Brand Photography Myths: Interview by Flourish Collaboration

Let’s Talk: Brand Photography with Lauren Jones, Commercial Photographer

Interview by Erica, co-owner of Flourish Collaborative. Read the interview on their site.


Erica: The term Brand Photography can be kind of confusing to people who aren’t in the industry. How do you define the term Brand Photography?

Lauren: First let me start by saying that not all brands need brand photography. Some brands need illustration. But when they do need the former, brand photography is a really great way to bring your brand to life.  It can elevate your brand, but ultimately tell your brand story better than any graphic could. Because there is something really tactile and candid about photo because obviously the human that’s behind that camera creating that photo, even if you are not photographing a human, brings that story to life in a really unique way.

E: Okay, I’m really interested with what you said about some businesses or brands not needing photography versus illustration.  Can you give some quick examples in your past of a business who maybe they thought they needed brand photography and actually needed more of a graphic story-telling method?

L: So, I did this exercise with a data company and they thought, “Oh, we need photography because that’s just what you do as a company.” And the more we got into their visual language exercise, we realized that trying to explain these really complex data concepts with photography just doesn’t make sense. So they went with a more illustrative approach.  But for some brands, you’re dealing with a public perception of being scary or machine-like, which is when brand photography can be really powerful.

E: When you mentioned that, my first thought went to an I.T.  company or something that’s so process driven or data driven that it does make more sense to have an infographic illustration approach or similar.

L: Exactly. But let’s say it’s an H.R. app. With H.R., you are obviously about the people; people are your products. Maybe you do really fun customer portraits versus an illustration, because you are talking about a human company so you want to show humans. 

“Business is nothing more than an exchange between a person and a person.”— Erica Kelly, Flourish Collaborative

E: Talk to me about this idea of humanizing the brand and how photo plays into that. Why is that so important and what are some ways that you, through your work, have humanized a brand?

L: Say that your brand is a person, using you as Erica Kelly for example. Obviously you want to tell people who that is and who you are. And you can do that with words, which I think is still powerful, but you really need to see the person and see how they interact in the world, and what their space around them looks like; whether it’s a natural space or like something hyper-stylized, it’s still telling your story. 

E: Totally. And what all of this really comes down to - and this is what we have seen in the branding side of things - is that business is just nothing more than an exchange between a person and a person. That’s why you see big brands on social letting their social media managers be known as a person so that commenters kind of know that they are not just talking to like a big box company or huge thing.  And I think that’s sort of the trend that we are seeing. It is these bigger companies or just companies that maybe aren’t, you know, or whatever, wanting to put a face to the name and there are so many benefits to that we can go into. 

E: Let’s say we have a business and we haven’t yet invested in professional photography, and it’s one of those businesses where it falls into the need of definitely needing photo. Why is it so important for that business right off the start to go down the road of brand photography?

L: This is my soapbox speech I tell everyone. You can spend all this money for a beautiful brand and a beautiful website but you can ruin it so quickly without photography or stock photography and vice versa.  Like, you can spend a very small investment in your Squarespace site,  but put some beautiful custom photos on it that no one else has and that will elevate your site so quickly with something really custom. And another thing is I feel like people are so scared of custom photography either because they have a bad taste in their mouths, think it’s so scary and so expensive, or they don’t even know how to go about it and they don’t know what they need.  That’s a myth. It doesn’t have to be so expensive; it’s extremely scalable. It can be affordable or it can be, you know, really outlandish and elaborate.

E:  I would agree with that.  When Flourish was started, one of the first investments that we did was brand photography.  And for us, we were kind of leading with this “Caty and Erica duo”, and the legitimacy that came with having our own professional photography really is what made it. It is a worthwhile investment because people were thinking that we were much further along in our business or they were thinking that we were much bigger than we were because we had professional photography. Because for a long time, that is what you associated with a bigger, more established business.  And for us it was like, gosh, you can’t just have the legitimate branding, you have to also have the visuals like photographs.

E: What are my options in terms of the types of shoots that a brand may need, whether they are a service-based business or a product-based business?

L: Let’s start with The Edition Shop, for example.  Being a boutique here in Savannah, they might have just assumed that they just need photos of their garments to sell. That categorizes product photography, an obvious need for an e-commerce brand and their product pages. That to me doesn’t elevate the brand enough where they want it to be so when they first launched we did an editorial-type campaign, just to say, “Hey, this is who we are, this is who Edition is,  and this is the type of women we like to dress.”  So that took them a lot further than just showing the clothing that they were offering. It’s neatly telling the story of who they are and who they want to be. 

