Shooting for tech companies, Helena Price Takes a different approach

Helena Price has found a niche in photography, shooting narrative-driven photo stories for brands in the tech world like Airbnb, Rdio, Dropbox, Zendesk, Uber and Square.

These experiences have given Helena a unique perspective on creating photography for brands. For many of her clients, working with Helena is their first time commissioning a large scale photo campaign. That means that she has been able to develop her own approach, which can look very different from how traditional advertising shoots come together.

I was excited to talk with Helena more about what she does, because I think that her approach to photography can offer inspiration to brands—both small startups and those working with a more traditional agency approach—about how they can make the most out of photography in today's digital environment.

© Helena Price for Rdio

© Helena Price for Rdio

Helena  has a background in public relations, and worked in the field at a variety of different tech companies. In 2013, a New Year's resolution to shoot or edit photos every day rekindled her passion for photography, and not long after she quit her job to pursue a career as a freelance photographer.  In just a couple years, she’s produced an impressive portfolio of work, including commercial shoots for major tech companies .


Until early 2013 you worked in PR in the tech world. At the time, you didn’t have much success in getting the companies you worked with to commission original photography.

At that time tech generally was not that interested in photography. When I first started working in tech, it was all about the MVP, the minimum viable product, it was all about being first to market. It was about building it fast. People didn't even care that much about design when I was first getting into tech. 

So I would really fight to get more creative stuff happening where I worked, whether it be photos or videos or more story-telling projects, and they'd get squashed most of the time. It was partially a budget thing, but on a greater level, no one could understand why it was really valuable. You couldn't tie super-hard metrics to it. Branding in general was just kind of this mysterious thing that no one could really grasp or understand or measure.

Having said that, right after you quit your job in tech, at the beginning of 2013, things had started to shift, and you received commissions from lots of different tech companies. How did your first assignments come together?

Right around that time I coincidentally got an email from Square. They wanted me to make some photos of their vendors in New York. So that was my first gig. And it wasn't a big gig but at the time I was like oh my god, this is huge. 

I went around and my job was to meet with vendors in New York and try and make some sort of little photo narrative around them and that was perfect for me. I thought, this is the kind of stuff that I wished that I could hire people to do when I worked in tech and now I can just do it.

After that I moved back to San Francisco. I got an email from Designer Fund which is this awesome design organization in San Francisco. They had this bridge program where designers who are part of the Designer Fund program can rotate through these really big, amazing companies and their design teams. They wanted to do a story-telling project that showed prospective designers who wanted to join the program what it would be like. 

We put together this day-in-the-life project where they would do a pre-interview with a specific designer at the company, usually the head of design, and ask “what's your day like?” From there we could put together a shot list that kind of represented those talking points. I would go in and follow them around for a day and help produce those moments that were talked about in the interview. 

After Designer Fund, I did that with Dropbox and Path and Rdio. To me it was natural, I felt like it was right up my alley. But in reality no one had done anything like this before in that part of tech. It just spread like crazy once it was published. Particularly the Dropbox one. The tech world just loved it.

Was there a change in the culture around that time that made tech companies more interested in commissioning great photography?

Around that time Instagram had been out for a while. A lot of photographers have been bummed on Instagram or they think that it's a threat to the traditional photography industry. I actually think that particularly for tech, it really helped people understand the value of visual story-telling. It created this huge market for branding and photography that wasn't there.

I think that designers and creatives and engineers and business people all just got to see face to face or even in a way peer-to-peer how impactful photography and story-telling can be. That opened everybody's eyes. Brands started thinking about how they could do it, whether from a social standpoint or maybe by just paying more attention to how they tell stories.

So these tech companies saw how photography and story-telling could develop their brand in a way they hadn’t appreciated earlier.

© Helena Price for Uber

© Helena Price for Uber

From a branding standpoint, a few years ago it still felt like there was a big land grab in terms of developing new start-up ideas. When Four Square and Airbnb and other ideas like that were invented, there was just this competition for being able to come up with an idea and be the first to build it into something successful.

Today it has become really saturated. Just product ideas are not that valuable at this point. Chances are if you've come up with a start-up idea, there is someone who has already done it and there are five more people that are going to make that same start-up after you. And so it's not about being first anymore, it's about being better. And not only do you have to have a great product but you have to have beautiful design and you have to have a compelling story where you can confidently tell people why you are the best and why you are going to change their life.

So for the first time, you've got technology companies needing to create different brands and personalities in the same way that clothing companies do. 

So it was a great time for you to be making the transition into being a full time photographer.

I think it was the most fortuitous timing ever that I spent the time that I did in the tech industry, learning how to build a business and all of these skills. Then the time that I wanted to make the jump was around the same time that this whole industry was opening their eyes up to branding. And there weren’t any photographers around that were focused on tech. I might be one of the only or few people that used to be a techie tried-and-true and is now a full-time photographer. 

So it was this wonderful marriage of circumstances where the industry started caring about branding. Because of my background I understand product, I understand design, I understand copy writing and story-telling. And I was available to jump in and just get scrappy and figure out how to make it work. So that was the beginning. 

And once those Designer Fund projects came out it was just a whirlwind. I've been swamped with projects ever since. 

