What happens when you ditch the shotlist?

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What creative can look like

I was recently at a conference focussed on how big brands are using digital marketing to help grow and engage their target markets, and unsurprisingly, photography plays a huge role in helping marketers achieve their goals.

One of the presenters threw up a slide showing a wall of beautiful, on-brand photographs, each one like a unique page in a big story book. The images ran off the huge screen behind the presenter and you don’t need a degree in marketing to see the immediate value these kinds of high-quality images have for a variety of digital campaigns.

The presenter explained how they had gone about creating such an impressive bank of images to help them fill the huge need for continual and creative content that is the new normal in advertising today.

Did they send out a detailed list of requirements to their agency? Did they pore through hundreds of thousands of images on stock photography sites searching for ones that had just the right look and feel? Did they (shudder) run a crowdsourcing campaign directed at photo enthusiasts and amateurs, relying on their user-generated content (UGC) to give them what they needed?

Nope. They did something far simpler, and far more effective (both in terms of time and significantly, cost). They hired a professional, whom they gave a creative brief to, then let loose.

What they needed were a lot of images, rights-free, fast that they could use to fill the image needs of their planned campaigns. The company sells healthy quick meals under one brand in its portfolio of brands. Their analytics on previous campaigns had shown a strong reaction to fresh, authentic photography, so they hired a photographer to do a shoot for them. Importantly, while the creative brief specified the key brand characteristics and personality that the photographs needed to convey, their was no detailed shot list included. Instead, the brand astutely relied on the creativity and artistry of the photographer to come up with the kinds of images they needed.

The result? They got 4000 images, shot over a 3-day span, and delivered with no strings attached. The cost per image was less than half they would have paid had they gone a more traditional route hiring through an agency, or by trying to develop a complicated set of requirements to coordinate and set up a big photoshoot.

This type of contract is trending in popularity and I think it is to the mutual advantage of photographers and their client brands. I’ve always been a proponent of bringing the photographer in on the development of creative, as opposed to having the hired hand execute on someone else’s vision. While it is unquestionably the role of a creative director to make decisions about how a brand message is articulated, creative workers do their best work when they are allowed to engage their creativity independently. It seems obvious that if you are hiring a creative person for their creativity you allow that person to actually use and engage their creativity. Yet surprisingly, there are still many contractual arrangements that view photography as a commodity and consequently diminish the role of the creative photographer.

Not all products or brands lend themselves as readily to this more creative approach to generating images, but I suspect many more could than do, and an increasing number of them will into the future.

The driver is, as ever, simply that this is what the market wants and expects. People are increasingly sensitive to what they perceive as advertising. Ads, in and of themselves, are often viewed negatively and most people would not admit to liking and ad or taking action based on an ad they saw if you asked them – regardless of whether the data says otherwise.

Photography that looks too much like it is controlled by a brand has less of an impact than a more natural, authentic image. This is one of the reason why UGC campaigns are popular and there are growing numbers of UGC platforms developing that allow brands to tap into this pool of content providers.

There is a risk/reward tradeoff of working with UGC vs. professionally generated content that brands need to consider. While crowdsourcing has the allure of being a much cheaper alternative than hiring someone professionally, by definition the quality will vary and the results may not all fit the needs of the campaign. There is a place for both kinds of content sourcing strategies, but in the case of getting high-quality, brand-aware images that meet an immediate need, nothing beats working directly with a professional photographer.

Consumers see hundreds of photographs daily streaming across multiple social platforms, sent in messaging apps between friends, and on the websites they visit.  They are sophisticated viewers and most can tell within milliseconds if an image looks real, or if it has been faked somehow. Authenticity and wholesomeness don’t just apply to ingredients on  a Chipotle menu, they are what people are searching for.  In an age characterized by easy connectivity – making a real connection matters more than ever.

Photographs crafted and designed by real photographers who take their work seriously – professionals in other words – can help brands achieve this. And they can do it on brand, on time, and on budget.