E: For a service-based business, like Flourish for example, our first question was, “How do we use photos to communicate maybe parts of our process or the work that we do or even just to evoke an aesthetic?” which is also so huge when attracting the right consumer.

L: Yeah, so I have an example where we did a photo shoot for a supply chain company. They provided shipping logistics and we had to figure out how to visually communicate that in a way that wasn’t confusing or boring. We don’t want to show packages, trucks, and a warehouse because their brand itself was so fabulous and so elevated. So, we took a still life approach.  We used glass balls as a way to illustrate the customer journey and what this supply chain company does but in a really abstract way.  It was all about showing how things get from point “A” to point “B” in a really simple way.  We were communicating to their customers how easy and seamless their life would be through this company. It made for a really interesting still life.

E: I love that example and to me it’s like you are touching on like two pain points of a brand, one being the pain point of the consumer. Once brands go through the branding process and understand what problems they’re solving, they can further ask the questions:

What pain points are my target customers feeling when they find me or before they find me, and how am I solving those pain points? 

How do I make sure that my aesthetic, both through brand and photo, are showing this same elevated look so that I am not looking like some kind of corporate, generic business?

So, maybe if you are a service-based business and you are like, “Gosh, brand photography…where do I even start?” I think a great place to start would be asking: is my process being communicated clearly; are my solutions being communicated clearly;  and when a customer goes to my website, or seeing my ad in a magazine, what am I really trying to say?  And then that can all be solved through brand photography.  

L: Exactly.

E: Talk me through your process as a brand photographer. When a client first hires you, are there any kind of exercises or meetings or worksheets that they go through to help figure out the direction?

L: Yeah, so that varies per project, but initially I’ll have a meeting to ask the question, “What do you think you need, first of all?” Because their idea might be totally different than maybe when I get in there and say, “Actually, this is what you need.“ I then like to do a competitor analysis to see what everyone else is doing; not so that we can be so radically different but just so we are not trying to do the same thing.  And then I like to do sort of a target customer page to get a sense of where we are going with this.  Afterwards, I have them fill out a questionnaire to get some answers on them and then send them through a scope for what we think could work.  From there comes the fun part where we put together mood boards and, you know, pitch some ideas. Then starts the preplanning and preproduction fun stuff.

Lauren’s Brand Photography Process

1. Intake Questionnaire
Lauren sends an initial client questionnaire to receive basic business info and preliminary photo needs.
2. Intro Meeting
Client brainstorm meeting to hear ideas and discuss potential ideas. Both parties review the questionnaire together.
3. Competitive Analysis
Lauren researches various relevant businesses both in the area and abroad, taking note of visual aesthetic and how they best communicate. This information is then presented to the client.
4. Target Demographic
Lauren creates a target page to pin point end consumer (their tastes, needs, and demographic information).
5. SOW and Proposal
Lauren submits a scope of work and proposal to client.
6. Aesthetic Direction
Once the proposal is approved, Lauren will present aesthetic mood boards and shoot brief to guide direction.
7. Pre-Production
Pre-planning phase includes any coordinating of locations, talent, etc. as needed.
8. Shoot!
Shoots can last anywhere between a half day and several days depending on the scope of work.
9. Delivery of Files
Client receives final photos, typically within 4-6 weeks of shoot date.

E: What are some ways in which a service-based business could engage with a brand photographer?

L: Flourish, for example, might not do like a hyper-stylized approach. You might want to simply say, “This is who we are; this is what you are going to get when you work with us” but you might be appearing as the best version of yourself. You may hire make up and a stylist, and a few props to make the office is nice and tidy. But, maybe it’s a blogger or, like you said, a life coach or something and they want to do a more hyper-stylized approach.  That’s what I would say is my niche.

“All you have to do is grab the attention of the scroll.”— Erica Kelly, Flourish Collaborative

L: I did this shoot with blogger Kelsey Bucci who is currently inspired by all things denim. So, we called the shoot “Denim Disco” and the whole idea was a party for one where everything was denim and blue and fun. By taking a hyper-stylized approach, she was able to tell who she is in one photo versus showing her sitting at her desk and working, for example. That approach works for some people, but for her we wanted something kind of crazy and more stylized and fun and more like a fashionable editorial, but we weren’t promoting the clothes. We were promoting her, but in a really stylized way.

E: Amazing. I get so excited when we work with branding clients and we start talking about marketing strategies and content strategies. That’s where the competitive analysis plays a huge role. All you have to do is grab the attention of the scroll.  And even if you don’t have a defined reason to have a disco party for one, that piece of content is so out there and it’s so well done and fun that I am already like, “Who is this Kelsey Bucci, and what does she do?”  And I think that’s what brands really need to think about.  How do you stand out in the sea of content, and how do you do something that is so unique to you and just run with it? 

