New York City fashion photographer Philippe Rohdewald reflects on the dealings between clients and photographers on low budget shoots.
It’s not like I have been asked to exchange a girl’s face all that often in my eight-year career. And it’s not like it is technically impossible or even all that hard. However this particular question reflects the dilemmas clients have to face when the folks upstairs refuse to drop cash for art directors and let the sometimes less focused employees take over that role. While photographers have to make this happen. Misunderstandings, unfair deals on either side and disputes can potentially erupt.
Luckily I’ve been blessed for the vast majority with people who are friendly, competent, knowledgeable or at the very least communicate well about what they need, when they need it and how they need it. But about when they don’t? Or what if the photographer is new to his own industry and lacks experience as to how to deal with such a situation?
That sort of situation can start with something as mundane as vocabulary. I can’t tell you how many times I been left with an utter look of confusion on my face when a client uses the word “edit” instead of “retouching”. Even an early 21st century newbie like “photoshopping” does the trick. To explain to the debutantes here: “Edit” to your average photographer means to eliminate images within a larger batch of photos. “Retouching” is the task of making the shot look better or different than physically possible at the time of the shoot. This can mean add reflections to the sunglasses you’re shooting, removing the scratches from the gold cuff, slimming the model down or making her float in space in a bikini.
Language. It is important that both parties involved speak a language you both understand. I’m not being sarcastic here; I mean you both really need to be speaking a language you both speak. The hardest job I’ve ever had to execute involved a Brazilian art director (AD) who spoke Portuguese as well as Italian beautifully. Unfortunately my fluent German, French and English were not helping me here. Nor did the few tidbits of Russian that I acquired to direct the occasional fourteen-year-old Russian waif from Vladivostok. The art director’s left hand, who also was the voice of reason, acted as translator whenever the client who brought the AD on board in the first place wasn’t available. Mind you that, despite his lack of knowledge of the English language the AD was and still is New York City based. Ironically the client’s company name was “Language”, which was at the time a successful high-end fashion retailer with a Soho flagship store and their own award winning women’s wear line.
Sometimes there are situations where words can’t express what you see. I don’t mean mystical experiences of any sort. Instead you might be staring at your computer screen at your office and look at the results your photographer has submitted to you. You may find that the coral color on your screen doesn’t match the coral of your actual product. And the “plum” looks too brown. You’re on the phone with your photographer in a heartbeat. The big quest for color starts: “Is it the way my photographer color corrected the image files in post production? Is it my LCD screen? Is it his camera? The light? Or a little bit of everything?”
I’m afraid to say that in most cases it is the cheap LCD screens most clients have in their offices. Photographers spend considerable amounts of money on sophisticated screens, color calibration units and software to provide accurate color. Don’t be fooled, some don’t and ignore any responsibility to deliver proper colors. In fashion, the task is a bit easier: The client can hand over a sheet of fabric swatches for the photographer to compare on his color correct screen. Although if we’re talking photos for online retail it might a bit of a lost cause either way as your consumers might have screens even less accurate than yours.
The search for the ultimate color continues when printing out a few images on your office color laser printer. Your eyes are about to fall out when you realize that not only the color on your screen is off, but on paper it is completely off as well. In a different way. There is a very simple answer to this: A color laser printer is not a photo printer and cheap laser printer paper is not photo inkjet or c-print paper.
So never mind what your office printer insults you with. What have to worry about more is what the offset printing facility you hire to print your catalogs, look books, pamphlets and promo cards. In all the years, I yet have to meet a large volume printing facility that gets it right the first time around. Get a proof before ordering large amounts of your promo booklets to be printed. Because the color will be off and the printer will once again blame the photographer. Simply because they want to save the time, money, energy it takes to make another proof while trying to weasel more dough out of your boss while keeping their reputation sparkling clean.