A lot of the work in your portfolio has a very story-telling or day-in-the-life kind of approach. Is that the most frequent sort of approach that your clients want to take?

\Well, I think that the clients that I've worked with historically don't really know, in a way, what they’re looking for. They just know that they want good, real-feeling photography. And so that's what a lot of people started coming to me for after my first projects.

They wanted something that fulfilled a commercial goal whether it's new photos for their website, or new photos for an ad campaign. And they wanted something that felt super honest. But from there they didn't really know what to do. The tech world is just getting into photography so they don't have traditional photo production experience. They have no idea what goes into a photo shoot. They don't really know what questions they should be asking. So it was a big learning curve for me. It felt like the wild west. I figured that I just needed to create a process for helping these companies figure out what they want. 

© Helena Price for Dropbox

© Helena Price for Dropbox

For a lot of this stuff it's me taking that similar approach to what we did with the Designer Fund project. I do a lot of interviewing of potential clients. And I have a million questions for them: when does this new website launch? You’re doing this project, what are your goals? What are the stories that you want to tell? What are potential stories that you could tell? Do you have the copy written? Do you have mock-ups of the website ready? And just kind of digging in and pulling out all these little nuggets that we could make stories around. From there I either work with them to develop a shot list or I just totally make it up for them. 

Compared with traditional print advertising, digital gives you a lot more options in terms of how photos can be shared. It’s more conducive to photo-essay style pieces. Do you think that’s part of why your clients like the narrative driven photography so much.

Yeah, well, it's hard to say. I’ve noticed that a lot of companies want to have flexibility in how they use the photos. So the client is saying: we’ve never done this before, we're not totally sure what we're looking for and we're not totally sure how we want to use it. For me getting the most personal enjoyment out of the project and also providing the most value is just building out the whole narrative when I shoot. That can then be implemented in a variety of ways. One photo from that whole set could be used as the header image on the website. Or if you dig a little deeper maybe there's an entire job or career narrative. Or if you go into their ad spend, you can see that they've actually made some interesting narrative campaigns with those photos. 

It just depends on the way that they implement. And in a way I wish I could be involved in that, too. But at some point I have to realize that I'm a photographer. I guess I have to let them make those decisions on their own. 

© Helena Price for Path

© Helena Price for Path

What kind of advice would you give to a photographer who wants to stay competitive and be prepared for what’s coming in the next few years?

I've had lunch with several kind of old-school people, whether they be photo agents or people who work in traditional advertising. Over and over again I hear these stories of these photographers who were just huge ten or twenty years ago doing these massive ad campaigns, blowing everybody's mind making absolutely beautiful work but as times have changed, the industry has changed and what is required of you has changed. Maybe you'll have to be a little scrappier in some areas, but there are a lot of people who just won't budge. And they want to do it the way that they've been doing it for so long. They want to have this massive team and they want to have the 10 assistants. And then after enough time of not budging they get dropped from their agency. 

There's just this huge shift happening where old-school photographers—not all of them obviously —but a lot of them just aren’t willing to budge. I’m sure it's pretty scary even to know where to start budging. Unfortunately it's cost some people a modern career. 

And so I think—I don't know the ad world particularly well though I'm starting to delve into it—but I think where you can find a lot of success is having a little bit of wiggle room and not doing it the way that you've been doing it forever and ever.

What do you think brands who want to create and use great photography should be thinking about?

Well, coming from a PR background, I definitely gravitate towards real stories. Crazy brand loyalty for Starbucks for instance, doesn't come from the way their cups look or the taste of their coffee. It comes from “Oh, I met my fiancé at Starbucks.” Or “with my childhood best friends we all had girls night in high school at Starbucks.” Those are the kinds of memories that people have associated with the brand. 

There's just a treasure trove of stories that can be told with real humans. And there's no need to go and fictionalize when you have real people just waiting there to tell those things. It's not like that hasn't been done before but I actually don't think it's done enough, and when it is done it's usually kind of a boring testimonial or just a quote with a portrait or something. As a brand, imagine the dream story of someone using your product, go enable a person to use your product in that way and make a story out of it.

See more of Helena's work at helenaprice.com

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Photo Essay Platforms Gaining Viewers, Rolling out Brand Partnerships

A number of social sites are emerging that allow people and brands to easily create beautifully designed long-form photo essays. While these platforms are relatively new options for those looking to share photo stories online, they certainly deserve a place on the radar of anyone involved in creating digital advertising content. Brands are just starting to discover these sites as marketing opportunities, and so far the executions have been a mixed bag. Some of it is excellent, but some of it, not so much. Regardless, Medium, Exposure and Stampsy are all sites worth keeping your eye on.

    Screenshots from  The Selected Issue  on Exposure, and  Lauren Brown  on Stampsy.

 

Screenshots from The Selected Issue on Exposure, and Lauren Brown on Stampsy.

Medium is the best known of the bunch. The site, created by Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone, already boasts posts from a range of well-known public figures like Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Medium made the move into native ad publishing beginning in the middle of last year with BMW, and more recently with Marriott.