Three arguments for hiring an event photographer you can use to impress your boss

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The table is set

I’ve recently set up a series of business development meetings with potential clients whom I expected to be regular users of photographers for their events. I was surprised to learn that some of them had never hired a photographer to cover an event. This made me stop and think about the value a photographer brings to event organizers. Here are three reasons why hiring a photographer for your event might be a good idea, especially if you or your organization has never hired one before:

Documentation: One aspect of what I do when covering an event is capture the room set-up, before guests arrive. Known as “beauty shots” I always find taking these images a little tedious but I recognize they are an important part of documenting the event, and not simply to show off how beautiful the space looks. Having these types of set-up shots are incredibly useful to new staff members who may not have been at any previous events but find themselves being responsible for setting up the next one. Images of how the room is laid out, the food served, (even napkins showing the caterer’s name) can be very useful for the newbie whose responsibility it is to make this year’s event as impressive (or more) than last year’s.

Exposure to new technology: With phones and inexpensive small point and shoots, budget wary clients may be tempted to skip on adding an extra line item to the event bill, but in so doing, they risk missing out on the latest trends in camera technology that an active event photographer is likely to be using. Virtual reality (360), and time lapses cameras, for example, are not likely to be found in the office cupboard but they do add interesting and engaging visual elements in the aftermath of the event that can be leveraged for marketing or social media by the organizer. If there is an outdoor activity, or excursion such as a river cruise or guided city-walk, a drone might be used to capture some unique views of the guests. While it likely doesn’t make sense for most organizations to own this kind of expensive kit, having them available for an event can make a huge difference in generating exciting, even spectacular images that can used for any number of purposes afterwards.

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John Chambers (CEO, Cisco Systems Inc) speaking to partners

It makes your guests feel important: event photography, like any form of interactive art, is part theatre. A great event photographer brings not just the right kit, but the right attitude that actually improves the general ambience and vibe of an event. A professional photographer in attendance also sends the message to your guests that they matter and that they are worth spending a little extra on. If part of the reason for hosting an event in the first place is to impress the people in attendance, professional photography pays dividends far in above its costs.

How to deal with the difficult clients (and how not to be one)

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Making a living as a freelance photographer means you are going to work with a lot of different kinds of clients. That is actually your goal, and one of the perks of the job when you have them because from a business point of view, you’ve got a diversified portfolio and are never too reliant on one contract. However, variety means not all of your clients will be as easy to work with, as others. In my several years of experience with hundreds of clients, I’ve really only encountered a small minority whom I’d classify as difficult, but the lessons they can teach are worth sharing.

First of all, as it relates to freelance photography. I define as “difficult” any client with particularly onerous demands, specific interfering behaviours on site when the job is being done and/or having highly unrealistic expectations vis-à-vis the budget.

For clarity I would say, it is perfectly acceptable and in fact, preferable, to have a conversation with your photographer about what you are expecting, the kinds of shots you want, when you need them ready by, etc. As a client, you are also fully within your rights to ask your photographer to dress appropriately for the venue, and express how you expect them to behave at your event. After all, whether it is a corporate luncheon, a gala evening or a private affair, it is your event and your photographer is a guest and should be expected to behave accordingly.

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Thorny issues
Difficulties arise when a client takes it upon themselves to get too into the details of the work at hand. As my German father-in-law tells me, “You don’t tell a painter how to paint.” That is, if you hire well and are dealing with a professional, it is not your job to tell the professional what kind of lighting to use, or specify every pose and generally interface between the subject(s) and the photographer. These choices and these interactions are best managed by the person holding the camera and you theoretically have hired that person because they are demonstrably good at it.

Standing very very very close to the photographer, asking to review every shot, pointing out shots to take repeatedly, for example, is not helpful. It is in fact, highly counterproductive as it will likely result in distracting your photographer and probably will yield a much worse result than if you just let him or her shoot the event or portrait as they best see fit.

A good event or portrait photographer is someone who is skilled at working with people. Trust them. As someone whose work entails several interactions with lots of different kinds of people during a regular work week, I am comfortable with a broad range of personality types and can deal with almost any situation that arises. Any difficulty I’ve ever experienced has come, not from the subjects, but rather a micromanaging client whose behaviours indicate both a lack of respect for the professionalism and artistry involved in being a photographer.

