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How to take photography for PR purposes

How to take photography for PR purposes

By Maxine Ambrose, Managing Partner, Ambrose Communications .Over the years, Maxine has managed PR photography projects for companies including Panasonic, Xerox, Sony, Ericsson, Cable & Wireless and C.O.L.T.
Within the world of PR, relatively little money is spent on commissioning photography specifically for press relations purposes.  While this is understandable, given the tight budgets, a major opportunity is being missed.

Photography can transform the visibility of a PR campaign, helping to reinforce key messages.  After all, ‘a picture tells a thousand words’.
Furthermore, since many publications have very small image budgets of their own, they are often crying out for good quality, objective and – most important of all – free photography that is suitable for editorial purposes.
The problem is that many PR professionals – whether in-house or agency-side – find it hard to justify and argue the case for commissioning photography, largely because of the cost.  The irony is that, when conducted properly, a PR photography project can pay for itself many times over.

How?  Well, for instance, one shot that I was responsible for ‘art-directing’ appeared no less than four times in the Financial Times over a period of eighteen months.  Each time the caption mentioned the vendor whose mobile phone was featured in the image.

Since appearing in the FT is the ‘holy grail’ for many companies, the value of this photography was perhaps hard to quantify but it was indisputable.  It is hard to disagree with evidence like that and there are many similar examples.
So what makes successful PR photography?  By following some basic guidelines, excellent results are within the reach of just about every organisation. 
Serving two masters

When creating PR photography, it is vital to balance what the in-house or agency client wants, versus what the media world will actually find usable. 
One of the biggest complaints that editors have about photography sent by PR professionals is that it is simply not fit-for-purpose.  I have spoken to a number of journalists about this over the years – including an ex editor of the Financial Times – and one of the biggest complaints is that PR people send in photography created for brochures or adverts.

These tend to be very glitzy and often filled with effects, whereas what editors want is ‘realistic’ pictures, preferably involving people to give the product or situation some sense of scale and a human aspect.  These people need to look ‘normal’, as opposed to super-models.
Another complaint made by editors is that the photography is just too strongly-branded.  Editorial pages exist to inform the reader and should not look like advertising. 

Branding in the image needs therefore to be subtle, for instance restricted to a small logo on a product, or hidden somewhere in the background, or quite frankly, it often pays to have no branding whatsoever, instead leaving the work to a well-written caption (see later).  The trick is to link the image to the company, without being overt.
The exception is photography taken to accompany big company launches and annual results, where the picture editors will be more amenable to logos and brands featuring in the shot, although what they really want are pictures of people (eg the CEO, maybe holding a product, etc).

Last but by no means least, photography needs to be of a high enough quality and in a format that the magazine can use.  Low resolution or blurry images are useless at one end of the scale, whereas vast TIF files can be hard for many publications to handle.  As a rule, JPEGs of a couple of megabytes in size are usually ideal and make sure that the actual image size (not just the resolution) is not too small.
Be the boss and have vision

If you are the PR professional responsible for the project, then regard yourself not just as the project manager, but as the art director too.  Photography is one of those areas where everyone has to have an opinion and while group consensus can be important, someone needs to be in charge!
This includes managing the photographer.  Do not fool yourself that you can tell the photography what you want and leave them to create the images.  Nine times out of ten, you will be disappointed.  Instead, it is up to you to ‘design’ what you envisage the end results to be.
It is vital to have a vision of what the end goal is, right down to having a clear idea in your head of the final image or images.  You need to know what ‘look and feel’ you want: is it a fun, colourful set of shots, or serious business-like images?  Are they close-ups or long-range?  Are the models going to be holding products in the foreground or are the products in the background?  Is everyone smiling or not?
I take this to the extreme, by creating a storyboard – literally just a hand-drawn scribble – of how I see the final images or image looking.  Sometimes I will also find examples from publications.  The end results are rarely exactly what I envisaged, but are often better.  Sometimes, photographers object to being given guidelines, in which case, I would query the choice of photographer.
Naturally, you will also need to get the ‘buy-in’ of colleagues or the client.  One of the simplest ways to do this is to find an example campaign – perhaps from a competitor – to show what can be achieved.
Choosing the photographer

There are several factors to consider here.  First, they need to understand what you mean by ‘editorial’ photography and ideally, have experience in this area.  Any photographer who has done newspaper work will be a good starting point. Second, they need to be creative, but someone who understands the limits of the brief.

