THE HUMAN ANGLE: The right props and a good location can turn a boring
shot into a news-grabbing image
DIGITISED IMAGES: The new generation of databases brings instant access
to vast numbers of images
PRODUCT SHOTS: Using lateral thinking to make a product picture sexy
enough to appeal to picture editors
When you’re faced with a difficult subject, creative photography could
be just what you need to spice it up.
Picture this: you are launching a new software package and need to
commission some product photography. The challenge could just as well be
publicity pictures for double-glazing, a new brand of acne treatment or
the construction of a motorway bypass.
Whatever the subject, by following a few rules practised by the
professionals, it is possible to use photography to jazz up subjects
which would never otherwise see the light of day in print form, purely
on the basis of a press release.
‘The golden rule is to forget what the client wants,’ says Alun John,
commercial director of News Team International and speaker at The
Henshall Centre’s photography and public relations course.
‘The PR executive may worry that the client’s product is not clearly in
shot or his portrait does not portray him in the best light, but
frankly, it only matters what the picture editor thinks.’
John’s advice for spicing up a potentially dull photograph is to think
round the shot and ignore the temptation to go for the most obvious
option. Most importantly, though, is the human element. With product
shots, this means considering how the central subject of the photograph
‘At home, our piano gives us a lot of pleasure but we never sit around
and look at it - it’s the human element, the enjoyment which it produces
that is interesting,’ says John.
To illustrate his point, John talks about a hypothetical request to
photograph a new computer software package. ‘Instead of having someone
sitting at a computer screen, you have to think what the product
actually does. If a company has written a programme which controls the
traffic lights in Oxford Street, then get the client to sit on a traffic
island with his lap top’, says John.
‘If your brief is to publicise a new train service from Birmingham to
Wolverhampton, don’t take a picture of the train. Look for the early
morning shopper on her way back from Birmingham or a couple using the
service to get home from a concert in the evening.’
The humanising element also needs to be applied to portrait photography.
A head and shoulders shot of the client may be the easy option but a
photograph which reflects his personality or line of work will produce a
more striking image - whether the results are intended to gain coverage
in the business press or fill a company brochure.
Injecting personality can be achieved by using props, placing subjects
in their work surroundings or, if they have a powerful or interesting
face, going in close.
But producing an eye-catching shot involves trusting the photographer’s
judgement, something the public relations industry is reluctant to do,
as photographer Grant Smith found out when he was commissioned to take a
portrait photograph of an executive of a roads maintenance company. ‘I
suggested we took the picture outside in a road but the subject insisted
on being photographed in the office so I bought along a toy car and put
it in his top pocket. The effect was subtle, but interesting but the PR
persuaded him it was a bad idea and in the end he agreed,’ says Smith.
There is a tendency in the PR industry to go for what John calls the
‘Casablanca’ option, referring to the phrase ‘round up the usual
suspects’ from the film.
Photographers blame this predictability on the PR industry’s inherent
lack of aesthetic understanding, in comparison with advertising agencies
whose art directors are paid to understand and appreciate the need for
‘Public relations should be the ultimate market-driven business but most
PR people don’t understand the picture market,’ says John.
‘Done creatively, photography can be a very successful part of a
campaign but, while events take months to plan, photography is often
left until the last minute.’
Timing can mean the difference between producing an average and an eye-
catching image. A lack of understanding of how long it takes to deliver
quality pictures - encouraged by the advent of one-hour processing
laboratories, has resulted in a recipe for mediocrity, according to
photographer Rick Cordell.
‘I once arrived to take a picture of a client, only to be told I had
three minutes to do the job. The film was then rushed to a one-hour
developer. It was devastating as the potential to create a wonderful
picture was there but PR people don’t realise that good photography
takes time,’ he says.
Cordell believes that, in an industry which rates print journalists much
higher than photographers, the whole art of photography is seriously
undervalued and undersold to clients. But, when he is given leeway to
experiment, says Cordell, the results always go down well.