L: The times are over where you can’t be making unique content.  Every brand really needs to be creating unique content. Maybe you hire a brand photographer for your website heroes - that main touch point - but you are also going to need something for Instagram so your Instagram doesn’t look like a bunch of iPhone culture shots. There are so many businesses that have an amazing website but when you go on their Instagram, which I think a lot of people are judging businesses based on their social media these days, it looks like garbage.

“The times are over where you can’t be making unique content.”— Lauren Jones

E: Instagram is the first place I look; it’s literally my visual Google. Anytime anyone says to me, “Oh, have you heard of them?” or, “You have to check them out!”  I go immediately to Instagram and I look at their feed. How legitimate do they look? Is it interesting?  Is it a bunch of garbage photos?  And that is the first impression whether people like it or not.  

L: If you hire a photographer to get those main website hero shots, they can also take detail shots that act as ammo for your social media for a month, and that’s super valuable.   

E: Super valuable, and that’s one of the things that we have learned as a business that constantly feels the pressure of  putting out new content all the time.  What works best for us as is we just do like a huge one or two day bulk shoot and then that lasts us maybe two, three months and then we have another one. It’s so much easier to capture all of that content now, schedule them all out and not think about it as often. Another trick that we have done in the past is strategically cropping or manipulating that hi-res photo so that it becomes three of four pieces of content in the end.

E: What are my options in terms of how many photos I can hire you for, and what does the pricing structure look like depending on what I get back? 

L: Brand photographers have different pricing structures so I can only speak for what I do. I base my price off a couple things: price per image, time involved, and licensing/creative fees.  I charge for my time, which includes all of my preproduction time; all of my coordinating – maybe I am coordinating models, the stylist, locations - and that also includes my day-of fees. So say you need 10 images, I will charge per image and then you can choose either a buyout option or a usage license, which  most people do for a custom shoot like that.  

E: What does it mean to purchase a full photo “buy out” from a commercial photographer?

L: A full buyout means you’ll never have to come and relicense those photos, they are yours forever. This can be very expensive, and most companies don’t need this. Especially because photos don’t stick around long in the content hungry industry. Licensing means you own those photos for the agreed amount of time, location use, and print or digital use. If you wish to re-up the license for another year or whatever it is, that’s likely cheaper than doing a new shoot or paying for a full buyout. 

Another huge myth is that “stock photography is so affordable”.  It is not so affordable; it is actually quite expensive. That’s why I try to tell most of my clients that because you are paying a licensing on stock photography, you usually don’t have buyout options. That’s how stock photo sites make their money. So, it’s best to just find a photographer you trust and then you can pay for that full buyout. You are going to save and save so much money in the long run, not to mention you’ll have something you are really proud of and that no one else will have. 

E: What are my purchasing options if I don’t want a full buyout?

L: So you could pay for licensing, and there are different types of licensing depending on mainly two factors:
1. Length of time you’d like to use the photos (could be anywhere from six months to a couple of years).
2. Where you plan to use the photos (there are different rules for digital and print).

E: Give me some examples in which a business would benefit from only owning photos for a short period of time?

L: Maybe you’re a new restaurant or hotel chain that’s opening and they want to promote or capture a launch event. Or, maybe you’re a product-based business with retail that filters seasonally. You may not want photos of that merchandise after you’ve sold out with no plans of re-ordering.

E: What should I consider when I am in the market for a brand photographer?

L: First, try and find someone that suits your style. People might not hire me for a shoot that involves a light and airy beach feel with a model in a flowy dress.  There are so many photographers in Savannah that are amazing at that. That is a niche. Finding someone that specializes in the type of work you’re interested in is key because they are going to be more passionate and more knowledgeable about that industry.

Second, understand what role the photographer is going to play. The first thing I always ask a client is, “Who is in the driver seat? Are you in the driver’s seat for this shoot or am I?  Are you hiring me for my creative direction and photography or are you hiring me just for my photography?” Because I do both.  Some people have a set vision, see me for my style, and hire me. Some clients will say, “Hey, we have a slot for a fashion spread in the September issue - go crazy.”

The biggest thing is to be open to the photographer’s suggestions. We live in this world so we see all the trends going in and out and if we say, “Hey, that’s been done too many times. That’s not going to push you guys where you need to go.” We have seen things overdone and while not trying to make your brand feel so crazy and outlandish, you are investing that money, so you want to create something unique. 

It’s hard to see yourself, too. It’s great to bring in a fresh perspective who will say, “Actually, this is who you guys are.” Because when you are so in it, it’s hard to see how you really stand out or what makes you unique. Using a brand photographer has a new creative perspective is really refreshing.

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