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Selling products by telling stories

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BY JESS MCGLOTHLIN

Put 10 photographers in a room. Toss a technical jacket into the middle of the group and ask each professional how they would photograph it. Give the parameters of an assignment, give a ballpark and see what happens.

You’ll get 10 very different creative solutions.

Any time a client approaches me with product to be photographed, my first response is a simple question: What feeling(s) are you trying to convey? Are we going for elegance, simplicity, a high-tech vibe or something that says hardcore? Give me some “vibe” keywords.

The best products will come with a “feeling” already, but even then it pays to discuss intention. The client may be looking to reposition. No matter the scope of the project, the client and I both need to set a tone, preferably in the first conversation.

As with any creative undertaking, communication is key and it’s all too easy for things to get lost in translation. My idea of authentic outdoors might be wildly different from the client’s. For larger projects I’ll often ask for pre-pro images — I request the client page through my website and find shots similar to what they have in mind. It’s a good way to drive the client to my site and, if they are not already, to familiarize them with how I shoot. Often this is the most important step to generating a good conversation and helping steer the client to an end result with which we are both happy.

Next we’ll talk the technical points: What product? How much product? Are we looking for still life selling shots, on-model shots, or a combination? Eventually this conversation leads to a shot list, whether generated by me or by the client. A shot list is a must — this general outline of images to be taken ensures both the client and I are on the same page. And while the best shots often (in fact, almost always) happen in the spur of the moment, I maintain my sanity throughout a shoot if I have a master list of expected images I can work against.

On a multi-day shoot, after uploading and reviewing images, I’ll go through and physically tick off shots, ensuring we’ve captured what was planned for the day. This process is especially critical on long, high-energy, multi-day shoots — it’s amazing how the lack of sleep that always occurs on location saps brain power, and the shot list ensures nothing goes undone.

Now, for authenticity. That’s a word we hear tossed around a lot these days. It’s a buzzword and a term commercial photographers forever struggle with. How do we adhere to a shot list while ensuring the shots don’t look canned? We’ve all grimaced at the images of models who have obviously never held a fish before warily grinning at the camera and looking like they don’t quite know what to do with the slimy thing in their hands. In this world of Instagram-famous models who can selectively display certain moments in lieu of others, it’s incumbent upon the photographer to ensure their models are savvy. Yes, sometimes a client has a model in mind who photographs well but doesn’t really know how to do what they are being asked to it. It happens, and it makes a shoot far more challenging.It’s our job as the photographer to capture images of the pseudo-model looking like he or she knows what they are doing. This means selective, creative framing and shooting — not ideal under any circumstances.

If possible, I ask for the ability to find my own models, or to at least have a say in who I have on the shoot. This helps in two ways: I can select individuals who are strong performers in their given sport like fly fishermen who can throw a nice loop or backpackers who know how to properly load their kit, and I can choose people who will be easy to work with. A commercial shoot often means long hours in cramped spaces. Folks get tired, uncomfortable, hot, cold, sunburned, bruised and if I have athlete models who can carry their own weight, who are outdoorsy enough to know how to watch for bears and rig their own rods and how to pack in their gear, it lets me focus on capturing images and not worrying about my people landing in the hospital.

Authenticity — or the lack thereof — shows in images.

While on ideal shoot your models will also be your team mates, you’ll still need a good photo assistant. Whether they are wrangling models, running to grab food from the nearest coffee shop, or helping bounce and diffuse light, having someone savvy at your side is another ingredient for success. While most of my shoots are done solo, on larger commercial shoots I’ve brought an assistant on board. I value a good, can-do attitude over photography knowledge, and if you can find someone with a combination of the two, your job is going to be far easier. A good assistant will be a morale booster, technical aide, Sherpa, gear rigger and a million other things. Don’t undervalue the ability to have a spare set of hands nearby and ready to help.

Lastly, gain inspiration from other photographers, but don’t try to emulate style. Clients — commercial and editorial alike — are drawn to a certain look. The single best thing you can do as a professional photographer is to find your niche; find a cohesive look that can carry through all of your imagery. Some folks won’t like it. That’s okay; they weren’t meant to be your clients anyway. Stay true to whatever style you’ve found in your work — attempting to create something that doesn’t come naturally never has good results. Keep open communication with your client and your team members. Plan ahead but realize things can — and will — go wrong. Understand that you’re telling a story, not selling a product. And go shoot. ♦

– Jess McGlothlin (www.JessMcGlothlinMedia.com) is a freelance writer and photographer, currently based in Bozeman, Montana.
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