‘Everyone pussyfoots around the client, not wanting to upset them, but
if you do something interesting and people see a good photograph you can
almost feel them thinking ‘why don’t you do more like this?’,’ says
Photographers acknowledge there is a thin line between what makes an
interesting or humorous photograph and a shot which will embarrass the
As Smith says: ‘There is no mileage in taking the mickey in this
business, but a head and shoulders photograph looks dull. Picture
editors don’t want them because it shows a lack of imagination. However,
we all know that strong pictures sell a story.’
Case study: BT encourages people to spend a penny
The challenge: to produce a photograph publicising British Telecom’s
poster advertising campaign for the company’s new penny-a-minute rate
for local weekend calls. The picture had to be geared towards the
marketing press and BT’s in-house magazine.
Solution: BT wanted to promote the marketing story behind the penny-a-
minute pricing initiative and briefed a photographer to shoot its new
billboard advertisements. John Packington, photographer for BT’s PR
agency Band and Brown, met with BT’s advertising agency Abbot Mead
Vickers to get permission to shoot the board. But when he arrived at
the site he decided that there was little point in photographing a
billboard that everyone could see.
‘We saw there were pennies on the board so we decided to pay a visit to
the penny factory and ended up getting sign maker Stephen Lamaq to
pretend he was spraying the giant pennies.’ The poster in the background
is an IBM advert which Packington added to give colour.
Verdict: the final result was a striking and colourful picture with
human interest. ‘The image was wonderful,’ enthused BT’s communications
manager, Kate Fletcher. ‘The photography provides us with a great
opportunity to maximise and extend coverage.’
Case study: Jubilee creates opportunities in confined spaces
The challenge: to bring to life progress made in the last two years on
the construction of the Jubilee Line extension for a feature scheduledto
appear in New Civil Engineer magazine.
‘The Jubilee Line extension is the biggest construction project in the
UK but because the work is taking place in such a confined space it just
isn’t appropriate to have a whole horde of journalists and photographers
down in the tunnel,’ says the Jubilee Line extension media relations
manager Jan Critchley. ‘However, we needed photography to explain
complicated construction activity.’
The solution: the photograph above, which features the extension’s
project manager Hugh Doherty, was taken by Grant Smith. Smith has been
specialising in industrial photography for 15 years and is used to
shooting pictures of subjects ranging from tarmac and the Sizewell B
power station to the Heathrow tunnel.
Grant suggested shooting Doherty in an empty tunnel, but both he and
Critchley were reluctant about the choice of location which was away
from the main construction activity.
‘Difficulties can arise when the shot is not ideal for the subject but
we had a brief discussion and Grant explained his reasons for wanting
the shot in that location,’ said Critchley.
Verdict: ‘We were all happy with the results,’ said Critchley. ‘We use
photography extensively to bring to life what people would otherwise
never see and regularly send photographs to the construction press for
Case study: Colgate cleans up
The challenge: to create a product shot to be used to promote Colgate’s
sponsorship of Elite model agency’s Look of the Year competition with
the wider aim of getting journalists in the health and beauty media to
write about toothpaste.
‘This must have been one of the most difficult briefs we have ever been
faced with,’ said Martin Thomas, a director at Colgate’s PR agency Cohn
‘A tube of toothpaste is not the most exciting image but our objective
was to get consumers and journalists to take the subject seriously.’
Solution: Cohn and Wolfe discussed ideas with still life fashion
photographer Graeme Montgomery who works for GQ and Elle magazines. The
brief was to create an exciting image that would appeal to the fashion
press, while conveying the idea of freshness.
‘Companies usually worry about whether the logo is clear enough but
Colgate were less precious about it being distorted in the water.’ says
Montgomery. ‘Magazines are reluctant to use traditional pack shots,
preferring to publish one which looks as if it has been commissioned.’
Verdict: the image was used on all publicity material and brochures for
the Elite show in which models wore platinum dresses. It was also used
in an advertorial in Vogue, Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan.