Part 3: How do I choose the right commercial photographer? What am I looking for in their portfolio and the first conversation with them?
Just as you have carefully defined your own business, photographers can be divided into a few basic categories, and then sub-divided into additional areas of specialization and expertise. Choosing the right photographer will require that you identify the general type of photography required for your project (architecture, food, product, fashion/glamour, portraiture, automotive, action), and then considering photographers who show additional experience or expertise in dealing with some of the subtleties of your particular project.
Many clients begin their search for a photographer with some kind of “shot list” - a general list of locations or products, or the number of photographs needed based on plans for brochure pages or social media space. Often those basic lists fail to consider the contribution of intangibles like style, mood, and message that will inhabit each frame, and will personalize and add meaning that brings the final images to life. At the point where you have decided to consider working with a professional photographer, you should be looking for someone who can turn your shot list into effective images - a collaborator who speaks the complex and nuanced visual language required to tell your story and can contribute ideas beyond your initial thinking.
REVIEW WORK ONLINE
The first step in selecting photographers to interview usually begins with viewing websites. Photographers generally try to define their area(s) of expertise in separate portfolios or collections of images representing their latest projects and their most accomplished work. Almost immediately you’ll start to see differences in visual styles from one photographer to the next, and the closer you look, the more you’ll start to feel that certain images work better for you than others. You may see work that’s been done in your industry, making those images more relevant to your project; and then you may see styles that you hadn’t considered that make you think about your photo shoot in a whole new way. Some photographers have just one look that they’ve honed and perfected, and some are versatile - successful and comfortable working in a number of different styles. As you react to the images, remember that each of the projects you are being shown may have been created for a client like you, with a shot list, aesthetic requests, specific locations, product requirements and business outcomes that shaped the final results.
IS THEIR PORTFOLIO CONSISTANT
You’ve spent a lot of time and money on your logo, your brand’s colors, the copy you use to communicate your brand. Your “Visual Branding” is just as important. It should have a consistent look and feel also. Although a photographer may specialize in a number of different categories, ( lifestyle, fashion, product, etc.), each portfolio or collection of images may be photographed in a different “Visual Language”, but each category should have a consistent look and feel. A consistent portfolio is directly related to our next point, “Experience”
Most photographers will also post a list of their clients. Combined with the images themselves, this can speak to their experience level and give some insight into the size and quality of the projects they’ve worked on. Don’t underestimate the value of experience. A valid (10-year?) track record in business means that they have successfully navigated the intricacies of a variety of clients and productions. They’ve identified and solved more issues than your single project can present, and know how to avoid problems before they arise. They work efficiently and responsibly, carry insurance, have covered the legal aspects of permits, location fees, model and property releases, copyright, trademark clearances, labor and employment laws, unions, taxes etc., and know how to provide all of the elements required to complete your images seamlessly through post-production, and to industry standards.
Take your time with this research, and assemble a list of a few photographers whose work you connect with, who create images you would be proud to have represent your business.
Of course an in person meeting is best, but a phone or Skype discussion is an option for out-of-town connections.
There is a person behind each of those images, and that’s who you’re going to be working with.
The initial meeting is your opportunity to put a personality with the images. Often a photographer will present work in an in person meeting that is assembled based on your description of the project, and may not have been on their website. Ask questions. There’s a story behind every image that may be relevant to your project.. Discuss budgets. Experience will come with an “investment” price tag - but understanding what it takes to produce an image will help you grasp the value of the photographer as a collaborator and creative problem-solver.
Evaluate your discussions. Are they listening to your ideas? Are they offering suggestions that parallel yours and presenting relevant new perspectives that you hadn’t considered? Are they knowledgeable about what’s needed to accomplish the project? Can they articulate the practical aspects of production as well as the aesthetics, and balance the two? And do you sense a genuine interest in your work and a commitment to taking your basic ideas and adding tangible value?
A good photographer won’t try to ‘sell’ you on his photography. In fact, he or she is, in that very same meeting, trying to evaluate you as much as you are him. The success of any project relies on good chemistry between personalities, and a common ground of mutual respect.
A good photographer is trying to thoroughly understand his client’s needs and aesthetics in order to create successful images. And a good client knows that hiring an expert is wasted if you don’t let them do their job, keeping an open mind to ideas and solutions that appear as a project evolves.
After having a number of discussions with the photographer, you will probably find that each one has a slightly different approach to your project. These may be basic stylistic differences, approach to producing your job, their previous experience on similar projects, and/or fundamental suggestions that they make that change your initial preconceptions about what the project should look like. These initial discussions and meetings are about ideas and possibilities - and your sense of the potential to achieve them. Understanding each photographer’s vision is essential to the next step - choosing the photographer for your project.