So back to the standard shooting scenario: Your boss is giving you carte blanche in getting this shoot done and decides to brief you on the visual concept of the project while he or she is off to whatever might be more important. That is until your boss stops by to see how things are going and gets a peak at the first images. Is it what your boss explained to you? Absolutely. Is it what he or she wanted? Maybe not so much. We are now entering dangerous territory. Big boss might not have explained to properly what is expected, you might have misunderstood or mis-communicated with the photographer and styling crew or they might have misinterpreted what you told them, each in their own way. Fear not: This is where tear sheets come in handy. It is the simplest, cheapest, easiest and safest way to show what you or the one above you wants or doesn’t want. They don’t always do the trick unfortunately, as any visual reference is open to subjective interpretation. More so, I have witnessed several times mood boards with tear sheet collages that don’t correspond at all with the initial concept of a project. To the photographer I say: Speak up and ask, nicely that is. Everybody in front of everybody, to make sure you’re not shooting anything that’s not up to snuff to client and employees.
Which brings us to the all so important signed estimate or even better yet the purchase order. I remember the newly hired public relations assistant working for a designer brand, which likes to slap little green crocodiles on apparel. I’ve met her through a previous client however this was my first instance in getting to work with her directly.
Naturally I was psyched to say the least to be shooting for this world wide renowned reptile that is all too popular among golfers and tennis players, no matter how small the gig. Never mind the questionable backlash that this clothing giant doesn’t have the budget to rent a small studio. And never mind that I won’t get to shoot dozens of shirts on models. Instead I find myself shooting in a small office at their corporate headquarters on Madison Avenue with stacks of colorful apparel to be photographed on a flat white background. But hey, that’s OK. It was almost OK that the over ambitious pr assistant added stacks of shirts by the hour. “Sure just tell the Photoshop artist to straighten the shirts out a bit in Photoshop so that we can get them all shot in the first place.” I emphasized each time she showed up with another load. That is after explaining numerous times that the photos have to be color corrected before usage, especially since the accuracy of vibrant colors is crucial to this brand. I have also been asked to shoot in high resolution so that the images can be blown up for store displays.
Two days later the shoot is completed and I deliver an army of CDr’s as DVDr readers weren’t available at the office. And lo and behold there came the first complaint, the first sign of an avalanche of problems: “Oh my gosh, how am I going to deal with all these CD’s?” Sure enough, I get an email from her of biblical proportion. Her office PC couldn’t handle the large files, the colors were off, there were too many images and so on. But yes, large files require large computer processors, shooting a lot of products results in ending up with a lot of images and having a very specific product color palette requires color correction.
Basically everything I notified and warned her about she underestimated up until after the shoot. I called our retoucher and she was aware that something wasn’t going right. In the end, our dear youngster assistant ran out of time, realized that the load of work she brought onto herself couldn’t be finished before whatever deadline has been set for her. The images were, due to a lack of comprehension form her part, dismissed as having a “lack of quality” (no specifications as to why wasn’t given). Naturally the retoucher and more so I got the blame for it as she, as a new employee wouldn’t want to be fired. No one got paid and none of us heard of her ever again.
Now these situations are easily avoidable. And I am partially to blame as I didn’t request a precise purchase order or that a) lined out the exact scope of the job, detailing everything from the amount of samples to be photographed to the file size of each image over to the usage. The moral of this tale is for both client and photographer to protect them. Because, you know what, it’s not like there is a lack of photographers in this over saturated industry who are inexperienced, egotistical and don’t listen.
In the end it comes down to a few simple rules: On the bureaucratic end, get your purchase order, or carefully review the photographer’s estimate – including fine print, provide ample information as to how the photos are supposed to look to all involved prior to the shooting day and make sure your budget can handle it. On the logistical end? Check if your computer can do what you need it to do once you get your images, make sure to provide an adequate shooting space if a studio happens to be unaffordable and that your photographer is as good as he or she claims to be. The rest is human nature mostly. Respect, understanding, fairness, appreciation, patience and common sense on both sides usually make for a good photo shoot cocktail. That is after we all hung our egos on a coat hanger.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
The day the Dow rock bottomed 770 points into the ground was the same day I noticed that this has been the most lucrative month ever for the company. At the cost of long days and sleep depraved nights only. All jobs went smoothly as usual, the clients happy, the satisfaction of accomplishment tremendous. Hugs to all clients, new and old!