Exposure is less well known, though I’ve been particularly impressed by their design philosophy, and have been keeping my eyes on them for some time. Their original strategy for making money was based on selling monthly subscriptions to those posting content, but with the recent content marketing moves that Medium made, I’ll be interested to see how that changes. They recently started promoting an account curated by Filson, which could point to an interest in further exploring native advertising as a revenue model.

Stampsy is the smallest player in the field, but according to AngelList, they’ve raised nearly 750K, in investment capital and are planning to go public in 2015, so they certainly will be worth watching in the upcoming year. Also, unlike the other platforms, their platform looks great for photo essays that don’t include any words at all.

As a photographer, it made me happy to see more photo-centric platforms start to draw the attention of big marketers. However, some of these sites have a long way to go to consistently create engaging content that will prove to be a true draw.

The Marriott sponsored feed, Gone on Medium is a great example of where these branded content series have room to grow. 

A snippet of the story published on  Filson's Exposure pag e

A snippet of the story published on Filson's Exposure page

On the one hand there are a few examples of good photography, such as the Dancing in the Streets story documenting a second line parade in New Orleans. However, there are plenty of disappointments. To give one example, the photos in Duck Taco Night in Saigon are lackluster. The lack of a byline on these photos makes me suspect that they tasked the writer to also create the artwork for the story, which may have played a part in the less-than-amazing results.

Even worse, photos for the Marriott-sponsored story, Brazil’s Mind-Boggling Art Park are sourced from Flickr. Here’s a platform that’s all about sharing big, beautiful photos. It’s one of the flagship marketing examples for the platform. It’s being bankrolled by Marriott. And the best they can do for photography is to source images from Flickr! That had me shaking my head in disbelief.

Having said that, there’s also work being produced that is cause for optimism. Filson is doing a lot right here. For example this story on fishing in the Olympic Peninsula was beautifully shot by photographer Brenna Marriie.

Filson published the same stories to its website and Exposure, so it’s very interesting to see how the story looks when compared to the execution on the Filson site.  For me, it’s a compelling side-by-side comparison that implicitly argues for the value of great design. On Filson’s website, I feel like I’m reading a marketing piece. On Exposure, it’s like I’ve kicked back with one of my favorite magazines, reading something for pleasure.

Filson is also doing a great job showing how long-form photography content produced for a platform like Exposure can get a lot of mileage in other places as well. Images from the same shoot are not only used on Exposure and the Filson website, but also on Instagram and Facebook (photo example of Facebook and Instagram executions). With brands trying to engage on so many digital platforms these days, there is a huge benefit in commissioning this sort of story-telling photography that can then be published in many different ways across a variety of platforms.

These platforms are still in their earliest stages, so it has yet to be seen how big of a player they’ll be as a social platform. Medium is undoubtedly the biggest player in the game, and some educated guesses suggest they have around 460,000 followers and 13 million unique monthly users earlier in 2014. This may be a drop in the bucket compared to platforms like Instagram and Facebook. However, their potential for growth, along with the unique approach they take to photo essay style content, mean that these platforms should at least be on the radar of anyone working in digital advertising.

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20 Under 20

A fantastically curated group of 20 photographers under 20 years old has been assembled by Flickr. 

For those looking to create work that is authentic, particularly for that coveted "millennial" demographic, there's a lot to be taken away from looking at the kind of work that millenials are creating, and are drawn to on social platforms.

Photos from Oliver Charles' photostream, one of the photographers selected for 20 under 20.

Photos from Oliver Charles' photostream, one of the photographers selected for 20 under 20.

A few items that I found especially interesting:

  • There's a lot of attention put on post production, with a lot of images tending towards that VSCO-esque film vibe
  • There are LOTS of self portraits. Advertisers inspired by this approach might want to commission photographers who work this way (This is an approach that style bloggers have been taking for years.... Ann Street Studio is one of my favorite examples of this done properly). 
  • Many of these photographers participated in "365" projects, where they created and posted an image every single day. This gives me lots of inspiration about being scrappy and creating great work even when you aren't working with the sorts of budgets associated with traditional print campaigns. (Though we can hope that most photographers working on social advertising campaigns won't have to resort to  mom and dad assisting on shoots.)
  • There are lots of serial projects. Advertisers can do well to replicate this approach to help pull together an idea or a campaign that will be spread across a number of different posts on a platform like Instagram, Tumblr or Facebook.

Anyone who works in advertising for social media that uses imagery in their campaign (IE ANYONE working in social media) would be well served to take a look at these 20 photographers. Here are a few of my favorites:

Brian Oldham

Brian Oldham

Greg Pths

Greg Pths

Alex Stoddard

Alex Stoddard

Lauren Withrow

Lauren Withrow

Small Teams Making Great Content

For those brands and agencies who feel that they're tasked with making a lot with a little, I thought it would be worth sharing a look at some of my favorite blogs/social campaigns that are run by just one or two people. The work below, in my opinion, is compelling and original on it's own.... But what makes it even more impressive is that it's curated or created by just one or two people. Some of them are even side projects of sorts. Next time you think the digital advertising campaign you're working on doesn't have enough money or resources to make great work, take a look at these sites to get some perspective on what's possible.

