What do Creatives look for when choosing a photographer?

Researched and written by Loud Kitchen LLC

Terence Leong, ECD, R/GA Shanghai
Photo: Terence Leong, ECD, R/GA Shanghai

Fame, fortune, prestige, big clients and big money – these are some of the things that draw many photographers to the brutal world of advertising photography, aka The Big League.

With big budgets and big reputations at stake, it’s a world with sky-high expectations to be met, and no second chances given.

It’s a world in which the culmination of weeks of conceptualizing, planning and selling of ideas ­­by teams of creatives to the client, endless production meetings and hours of logistics and prep work, not to mention loads of money already spent, lands on you, the photographer, to get the shot.

Did we say brutal? We should also say ‘unforgiving’. Fail to create the image your clients ‘see’ in their minds and you’re out. Often for good as far as that client is concerned. And people start talking… well, you get the idea.

Sounds fantastic? Can’t wait to start? Here’s how.

Firstly, get your craft up to standard. Make sure your images ‘sell’ (we’ll cover that in a future article).

And brush up your personal selling skills as well. You’re going to need them.

Okay done! What’s next?

Well, now you need to get your work seen by potential clients and learn ways to work with them as a valued creative partner.

Luckily for you, we’ve asked some friends on ‘the other side of the table’ just how to do that. These guys are Executive Creative Directors (ECDs) of major international ad agencies, as in, the Big Boys of the Big League.

Here’s the Q&A cheat sheet we wish we had coming in:

Please give your thoughts on photography in today’s advertising world. Is it still as relevant as before?

Demand for high budget stills photography in Advertising has seen a steady decline in recent years, especially after the rise of social media. Not only are there fewer “big” jobs but budgets for those jobs have also fallen roughly thirty percent in most cases.

Most of that budget has gone into video production and animation. Stills photography is still needed in most jobs, but it’s now playing a smaller part in the big picture. “Stills-only” photographers are finding it tough to stay competitive, as most agencies prefer production houses that can provide an all-inclusive scope of work.

Furthermore, photographers need to consider social media outreach, creating various formats for various platforms and have them as part of the value add. It’s a whole new ball game played at high speed that has seen more than a few veterans get left behind.

A great photo can still make you stop, smile, think or give you goosebumps. That hasn’t changed. In fact, photographs are more relevant than ever. The world needs much more from it. Big photos, square photos, photos that can be turned into gifs, photos that can turn into cinemagraphs. Consumers today have developed great taste in photography because they see thousands of beautiful high quality images in their daily feeds, and most of them, with their phones, can take great ones too. So brands better not get comfortable. Got to raise the bar, got to use photos that make consumers go “holy smokes, I’ve never seen it from this perspective before”. Got to keep it fresh and exciting, because the world doesn’t need sub-standard and uninspiring photos.

– Terence Leong, ECD, R/GA Shanghai

TL;DR: Even though great photography is still of paramount importance in Advertising, the scope of work is changing, and changing fast.

Besides commissioned work in a photographer’s portfolio, is it important to include some personal work as well?

Yes – that shows culture and interest. In fact, choosing a photographer based on their personal work is not uncommon.

Often, a photographer needs to betray their personal style in order to achieve what the agency or brand requires. Including personal work in a portfolio helps us see what that particular photographer is all about.

What is a good number of images to include in a portfolio?

Twenty should be good enough to show what kind of photographer the person is.

The first five shots will grab your attention. Please group them in different categories

Do you prefer assessing a portfolio in print or digital format? Please share your reasoning and preferred digital format.

Digital. Mobile.

We see and review things off the phone. And if your book is not mobile friendly, you miss a chance.

That’s also how most of our consumers are looking at photos nowadays.

Do you consider a photographer’s experience (in the relevant genre) as a deciding factor?

Most of the time, the budget dictates the class of photographer.

However, given a choice, most of us would prefer an experienced photographer for their ability to capture the essence of the brand and deliver the advertising message across effectively.

“Peace of mind” is probably the key reason why it’s important to work with good professional photographers. When I work with one, I can expect a certain standard without asking for it. They have a reputation to keep. Whereas dealing with inexperienced photographers, you have to hold their hands and guide them along. It’s a gamble.

– Terence Tan, Founder and Chief Creative Officer, ICE INC

When you need to get the message across to a certain audience, choosing a photographer with the right experience will get you there more effectively. 

For me, when I’m shooting a Nike ad, I usually only use photographers who have shot a lot of sports before. And you can tell from their portfolios if they know what beauty looks like to athletes. Normal consumers and photographers may capture cliché and obvious moments. But for a person who’s into sports, a photo of a tired athlete who has trained all day, that look of pain and struggle on a marathon runner, the ecstasy of scoring a goal or beating a buzzer, are moments that can inspire another athlete. One would miss all these in a shoot if you don’t get it. Sports photographers also know how to set up a shot to capture these moments.

– Terence Leong, ECD, R/GA Shanghai

Also, when things go wrong during a shoot, an experienced photographer has the skill and resources on hand to solve the problem quickly.

TL;DR: We agree with Malcom Gladwell’s “The 10,000 Hour Rule”.

Are there instances where you would prefer an inexperienced photographer?

Not often.

However, if the shoot requires rawness, or if the photographer shows potential, passion and commitment, then we might engage them for smaller jobs at first.

It all depends on what we see in their portfolio. We keep the good ones in our radar and wait for them to be ready, so keep shooting and show us good work!

What are the things that you consider when deciding on a photographer you have not worked with before?

We are all constrained by budget, so the photographer’s rate is important.

Then I want to check out their portfolio and personal work. And if I like the person enough, I want to get on a call to talk to him or her about the project.

What are the qualities of a photographer who is easy to work with?

Social media savvy, passion, flexibility, experience, good attitude and good EQ.

Fearlessness. The best photographers are those who aren’t intimidated by the difficulty of the task. Because having the confidence and commitment to nail it is 50% of the job. I was shooting an athlete in Turkey with a photographer on a film set. He was only given 15 minutes to nail a number of shots. What impressed me was how he made it happen. Instead of asking for more time and fighting with the film producer, he rehearsed how he was going to use the 15 minutes he got. He mocked up the set, got a stand-in, and did every test he needed to. During the rehearsal he figured out all the problems and found ways around them. And when he was on the set, he didn’t waste a second and got all the shots. That was awesome.

– Terence Leong, ECD, R/GA Shanghai

Please share any bad experiences with photographers that resulted in not achieving your goals.

I once worked with a very famous fashion photographer who was very uncompromising with my suggestions. He refused to follow the brief, and was so insistent on his own view that he forgot that we were the ones who engaged him in the first place.  I didn’t get what I promised the client in the end.  I never used him again. In a nutshell, having a professional attitude is more important than reputation.

– Terence Tan, Founder and Chief Creative Officer, ICE INC

Please share some words of encouragement (and advice) for new entrants to commercial / advertising photography.

Learn good lighting.

Don’t rely too much on retouching!

Find your own style and discover new techniques and tricks. Work hard. Have good taste. And keep shooting until you get it.

Did we miss anything important as far as choosing and working with photographers is concerned?

Nope.