How to Commission Photography

Choosing the right photographer and then guiding him through a design project are skills that improve with hands-on experience. Unfortunately, the combination of a chronic economic downturn and an exploding stock-photo industry has translated into fewer opportunities for young designers to assign original photography. So when a plum photo project does pop up, designers can be set adrift in a sea of promo cards, sourcebooks and websites, not knowing which way to paddle. While every photo project is fraught with a certain amount of risk, there are effective ways to improve your chances of not only selecting the right person, but also ensuring that the job goes smoothly from start to finish.

Convince the Client
The first step is convincing your client that a project demands original photography rather than stock. Jill Howry of Howry Design Associates in San Francisco relies on three rock-solid arguments to help her seal the deal: "First, with original photography there’s the option of owning the rights up front," she explains, which ensures that the shots won’t turn up elsewhere. Howry’s second point: "We are a message-driven company, and the best way to get that across is with original photography. Fashion the photography to the piece, instead of fashioning the piece to the photography [as with stock]." Third, original images can feature the client’s employees or customers—with stock, this just isn’t an option.

Greg Samata of SamataMason in Dundee, IL, says that if he’s dealing with a larger client that must differentiate itself in the marketplace, original photography is essential. "We spend an endless amount of time on strategy and messaging, trying to help our clients position themselves absolutely right within their markets," Samata explains. "For us to search Google or Corbis or Getty for the same images that a thousand other people in the same industry are looking at is irresponsible. This is not a game; companies need to have their own voice."

Peruse Portfolios
Once the client is convinced of the need for original photography, the next step is to research talent and styles. Designers should refer to the piles of promo cards in their files, the stacks of sourcebooks gathering dust and the Internet. Narrow the list to two to five names and then call for work samples. Browsing a portfolio isn’t the same as searching a stock site—look at style, not content.

While inspecting the portfolios, ask yourself several key questions:

  • Is the photographer’s style consistent—can he duplicate it for your shoot? Make sure there are several printed samples that show the photographer has completed this type of work on real assignments, not just for portfolio pieces.
  • Is the photographer’s experience right for the job? Don’t hire a people shooter to do table-top, or vice versa. And someone with a photojournalistic background may not be able to handle a shot that requires complex lighting.
  • Is the style right for the project? Don’t disregard something creative and unique, but be sure that it fits the project and that the client approves.
  • How "doctored" are the photos in the portfolio? Online samples might look impressive, but this could be a result of extensive manipulation. Some photographers shoot sloppy and expect to clean it up in Photoshop.

Consider Chemistry
The creative flair a photographer brings to the table is crucial, but personality is equally indispensable. If possible, schedule a face-to-face interview with the final candidates to assess their attitudes and social skills. If this is impractical, a lengthy telephone conversation must suffice. Since photographers often meet customers, clients and perhaps even the CEO, they should have good people skills. Given the collaborative nature of the relationship, look for a photographer who’s positive and upbeat, open-minded about creative issues, flexible and willing to deal with changes.

Finagle the Finances
When you call for a portfolio, discuss the project with the photographer and request an estimate. If the bid is too high, tell the photographer that she’s your first choice and ask if there’s room for negotiation. Most realistic pros will find a way to bring the two numbers together. There are often ways to revise the schedule or reconsider the usage fee. If the client loves the photographer’s portfolio, he might loosen the purse strings. Or you could trim costs for other elements of the project.

Structure the Shoot
Most designers advise bringing the photographer into the creative process as early as possible. Make her feel like part of the team, not a vendor or hired hand. If you hire a good photographer, she’ll relish the opportunity to bring new ideas to the table. Don’t overlook the mundane aspects of the job. Who will choose the models? The wardrobe? The locations? The props? The catered lunch? 

Most designers, especially those who are new to commissioning original work, worry about how much art direction to convey. While the level of input may vary depending on the personalities involved, it’s essential to give a photographer some leeway to be creative and bring his vision to the assignment. Bring sketches or rough layouts to the shoot, but don’t be a slave to them.

Review the Rights
Obtain the usage and rights that your client needs, not any more or less. Photographers and clients are both concerned about usage issues, but for different reasons. The photographer is reluctant to relinquish any usage rights without appropriate compensation, while the client wants long-term, extensive rights for as little payment as possible. Most clients have limited experience with copyrights and are often shocked when they realize they don’t own the photos outright. But the designer’s responsibility is to educate the client about rights, and to handle the negotiations so both the photographer and client are satisfied.

Analyze the project’s parameters to determine which usage rights you’ll need to secure on your client’s behalf. For important projects (especially where the photos play a critical role), arrange to purchase more extensive rights. Will the client need exclusive use for six months? One year or more? Will the printed piece be distributed regionally, or should you buy national or worldwide usage? Do you need to obtain exclusivity only in the client’s industry or for all industries? Will the client re-use the photos in other projects in the coming months? One re-use or several? And what form will those uses take? Be forewarned that photographers bristle at the word "buy-out"—they’re extremely reluctant to transfer full ownership (and copyright) to the client, except at an enormous price. Instead, ask for unlimited exclusive use for a specific period of time. The photographer retains the copyright, but the client can re-use the images and ensure that no one else will be using them—it’s a suitable compromise.