 

Nick Onken

I've followed Nick's blog for quite some time, and I've watched as it grew from focussing on the business of photography into a full on lifestyle media site. Nick records his own podcasts, writes commentary and shoots original content... And he does all of this while working as a busy full time commercial photographer.

 

Ariele Alasko

Ariel Alasko is a furniture builder and woodworker based in Brooklyn. Her website is very well done, but the real standout is her Instagram account, which is approaching a quarter million followers. She announces sales of items like carved spoons and bowls on her Instagram, and the premium priced products invariably sell out very quickly. 

 

The Glamourai

I've been following this blog ever since running into stylist Kelly Framel at fashion week a few years ago. At first glance, you might think that The Glamourai is supported by a giant publishing team. On a regular basis they roll out original fashion editorials whose production value and art direction rival anything you'd see in a major fashion publication. Take a closer look, though, and you'll see that the site is entirely written by Kelly, with her sister serving as the market editor and production manager. 

 

The Glow

I was fortunate to have the chance to work with Kelly Stuart when she hired me to to photograph fashion week for Elle a couple years ago. While working as a full time photo director at Hearst (which, as you can imagine, isn't one of those phone-it-in kind of jobs), she also found the time and resources to put together The Glow. The entire site (and now book) is produced by her and editor Violet Gaynor.


People in the advertising world have a tendency to look to what other brands and agencies are doing for inspiration. However, with digital publishing allowing individuals to put out great content that others are actually consuming, it can be super useful to look at content being made by people outside the ad world.

These are a few sites that I really admire for being able to make so much from relatively limited resources. If anyone else has suggestions on individuals or small teams making great digital work, I'd love to hear about it!

Photography for J. Crew Digital
with Bryan Derballa

When I was a fresh transplant to Brooklyn in 2006, one of my sources of photography inspiration was Love Bryan, a blog curated by Bryan Derballa. The blog came in an unusual format, displaying the work from several photographers in personal, long form photo essays.

I hadn't met Bryan, but I followed along with his career as I started seeing his name popping up in credits for the Fader, Vice and the Wall Street Journal.

More recently, I was excited to see his work on posts for the J. Crew blog. Coinciding with when Mickey Drexler took over as CEO in the early 2000s, the brand has grown into one that truly stands out in terms of creative direction. They are consistently creating fresh and forward thinking images. Their social media and digital presence is, in my opinion, one of the most well executed programs in fashion, and brands working in any area can take inspiration from it. In particular, I think the editorial/storytelling approach that they've taken on their blog is a brilliant way to create content that people actually want to subscribe and tune in to.

Bryan has a key role in creating visual content for J. Crew's digital presence on their tumblr, and Instagram feed. When I recently ran into Bryan at a seminar for PDN 30, I jumped on the opportunity to say hello, and a few weeks later we sat down to talk more about the work he's been creating for J. Crew.

How did your relationship with J. Crew start?

Several years ago I shot J.Crew’s presentation at Fashion Week for T-Magazine – I think it was only the second presentation they’d ever done at Fashion Week. I shot it and just did my thing. The nice part about working with T was complete creative freedom. They kind of wanted you to do whatever you did well.

Some people at J.Crew found those photos, and they passed it along to Jenna Lyons, (President and Creative Director of J.Crew). She liked it and they brought me in to photograph their presentation and backstage for the presentation at the next fashion week. They wanted it for their Tumblr and for their internal usage, and I think some photos might’ve got thrown up on Instagram, but their Instagram was still very new at the time.

It was the blog director’s first day. Her first day was my first day, and after that it just became this match made in heaven, and we worked on so many things afterwards together. It evolved from being just fashion week to a whole host of things.

So right from the start, it seems that there was a very editorial mindset about creating content?

Yeah, absolutely. I started in photojournalism; all my early clients were newspapers and the occasional magazine. But it was always very reportage style. That’s the kind of work I love most and that’s the kind of work I enjoy doing, and I think it’s really cool that J.Crew has seen that. They identified that in me and allow me to do it in a more commercial and fashion-based setting.

A lot of what we do is studio tours and factory tours. We have columns, like In the Kitchen, where we’ll go to someone interesting and photograph them making a meal. We do a lot of style features. We love to work with real people, not necessarily models, to see what the clothes look like on those people and to get more of their personality and to try to find a place where the clothes, the personality, and the photography all meld together.

That’s something interesting in terms of social media and marketing right now. You’re basically combining two things: the social media world and the advertising world. So a brand has to choose: do you want to take it more from the angle of how people are already creating content on social media with a more loose, editorial approach? Or do you want to think of it more like traditional advertising, which might mean things are conceived ahead of time and you’ve got an art director making up comps and clients signing off on concepts before they’re even shot.

One of the coolest thing about social media and photography, and one of the reasons I’m really interested in doing it right now, is that it hasn’t been totally defined yet. We know what advertising looks like in magazines or on billboards; we have an idea of what we’re going to see when we open the pages of those magazines. It’s often very slick and there’s production value and the clothes look good, people look good. We know what that is.

Likewise, we know what photojournalism looks like. We see the New York Times every day, Time Magazine, we have an idea of what that is.

