What do scantly clad women in sexy lingerie and driven self-made online entrepreneurs have in common? I recently found out, and believe me when I tell you it has NOTHING to do with a triple-X website extension, and has a ton to do with confidence, great angles and some insanely awesome website photography.
Let’s back-up a bit…
Having worked with dozens of awesome entrepreneurs over the past few years, one constant has popped up over and over, and continues to be a nagging subject for anyone looking to build a fresh professional or personal brand, and incorporate it into a great looking online presence: photography.
I know all too well how a gorgeous website design and awesome branding can get totally killed with craptastic photos. We’ve all seen the sites – the message seems tight, the branding looks polished, but there’s just something you can’t put your finger on that feels wrong. Everything should work, but it’s just… off. Then you realize what it is – it’s the splash image that your sister’s best friend who just got a new DSLR for her birthday took of you sitting on a picnic blanket. It’s totally out of context, looking not quite engaged, and in a setting that has absolutely nothing to do with your brand, services or message. It’s sticking out like a great big sore thumb, and like it or not, it’s stripping away the credibility that you worked so hard to build, without anyone really noticing.
As a designer, I’ve found myself having to work with some pretty terrible photos over the years, and the reality is, as much as photoshop can do, it can’t work miracles, and the time spent trying to make bad pictures work, could be better spent planning a thought-out photography session with a professional that can take your brand to new levels. I’ve also worked with a number of amazing entrepreneurs who have spent double the money going back to the drawing board and starting from scratch because they hired the wrong photographer, or took the most convenient option in the beginning only to have to go back, start from scratch and re-do the whole thing, making the whole process cost twice as much as it should have, and set them a month behind schedule than if only they had done their research in the beginning.
Flash ahead to this past month, and I’m now on the other side of the situation. Seven whopping months pregnant, and needing to hustle my buns off to get everything in order for the coming new year, I needed new photos for my own website and branded materials, and not only did I need them to be on brand and look awesome, I needed to not look pregnant (because, hello! When these photos are ready to be used in my marketing materials, I won’t be expecting, nor will my materials be targeting mothers-to-be.) Can you say photographic challenge?!
That’s where my own background in photography came in to play, and I did my research to find the perfect photographer who could give me exactly what I needed; and I also learned a number of valuable lessons that can serve to help everyone out there looking for the right photographer for the job.
In my case, I’ve been fairly self-conscious lately given the weight gain, and all the things that come with pregnancy, running a business and taking care of a toddler, so for me, finding someone who could, first and foremost, make me look and feel beautiful was essential. From there, being a branding professional and designer kicked into play, and then I got crystal clear on what I needed from a stylistic perspective, a practical stand point, and a strategic position. Then the search was on.
It was actually a serendipitous moment when a mutual friend connected me with Amy, a classically trained local photographer (with a degree in journalism and photography) who specializes in weddings and boudoir photography. Typically I would have laughed at the idea of working with a boudoir photographer for my corporate ‘head shots’ but as I looked through her portfolio I could see that this woman was not only ridiculously gifted in the art of photography, but she was able to make women look amazing. There was a consistent look of ease and confidence in every single woman she had photographed, and that, my friends, can’t be achieved with a Photoshop action or soft lighting. That comes from being able to connect with the subject, put them at ease, and give them confidence in knowing that they are in good hands. That was exactly what I needed.
I reached out to Amy, had a number of discussions with her about what I was after, what I do, who my audience is, how I hoped to use the photos, and what my expectations were for the shoot and the final product, and it turned out that we were on the same page, and a beautiful business relationship was born!
Over the month that Amy and I prepared for the photoshoot, I took note of a number of tips that I consider essential for finding that perfect photographer who can give a magic touch to your personal branding, website photography and overall image. So, without further ado, here are my Top Tips for hiring the right photographer:
Think outside the box
If you had told me a few months ago that I would be working with a boudoir photographer for corporate photos I would have laughed at you and told you that you were crazy! I looked at A LOT of photographers, and passed on a number of photographers who are personal friends because their style just wasn’t the right fit for what I wanted. But by being open-minded and looking for a photographer who’s style resonated with me, I found my solution in the most unlikely of places.
Nobody wants to get stuck with the typical (ahem, terrible) Real Estate Agent headshots that typically come to mind when you think about corporate photography, so make sure that you are able to clearly explain what you’re after. … and yeah, I’m pretty sure that even real estate agents know how crappy real estate agent photos are!
Ask around your social or professional circles for recommendations and referrals for a great photographer. Look at other business professionals in your region and see if they have great photography and reach out to them to see who they used or would recommend. Everyone loves to share great information, and if you’re digging someone’s photos, they’re going to be complemented and will want to share their great resource with you!
Contact some local graphic design houses or advertising agencies and explain that you’re looking for a great photographer who is able to take photos for personal branding and website. They’ll know what you’re talking about, and there’s a good chance they have a go-to photographer who consistently delivers great work, is versatile, and understands what you’re expectations are as far as delivery of a finished product.
Contact your local newspaper and find out who they use for photography, and see if they moonlight. Trained photo journalists have a unique skill-set that enables them to tell a story with their photos. If you’re looking for an edgy, outside of the box approach to your photos, they might be just the ticket. In my experience, they’re very aware of their surroundings and what they’re doing, and you’d be surprised at the perspective they can bring to a photoshoot.
Same thing goes for local musicians and artists. Have a look around to see if there are any bands or musicians in your area and check out their photos. Is there anything there that jumps out at you? Have they worked with someone who was able to get creative and capture some really great, striking photos? Find out who they worked with and see what they have to offer. They’re usually game for anything, and have lots of ideas themselves on how to get creative with mood and setting.
