Choosing & Working With a Commercial Photographer

Artistic content is the bane of many professional projects in part because of the ambiguity of the task itself and also because of the sometimes volatile personalities with which you may work. In this article, we will break down the various stages of organisation when choosing and working with a commercial photographer. Whether you need help with the backroom details, understanding the actual task, or how to best work passionate professionals, this article will help you navigate through the often arduous task of choosing and working with a commercial photographer.

Choosing & Working With a Commercial Photographer - SHOOTFACTORY

The Details

Budget

This may seem a bit obvious as the budget will have an outsized impact on any project, but the selection of a photographer requires a bit more nuance than the simple dichotomy of better vs worse. Not only must you consider type of project in terms of the format and target audience, but you must also consider the medium through which the project will be consumed. If your project is a multi-media marketing campaign, the photography is only a small sliver of the actual consumed content.

Conversely, anything heavily reliant on print or internet traffic is likely to be influenced by the visual presentation. While online advertising will indubitably include video, it will also very likely include still images as well. You want these images to catch the audience’s attention as this will increase the time that they stay on the page–not only for that moment over their entire viewing experience. Remember, it is all about that first impression within the initial 15 seconds that will ultimately determine whether they bounce or not.

As such, you should not go into the venture with a hard line in terms of your photography budget, instead of adapting to the changing circumstances as they present themselves to you. Where initially your marketing team may have thought that they only needed a few generic stills of a family gathering, a better, bolder idea might rise up that demands other shots with different specialities. And of course, there is no accounting for the innumerable obstacles that seem to crop up with every project–whether supplies, man-hours, or logistics. The point is, the photography budget is something that should be dictated by the flow of the project itself. Otherwise, you are liable to throw money down the drain with little more than an advertising placeholder that is quickly forgotten if noticed at all.

Deadline

This is one aspect that can often bring everything to a screeching halt, especially if you have particular aesthetic needs for your stills. There is a bit of an unfair reputation for artists to be rather unprofessional, and deadlines often seem to become a point of contention with professional creatives. While vetting your professional creative team to ensure their initiative and work ethic is obviously important, there are a number of other situations where deadlines can become an issue.

One of the more obvious instances involve shots of nature or that require a particular atmospheric setting–like a sunset or a rainstorm. While obtaining these kinds of shots themselves is a difficult task, the fact remains that even in ideal circumstances your team may very well not get the right shot on the first go. This is a natural part of the process and rarely indicates a failing within the team since the delicacies of lighting, exposure, and all the other photographic variables can change without a moment’s notice.

This is why photography projects should have more flexible deadlines than perhaps other projects may be afforded. This is not to suggest that should a cutoff date be missed you extend additional largess so the “genius can work.” Instead, it is a better idea to schedule everything so that the ostensible deadline is a couple weeks before you definitively need the finished content. This way if any of the almost inevitable problems arise, your schedule has that safety cushion built into it, making deadlines just words on paper.

Rights

This can be one of the more hotly contested points of doing business with a commercial photographer due to the nature of the work. Essentially, there are a fair number of different rights arrangements which provide degrees of ownership along with a spectrum between the photographer and the client. Ideally, you would want to maintain complete and total ownership over the rights to photographs that you commission the photographer to take.

However, some photographers, especially the more successful or those who work for larger agencies, expect to either maintain some partial rights of ownership over their work or to extend only temporary ownership of their shots. The latter of which can often be extremely beneficial for all parties involved as seasonal or niche campaigns may not require the extended ownership of content rights.

Another important thing to consider regarding the rights is whether or not other copyrighted materials are inherently part of the shot. If you need copyrighted material for the shot, then there is a good chance that you will have to get the rights to include that material in the shot or else be in potential copyright breach. The most common instance when this would happen is if you use a building or a work of art as part of your project’s content composition.

Of course, some buildings or works of art are considered part of the creative commons, especially those which are public. That said, this does not necessarily mean that the creator of the content no longer retains any rights as we saw with Arturo Di Modica “Charging Bull of Wall Street” and the “Fearless Girl” statue placed in direct contrast with it. The point is that your photographic composition may have some complicated copyrights woven into it.

While it may seem easier to simply eschew any composition which might contain otherwise already copyrighted materials or to exclusively hire photographers who give up all rights of ownership to the content they create, this can often lead to bland or generic content which does not excite or stimulate the audience in any meaningful way. Because of this, it is important to understand the entire philosophical gestalt underpinning the marketing team’s decisions.

Contracts

This is where the rubber meets the road and many of the potential issues previously discussed get hammered out. While compensation may seem like one of the bigger issues–and it certainly will be among them–the aforementioned rights will likely take a larger role. Freelance photographers are commonly expected to give up all rights to their work to their contracting party. While this does provide you with the freedom to use and reuse the created content however you want, it also often means that you are working with lesser talents.