But social media photography, it’s so new that it’s still being defined, and it takes influences from all these things that are still evolving. Twitter did so well because it gave people direct access to their friends and celebrities. If you want to know what Ashton Kutcher really thinks, or Shakira or whoever these people are that have really popular Twitter feeds, you can get an intimate look into their life and what they’re thinking. Even if it is filtered through a publicist, it doesn’t always seem like it, so you get this more raw and candid look at these things that we’re interested in and fascinated by.

So I think that the photography in social media does that really well – or at least it should be doing that really well. We’re not going to repurpose a photo that was shot for the catalog necessarily; instead, we’re going to get something more intimate, more behind the scenes, closer to the people actually making the clothes.

Or we might make something that has a little bit more personality, just to engage the viewers in a different way, because that’s what they want with social media. They’re looking for some kind of intimacy, and it gives you a feeling – it’s so personal. You’re looking on your phone, you have this little device, and it’s just you and the device. You’re choosing what’s on that screen. Unlike a billboard or a magazine or something that you walk by and it’s just there, you’re very interactively choosing, “This is what I want,” and it seems like that personal experience has shown brands and the folks that follow this kind of stuff that people want intimacy and the rawness and candidness, and just a sense of honesty in a world that is often so bombarded by artifice.

So what I’m really interested in, is taking a documentary approach and applying it to all kinds of different situations. It doesn’t have to be as serious as my photojournalism, and it doesn’t have to be as serious as traditional advertising. It can be more free-flowing and more abstract and strange and interesting.

So in a way, do you feel like you have even more license to be creative with it than you would when you’re shooting for the Wall Street Journal, for example?

Yeah, definitely. The Wall Street Journal, they’re great and do very important work. They have a defined readership and journalistic obligations. The images they choose to run in their paper need to inform and serve the story.

At J. Crew we can also share a photo that gives a feeling in a more abstract way, and it doesn’t require as much of an explanation but can still affect people in a way that goes beyond what we’re traditionally used to.

 It’s exciting to imagine an emerging area in advertising photography where photographers have a bit more creative freedom and the shoots are a little more loose.

Yeah, it’s just a whole new way to engage and to push boundaries. And what else is cool about it – and this is from a more general perspective: everyone’s a photographer now. People are constantly going through Instagram and clicking on pictures that they like, and then they’re going out and trying to make photos like that. Often people just shoot the things that are important in their life, but they’re doing it so much more that they’re trying to figure out ways to do it in a new or creative way. They’re trying to see things a little bit differently, and they’re trying new filters and understanding the look of the picture rather than just what the picture is.

So I think that people on a whole are increasing their visual vocabulary. They’re becoming more sophisticated with it. When I first started shooting, for the first few years I was taking pictures that I thought were so smart and so visually sophisticated, but they were lost on people who weren’t photographers. Photographers liked it, but people who weren’t photographers, it didn’t really resonate. It looked weird or it felt uncomfortable or whatever.

But now people are becoming more and more open to that. I have a lot of tricks in my bag, and I like to employ them when making photos. That keeps it interesting for me. I like to use visual techniques to do things with images to make them more engaging. People are becoming more open to that, and I think that is a big benefit of Instagram.

How do things come together for a shoot for J. Crew in terms of production?

The blog director will come to me ahead of time with a few things that we’re going to shoot. We’ll schedule it, we’ll lock down our subjects, and she’ll send out call sheets, and then I’ll show up. Sometimes, but not all the time, there’s a creative director there as well.

What’s been really nice for me with J.Crew is that I get to work with a team. When I was working with newspapers a lot, I would have a lot of contact with my editors, but they were assigning so much and overseeing so much that they never actually came on the shoots. But with J.Crew, I always have my blog director and my art director there. They give me pretty free rein, but they also help to encourage me to try things that I may not see, or to point out details that I may have missed, or to help elicit something from the subjects to make it more comfortable to shoot.

That’s the process of shooting. I’ve pitched a couple things here and there, but in general I leave it up to them. Most of my time spent on coming up with photo ideas are for personal projects. And they have so many things that they need to cover that I could never even know about, because I don’t attend the marketing meetings, that I just leave it up to them.

Do you work with any other brands in the same way you shoot for J. Crew?

 Not really. I've done it once for Nike. But I haven’t really sought out doing it with anyone else. J.Crew keeps me very busy. A lot of people don’t know what this kind of work is worth. But with J.Crew, I don’t feel that way

One of the things that’s interesting is how much they’re really invested in this. How do I put this… we shoot around New York all the time, and our shoots aren’t huge; it’s not like we have production RVs and stuff like that, but we do travel a lot with it. So far I’ve gone to London three or four times with J.Crew, and we’ve been to different parts of Europe. We go to California every year. Went to Hong Kong and to Tanzania.

All of this was to produce content for their Tumblr and their Instagram, and I think that that’s pretty unique. I think that not very many companies would take the risk of sending someone so far at such a high expense to produce content specifically for those things. So I think that’s really cool.

I do think that’s true. One thing that’s interesting, to me, though is that any component of an advertising campaign is the media buy. So if it’s a TV commercial or an ad in a magazine, they’re paying a lot of money just for that space. You can pay money to get people to see things on Facebook and on Tumblr, and on Instagram too now. But it doesn’t seem like that has been the approach by J. Crew.

