Thursday, April 7, 2011

"Anyone with a digital camera can do this!?”

We once had a prospective Client actually start a meeting with “I don’t understand your proposal! Anyone with a digital camera can do this!?!"

I was a bit taken aback. I was even a bit angry too until I realised that the fault was entirely my own! I shouldn't have been surprised at all. It's actually quite a fair question and whether or not your clients actually say it out loud as ours did, I assure you they are thinking it!

I had failed to communicate exactly what the difference is between professional photography and amateur photography with professional equipment. I had failed to communicate the steps involved in creating a professional product. I had failed in showing them the exact VALUE that this quality would bring to their campaign. It's no wonder they were surprised.

So my short answer was, “Well actually no, not really, but let me explain why.”

The move from film to digital has certainly made it easier for amateur and serious hobbyists to make better exposed pictures but commercial photography is far more involved and for good reason. Weak imagery aside, commercial photography has a significant technical element that is hidden in the background. A very quick example might be a product shot for a Tennis Shoe with a white background shot over a grey gradient, possibly a variation with some sports gear in the back to add context. Sounds pretty straightforward yes? But here is where the commercial photographer goes to work.

First step is prepping the product; are the laces laid just so, no twists or turns through the eyelets, tongue is lifted up, spotless all around, maybe a touch of magic shine on just the right areas. Adjust all the angles, a hidden prop or drop to elevate the shoe (that will have to disappear in post), slightly reflective surface to catch the pattern in the sole, add in all the contextual elements, sporting gear etc, adjust, repeat, adjust. The camera "see's" all of this in a different perspective. Food stylists in particular, are a subset specialist profession all by itself!

Step Two. Choosing the right camera body. We use Canon 5Dmk2’s. These are 21 megapixel, professional grade, full frame 35mm cameras. Lots of digital information, vibrant and accurate colors and extremely low digital noise. Also shoots Hi-Def video with extremely shallow depth of field if the client wants a 1.5 second video pan/pull for a web short. And we have backups in case one fails mid shoot.

Step Three. Choosing the right lens. For sports shooting we’ll use the Canon 400mm f/2.8l to get out to the action. Executive portraits get the 70-200mm f/2.8l or the 24-70mm f/2.8l. Architecture, both interiors and exteriors, usually get the 16-35mm f/2.8l or the 17mm f/4l TSE Tilt Shift lens to correct perspective in camera not in post. For Macro work we’ll use either the MP-E 65mm or the 100mm f/2.8 with extension tubes. Since this is a close in product shot, we’ll use the Tilt Shift lens to “Tilt” the line of focus so the front of the sneaker is just as sharp as the back. Other lenses can’t do this “tilt” making close up focus throughout almost impossible to achieve without it.

Step Four is lighting; we need to wrap around the entire shoe with no deep or false shadows, good solid light, not to bright, not harsh, nice and clean. A light or two of fill to make sure heel and toes have detail. A rim light to separate from the background. Add a reflector here and there to fill any slight shadows and retain details. Add another light to create small highlights on the edges of the soles to create depth and dimension. Another light for a small specular highlight on the logo, very subtle, just enough to emphasize the brand without leading the eye away. Big studio lights or the small speedlights, or a combination of the two? Each have different qualities and characteristics. Did your photographer spend enough on quality equipment to make sure you have consistent color throughout? Color shifts, even subtle, can ruin whole shoots.

Ready to shoot yet? Nope not a chance.

Step Five. Color time. Clients spend untold thousands of dollars in market research to find the exact right colors they feel will appeal to their client base. They want their imagery to look EXACTLY like what they have manufactured. We create custom ICC profiles right into our cameras before every shoot to make sure our colors are 100% accurate and match industry standard color profiles. Why is this important? Dropping your product shot into a white website? Without that color match you’ll have a slight color shift and an off color border. Same thing when taking your product to a magazine. Graphic designers, Printers and Professional Photographers must ALL be on the same ICC page or Rust looks like Brown. And that’s NOT what Clients pay for.

Ready Yet? Nope, still not ready. Time to plug that laptop in with an external monitor.

