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In the spotlight

By The Drum | Administrator

October 5, 2006 | 10 min read

Stock photography, while often superb in its execution and inspiring in its subject matter, is not in the majority of instances always the best option when creating a communications campaign.

Creatives hate having to shoehorn words around stock shots. They also hate how the whole process can be obstructed by images that sort of communicate exactly what the client wants.

Of course, in a world where budgets are shrinking and then stretched over a multitude of sectors, it is sometimes understandable that some clients put pressure on agencies to cut production budgets. But, when this cost-cutting starts to impact on softer budgets – such as photography – what such clients lack is the appreciation of how well-thought out and brilliantly executed photography, shot specifically for the task at hand, can help create a uniquely memorable impression for a target audience.

The right image used well will not only brighten up any piece of communication, it can make the communication.

“When an agency commissions a good photographer, they don’t just get a selection of images that may or may not fulfil the brief at the end of the shoot, they commission the photographer’s input, style, ideas, and their interpretation of the brief,” says Robert Brady. “If the agency has done their research and chosen the right man for the job then these extras that the photographer brings to the table can mean the difference between a mediocre creative and an award winning one.

“Regarding photography as a soft budget is extremely harmful to the creative process, and the most infuriating for photographers,” he continues. “But the just deserts come with the fact that the only thing to suffer, other than the wallet of the photographer, is the overall quality of the creative. There is a saying that sums up this attitude...’ you pay peanuts, you get monkeys’.

“In fact, an agency once said to me, and I quote, ‘Well If you don’t do it for this price, then we’ll get some monkey with a digital camera to do it.’ I’ve never seen the results of an ape wielding a camera...but I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

Photographer David Boni agrees that reducing photographic budgets can be hugely detrimental to the creative process. “Stock shots instantly put the creative in a corner where they have to find the picture that may fit as opposed to creating the right image,” he says.

“When a photographer is commissioned to do a job they work side by side with the client, making sure, at every stage, that the image being produced is exactly what’s required – not the closet thing you can get for the budget.”

Since Getty is the major player in the stock photo market it also has control over styles, and photographer Chris Close believes that when photography budgets are cut and agencies are forced to source images from picture libraries, many creatives are now beginning to resent being dictated to by the library stock giants. “Ironically it will often be cheaper to commission a photographer in Scotland than to use stock photographs from Getty, although stock photography is often used as a springboard to generate the ideas,” Close says.

“Everyone seems to want to cut budgets and you only have to look at some of the photographic work out there to see the results! Cutting budgets reduces the amount of time spent producing work and inevitably reduces the final quality. I was recently asked to pitch for a shoot involving models, children and animals. I budgeted for a good eight days work. The client felt half a day per location should have been enough (two days work)... I couldn’t even have reached the locations in half a day!

“Then, when an agency buys their own digital camera, you begin to wonder if the images matter to them at all.”

Robbie Smith also believes that original, commissioned photography allows for a higher level of creativity: “While stock photography can in many cases be used to good effect, it generally applies to the lower, less creative end of the market.

“In the case of a campaign, the results of original, commissioned photography will be instant and the art director and photographer will be able to work closely together, allowing changes to be made on the shoot. Buying in images allows for little or no creativity.”

Alan McAteer agrees: “To create an image from scratch that perfectly illustrates what someone is trying to say is a buzz. Images, as everyone knows, can say a lot more than words, which is why it’s important to get it right. Commissioning affords the agency that opportunity.”

“Most photographers I know including myself have had first hand experience [of budgets being slashed],” agrees photographer Paul Bock. “It can only have a negative effect on client/art director/photographer relationships. It also questions all the fundamentals that are critical in our business of trust, professionalism and creative enthusiasm.”

The advent of digital photography, while quickly adopted by many photographers, has brought with it problems of its own. The speed, ease and choice offered by this growing format, while well received, has also lead to a lack of understanding and a subsequent devaluation of the role of a photographer. Says Alan McAteer: “Sometimes digital photography is expected to cost less because of the immediacy of the medium or because people think they could achieve the same results themselves. Photography doesn’t have to cost the earth but it’s better to include the photographer at the start of the creative process in order to know exactly what would be involved in achieving the desired results.”