If the photographer is willing to give up the rights to their work without some form of negotiation that often indicates that their work has not been impactful enough to warrant holding the rights to in the first place. Conversely, more prestigious and established photographers may very well dangle the rights of content they do not care for in front you for negotiating leverage. While you may not necessarily need all rights for the duration of the copyright, you will definitely want to acquire derivative, distributive, re-distributive, and most importantly, reproductive rights on any content you commission. This will allow you to continuously use the same content for the same purpose to the length of time negotiated, generally counted in years.

The two most common designations that you will deal with are exclusive and limited use licenses. To be fair, if a photographer is only willing to grant limited use licensing, then there is a good chance that they intend to use that content for other contracts in the future. Of course, the details of the limited use and the future use of the content can be negotiated, and the photographer may have non-commercial intentions altogether. This is why it is important not only to acquire the necessary licenses required but to not overreact if the photographer wishes to maintain some ownership over their created content as well.

Instead, it is more important to limit in what ways the content could be used outside of its initially contracted purpose. For instance, a photographer may want to include some shots from your project in an art exhibition. While this technically “dilutes” the content through presentation outside the intended purpose, it could very well elevate that same content if well-received. The point is that not all reasons for maintaining ownership are simply economic nor nefarious, but it requires communication to distinguish between the two.

Another point of concern regarding the contracts will cover what is considered to be successful completion of the project in question. Keep in mind, neither party wants to go through the process of revisions and re-shoots as it wastes both parties’ time and money. That said, if the contracts are not precise, it can be possible for a photographer to legally consider a contract complete even if you are not satisfied with the results. However, the best way to solve this potential issue is not to devise an ironclad contract which traps the photographer until you say otherwise but to identify the photographer who will best bring your vision to life, so to speak.

The Project

Purpose

While we have touched on some of the reasons you may need photographic content for instructional purposes, it is vital you know why you need the content you are budgeting. This is a bit interpersonal and relates more to project cohesion which can ultimately affect every step of this process along the way. A project without a defined purpose is like a rudderless ship drifting out to see. It may get lucky and moor on a hospitable land, but there is a much better chance that it will wreck on a rocky shore.

Basically, if the members of your team and whoever else you bring in to help complete the project do not know why they are doing their tasks, you will end up with a lacklustre product. Keep in mind, if you are bringing on a professional photographer, then you are tacitly acknowledging that you need help with a creative project. This is all good and well but what does that even actual mean, what “help” is actually being provided? While we will cover some of this when breaking down the actual photographer in question, it is important to remember that part of the purpose of the photographer, and thus the project as a whole is to ply their trade.

As such, your purpose may seem fairly simple and straightforward, say putting together a pamphlet for part of a larger multimedia marketing campaign, but the photographer is looking at the project completely different. You want content that will draw in your audience and drive sales, but that requires a subtle hand in our hyper-commercialised world. Without the creative eye of a high-quality photographer, your marketing tactics can come off as crass and ham-fisted.

This is why your projects need to have a purpose beyond whatever physical and fiscal requirements are built into them.

Brief

This can be a bit tricky because it requires you to either understand precisely what you are looking for or have the wisdom to know when to step aside and delegate to a specialised professional. Basically, it can be easy to think that when you give the photographer a “gist” of what you are looking for that they will intuitively identify the nuances and details you desire from a broader picture. To be blunt, that is almost never how it works and is certainly unlikely when working with a photographer for the first time. Like most relationships, working with a creative professional requires direct communication and the ability to compromise.

This may seem a bit odd considering that you are the hiring party, but much like a financial adviser handles the minute details of accounts for which others are not proficient, so too do creative professionals ply their talents to an inherently artistic endeavour. It is simply beguiling that because anyone can ostensibly observe, appreciate, and understand an artistic concept, even one used for commercial purposes, that they are qualified to make compositional decisions.

Due to this unique bias fallacy as well as the unique position of a patron, it can be difficult to provide both the necessary set of instructions as well as the leeway to make slight alterations when needed. For instance, you may have a particular shot in mind that is not feasible due to the way that the lighting will appear on film, something especially possible for an outdoor shot. In this instance, your project would do better if the photographer has the ability to accommodate for this with substitutions or alterations to the composition.

Granted, this in turn now means that you should be expected to turn over creative control to the photographer nor should they be given the authority to make such decision unilaterally, but their instructions need to be such that they have the freedom to adapt to changing circumstances and potential physical limitations. In this regard, a good strategy is to consider the emotional impact you want the content to provide as well some resonant touchstones and allow the photographer to work from there.