Look for experience and a solid skill-set
We all know at least one local momtographer who insists that her photos are as good or better than anything else that you would find in the market (and charges premium prices just so that you think they are in the same playing field as the experienced photographer who has earned their stripes in the field) – and in extremely rare cases, they may be right. But in my experience, those are the exceptions, and not the rules. Just because a person has taken a few online courses, taken part in a few seminars on how to ‘rock your camera,’ or has taken part in some local photography intensives does not give them the skill-set to adapt to various settings, compensate for not so ideal lighting, tie in your brand message, and capture your image in a way that connects with YOUR ideal customer. They may have the technical phtography skills down pat, but can often be way off mark when looking at the context of the big picture. And no matter what they tell you, no suite of Adobe PhotoShop action sets will solve those issues. They can also be stuck on trendy settings or gimmicky props – want to take you out in front of a brick wall for your photo shoot? We’ve never seen that before… A field of wheat? are you a baker? What’s the context of the photo’s setting? Those settings might be interesting for cute family photos or engagement shots, but even then, they’re starting to look dated.
If you do find yourself stuck in a situation where the un-classically trained, photographer is your only option, then do your research. Look through their work – look past the pretty faces and high wheat fields, and see if there is a(n) (over)consistency in their style, or if they have a portfolio that is diverse. Do they only shoot outside? Do they insist on shooting indoor photos in the bedroom (if they do, RUN!), what about their lighting? Is it harsh, subtle, do their photos look over-processed or just a tad too Photoshopped (or under Photoshopped?!)? One thing that a lot of untrained photographers jokingly tell customers is that anything can be fixed in post-production. If they tell you that, it’s a clear sign that they aren’t shooting with the finished product in mind, and you’d be better served finding another, more skilled photographer.
If you’re lucky enough to find someone who’s style just blows you away, then chat with them and find out if they’re open to what you’re looking for. You might even be surprised to learn that they’ve worked with other clients for the same kind of work, but haven’t shared much of it because of photo license transfers or because it isn’t a service that resonates with their target customer, so they don’t share it online. You never know! But that said, if you’re dealing with this kind of photographer, you might also want to consider tips #3 and #4.
This isn’t a “Photo Package” kinda gig
If there’s only one thing in the photography industry that makes me twitchy it’s the practice of essentially holding your images hostage. Yes, the photos are the income source for many photographers, and the idea of handing source images over to the client defies every rule they’ve ever been taught about business. You can’t blame them, they need to make a living… but that’s not what you need. If you’re investing in quality personal brand & website photography, you’re going to want more than a 20-shot package, and you’re going to want a full set of usable, high-quality images, and you’re going to need to own them.
Over the years, I’ve worked with countless amazing photographers who were hired to shoot “stock.” That’s what you’re looking for – essentially you’re going to want a combination of “head shots,” set-up photos for various uses, and shots of various props, bits and pieces of interest that you will be able to use for visual content, stock and accent pieces in your branding (we’re going to talk about that in detail in our next post, so stay tuned!) In these cases, the photographer is booked and paid by the hour (although some do this for a rate, and if you can find them – awesome!) Once it’s all done, you get a full set of pro photos, shot, cleaned, prepped, and you have ownership and usage rights to all images, and they are provided in both usable jpeg versions, and raw images files (for design purposes). If your photographer doesn’t want to play by those rules, find a different photographer. End of story.
Most great photographers are familiar with working this way, even though they don’t advertise it – especially if they’ve ever done any amount of commercial work for design or advertising houses (see what I said about contacting ad agencies in tip #1). Typically you can expect to pay anywhere from $75-150 an hour for the photographer’s time, and you can be looking at another $200+ for the image files. But once you have them, they’re yours, and you don’t have to worry that your images will appear on another person’s marketing materials or website.
Look for someone who is open and interested in talking about the big picture (pardon the pun!)
Over all, regardless of who you hire – whether it’s the great Annie Leibovitz (how awesome would THAT be?!) or even the momtographer down the road, one of the most essential keys to a great finished product is an open mind. There are set elements that make up every single photo shoot – after all, it’s basic physics, but on top of that is creativity, imagination and an idea. Find someone who you feel comfortable talking to about what you envision for your brand/website photos, ask for feedback, provide samples of work that inspires you and see if they have additional suggestions. You’ll want to be on the same page, so it’s absolutely essential that you find a photographer who is genuinely interested in looking at the context of the photos themselves, in other words, the big picture. If they’re closed minded and set on a particular style or setting, no matter how many samples you show them, or conversations you have, the end result will be what they specialize in, and you may or may not hit the target that you were aiming for. That’s why communication is absolutely essential.
A photographer who is interested in the context of the shoot will also be open to talking to your website or graphic designer to get an idea of layout style and composition parameters as well. If I had a dollar for every photographer I urged to “leave LOTS of cropping space” in the images to accommodate a horizontal header image layout, or banner image design only to have them come back and say they just couldn’t “let themselves” do it because it went against all the composition rules in the book, well… let’s just say I could have my own photographer on retainer. I get it – they want you to look at their images and feel happy with them, but without understanding the context in which they will be used, they aren’t in a position to say what composition layout will work perfectly, and in the end, how happy will you be with that gorgeous, tight vertical headshot if you end up with an overly-tight shot of your eyes and nose across your banner image because they didn’t leave enough room around the shot to work with the design parameters? Communication and context is key, friends. End of story!
At the end of the day, photography is an investment in your image, and just as you wouldn’t wear cheap, poorly made shoes that will kill your back, or leave your hair colouring to an amateur, you need to invest in a professional who will work with you to see the big picture, give you confidence, and make you look and feel good for the long haul.