I have worked with photographers who want to do lots of dramatic shadow or blurred effects, which while very impressive, simply will not be published in editorial pages.  So, I have to be firm with them, although sometimes I will let them have their five minutes of glory, allowing them to take a few ‘fun’ shots, before bringing them back to earth.  After all, you are working with a creative spirit and do not want to stifle that!
Above anything else, you want a photographer who is prepared to listen to what you want and is commercially minded enough to follow a brief.
 The brief

Ideally, the brief is both verbal and written.  I usually start with a briefing meeting with the photographer and the client, where we look at images, draw sketches and agree project parameters.  Then I follow this up with a written brief, setting out:
· Final objective (number of different ‘scenes’)
· Description of each scene, including what the ‘look and feel’ is (fun, work-like, colourful, ethnic, etc) and including a rough sketch
· Timescales (proposed dates for photo shoots, delivery of final images)
· Responsibilities – who does what
· Locations – what needs to be found/hired
· Props – what needs to be found/hired
The brief will develop over time, but it provides all sides with a written starting-point and should be on hand at every photo shoot.
Costing the project

Once you have a clear plan in place, there is still quite a lot of work to be done, the first of which is, of course, setting the budget.  I usually maintain a spreadsheet for each photography project, simply because the number of elements can be high. 

Costs you need to consider:
-  Your time (if you are in a PR agency) – to manage the project and attend each shoot
- Photographer’s time – preparation time and each shoot – agree an amount of time per photoshoot in advance (eg half a day)
- Photographer’s materials – these days, they usually shoot on digital not print cameras, but even so, they will usually charge per CD of images, or to put your images on a private web site 
- Location costs – if applicable 
- Model costs – if applicable 
- Props – if applicable 
- Distribution costs (if you are sending out print photography)
It is often possible to find free locations, but you may need to resort to paying for some or at least making a contribution.  For instance, I have used cafes and bars for free, while others have asked for a small amount of money.

The important thing is to remember to ask permission first.  Some venues, such at train stations and airports, have very strict rules on photography, although in some instances, they will agree access in advance, usually involving lots of paperwork and sometimes a fee.
Models are another issue to consider.  On the one hand, you do not want glossy starlets who are obviously models, because it undermines the credibility of the image.  On the other hand, you do not want to waste half a day’s shoot using, for instance, members of your own team, who are camera-shy and manage to look awkward and close their eyes in every shot!  
Photographers themselves are often good sources of cheap models, because they will be aware of amateurs that they have photographed who are naturally camera-friendly.  There are also model agencies that specialise in ‘normal’ looking people.
Props might include clothes for the model, items for the shoot that have subtle branding, perhaps in a company’s corporate colours.  If the props may be used on a later occasion as well, it makes sense to purchase rather than rent them.
On the day

So, you have everything in place: the photographer, the model, the location, props and products if relevant.  Remember that you are in charge and set the pace for the shoot.  Start by bringing everyone together for a quick five minute re-brief and reiterate the day’s timescale/deadline.

Then stand back and let the photographer start setting up the shot, but remember, this is your show, so it is up to you to bring it back on course if you are not happy with the direction.  Make sure that you look in the back of the camera at the beginning or during each ‘set up’ to make sure you are happy with the scene that the image will be capturing.


The photographer will normally put your images on a CD or on the Internet for selection.  Once you have agreed your images, of course you need to decide how they are going to be used and who will receive them.  When I have a new set of photography, I quite like to send out a small selection on a CD to all my key editor contacts.

Another format that seems to work is to embed the image in a press release or picture caption format and send it as hard copy print-out, making it clear that the image is available electronically and in high-resolution.  Never ever send unsolicited image attachments to editors – that is the way to be added to their blacklists!
Although the image should be reasonably self-explanatory, it is important to ‘tell the story’ and this means writing a caption that clearly and concisely conveys the right messages. The text should describe what is happening in the image and the relevance to your company or client.

For instance, “The image shows ‘the home of the future’, featuring products from XYZ Company such as its new voice-automated kettle.”  Usually, a paragraph is sufficient and make sure that the first sentence is complete and self-contained, as this is likely to be the only bit that gets printed, although the editor will often re-write their own version.
There is no guarantee that the editor will mention your company or client’s name in the caption, but quite frankly, in my experience, they usually do. There seems to be an unwritten and unspoken agreement that it is the right thing to do, since you provide the picture for free.
By the way, make sure you ask your press clippings agency – if you have one – to read the captions in magazines as well and if possible, let them know which publications have received the images.
The end result?

Like any form of PR, the return on investment on photography can be hard to quantify, but it can be one of the most fruitful PR routes of all.  After all, it is human nature to look at images on the page before we read the text.  The right PR photography can help your company or client to stand out from the crowd.

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