Our Creative Academy participants putting their newfound photography skills to good use! (Photo: Elena Fracchia)
Photos are an integral part of marketing. They’re necessary for advertisements, catalogs, websites, and other print and digital materials. They’re essential for social media. Many journalists want companies to provide them with photographs when they write stories.
If you don’t have the budget to hire a photographer – or simply can’t have a photographer on hand to capture every Instagram-worthy moment – how can you take better photographs on your own? Local artists and photographers Tracy Sydor and Rob Sydor with Eugene Commercial Photography presented a Creative Academy workshop on taking high-quality pictures to promote your business.
This was no ordinary photography workshop, though. First of all, there was no emphasis on getting better gear. “We can really get caught up in ‘I don’t have this, I don’t have that,'” Tracy said. “Put all of that away. We all have cameras on our phones.” In most cases a cell phone camera is sufficient for creating good visual content.
She also encouraged participants not worry about having a “bad” eye or bemoan their lack of artistic talent. When creating photographs for social media and other platforms, what’s more important is understanding your target consumer and having a clear message.
“Basically, you’re not needing to be a photographer as much as you’re needing to be a storyteller,” said ABAE board member and Creative Academy facilitator Mitra Gruwell. “Connection and relatability are really what you’re trying to capture, so knowing your audience is very important. Who are you trying to connect to? When you have a picture you’re posting, ask yourself, ‘Is this something these people will want to relate to?'”
In many cases, creating something that will touch your audience’s heart and create a connection with them is more important. That’s because we live in a time when people are disenchanted with the glossy, perfect images they’re accustomed to seeing in traditional advertising.
That being said, there are still a few things non-photographers can do to make their pictures look better and more clearly convey their message. Tracy and Rob boiled their tips down to the five core areas they focus on when creating beautiful images. In addition to storytelling, they discussed subject, props, composition and lighting.
The subject is the focus of your picture. Sometimes content creators are so focused on the subject that they forget to think about what they put in the rest of the photograph. And think about that from the consumer’s perspective. Would you regram a photo of a lonely product set against a plain background? Probably not. That’s why the subject shouldn’t be the only thing you focus on when creating content.
“Ideally the entire photo should be designed and intentional,” said Rob. “It should be obvious what your subject is and what the photos is about, and you should have a clear message. You basically want to start with your subject, and then we’re going to add props to enhance the photo.”
“Props can be added to help translate how something is used,” said Rob. For example, a company that sells dog collars might display their products with a water bowl or dog toy. “That’s easier that finding a dog and a person,” he noted, acknowledging that many workshop participants felt that time was a limiting factor when staging scenes for content photos.
Rob also pulled up a photograph of a leather-bound journal topped with a silver pen. “If I were to look at that photo without the pen – that book could have printed material inside. It could be a journal, it could be a picture book, it could be anything. But because Tracy added the pen, it instantly tells the viewer that this is a journal and captures their attention.”
The journal was set in a relaxing-looking scene with a natural wood table, a cup of tea and other props. “Part of creating a scene like this is being inside of the mind of the people who would buy that,” said Tracy. Think about their lifestyle, their other interests, and what images would appeal to them. Sometimes it takes some guesswork to come up with the proper props, but if you really know your audience, it won’t be that hard.
“Props should complement the subject,” Rob said. “They shouldn’t distract or confuse the photo in any way or block your product. And you should always think about your color scheme.”
There are many composition guidelines photographers can use, but Rob and Tracy discussed the four they most rely on: the rule of thirds; foreground, subject, background; symmetry vs. asymmetry; and color.
Imagine a photograph, then divide it into thirds vertically or horizontally. The rule of thirds dictates that the photo’s subject should be placed in the left or right third of the frame instead of the center. A lot of cameras (including cell phone cameras) come with the ability to put the image of a grid on your screen, which can make lining up shots easier.
Foreground, subject, background helps tell a story by focusing on images in the front, center and back part of a picture, not just the subject. Rob showed an image of a woman holding a leather handbag in front of her. She was standing in front of a blue car on a deserted road. “You have the bag, which is what we’re trying to sell, but we want the foreground to help tell our story if possible.”
Regarding symmetry and asymmetry, Rob said, “Basically what that means is, is everything all lined up and equal on all sides? That’s symmetry. Or is everything asymmetrical or not lined up?”
Besides setting up your subject and props in a symmetrical or asymmetrical manner, the angle of the camera or the images in the picture can also alter the picture’s impression. “You want to experiment with different perspectives and angles,” Rob said. “If you tilt your camera it can create tension and movement.”
Color is another critically important thing to think about when staging a photograph. “When I’m creating, especially for the internet and online, my goal is to instantly connect with whoever it is that’s looking at that picture,” Tracy said. “It doesn’t matter what the picture is, I want to catch their eye. How I do that most oftentimes is through color.”
Color is a powerful tool that can evoke emotion, get people to take action, or turn off shoppers and lead them to swipe past you. Different color palettes, such as monochromatic, contrasting or complementary colors, can also make a big impression, both positive and negative.
Anytime they’re planning a photo shoot, Tracy and Rob pull out this color wheel to help them determine the best colors and color schemes to use. In addition to showing the traditional color wheel, it makes it very easy to pick out colors that go well together by showing contrasting, triadic and other color palettes in the margin.
Rob provided another tip for photo composition that’s more specific to marketers and advertisers: “When you’re thinking about the background of the photo, you need to keep in mind whether you need to put copy on the picture. Are you going to put words over the picture? Or do you want to have a nice background with a lot of detail that helps tell the story and shows someone in a certain scene?”
One final piece of advice: “Don’t be afraid to break the rules. Learn all of the rules and then break them,” Rob said. If you experiment enough it’s sure to lead to some interesting and exciting pictures for your followers.
Lighting can make or break a picture, so it’s vital to pay attention to it every time you line up a shot. “You always want to be aware of your surroundings,” Rob said. “You want to use lighting creatively when you can. Let the lighting inspire you. A lot of times we’ll see a patch of light coming down an alleyway or a puddle of light over here or some cool shadows coming through a banister and we’ll use that.”
Again, don’t feel like you have to have fancy lighting equipment to make a picture turn out beautifully. The first type of lighting Rob and Tracy often use is natural lighting. “No gear is needed for this type of lighting because it comes from the sun,” Rob said. “Cloudy days are my favorite time to shoot because the clouds act like a soft box. When the sun is shining through the clouds you get this beautiful, soft, diffuse light.” The hour after sunrise and before sunset are also great times to take pictures outdoors because the light will be less harsh.
Rob and Tracy often avail themselves to what they call available lighting. “That’s the lighting that’s around you or available to you during your photo shoot,” he said. “Work lamps, single-light light bulbs, candles… Tracy and I have used our cell phone flashlights at a restaurant and shone the flashlight through a napkin to create a little puddle of light.” When only bright light is available, they can soften it by bouncing it off a piece of foam board or other white object.
The other option is to bring your own lighting. For people who want to learn more about lighting a scene, Rob highly recommends the free Lighting 101 workshop on Strobist.com.
With the holidays coming up, Tracy encouraged businesses to consider using Christmas tree lights or other string lights in their photographs. They instantly convey a message and get an emotional response from viewers.
“Lighting is something that heavily evokes emotion,” Mitra added. “It can really help you connect with consumers and bring that emotion into the picture.”
With all this talk of lighting, don’t forget that shadows can also be used to draw a response – both positive and negative – from customers. Use that and all of these tricks to your advantage when creating for your audience.
Tracy and Rob Sydor