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  • Julia Woollams

A picture is worth a thousand words

Our last blog post very much focused on words when we spoke to five writers about the relationship of words to pictures in the world of branding. During the conversation brand strategist and writer Emily Penny said ‘Pictures constantly inspire me in my writing’ which then made me wonder if the opposite is also the case.


We all know the much paraphrased adage ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ so I was intrigued to find out from photographers how much influence words have when they take pictures – particularly within the context of collaborating with designers.

A picture is worth a thousand words

I chatted with six photographers working in various disciplines to find out their views. Here’s my conversation with Nancy Honey, Louise Haywood-Schiefer, Murray Scott, Gemma Day,

Louise Gough, and John Ingledew.

 


Nancy Honey


Nancy is a UK-based American documentary and portrait photographer. Her work focuses on the lives of women, autobiographical, collaborative and documentary. She has been photographing for more than 40 years and has studied fine art, graphic design and photography in the US and the UK. She was a Fellow of Photography at the National Museum of Photography, Film & TV. She has published 4 monographs throughout her career and she is published nationally and worldwide. Her practice includes a diversity of contexts and formats from editorial, publishing, corporate, advertising, music industry, branding and design as well as many personal projects. Her clients, commissions, biography and details of her work can be viewed on her website and her Instagram.


Julia: For you, what’s the best photography brief to receive from a design team?


Nancy: The main component is communication between the design team and the photographer which almost always requires words whether spoken or written.


This vintage archival photograph below remains one of my favourites. I love the story it portrays and yet it was a caught moment (by Nancy Honey)
This vintage archival photograph below remains one of my favourites. I love the story it portrays and yet it was a caught moment (by Nancy Honey)

Julia: Are there challenges or advantages in receiving a loosely defined brief from a design team?


Nancy: Sometimes you’re given a theme rather than a word. One Roundel booklet project that I worked on had ‘Outer Space’ as a loose overall theme whilst describing 5 different aspects of a range of papers by Zanders Paper Company. There was a lot of collaboration with the design team. They valued how I envisaged illustrating each of their ideas. We brainstormed. One of my ideas ended up replacing an unresolved existing proposal.


Photo from Roundel 'Outer Space' project for Zanders Paper, by Nancy Honey
Photo from Roundel 'Outer Space' project for Zanders Paper, by Nancy Honey

Julia: Are there challenges or advantages in receiving a tightly defined photography brief?


Nancy: What I do not enjoy about certain briefs is not their constriction but their rigidity. If the project has already been cast, locations found, ideas set in stone and I’m being relied upon to just come along and record the event it doesn’t hold much interest for me. I prefer to be much more involved in order for my creativity to come alive and make the project sparkle. I enjoy the team work.


There was a lot of collaboration with the design team. They valued how I envisaged illustrating each of their ideas.

Julia: Have you worked on a project where words have directly inspired your pictures?


Nancy: ‘Positivity’ and all that word conjures was stressed over and again during my initial meeting for the Johnson Banks Livability rebranding project when I was initially commissioned. It would have been impossible to understand how challenging this could be beforehand. Livability is a large national charity that covers diverse disabilities. It ranges from residential homes to schools and day centres and offers care in a wide breadth of forms from birth to old age. It was a big job requiring visiting many national sites. The challenge was that its recipients were not always able to express their happiness or satisfaction in ways we are used to seeing. I had to strive to express that positivity up close and personal, whilst making sure my pictures contained the required narrative about the organisation. That word said it all.


Photo from Livability rebrand project, by Nancy Honey
Photo from Livability rebrand project, by Nancy Honey

 


Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Louise is a London based portrait photographer with published work in many British and international publications. She loves meeting and photographing people and feels incredibly fortunate to have forged a career doing both. Over the years she has photographed many celebrities, musicians, politicians and prominent people in the public eye including HH Dalai Lama, Duke of Cambridge, Noel Gallagher, Caitlin Moran, Zandra Rhodes, Ricky Gervais, James McAvoy and many more.

Find out more about her work on her website, Instagram and Twitter.

Julia: For you, what’s the best photography brief to receive from a creative team?


Louise: I really like it when there’s collaboration in the lead up to a shoot and flexibility within a brief. I recently did a shoot for a magazine with a three way email conversation between myself, the art director and the writer who had set up the shoot with the subject's PR. There was a very big chance that the initial idea wasn’t going to work on the day for various reasons, so the three of us put our heads together and evolved it. We came up with something that the subject was really enthusiastic about and that looked really strong as a cover image whilst conveying the same message as the original idea.

