Art versus Commerce

October 22, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

It's a balancing act.

Art with a capital "A" is created for the pleasure of the artist. Marketing is created to further business goals, and usually only needs art (small "a"). A photographer can certainly be an artist, but commerce pays the bills, so when the clock is running with a dollar sign attached, first the art must meet the needs of the client. If the result is also Art, well that's fine.

The start of a successful photo shoot is a clear understanding of the purpose of the photography, and not just the subject/object but who will use the images, how, and to what ends. This is critcal so the requisite equipment, planning, and post-shoot image processing can be considered before the clicking begins.

Beyond those in-depth requirements, at least the overall intent of the project should also be clear to those your employees/contractors who will be supporting the project, from any requisite management to the people in the images or opening the doors, operating the equipment, cleaning the parts, or even just staying out of the way. If any or many of those who will be impacted by, or contribute to, the photo shoot are unaware of or, worse, resistant to what could be an intrusion, at the least they might be an impediment to the achievement of the goals.

Sikorsky Aerospace Maintenance

The great thing is, most people will not only cooperate if they understand the goals, they often have solid suggestions that improve the efficiency and the quality of the end results. Few are those that will actively hamper progress — if they understand the goals and their role. 

Most professional photographers have experience with contributors who are less than contributing, but the shooter has little power, and time spent explaining, justifying, and cajoling is time spent not getting the goods. Since everyone is on the same clock, wasted time is wasted money. That's why it's in everyone's interest, before a camera shows up, for the marketer to assure the need for the photography, and management's support for the project, is clear to all.

Then, when possible, it's still good for someone from marketing to be present for the shoot. Both as a representative of the company with some power to make things happen, but also to answer questions that undoubtably arise during the shoot. Questions that address unseen issues, sure, but also unanticipated opportunities. The good photographer is always looking for just the right something, and to make sure that something is actually useful and valuable, not just pretty, a marketer can judge and keep the shoot on track.

What you and the photographer should know

As mentioned above, the need to understand who will use the photos, how, and to what ends is important for a successful project. Some further explanation is probably in order.

In my experience as a designer, the number one shortcoming of photographic files I receive from clients is a lack of pixels. Either the camera did not capture a sufficiently large number or the marketer has access to only a reduced-resolution version. Either way, at best a computer enlargement of the file might suffice, though never with as much quality in the image details as could have been or, at worst, the image is unusable. So, number one on the list of details to understand, for yourself and to share with the photographer, is at what physical dimensions will the image be used, in what medium. 

Full-page print ad? That's one requirement. A large image on the web? That's a different, usually easier, requirement. An image that will span a 10-foot back panel at a trade show? Now, that's a whole other level of requirement. No single-frame image yields a file that fills such an area, so very-high-resolution cameras are the norm for those projects, and the techniques while shooting, as well as when post-processing, all have to be stepped up. Any sloppiness in exposure or sharpness will be magnified when it is 120 inches across!

Will you need detail images of the product or process or environment? Will the images support an annual report? Magazine cover? Press release? Do you or your company have a style guide for photography? If so, make sure the photographer is aware of it. 

Some prefer to not show employees' faces, either to avoid appearances of favoritism, apparently, but also the dreaded, "they don't work here anymore." I have dealt with many images showing recognizable employees doing their job only for the marketer to learn a week, a month, a year later that the employee has subsequently left the company and now they deem the image unusable. Make sure you consider this if appropriate. (You should also be aware if your company has an explicit release clause in your employee contracts that allows the use of their image — if your company does not, or you are not sure, a model release is a good idea.)

Sikorsky Aerospace Maintenance

With all thesel technical constraints and personnel considerations, plus safety issues for the photographer and your employees (make sure any employees shown working are properly attired, including OSHA-required safety items), somehow the photographer needs to also make art, at least with a little "a." That's where you need to be clear with them about not just the object or process you are needing captured in pixels, but the level of energy that needs to come through (which can be "a lot," but can also be "calm, controlled"). How much color (again, from a lot to a little, or perhaps signature colors). A trademark look, like high contrast, soft focus, in-your-face, factual, clinical, etc. etc.

If you have samples of other company work that needs to be matched, share it. If you have clippings or bookmarked web sites that have what you're seeking, share those too. Give as much guidance as you can, so you can expect as much great imagery as you need. Ask questions. Expect questions. Some photographers want to act like a lone wolf. The best ones want to solve your problems and give you what you need, and they know that means dialogue.

I, for one, look for the extra boost of energy that can apear in the image when a new angle, a new scene, a new process, is recognized and pursued. Sometimes, that's when the Art with the capital A happens. But, as I keep coming back to, I'm being paid to support business goals, not create a masterpiece. (And, again, if I do both, fine.) The reality of people having good ideas, if they understand the goals? That applies to the photographer too.

To summarize, the best advice, for the good of the project, is to involve the photographer early, be clear with all parties what the goals and end products are (and the resources available to achieve them), be available to assure the efficiency and the focus of the effort, and expect the best of everyone involved. Put in the time and effort now, and the result, as I have said, will pay for itself time and time again.

Notes on these photos

The project involved visiting several locations across the country to photograph the client's personnel active in their professions, all revolving around aerospace maintenance. These images, in particular, reflect opportunities that presented themselves only after spending time in the location. The upper image was captured by poking my camera through an access panel into a small space inside an aircraft. From the outside there was almost no indication that work was under way, and inside it was tight and hot. That's why they choose a maintainer who is younger and slimmer than most — the entrance is also an access panel; bigger than the one my camera is poking through, but not by much.

The lower image shares the great personality of this line mechanic. He is not alone in showing enthusiasm while sending off a pilot in their now-ready steed, and he is not alone in having a unique style. One challenge was working on the ground around operating jet aircraft. The other was capturing these gestures in the fleeting time they are exhibited.

In both cases, the mandate from the client was clear and, fortunately, it wasn't restrictive — show our people working.


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Photography is a massive field. Aerospace photography less so. In these writings I share stories and tips.
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