Obviously the cost of production and your fees adds up but I would imagine that it can be well worth it if the content is great and people want to tune in and subscribe to the feeds and share it.

Yeah, totally. I never thought about it that way but that does make sense.

 Another part of J.Crew’s approach that I think is so smart is having this long-term relationship with you. So it’s not like every time they do a shoot, they’re trying to teach a photographer what the brand is supposed to be, where they’re trying to take it, and the kind of things that they’re really interested in showcasing. 

Have you felt that they’ve taught you about the brand and the direction it’s going, and if so, has it translated into you being able to take pictures that work for them better?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a two-way street, though. J.Crew has a very strong visual and brand identity. It took me awhile to learn those. I’d seen the brand and I knew a little bit about it beforehand, but now I understand so much more. I understand of course the clothes, and I can spot those from a mile away, but now I understand the style.

I can pick out the things that are going to be on brand for them in terms of people and personalities and music and arts and culture and all those things that are going to influence the J.Crew voice. I’ve become pretty well attuned to that, some through working with Jenna Lyons at fashion week, but mostly through my team, the blog director and creative director, and just all the other media that they put out.

J-Crew-Derballa-Tear.jpg

But in the same way, I got to help define what their voice is for social media. I’ve been able to help define a look. I do most of the stuff for the blog and for the Instagram, but I don’t do all of it. Sometimes I’m out of town or sometimes they have multiple shoots going on at the same time, or sometimes they have something come up in a faraway place and they can’t get me there in time.

In those instances, they hire photographers with similar aesthetics, and the photos move pretty seamlessly. Another photographer recently covered the Hong Kong store opening, and those pictures didn’t look too much different than how my pictures look. I think that’s a purposeful thing. I think they know what they’re doing. They want to have a consistent voice and a consistent vision.

I’m lucky that I came in at a time when they were figuring out what that was going to be, and I got to help decide what it was going to be with my own vision.

 

Bryan's work can be seen at bryanderballa.com. Bryan and I will be sitting on a panel, How to Land Assignments for Social Media Advertising during PhotoPlus Expo on October 31st.

Instagram Playing it Safe with Paid Content

This questionnaire recently popped up in my Instagram feed, and it’s a reminder that the social network is being very careful as it works out a strategy for allowing paid content.

From a personal perspective, I saw a flurry of ads on the platform in November of last year. I didn’t block any of the advertising, but it’s been several months since I’ve seen a sponsored post. An informal survey of friends on Instagram confirms that users haven’t really been seeing sponsored posts lately. A deal was announced between Instagram and Omnicom worth $40 to$100 million at the beginning of March, which has me scratching my head in terms of when the deluge of advertising is going to start.

We can only speculate on when the sponsored post will become a regular occurrence on Instagram, or what doors might open down the line for advertisers. However, the current structure means that success is less about paid placement, and more about great content. The best solutions for getting a brands message out right now is by collaborating with Instagram users who already have a strong following (like Mercedes Benz did in their campaign last year) or to create genuinely compelling work that users will organically want to follow.

Either way, the current winners on Instagram aren’t necessarily the ones with the money, they’re the ones with the vision. That’s an opportunity for smart marketers, ad agencies, and image makers.

 

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Everlane's Stand Out use of Photography in Social Media

I've been keeping an eye on the online fashion retailer Everlane for some time. This company is doing it right in a lot of ways, particularly in terms of still photography and social media. Their campaign can be an inspiration for any brand looking to develop a more refined voice in their imagery. Here's what I like about what they're doing:

Optimizing their shoots and knowing their platforms:

Everlane has done a great job of getting the most out of their photoshoots. As an online fashion retailer, their bread and butter is in catalogue style photography. These pictures have to be clean and straightforward to show a potential buyer what the product looks like. Everlane makes the most of these shoots by creating additional content that can be used elsewhere. The way they edit and use the pictures reflects a deep understanding of these platforms. A clean lookbook shoot turns into a Facebook cover page when the photographer captures an image with more personality and more of an editorial approach. That same shoot turns into Instagram material when the model is shot away from the seamless backdrop with less refined light and more of a snapshot feel.

Campaigns Encouraging User Generated Content:

On Instagram, Everlane ran a campaign based on the #WhereITravel hashtag last year that was remarkably successful and culminated in a gallery show at Milk Studios here in NYC. More recently, they started a campaign based on the #myeverlane hashtag. They kicked that it off by asking contributors to take pictures of their travel gear including Everlane product. Both of these campaigns were successful because they played off ways that users are already using Instagram.

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Everlane-customer-engagement

Balancing User Generated Content with Original Content:

Everlane has lots of great user generated content to choose from. This stems in part from campaigns like those described above, and also because of the elegant design of their packaging which is effective in getting customers to post their own unboxing photos. They understand the value of this sort of content, and curate user generated pictures on both Facebook (in this album) and Instagram accounts.

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Everlane-From-The-People

However, they're smart to not depend too heavily on user generated content for their owned platforms. They still lead with well produced original photography.