Having space for improvisation also allows for those sparks of collaborative magic with the sitter so they feel more involved.

Julia: Are there challenges or advantages in receiving a tightly defined brief from a creative team?

Louise: When photographing portraits, having too tight a brief can be more of a burden than a benefit because there are so many variables depending on the sitters personality, what mood they might be in that day, what they’re wearing, how comfortable they feel being in front of the camera.


It’s great to have a clear plan so that you don’t waste time trying out unnecessary options, but too many specifics around trying to recreate exact poses or expressions can sometimes be counterintuitive to the flow of the shoot if the person you are photographing feels too rigid or uncomfortable in the process.


Having space for improvisation also allows for those sparks of collaborative magic with the sitter so they feel more involved.


On the contrary, if a sitter hates having their photo taken, they might be more willing to attempt different poses if they think the idea comes directly from the magazine because they are the ones in control of whether the feature gets published or not.

Julia: Are there challenges or advantages in receiving a loosely defined photography brief?


Louise: When photographing a celebrity or those in the public eye, any number of logistical nightmares can arise – the time you have with them might be condensed, or the location might change at the last minute and you may be faced with some garish hotel room walls as a background – so having a loose brief that is open to interpretation is much more useful in those situations.


It also shows a level of trust from the art team that they know you will do the best you can do in what can be quite challenging situations.

Big Issue cover photo, by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Big Issue cover photo, by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Julia: Have you worked on a project where words have directly inspired your pictures?

Louise: I think that any time images are used to accompany text, words definitely have an influence on the style of photographs you take. You have to enhance the atmosphere and mood of words through imagery. For example, it’s probably not wise to photograph someone being jubilantly happy in every frame if the written feature is about trauma or a negative news story.


Picture editors and art directors will tell you the theme of the text or sometimes they might even send over the accompanying interview so you get an idea of what the piece is about and can tailor the feel of your images accordingly.

 


Murray Scott


Murray has been a freelance photographer for the last 20 years. He works on location all over the UK shooting architecture, property, construction, industry and the built environment. His clients include design agencies, architects, developers, construction firms, interior designers and marketing companies.


Find out more about his work on his website and LinkedIn.


Julia: For you, what’s the best photography brief to receive from a design team?


Murray: The majority of my commissions are usually one or two day shoots, often at the completion of a project, so when something comes in that might require photography over the course of several weeks, months or even years, it's great to be involved at the early stages.


These projects tend to be the ones where the marketing is most design-led, you're able to tell a story over a period of time, and you have a bit more freedom to try different things. This also gives you more opportunity to collaborate and feel part of the team, which you don't always get as a freelancer.


I think the ideal brief would be to work on a big, green, future-thinking development over the course of its construction (and beyond), photographing not just the glossy hero shots, but the day-to-day activities on site, the people, the processes, everything coming together, the whole story. Think, the NEOM project in Saudi Arabia – but a bit smaller – and here in Yorkshire.


It’s hard to recreate the exact angle of a CGI if a new carpark’s been built in the way (that happened).

Julia: Are there challenges or advantages in receiving a tightly defined brief from a design team?


Murray: It's great to get a brief where the designer has a clear idea of who they want to target, what they want to say and how the photography and design will compliment each other.


I appreciate it when clients go to the effort of putting together a detailed brief, but as a location photographer, some flexibility is helpful too. There are lots of variables when shooting on location and the designers' expectation of certain shots may not match the reality of what's on site. It's hard to recreate the exact angle of a CGI if a new carpark's been built in the way (that happened).


A good brief would strike a balance between outlining what's required, while encouraging the photographer to apply their own experience and creativity. It's always reassuring to see the line "use your own judgement."


Julia: Are there challenges or advantages in receiving a loosely defined photography brief?


Murray: I'm lucky in the fact that most of my work is from repeat clients, some of whom I've worked with for 15+ years. We've built up a level of trust and understanding that means we can work to a pretty loose brief and still get the right range of shots.


For newer clients, I prefer to get a bit more detail before shooting. That could come in the form of a specific shoot list, or through sample images, sketches or mood boards, even layouts showing where the images will go. Sometimes it's easier to show rather than tell. If a client doesn't know exactly what they want, that's fine, but it's important to have a conversation about how best to approach the job, shooting style, the amount of final images to expect etc.


