Listen to Your Clients: They Have Good Ideas Too

Being creative and finding the perfect shot is the photographer’s job. Period. When you accept a job, you also accept the responsibility for taking ordinary situations and turning them into something amazing. This is why the client has hired you and this is why you charge the rates that you do – because not everyone can do this. Therefore, you, as photographer are the master of the universe and all creative decisions that you haven’t thought up yourself are crap.

Right?

Um, not so much. As a commercial and editorial photographer, my vision is only part of the story. The client’s creativity and vision are just as valuable as mine. Collaboration is key, particularly when you are lucky enough to work with really creative people.

Each month I make a photograph of the publisher of Feast magazine, Catherine Neville, which is run with the publisher’s letter at the beginning of each issue. For a number of issues we did simple, fashion-style studio portraits. Recently however, the creative team at Feast decided to give contextual portraits a try. The idea was to make a portrait of Cat in an environment that could tie into the content of the issue. In the case of the October 2012 issue, this meant a portrait focused around beer.

Cat and I decided to do the portrait at Civil Life Brewing Company. Civil Life brews some really excellent beers and has a great pub style bar in a nondescript building in South City, St. Louis. Inside it is all dark wood, row upon row of glassware, family-style seating and a quaint balcony area. It is everything that a pub is supposed to be: dark, cozy, warm and inviting. Perfect for a pint of British Bitter on a cold and rainy day. All that dark wood with few windows posed a tricky lighting challenge though.

Our original idea was to photograph Cat standing at the bar from the balcony area. Unfortunately the angle from the high balcony was too severe to get a flattering shot of Cat, so we regrouped. After trying a number of ideas, angles and shots, I made a portrait of her from the ground floor in front of the bar. The rows of different types of beer glasses and growlers in the background added some great texture and the results were quite nice.

Catherine Neville, Publisher of Feast Magazine

Sometimes even really nice photographs just aren’t exactly what the client is looking for.

Were the bar photographs bad? Nope. Could we have stopped at this point and been happy? Probably. I really like this portrait, I may even use one in my portfolio. But the real question is: does this photograph illustrate the story that it is meant to tell? In this case, Cat and I felt it was lacking something. Perhaps it was a little too formal, a little too “lit”. Sure, she’s in a bar, but the portrait is all about her and doesn’t make the viewer curious about beer or about the bar. What we were looking for was something a little more natural, a little more fun – a portrait that would make someone flipping through the magazine stop and read the article.

Time for plan B … only we didn’t really have a plan B. We’d pretty much tapped out our options in the pub and just weren’t finding that intangible quality that we were looking for. Time to look further afield. In addition to the pub, Civil Life has an outdoor biergarten. It’s a very simple space filled with picnic tables where you can have a beer outside on a warm St. Louis evening. It’s quite nice, but sparse and functional. Read: not very photogenic.

When you’re hanging out in the biergarten, you can order beer through these tiny little service windows cut into the side of the building directly into the bar. When Cat suggested that I photograph her through one of these windows I was immediately skeptical. Not only are the windows tiny, but it was almost noon on a clear day. This meant blazing sun on the outside and near darkness on the inside.

I could have pulled photograph rank. I could have convinced her that our indoor shot was just fine, that a shot through the window wouldn’t work out, and that we should just go with what we had in the can. But that’s not how I choose to work as a photographer. This is a situation where putting aside your ego and being open to your client’s ideas is key. The client had an idea, and I was smart enough to listen to her.

I went outside and Cat tucked herself through the window with a big glass of beer. The outside ambient light was bright and getting brighter by the second. The noontime sun was hidden, just barely blocked by the roof of the building. This kept the window and Cat in the shade. If I hadn’t made the decision quickly to try Cat’s idea, we wouldn’t have gotten the shot. A few minutes later and the sun would have moved past the edge of the roof and directly into my lens. I quickly threw up a reflector to bounce a little light back into Cat’s face and started shooting. The whole thing took less than five minutes.

The resulting portrait had all of the qualities that we were looking for – it is simple, fun and full of natural light. The uniqueness of the service window and the chalkboard with the beer list added visual interest and context that the more formal portrait just didn’t quite capture. The photograph makes you think about the location and space … not just a beautiful portrait of Cat in some random bar. It is an inviting portrait that makes you want to learn more.

The point is, when you collaborate with your client to come up with ideas, everybody wins. You get to make great photographs and the client is happy. This doesn’t, however, mean that you should override your professional judgement when it comes to collaborating with your clients. There are always clients out there who will want you to photograph their band in front of a brick wall or naked wearing only a John Deere sign. Collaborating with your clients also means gently steering them away from photographs that are boring, overdone and just plain bad.

Keep your ears and your mind open, and listen to your clients. They have good ideas too.

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