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 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.
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.
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.
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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