaculate. In other words, both parties know their responsibilities before the camera even shows up.

The photographer’s job is to photograph the vision the client has for their brand. The client’s job is to demonstrate that vision.

The responsibility of both parties is to make sure the other understands the expectations and responsibilities of each other and create a finished product that makes both of them satisfied that the brand message came through.

The ultimate experience is then a good one for everyone.