The 2011 Professional Development Seminar in Seattle highlighted some of the shifting trends in photography. Artists and makers are looking beyond the photographic standards of the graduated gray background and blurring the line between craft images and product photography. Yet regional and topical preferences – or biases – still exist.
For the PDS, three professional photographers and two editors were invited to bring their insights and discuss their opinions in front of an audience of 500 people. The PDS committee (Andy Cooperman, Bridgitte Martin, and I) wanted to reveal any new standards and resolve the best choices for professional quality images.
What we discovered is that there is no universal standard. What works for one person’s work, may not work for another style of art or craft. What works for an online marketplace will not be a good choice for a juried show. It is possible that the personal style of the work and the style of the photography may produce a signature style image.
Does this sound confusing? Certainly, and all the emerging capabilities make photography more in flux than ever. Marthe Le Van, the editor from Lark Books, even went so far as to show rather unusual images of jewelry on the model (left image), and a few minutes later describe her idealized standard photo for the cover of a book. They are not the same.
So even a best-case scenario with excellent quality work that is visually and conceptually appropriate for the cover of a book, a maker now has to consider different photos for other media that reflect varying degrees of personal style.
It may be prudent to produce a range of professional quality images each of which could be appropriate for a particular situation or an intended audience.
A great publicity shot may be eye-catching with an unusual model or brightly colored background. A great image for a juried show may not be the same as a fantastic image for publicity.
The photo to the left from Niche Marketing speaker Hilary Pfeifer is fabulous! The photography matches the style of her work. Would this work for everyone? Definitely not. Does she use this photo for everything? No. She also has images with a more neutral background.
Fantastic images are an investment in your work.
Here is what Roger Schreiber said about this photo of Carol Gouthro's work. "The question of a piece looking better in a photo than in "real" life comes up often when talking to artists. It's all about careful lighting and isolation. Isolating the artwork from surrounding distractions always makes anything look better. But it is still the same piece. Nothing has changed. Eliminating all the light and putting it back where I want it shows texture and form. And it gets rid of window reflections and ceiling light reflections."
If you can’t afford professional photography for ALL your work, then have one professional-level photograph of your best piece for the year or the best piece from a series. That will be your “publicity shot” that represents your work for postcards, business cards, and publicity.
Another option is buying or renting a professional-quality camera. Take a class and learn the variables of manual settings ... and use a tripod. (If you listen to the PowerPoints with audio Robert Schreiber makes recommendations for features that a good camera should have.)
Now that several experts have declared that almost any approach can possibly produce a good photo, here are a few tips that I would recommend as gospel to get a photograph that will be appropriate 95% of the time.
Avoid backgrounds that distract from the work.
Backgrounds should not have a theme such as water, water-washed rocks, sand, moss, or leaves. These backgrounds distract attention away from the work and tend to look commercial at best. They do not translate well in a juried show or juried book situation.
BLACK BACKGROUNDS ARE VERY CHALLENGING. Many people think that black backgrounds are automatically a good choice for light, white or silver work. The reality is that most black backgrounds end up looking like a black holes with no shadows. Try dark gray instead of black as a safer choice. Another option is to lay down a sheet of glass on black to soften the appearance and create a subtle reflection.
LIGHTING SHOULD BE FROM ONE SOURCE. Do not mix lighting sources. All daylight, for example, or all tungsten, but not both. Do not use fluorescent, CFL’s or incandescent lightbulbs. Daylight on a foggy day is the easiest full proof white light.
USE THE WHITE BALANCE IN YOUR CAMERA. Take a photo of white paper. Does it look bright white? If your test photo isn’t looking white, something is wrong with your lighting. This apparent color cast will not produce good photos.
WEBSITE PHOTOS SHOULD BE CONSISTENT IN APPEARANCE. It is fun to experiment with unusual backgrounds or models, but be sure to take a few shots with a more standard graduated gray to white background. Ideally, a group of photos should present a coherent theme; not just a bunch of photos.
FOCUS, Focus, focus. Learn to use the manual settings on your camera to produce the longest depth of field. If this topic is too technical, then take a photography class.
Read ASK Harriete for multiple posts about creating quality photographic images.
A final word of advice. The competition for people’s attention is enormous. The general public has become far more sophisticated in judging quality photography by seeing professional-quality photos every day in advertising, newspapers, bulk mail advertising, and online. Any lesser quality images will diminish the perceived quality of the art or craft. Your image sends a very powerful message. Make it the best messenger possible for your work.
List of Photos starting from the top:
Digital Images from PowerPoint at the PDS.
Roger Schrieber's photo of glass by Jim Mongrain
Hilary Pfeiffer wedding topper from her PowerPoint presentation at the PDS. (To be published soon.)
Photo of Model from Marthe Le Van's PowerPoint presentation at the PDS.
Recent Metalsmith Magazine cover from Suzanne Ramljak's PowerPoint presentation at the PDS.
Images from emiko oye's PowerPoint presentation at the PDS.
Hilary Pfeiffer elephant topper from her PowerPoint presentation at the PDS. (To be published soon.)
Roger Schreiber photo from his website of Carol Gouthro's ceramic
Anonymous photo found online with a bad background.
Anonymous photo with black background found online.
Traveler Chocolate Flower by Harriete Estel Berman
This post was updated on February 5, 2022.