Where Everlane could improve:

A large part of Everlane's marketing message is about working with factories operating at the highest standards across the world. They've commissioned documentary style photography of these factories, but unfortunately, these images fall short compared to the rest of their media. For example, take a look at images from their China factory in this Facebook gallery. While I can imagine that Everlane was weary of not wanting to sugarcoat the factory conditions, they ended up too far in the opposite direction. The bleak color treatment and lack of engagement with the workers works against Everlane's message in this case.

Despite a few quibbles with specific elements of their media, for me Everlane still represents a company that is breaking ground with well executed photography that is  true to the various digital platforms it lives on. Companies and agencies looking to refine what they do in this area should take note.

Tinker Street Mobile

NYC based agent Jesse Miller has been representing Instagram photographers for some time, with Tinker Street Mobile. Collaborating with Instagramers with a large fan base has been one of the most effective ways for a brand to work on the platform, and Miller was quick to recognize the opportunity here. I'll be interested to see how things change now that there are more ways for brands to work with Instagram.

Either way, for agencies looking to engage some great Instagram photographers, their roster is a great place to start. And for creatives looking for inspiration, their commissions page shows off some beautifully executed work that really rings true for the platform.

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tinkerstreet

The Value of Original Content

I recently had a great chat with the folks at Percolate. They offer a unique product. In a nutshell, it's an all-in-one platform that streamlines content production for social media. We both work with clients with similar goals, so I was genuinely interested to learn more about what they do and how their system might be used to improve what we're currently doing. I got the full rundown on how their system works, but naturally what interested me most is how their platform works with still photography. I discovered that customers with Percolate have streamlined access to a broad library of images via 1) Getty and other extensive royalty free libraries, 2) an iPhone app that allows anyone in the organization to take photos on their phone and acquire a signed model release and 3) a pretty slick system to request and acquire releases for found amateur images on social media platforms.

From there, the platform has a built in system to retouch, crop, add Instagram style filters, logos and copy.

Percolate

While my initial interest in Percolate was trying to see how we might integrate their system into an ad agency, I walked away from the conversation realizing that Percolate is a platform that is really well poised to replace ad agencies.

A forward looking agency looking to win more social business is well served to keep a close eye out on solutions like this. Agencies have to ask themselves: what is our unique selling proposition? From a photography perspective, if you're relying on using stock or found imagery, can you really demonstrate the value you're bringing to the table? For agencies who aren't focusing on creating original content, a solution like Percolate could start to look like a very viable alternative.

Shooting Live Events

I recently shot CMJ for Verizon social. In addition to allowing me to relive my college days shooting shows for the school newspaper, it was an opportunity to let our photographic style breathe a bit. After a couple days shooting at CMJ I've been thinking more about how this sort of photography can fit into the bigger picture of a social media strategy. Here are some things to consider if you're thinking of integrating live event coverage into your social content.

Give insider access.

One way a brand can set itself apart from fan generated content is by sharing images shot from a unique vantage point. In this case, having backstage access allowed us to offer something original and worthy of a comment, like or share.

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Streamline your approvals process.

We're accustomed to seeing fan images post live on social media. For a brand, the structure for getting images up might require a number of agency or client approvals. Make a game plan before the event on how images will be delivered and approved by stakeholders. This will go a long way toward getting the content posted while it's still fresh, and the engagement with the fanbase feels more authentic.

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Arrange for model releases ahead of time.

Having model releases buttoned up is something that can make or break a shoot like this. In this scenario, the musicians had made model release arrangements in advance as part of Verizon's sponsorship of the event.

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See it through the lens of the brand.

Shooting in a documentary style means that there's less opportunity to explicitly insert a brand message into the work. However, the DNA of the brand can still inform the approach. While there were plenty of opportunities for gratuitous shots of the collateral advertising materials around the venue, we settled on a more nuanced approach.

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Tell a story.

 Event and documentary coverage is a great opportunity to engage your fanbase with more than just a single image. If a gallery or series of images is your goal, think how the images will work in terms of pacing and as a narrative. In this scenario, we wanted to be able to add some visual diversity and shoot more than just bands on stage, so we enlisted a couple people from the creative team to make some images with a lifestyle perspective.

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Creating Content for Promoted Pins

Pinterest just announced that they will be bringing paid content into the fold with "promoted pins". This shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone. Generating revenue of some sort has to be in the books for any social media service to stick around for a long time. And ever since dropping their skimlinks partnership in 2012, Pinterest has not been generating revenue. From my perspective, what's interesting about his is how the production of pictures for social media will evolve for Pinterest. I've worked with clients to produce content for Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram. One of the biggest conversations has been about how we can create content that feels right for the platform. What's different about Pinterest is that much of the content is NOT user generated. Rather, it's pinned from other websites, which means it's common to see content that was professionally produced. To put this another way: your average Tumblr, Facebook or Instagram user isn't going to post 20 professionally produced studio shots in a row. But it's not uncommon at all for a Pinterest board to look like this:

 Producing good commercial content that works on Pinterest is going to be less of a paradigm shift for most advertisers. Having said that, every social media platform comes with it's built in personality and quirks, and I'll definitely be keeping my eye out for the agencies and brands who can create images that really takes advantage of the platform.