If you are putting together an internal handbook, then there is a pretty good chance that you will want to use the company’s property as a stage with the most recognisable landmarks included. However, there may be corners or sections of the property that the employees identify with far more that is part of their localised subculture. Considering the handbook is likely both instructional as well as morale-based, allowing the photographer to go with their gut and focus on those settings can serve to provide a more impactful finished product.

Teams

The idea of teams for commercial photography can take on a couple of different presentations depending on the type of campaign you are running. The first form in which a team can take shape is confined to the actual photographer, which in this case is more accurately stated as photographers–meaning plural. If you only need a few shots which will end up being used for half a decade or more, then there is a good chance that you do not, in fact, need a team.

However, if your campaign requires numerous different types of shots with a wide variety of locations, models, and style, then you would do well hiring a photography agency to put a team of three or more photographers on your project. This is because while most photographers are well-versed with a fair number of different styles, professionals have a tendency to favour one or two types of specialisation over another–and even then, photographers with multiple specialisations will usually have a particular strength which serves both specialisations in their own turn. This is not to suggest a photographer who specialises in landscapes will not also be able to competently shoot action shots, but they are far less likely to have the nuances and variances that those different types of shots require for the best results. They have a focused eye.

In this instance, you can hire a team of photographers from an agency, each with different specialisations. This will allow your team to produce the best photographs regardless of the type of shot you need. Keep in mind, if you hire a team of photographers, they will be far more likely to work well together than with an outside creative consultation team. Moreover, if the team of photographers has worked together in the past prior, they are likely aware of each others’ strengths and weakness and can help accommodate for them.

On the other hand, the second way in which you can hire a photographer team is to simply hire a photographer that will work with your own in-house creative team. This can provide a great deal of influence and control over the photographer’s output, so long as the photographer in question is comfortable taking direction from non-professionals–something not all photographers can do. If you do plan to hire a photographer to temporarily join your in-house creative team, find out if they have worked under those conditions prior as this can provide an indication of how they may perform under those conditions in the future.

Another great benefit of hiring an outside photographer to work with your in-house creative team is that the team can likely do a better job explaining the nuances of the desired finished product better than whoever hires them. One of the biggest pitfalls when working with any outside creative professional is the hiring party simply lacks the language to properly articulate what it is they actually want. This can make the photographer’s job more difficult, leaving potentially guessing as to what the client desires.

A creative team, on the other hand, is already well-versed in the necessary jargon as well as the hiring company’s general theme, culture, and style. As such, the in-house creative team can more effectively communicate the minute details that can turn a commercial picture from good enough to great. This allows you to avoid the hassle of having to request a series of revisions or even re-shoots simply because non-creative professionals lacked the language to convey their desires.

The Photographer

Value

You get what you pay for, so they say, and when it comes to commercial photography that truism holds. It can be awfully tempting to try and finish the project under budget by opting for a cheap stock photograph instead of hiring a professional photographer, but the value is misplaced. We live in a society inundated with advertisements, corporate branding, and even self-promotion. With the rise of the internet and cheap, yet high-quality, cameras, professional-grade photographs are a dime a dozen. To make matters worse, stock photography has a fairly set and regimented format that has become part of our cultural unconsciousness.

A bland, if handsome, man in a suit extending his hand for a shake with a big plastic smile plastered on his face standing in a conference room in front of a presentation board with a diverse group of “executives” paying close attention will not strike anyone as interesting or even original. It is no different than the word “said” in written dialogue: the mind glosses over the detail as merely a placeholder for the important information. However, unlike written dialogue, there is no other more important information for the stock photograph to prime.

Instead, you simply have a placeholder that is little better than blank space–and that is mostly just because it has colour and lines. The value that a professional commercial photographer offers is one of focus and attention–namely from the audience. If the images are striking or warm or elicit any other specified emotive, then the audience will remember the rest of the details better as well and remain engaged with whole content thereafter.

Creativity

Ah, the effervescent quality called creativity. Something that can be identified but for which words fail to truly describe. This nigh-ineffable characteristic can be both a photographer’s greatest tool as well as their most pernicious weakness. This depends on the mental and emotional disposition of the photographer, though you are unlikely to deal with the classical “tortured artist,” ranting and raving about the purity and integrity of their work. Instead, the photographer is more likely to provide numerous suggestions as to how the content can be composed.

The way in which you handle these suggestions will generally have more impact on the working relationship with the photographer than whether you blithely accept them or not. Remember, your commercial photographer should be a professional whose skills you trust. While this does not mean that you should sacrifice your own vision for theirs, it does mean that their suggestions come from an educated and refined experience and deserve to be taken seriously.

Portfolio

This is easily the most over-hyped part of searching for a commercial photographer, though it is also one of the most necessary. In a long line of continued oxymoron’s, working with a commercial photographer is about far more than what work they have already created. Instead, the portfolio can serve two primary functions: proof of competency as well as insight into strengths or specialisations. Keep in mind, a competent photographer can likely put together a portfolio with strong examples of nearly every niche and specialisation.