“Digital photography is a fact of life these days, whether we like it or not,” says Paul Bock. “There are still certain projects I will shoot on film, but at the end of the day, most clients just want a disc with scanned images ready to go to print or online, regardless of how they were originated. One obvious advantage of shooting digitally is the immediacy of it. The client can see what’s going on straight away without waiting for film processing time. One disadvantage is that clients expect more shots, which will often dilute what you’re doing. Is it better to concentrate on a set number of shots in a day, or blast away and hope for the best? I believe that there are some art directors and clients who recognise this and some who don’t. The challenge is for the photographer to align themselves with those they feel they can work best with.”

“There’s no doubt that film is near extinction,” asserts Boni. “Digital is empowering more and more people to take pictures. It is no longer a black art. However, it does not make you a photographer. It doesn’t conceive, light, compose or grade the final image, you still need to use the grey matter.

“Speed and cost are the main advantage of digital, but what people don’t realise, since the advent of digital, is that the photographer has to spend more money on gear and spend more time on the post production side for less money. This, I’m afraid, means the quality will suffer. Also, too many agencies think they can retouch... yes, they can cut something out and plop into another shot, but in my experience, rarely do they get it spot on.”

McAteer agrees with the conveniences of digital, but the traditionalist at heart still burns for dark rooms and lightboxes. “Ninety-nine per cent of our clients want me to use digital,” he says. “In certain shoots, digital allows greater flexibility and creativity because the results can be seen instantly. That, in turn, can make you more adventurous. Compared to five years ago, the technology is far superior and it’s only getting better. There’s no need for Polaroids, colour balance can be easier achieved and archiving and distribution can be easier facilitated.

“However, endless hours staring at images on a computer screen does not compare with the satisfaction of making the perfect print in the darkroom or laying out your 6x7 trannies on a lightbox. I love working with medium format film but I’d have to say, professional digital technology is incredibly exciting and it is the future.”

“I have been shooting digitally for about five years and would not go back to film,” says Eddie Phillips of Lighthouse Photography. “Nothing against film you understand, but with the speed, quality (Raw files, of course, not JPEG) and cost advantage of digital, especially when you work outside the Glasgow or Edinburgh area where pro labs are non-existent the benefits are huge. Clients like to see shots on laptops and photographers like the reassurance they have the shot in the can (CF card, laptop and CD if you’re worried about losing files).”

“Digital seemed to take off in Scotland even quicker than in London,” says Close. “The quality is stunning. I walked past a 48-sheet poster I shot on digital and the quality was stunning even from close up – and this was printed much higher quality than your average 48 sheet.

“However, clients think it’s going to save them money but the investment is substantial and the time spent in front of a computer can be too.”

As well as a quick adoption of digital technologies, a high standard of photographer and a quality service at a cheaper price, Scotland’s photography sector has another ace up its sleeve... Scotland, the location, says photography agent Dawn Moretti. “Being a photographer based in Scotland has lots of advantages,” she says. “We have the most amazing scenery for location shoots, from mountains to beaches and cities that offer beautiful architecture.

“In the last two months, the Moretti agency has produced shoots for clients who have come over from Greece and Germany, specifically for this reason – and of course the hospitality!”

Paul Bock agrees on the importance of location. However he feels that despite Scotland’s draws, there are a host of drawbacks too – notably the perceptions of London-based commissioners. “Scotland is a great location to be based in,” he says. “The downside is that photographers here are less likely to be commissioned by agencies based in London and overseas. While this is not always the case, there is a perception that if you’re not based in London, then your work isn’t up to the standard found there.”

“Despite Scotland’s natural beauty,” says Close, “being based in Scotland is certainly not an advantage and I think both photographers and clients relish the chance to nip off overseas when the budget allows. I am beginning to shoot more overseas but that is targeted at the stock market. I guess when something is on your doorstep it doesn’t seem so exotic. We have a terrible habit of shooting ourselves in the foot by taking what we have for granted or being self-deprecating about it.”

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