The Hard Truth: What Photographers Want In A Designer/Art Director
Most designers or art directors will work with a photographer at some point in their career. While having multiple creative minds working at once on a project like a photo shoot, it can be difficult to coordinate ideas in the most productive way. We decided to take all the mystery out of what a photographer wants from an Art Director, and how we can make a shoot the most successful for both parties (and the client, of course). We decided to interview our photographer friend Keith Brofsky (click here to view his website) to give us the real scoop (he assured us all the bad stuff doesn’t reflect working with Jennergy, of course) Here are some great answers and tips for collaborating and how to work best with a photographer.
Jennergy: How can an art director or designer prepare for a shoot so it’s helpful for you?
Keith: Well, let’s face it; besides a great visual concept, there are all those pesky logistics that need doing. It’s like cooking a great meal … someone’s gotta go to the grocery store and pick up the ingredients so the chef can start cooking. There’s no doubt a well planned shoot with cooperative, photogenic subjects and access to awesome locations is key. Once those are lined up, I think most photographers just crave a little space to explore and do what they do best — make photos.
Jennergy: What can we do to make things better? What is an ideal situation?
Keith: Again, great locations and subjects are essential. Too often I’m asked to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Don’t get me wrong I pride myself in being able to create something out of nothing, but what’s even better is being able to shoot in a dynamic, interesting place with intriguing photogenic subjects who cooperate and participate. Then it’s a whole different experience. It’s downright elating and thrilling.
Jennergy: What are your likes and dislikes in a designer or Art Director? What do you look for in this person?
Keith: Like all things in life, the key word is balance. I appreciate the collaborative effort that a good AD can bring. It’s fun and even comforting to have another great eye for design present. I don’t get egotistical about it — it is a team effort after all. But at the same time, it’s important to allow the photographer a moment to see, to think, to grapple with the visual and technical challenges, and to come up with solutions. It may not be instantaneous, although an experienced photographer will often hone in on the best shots quickly. Still, being a bit patient is always good. Creating great photographs on demand is like walking onto a stage and being asked to improvise. It can feel like a pressure cooker if the client and/or AD is stressed, anxious and hyped up.
Jennergy: Ideally, who should be art directing, really? Photographer or AD?
Keith: I think that no matter how experienced an AD is, they’re not thinking through all the variables we photographers are dealing with on every shoot: angles, composition, expressions, personalities, exposure, mood, feeling and light. Heck, exposure alone is a complex set of technical and creative decisions in and of itself. We’re often balancing different light sources, like strobe and ambient, through exposure settings. Most AD’s have no clue what we’re dealing with on the camera.
Then there’s lighting … it is such a nuanced and vital part, yet it’s often overlooked or assumed, by AD’s. At times, it appears they think it happens by accident, when in reality, photographers spend their lives thinking about it. What makes it work best, how does it contribute or detract from the shot, how to control it, enhance it, etc. It’s like trying to harness the wind … its an elusive art. It’s almost spiritual to a photographer who’s spent their life aware of light. Allow photographers time to focus on it for it’s the very heart and soul of great photography.
Jennergy: What are your biggest pet peeves in an Art Director?
Keith: This business can often be very hyped. I suppose that comes from having people with a lot at stake, trying to delegate a somewhat intangible thing like a mood or feeling, to a photographer whom they have to trust to translate it visually.
This is often what happens on a shoot. The AD and client present can often be nervous and anxious. They have the urge to do something! So, they immediately hone in on something that is peripheral and a minor detail; the subject’s clothes or hair, or the props, etc. Yes, those need addressing, but ideally, the AD would help the photographer (either with suggestions or by hanging back) with the broader challenges: light, composition, and angles. Then the smaller details can be addressed — otherwise, it’s like a mosquito in your ear while you’re trying to think!
Jennergy: What are some of the best ways to make a shoot successful?
Keith: Creativity can feel downright illusive at times. It’s almost spiritual for me … like I’m tapping into the ether to find the magic. I’m often trying to pull together all the elements even though they’re not cooperating.
We hear this description from the great song-writers of our time; how they feel like a conduit for something that’s bigger than themselves. But I bet they usually don’t have a team breathing down their neck, eyeing their watches while they get into “the zone”. This part of creating photography is not so easily controllable. It’s a leap of faith. It requires courage, time and space to name just a few of the emotions involved.
Jennergy: How can we make a shoot go smoothly?
Keith: Just be aware of the photographer’s perspective and just how much is going through their minds while you collaborate. Maybe even deflect distractions. Create a safe zone for the photographer. That would be a great help. Creativity needn’t be stressful if you’ve hired an experienced, accomplished photographer. We know how to get the shot. We just need everyone to remain calm and positive! So help nurture an atmosphere of lightness of being, and let the photographer have fun! Let him breath!
Jennergy: The aftermath: how can a designer help post production go smoothly?
Keith: Many AD’s and clients are completely in the dark about what goes into the post work. Editing is also an art — we have to put on an objective eye about our own results, knowing what to keep and what to toss. Then we have to get into the nitty-gritty of the images; how can we make them even better? We have so many more controls than we used to have. We’re now the lab and the retouch artist. It’s extremely time-consuming and tedious going through what can be as many as 700 — 1000 digital files from a day of shooting. The images don’t just come out of the camera ready to go. They’re essentially raw images needing adjustments to contrast, color, saturation, tone, sharpening, retouching, cropping and on and on. It’s a very deep well. Multiply that by hundreds or thousands of images and it’s a lot to deal with. It takes time.
I’ve basically created a work-flow that “batch-processes” first to give an overall enhancement. Then I ask my clients to choose their favorite images which can receive even more attention and creative touches. AD’s should be aware there’s a myriad of options that should be considered. It’s no longer considered prior to the shoot like it used to be … B&W or color film? Now the options, styles and affects are vast. It’s a shame to overlook them.
Jennergy: What industry makes the best client?
Keith: That’s the million-dollar-question! It’s also a subjective one. I suppose the best industries are those that appreciate the power of the medium when it’s done by a person who’s devoted their life to their craft. And, they’re willing to pay what that deserves.
In a time when most images are fleeting on a website, it seems the importance of a great image is less appreciated. That’s reflected in the price of stock photography. It’s become a commodity, easily found and attained with a mere click of one’s mouse. It’s also reflected in the style that’s popular right now — snapshots.
I appreciate clients that think conceptually and who commission me to capture a concept, a story, a feeling, and a mood. That’s rare. It takes courage and vision on the part of a client and AD. It could apply to any client, regardless the industry type. I just did ads, both still and motion, for a funeral company and it was surprisingly interesting and fulfilling. The scene in a cemetery, and the whole experience was really powerful and moving. That’s what a photographer craves most.
But that said, a conceptual shoot in a tropical paradise, with (live) great models would no doubt be a great industry!
So, there you have it: the raw truth from the horse’s mouth. Hopefully our little interview with photographer extraordinaire Keith Brofsky has been as enlightening and helpful for you as it was for us! In the words of the G.I. Joe public service announcements from the 80’s, “knowing is half the battle.”