A couple of times I've had to make changes in post-production that could've been avoided with a more detailed brief, like increasing the amount of sky in Photoshop to accommodate copy, or cropping an image tighter than is comfortable to fit a particular format. Details like that are obviously helpful to know before shooting, but the most important thing to get from the client is what they want the images to 'say'.


The British Library, photographed for The Poetry Of It All, by Murray Scott
The British Library, photographed for The Poetry Of It All, by Murray Scott

Julia: Have you worked on projects where words have directly inspired your pictures?


Murray: Yes, sometimes. When working on property brochures, whether residential or commercial, the main lines from the marketing material will steer the photography in a certain direction. Even the name of the development itself might give a hint to what tone the photography should take.


In a more literal sense, the wording of a brief would definitely influence the outcome of a job. If I was shooting locations and the client asked for bustling and vibrant images, the results would be quite different than if they'd asked for something laid-back and leisurely.


Other times that spring to mind are when I've photographed in-situ poster campaigns for designers nd agencies like Superunion, Johnson Banks and one of your previous blog guests Thomas Sharp. It's very satisfying to subtly reference something in the wording of the poster with the immediate surroundings or with passers-by. It requires a fair bit of luck, but it's nice when it works.

 


Gemma Day


Gemma is a London based portrait and travel photographer. Her clients include leading UK and international publishers, creative content agencies, weekend supplements and monthly magazines. These include, The Times, BBC, Stylist, Spark Creative, Bridge Studio, The Telegraph, Think, John Brown Publishing, Hearst, Conde Nast.


Find out more about her work on her website, Twitter and Instagram.


Julia: For you, what’s the best photography brief to receive from a creative team?


Gemma: The best brief is when there is a clear idea of what the client needs from the shoot – without too many variations and the need to try to cover options, as doing multiple variations of the same shot is not good for creativity. When photographing people, having to try out many different set-ups makes it harder to keep the energy going. A brief with contradictory words is also unhelpful, I have had briefs which have said things like “closer in and pulled back” or “sense of movement but stillness”.


Simple briefs are often the best - I shoot regularly for Pets at Home and they ask for the “closeness/connection” to be shown between the subject and their pet, which doesn’t really need any further explanation. You just need to work out the best way to illustrate this, which is sometimes not that easy when the pet is a neurotic cat that is already hiding under the sofa before you have arrived!


I have had briefs which have said things like “closer in and pulled back” or “sense of movement but stillness”.

Julia: Are there challenges or advantages in receiving a tightly defined brief from a creative team?


Gemma: One of the challenges of a tightly defined photographic brief is that it leaves little room for any creative input from the photographer and may not always be possible on the day due to unforeseen circumstances, for example shooting on location where the weather cannot be as expected.


If the brief is well defined one of the advantages is that everyone on the team would know exactly the result that needs to be achieved. If the brief is inflexible then it is good if the client can be on the shoot to deal with any unexpected challenges.


Julia: Are there challenges or advantages in receiving a loosely defined photography brief?


Gemma: If the client is too vague with the brief they may well be visualising a different result from the photographer so would then be disappointed with the results. It also means that you may have to shoot more variables to make sure that the client will have the shot that they are hoping for. In this scenario there is also the chance the client will ask "did you not try the shot on the blue sofa with the green hat?" – which despite covering multiple options this of course was not one of them!


On the plus side there is often more room for the photographer to be creative and for the shoot to evolve in ways that might not have been predicted, therefore leading to a stronger final image.



Brian Haw, the Peace Protester, by Gemma Day
Brian Haw, the Peace Protester, by Gemma Day

Julia: Have you worked on a project where words have directly inspired your pictures?


Gemma: Probably due to conflict in Ukraine this editorial shoot came to mind – "The Power of One” was a feature about what a difference one person can make. Having the word “Power” in my head inspired me to make Brian Haw, the Peace Protester, look strong and defiant with the commitment to make a difference.

 


Louise Gough


Louise is an architectural and fine art photographer. She has worked within PR and marketing for the built environment working with clients ranging from suppliers through to architects, interior designers and developers. Louise now focuses on her architectural photography. In 2019, Louise won the architectural narrative category of the BluePrint Architecture Photography Awards for her image of 20 Katharine Street.