Step Six. Shooting Tethered. Even fighter pilots can’t see color shifts, highlights, subtle shadows, macro focus issues etc, on a three inch screen in the back of a camera. You need to see these displayed on an external monitor and not just large, but large at 100% magnification. This is only the first step in making sure that everything is heading in the right direction or you’ll find yourself with print posters for superstar autographs only to discover that the tip of the shoe is slightly out of focus. Deal Breaker. Reshoot. Unhappy Client.

Step Seven. NOW you’re ready to shoot. Compose, shoot, test, adjust, compose, shoot, test, adjust, and repeat until perfect. Wait a minute, did we miss something? How is the image going to be used? Web, catalog, poster, cover? Vertical sidebar, wrapped text, floating headline? Graphic design elements, swooshes? Re-Compose; have to give them the right room to work with but not too much or image quality will suffer. Shoot, test, adjust, compose, shoot, test, adjust, and repeat until perfect.

Whew, finished right? Nope not even halfway…

Step Eight. Components. Commercial clients need the ability to separate the pieces in the image. Perhaps the white background will be replaced with the inside of a stadium or a forest running path. Perhaps they want an orange gradient or green or no gradient at all. Soccer ball, no soccer ball. Time to start disassembling and shooting each component separately so it can be combined or disassembled at will for future use in a variety of contexts. Depending on the number of components this multiplies your shot count accordingly.

Step Nine. Image Security. Nope, this isn’t a padlock on your computer. Time to download the images. One copy is already on your laptop synching. One copy is being downloaded into Lightroom from the card. Lightroom catalogs go into internal raid drives which sync to external raid drives which sync to the external rotating drive which goes offsite in case a fire breaks out, while yet another set goes upline to your offsite colocation datacenter. Deadlines don’t care about card failures, read issues, drive failures, corrupted data, i/o errors or natural disasters. If you haven’t created a triple redundant backup system for information management you have placed your client at risk!

Step Ten. Retouching and Delivery Preparation. Time for the magic. This is where the slightest defects are magically repaired. Every image must be perfect. A wrinkle in the rubber, a crease in the leather, touchups on the eyelets. Color goes into Lab Color and back down into sRGB so that the red you see in the image is the same red a person in another country see’s on their monitor, is the same red in front of the PR agency, is the same red on the Clients desk. Sharpening, Unsharpening, Sharpening again and prep. Will this be a ¼ page ad or a poster, or a billboard? Upresolution? Genuine fractals? Or a nice solid, 300 dpi, TIFF at 50mb, whites at no more than 252, blacks at no less than 3 and that is not including the pure white background at 255. Online gallery Client previews to save Client time? Client selections, retouching, Layers intact? Client finals and a separate service to send HUGE files over the internet to remote graphic designers and back. Finally!! A finished piece.

Step Eleven. Client survey. Happy Client? Yes? Perfect! End of shoot and time to go from being a photographer to being a businessman in a photography business. Off goes the Client invoice. While you wait; prep the copies of the releases and permits if any and package the client licensing agreements. Pitch the next gig. Now you’re done!! Good job!

And THAT’s just a standard product shoot.

We signed a Client that day. Not because we may have been better than any other professional shooter but because we involved our Client in the value process. We were able to demonstrate to our Client why they were getting the quality and the value from us that they wouldn’t be able to get from "just anyone with a digital camera". And if you, as the Client, are not getting the same value from other prospective photographers then you have to ask, “What haven’t they provided you in their proposal?”

A prominent photographer in Atlanta recently blogged "Are cheap photographers killing the industry?" His take was that there was a place for budget photography, that it may be ok to shoot for nominal amounts to build a portfolio etc, and not surprisingly he was roundly supported by no small shortage of amateurs, serious hobbyists, and semi-pros. You would expect professional photographers to chime in outraged that someone would shoot a wedding for a paltry 300 us dollars. Didnt happen. The Pros were quiet. Why???

We've already learned that "cheap photographers don't kill the industry; photographers who can't communicate value to their Clients, do."


No comments:

Post a Comment