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Generally speaking, there are two broad types of clients: those working on behalf of a company, or business to business (B2B), and those hiring you directly and paying for you with their own money, or business to consumer (B2C). The former category includes PR companies, communications and marketing professionals, and event managers. The latter can include entrepreneurs, and of course, the vast majority of wedding photography clients and people seeking a family portrait or some other personal event.

B2B clients are working with budgets and may have demands for rapid turnaround on edited photos etc, but because they generally have experience contracting with photographers, transactions are conducted more quickly and they tend to let you do your work without too much hands on management.

B2C clients tend to be more budget sensitive, less experienced hiring photographers in general (it may well be their first time), and will consume a greater amount of your time before and after the contract is completed. With good communication, friendliness and transparency on both sides, dealing with B2C clients can be rewarding personally and financially.

Advice for photographers:

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If you run into trouble with a client onsite, my recommendations are the following:

  1. Be clear in advance about what you can and cannot do within the time/budget allocated (with yourself as well as your client): this is perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned and it really applies to any freelance situation but is very valuable to remember as a freelance photographer, especially if you are just starting out. You may be tempted to take every job that comes along, or to offer to do whatever the client asks for without feeling comfortable charging for it, but in the end, this, more than anything else, will be detrimental to your business and your relationship with the client. If, for example your client asks you to shoot and then edit 150 product shots, that entails using the pen tool to create very detailed clipping paths, and then editing each and every one of their used products to look like factory new — and wants it done overnight, you cannot possibly do it on your own. Saying yes to satisfy your client up front will surely result in unpleasantness afterwards.
  2. Get Zen, fast: ultimately your client is your responsibility. You are, at the end of the day, a service provider and no matter how expert and experienced, you can be replaced. You do have to give the client the benefit of the doubt and you cannot, under any circumstance that I can conceive of, lose your cool no matter how irritating and frustrating an experience you are having.
  3. Be communicative: sometimes all it takes to turn around a frustrating experience is the right words. There is a way to express how you are feeling and to provide feedback to your client that communicates your objective without damaging the relationship. Explaining how you like to work, and proving yourself capable of achieving what they are ultimately after – great shots – can mitigate your client’s anxiety and let you get back to doing what you do best.
  4. Be patient: some people take more time than others, and require more effort. That’s just how people are and you, as the professional, need to adjust to them and not the other way around. If you don’t already, start learning about mindfulness. It goes a long way in dealing with moments where your instinct is to blow your top.

Advice for people hiring photographers on how to be a good client:

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Whether you’ve been tasked with finding a photographer in a different city for an event happening tomorrow night, or you are doing long range planning and booking your wedding photographer for next year, here are a few tips from an insider’s point of view that will ultimately help you find the right photographer for your job and ensure you get the best value from the experience:

  1. Speak with the photographers you’ve found online: Everybody will go to Google to find a photographer before doing anything else. Once there, you’ll look through portfolios, read up on their online reviews and probably make a choice there and then to short list or bypass the shooter. If you’ve decided you’re interested enough to send an email, don’t just ask for a rate and give a brief description of the job unless all you really care about is price.  Making the small bit of extra effort to actually speak with a photographer can save you time and money, as well as instantly provide you with a sense of the person’s personality and demeanour which should factor into your decision as to whether or not to contract with him or her.
  2. Ask for recommendations: a good photographer will have ample reference clients you can refer to, in addition to online reviews (here are some of mine) and other forms of social acceptance like an active presence on social media and a recently updated website. Don’t be shy to ask for client references.
  3. Be clear with your expectations: once you’ve decided to contract, be clear in advance about what you expect as deliverables, when and how you want your photos delivered. Articulating in advance (writing it down) makes sure there are no surprises on either side, and that if you are expecting something that would exceed the amount you are agreeing to pay, the conversation can be had in advance to avoid a more awkward one post-event about what is and is not included in the agreed rate.
  4. Trust your choice: once you’ve vetted your photographer and actually signed a contract, trust yourself. Don’t interfere with how he or she does the work requested. Let them discover the moments to shoot, and set up the shots that they think will look best. If you’ve provided a shot list, then let them have at it. If you’ve chosen wisely initially, you won’t be disappointed at this stage

Everyone has a bad day once in a while and a little patience and understanding goes a long way in resolving most issues if/when they arise. But for photographers and clients who find themselves at odds for whatever reasons, hopefully these few tips gleaned from over a decade’s worth of overwhelmingly good client relationships, can help.