Find out more about her work on her website and Instagram.

Julia: For you, what’s the best photography brief to receive from a client?

Louise: Working as an architectural photographer, briefs will come from architects, interior designers and property developers through to PR/marketing agencies. Whether office interior or residential, understanding the story behind the building development is important and makes for a great brief as straight away you can ensure that you shoot the inspirational elements plus it allows you to plan for best lighting to really enhance those key details.


Julia: Are there challenges or advantages in receiving a tightly defined brief from a creative team?

Louise: Briefs have generally been fairly broad. As this is a final stage of the property development, the story behind the project is usually available from the architect/interior designer which is hugely influential when preparing. Whilst briefs will focus on certain rooms, floors and exterior of the property, this backstory helps draw your eye to the significant project details that you know will be important for future PR.

Issues may arise where construction sites are not quite finished as expected which means you have to think outside the box and beyond the brief to get as much out of the shoot.


A photographer’s eye is unique, so knowing specific details is vital.

Julia: Are there challenges or advantages in receiving a loosely defined photography brief?

A loose brief certainly has its advantages as it offers a degree of flexibility to overcome issues that arise when you first set eyes on the property. However, once a client sees images, it may act as a reminder of details that may not have been flagged to the photographer if the brief is loosely defined. A photographer’s eye is unique, so knowing specific details is vital. Having insight into the architect’s/designer’s mind about their influences behind the building design is hugely beneficial as part of the brief.



A personal project by Louise Gough, exploring the brutalist era architecture of Croydon including Blueprint Architecture Photography Award winning piece – 20 Katharine Street.
A personal project by Louise Gough, exploring the brutalist era architecture of Croydon including Blueprint Architecture Photography Award winning piece – 20 Katharine Street.

Julia: Have you worked on a project where words have directly inspired your pictures?

Louise: Having worked on both sides of the equation, creating written case studies of architectural projects as well as photographing, the lines can get blurred. When you write a case study based on architectural renders and the written project scope, the words used by the architect or designer are absolutely inspirational and entice you to explore the details visually.

 


John Ingledew


John is the author of the books for students and young designers HOW TO HAVE GREAT IDEAS!, THE A-Z OF VISUAL IDEAS and PHOTOGRAPHY, published in the USA as THE CREATIVE PHOTOGRAPHER. Two books of his photographs have also been published and he is currently working on another. For over 30 years he has taught at Art Schools around the world. He is an occasional purveyor of Teaching Gold.


Find out more about his work on his Instagram.


He asked photographers to “ASTONISH ME” with the ideas they produced.

Julia: For you, what’s the best photography brief to receive from a client?

John: For any creative person by far the best instructions come from Alexey Brodovitch, he asked photographers to "ASTONISH ME!" with the ideas they produced. Slightly dialled down was Seigei Diaghilev’s ”‘SURPRISE ME !”. I also love Kenneth Tynan’s demand to “RAISE TEMPERS, GOAD, LACERATE, RAISE WHIRLWINDS !”


Soho tailors Mark Powell & Nick Tentis, by John Ingledew
Soho tailors Mark Powell & Nick Tentis, by John Ingledew

Julia: Are there challenges or advantages in receiving a tightly defined brief from a client?

John: There’s great joy in nailing an image exactly as desired – and adding your own skills to make it even better than hoped.

Julia: Are there challenges or advantages in receiving a loosely defined photography brief?

John: The advantage of having the freedom to do things your way is that there’s the chance of making something you’re really, really proud of in the long term. The challenge – and the really fun bit – is to come up with the ideas that can do that.


Oscar winning costume designer Sandy Powell, by John Ingledew (In the collection at the National Portrait Gallery)
Oscar winning costume designer Sandy Powell, by John Ingledew (In the collection at the National Portrait Gallery)

Julia: Have you worked on a project where words have directly inspired your pictures?

John: I loved coming up with ideas to illustrate the titles of some sections for my last book HOW TO HAVE GREAT IDEAS! We’d zero budget to buy pictures and a couple of the results made with some of my design students helping out still make me smile.


Stephen Galloway, curator at the V&A, by John Ingledew
Stephen Galloway, curator at the V&A, by John Ingledew

 

Thank you to Nancy, Louise, Murray, Gemma, Louise, and John for sharing their thoughts.


Header photo by Karolina Grabowska



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