As such, the portfolio is better understood as either a baseline qualifying standard or as piece upon which your own creative team will identify the right candidate. Rather than looking at an image an assuming the photographer can replicate that ambience in a different context, it is a better idea to use the photographer’s oeuvre as a way to get an idea of their visual sensibilities. Do they use shadow and light to create dramatic effects, and is that even something called for with your project?

This can help you get a “feel” for the photographer but it should not be seen as a benchmark of their capabilities. It is important to remember that a portfolio itself is a marketing tool, and you generally market to the largest demographic. This means that if you are looking for something truly unique, there is a good chance few portfolios will satisfy your need for the new. Instead, the portfolio can give you insight into how well the photographer understands the different elements of their medium to be able to use them to make something unforgettable.

Access

What access to different resources does the photographer have? If you are hiring a freelancer or a sole proprietor, the chances of that photographer having access to restricted locations or the highest end equipment are slim. This is not to suggest that a photographer with fewer resources is inherently worse or less qualified. A freelancer or sole proprietor is often able to provide greater attention to detail with their clients than a photographer who works for a large agency and may be working on half a dozen assignments simultaneously.

In this instance, the choice comes down to what you need and what you can personally provide. If you have access and authority over the desired setting, then you do not need a photographer who has access to dozens of different styled studios. This same logic can be applied to the different equipment that a photographer may use, though this quality can swing either direction.

By that, we mean commercial photographers will have professional grade equipment on their own, but there are plenty of shots that require specialised equipment. If the photographer in question does not often take those kinds of shots, then they are unlikely to be in possession of the necessary equipment. Counter to that, a photographer that is part of an agency will generally have access to equipment owned by the agency which any of the photographers may check out and use for commissioned work. However, this simply goes back to understanding what the purpose of your commercial photographs is and what your brief entails.

Specialisation

Though we have discussed this topic in passing plenty already, it is important to understand that specialisation can often be an unnecessary burden on the project. Granted, there are some styles of photography which are inherently more difficult and for which you should likely look for a specialist. Action photography is a good example of this because the actual settings on the equipment may need to rapidly change to keep up with the changes in the action of the scene itself.

Of course, it is always nice to use a specialised commercial photographer whenever possible as this is more likely to provide you with the best quality content. That said, specialists will rightfully want to charge more for their services than someone who is merely proficient. While we stressed not getting too bogged down in the finances if you can avoid it, neither should you simply throw money at a problem in hopes of a solution.

If you need some landscape shots of a local landmark, you probably do not need to hire a landscape specialist. Most photographers begin their training shooting landscapes and still life giving them a firm foundation in the basic principles of their craft. Due to this natural skill progression, rarely do you need to extend the additional expense for a landscape specialist unless you are also trying to capture a particular atmospheric effect as well. The point remains that most photography does not require specialisation to produce solid shots, but you should be willing to pay for those which do.

Post-Production

This aspect is often overlooked by non-creatives since it does not have a dramatic or interesting presentation. The iconic image of a photographer standing behind the lens, their equipment set up against a blank backdrop, sticks in our memories. Few people assign the same kind of romantic drama to someone stuck behind a computer for four to six hours making hundreds, if not thousands, of minor adjustments to the image to get the final impression just right.

It is important to consider that pretty much all professional photographers have proficient experience with post-production image editing, but that does not mean that all professional photographers are masters at this particular craft. This may seem a bit counterintuitive, but the way that an image is displayed on a screen through either LEDs or crystal displays will differ from the way the content looks in real life.

As such, there is a possibility that your photography budget may need to include a separate editor for post-production, someone who is specialised in translating the composition of the film to a digital format. This process extends well beyond the simple measures of airbrushing models to remove unsightly blemishes and smooth texture. In fact, one of the biggest discrepancies between image content in a digital format and one either on paper or film is colour.

These are the kinds of nuances of which your commercial photographer needs to be aware, and if not, then you need another member on the team who is aware of these differences. On the other hand, there are numerous post-production tricks which can actually alter the image to make it less realistic. For instance, changing the depth of focus on a shot to sharpen the subject of the image might make the content less “realistic” but more powerful in its emotive impact and its ability to capture your audience’s attention.

Conclusion

As we can see, initiating and navigating a working relationship with a commercial photographer is not to be taken lightly. More than the actual photographer, the selection process entails an introspective understanding of the project and its goal. This will ultimately inform the rest of the process from choosing the creative professional or team as well as how to direct them. Remember, most commercial photographers are rational professionals just like the rest of us but their jobs often straddle a nebulous zone between autonomy and instruction. But with this article, you should be able to effectively navigate the hectic task of choosing and working with a commercial photographer.