G-Star Raw Tumblr

The G-STar Raw Tumblr is a great example of a brand using the platform well. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Current and topical posts: Right now they're posting streetstyle images from New York Fashion Week on the same day they're shot.
  • True to the platform: In particular I think their occasional use of an animated GIF works well for them without being overwhelming or gimmicky. Most of the images have more of the documentary vibe that fits in well on Tumblr and less of a glossed over perfect vibe that most people write off as advertising. They are dropping in the occasional image from a print campaign, but in this case it blends in well and doesn't feel out of place.
  • Invitation to collaborate: The tumblr page suggests that others tag their looks with the #GStarRAW hashtag, and they'll re-blog their faves. That's a great way to organically drive attention towards the brand, and I can imagine that a true fan of the brand would be thrilled to have their look featured among the well curated page.

G-Star Raw produces their content internally. They're definitely going to be one to watch for inspiration in terms of fashion brands doing a great job on social media.

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Sentiment Towards Tumblr's Sponsored Posts

Interested in what actual user sentiment is towards sponsored posts on Tumblr? Take a look at posts tagged with "sponsored posts" on Tumblr.

While there are a lot of negative comments out there, you do have to take it with a grain of salt. Any platform that's being adjusted to let advertising in on the conversation is bound to feel some growing pains.

I believe that Tumblr is in a critical place right now where they're really going to have to cultivate and work with the brands sponsoring posts so that the posts stay true to the platform and relevant to the audience.

Piggybacking on TV Shoots

Across the board there's been a trend towards combining commercial/motion shoots with still photography. (Here's what Art Buyers are People Too has to say about that). I've worked on a few projects for Verizon shooting still images during a commercial shoot. These shoots can definitely be interesting to navigate, but I also think that they can pay great dividends in terms of creating social media content.

Brands may have limited access to talent, particularly if they are athletes or culture personalities. So a huge advantage of approaching a shoot like this is that it might be the only opportunity to work with particular talent. My first shoot was of IndyCar drivers Will Power and Helio Castroneves. It would definitely be hard to imagine a scenario where we were able to arrange for a day of their time for me to focus solely on shooting them for social media. But the time that Verizon had them scheduled to create the TV commercial seemed like a great opportunity to make the most of their commitment and to create some content in parallel with the larger production.

Something to be aware of for anyone who wants to create these sorts of images is that a commercial shoot can be a delicate place to navigate. This was a high pressure situation for the director and crew involved. They were shooting at an expensive location (renting an entire racetrack), with expensive talent, complicated tracking shots with car mounted steadicams, and a whole slew of extras standing by for some of the shots. Every minute of shooting counted. To throw in an unknown variable like a me - a photographer with my own set of goals  - definitely had the potential to add to the stress. I was very fortunate that the production crew was amazing and very open to having me on set. In turn I walked very lightly and made sure that I was always aware of the next moves for the production, and that I was never in a place that would slow it down.

This was an early shoot for Verizon. We didn't enter it with a ton of direction, and all of the photography I created was with a behind-the-scenes approach. It was all documentary, and I didn't try to create specific shots or manipulate anything. At a more recent shoot that I did on an NFL set (which I'll be sharing as soon as I'm able to!), I worked with our creative team to think up specific shots, and we worked collaboratively in very brief chunks of time to create some setup shots with the talent.

Take a look at the Verizon Facebook page, and you'll see that we really got the most out of the images that I shot during this shoot. As the IndyCar season continues, we're able to continue to draw from a library of images. They're consistent with the overall photography style, and give a unique perspective on the two Verizon sponsored athletes.

Mr. Porter's Journal

For those interested in new models in media and advertising, Mr Porter's The Journal is a project to keep your eye on in. The brand seems to be spending the bulk of it's marketing focus on creating it's own content rather than the old school pay-for-an-ad-next-to-someone-elses-editorial-content approach. While the outlook for the print publishing industry is fairly dismal, people are consuming content more than ever. I believe that smart companies are going to move more and more to creating content in-house, and curating an audience on their own site. For a savvy fashion brand, that $150K per month you were going to spend on the media buy for a single page ad in Vogue can go a long ways towards producing some beautiful custom tailored content. There are other reasons why I can really see this being a great promotional strategy, particularly for the fashion industry. Mr Porter is able to hire industry heavyweights like Derek Blasberg to write content. Having someone like Blasberg write for you goes a lot farther to build the brand than running a paid ad opposite that same article in a glossy magazine. Also, thanks to what we've been conditioned to see in fashion magazines, pairing editorial content with sales comes off quite naturally. It's doesn't feel obtrusive at all for the article titled "How to Dance (well)" to be followed by a widget suggesting you buy a Dolce and Gabbana tux or a Brooks Brothers bowtie from them. I believe that Mr Porter is leading the way with their Journal, and I expect that we'll be seeing other fashion retailers follow suit in the near future.

Finding an Audience Outside of Other Photographers

"There are lots of examples where photographers attract other photographers by talking about the business or their process for making pictures, but the real potential lies in attracting consumers outside this industry."

 

Great point Rob. In addition to The Sartorialist, The Selby, Me in My Place and Cobra Snake, I'm keeping my eye on fashion bloggers like Jamie and Kevin Burg, and Garance Dore.