 

 

 

 

Is there really a difference between event photographers?

Mike Harris
Mike Harris

I was shooting an event in Toronto last week of an award dinner / fundraiser at a ritzy hotel with several very high-profile attendees. It was a fairly typical event, the kind I’ve covered hundreds of times before, with a pre-dinner cocktail hour in the lobby area of the reception hall where guest agglomerated over drinks and canapés, chit chatting and catching up with each other as they waited for the main doors to open up. The lighting was subdued, the bars mirrored. The men wore suits and ties, the women elegant evening gowns. 450 guests were there, each having paid a handsome price for the ticket with over 20 fully sponsored tables of ten. It was an important event for the organizer, with an important group of patrons and having covered events for this client in the past in Montreal, I was happy to have been invited to cover this one in Toronto as well. Clearly they liked my work I thought, and realized that having an experienced hand at working these kind of high-society events yields the right kind of images for their purposes.

FI-JACK_COCKWELL 17That’s why I was quite taken aback when I was chatting with one of the client team members (albeit not the one who hired me) when she asked, quite genuinely, “Is there really that much of a difference between event photographers?”. We were standing in the main hall looking out through the doors at the thickening crowd of mostly dark suited men gnoshing on smoked salmon and quaffing glasses of white wine when she asked. “Well, yes, I think so.” I responded, trying not to sound defensive or overly surprised at the query.

And the truth is, I shouldn’t be because though I don’t often hear it, I do experience the effects of that sort of thinking often. When you work, as I do, in a highly competitive field where the barrier to entry is low, and the perceived value of your service, under appreciated, this attitude translates into many behaviours clients and prospective clients exhibit such as:

  • Brief (one or two liner) email queries asking for a price based on loosely defined schedules for upcoming events, usually in the very near or immediate future
  • Requests for detailed quotes based on unspecific requirements
  • Refusals to acknowledge or present a realistic budget
  • Assumptions that your price is always negotiable
  • Discussions focused on price rather than value
  • Focus on detailed shot requirements rather than discussion on what the purpose and end use of the images will be
  • Assumptions that all photographers also provide video coverage at the same time for the same price

Part of this is due to the ubiquity of photography today and the near infinite demand for constant content feeds through a warren of social media networks. This ubiquity is both a blessing and a curse, as it proves that there is a near constant need for photography, but there is also a decreasing respect afforded to professional practitioners and a widespread belief, exemplified by the leading question of this post, that the service is a commodity, photographers by and large undifferentiated from one another and consequently, price takers in the economic relationship between client and provider.

But then, what is the mark of a good professional photographer worth the fee being asked and one who will work for any budget (or none) and claim to offer the same service?

The answer I think comes down to a blend of factors that some clients get instantly, and others will never really get.

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A good photographer covering an event will do so in a manner that does not cause guests to feel uncomfortable or hold awkward smiles or poses for long. The images will be well-lit, attention given to background, colours and flattering angles for all manner of the shapes and sizes that humans come in. He or she will take the time to understand the event, the importance of key attendees, and if working with a brand, the brand values and personality, to ensure not only their images, but also their behaviour is consonant with the client’s. The photos delivered will also be well-organized, easily accessible, rapidly turned around, and the transactional details of the contract conducted professionally and with respect to the client’s needs and internal processes. And the photographer will still be there after the event is over and the bill paid, to respond to any additional needs that may come up and of course, to serve again on future events having now established him or herself as a known quantity which eliminates at least one element of potential concern in the many moving parts that comprise event coordination, planning and execution.

FI-JACK_COCKWELL 394Hiring experienced professionals may appear to cost more than hiring newbies, but is the same value being provided by both? If you think that indeed, there really is no difference, than the cheapest option makes the most sense. More experienced providers who are able to offer premium level service cost more. Many clients may be satisfied with less, and that’s perfectly okay.

Some, however, realize that talent is worth paying for.