Facing an increasingly media-savvy audience who tend to “ignore advertising completely or don’t believe it,” said PDN senior editor Conor Risch, advertising clients are clamoring for campaigns that look believable and “authentic.” At the PhotoPlus Expo panel “How to Make Advertising that Doesn’t Look Like Advertising,” photographers Olivia Bee, Christa Renee and Bil Zelman shared a wealth of tips on everything from casting real people to managing client expectations to their techniques for post-production in order to create ads that look natural and spontaneous. They also explained why, when photographing real people, they are not so much directing the talent as they are misdirecting them.
“I like to keep the talent in the dark,” said Zelman, who doesn’t explain to his models what he needs to photograph. “If they don’t know what I’m looking for, they can’t fake it for me.” Renee said, “I’m telling them stupid things and they’re so confused, it’s after that that I shoot.” She often tells talent she needs them to run around: “People are better to shoot when they’re tired,” she said. Renee said she never lets the talent see the shots on the monitor, and will block it off with foamcore panels if needed.
Zelman showed an image from a Bud Light campaign in which he photographed several people clowning in the snow. It was a particularly awkward shoot, he said: None of the talent who were supposed to act like friends knew each other, and a snow machine had to be brought in to fake the snow. At one point, he had his assistant pelt the talent with potatoes. They turned to the camera and laughed in surprise. Zelman explained, “I have many things to get reaction, and one is I bring potatoes.” Bee added, “Shitty, loud music is good to get people moving and laughing.”
Bee, whose personal work photographing her teenage friends landed her jobs from Converse, Fiat USA and other ad clients, says her goal is to recreate a similarly friendly and relaxed atmosphere on set even when she’s working with professional models. “If you can recreate that atmosphere and be a fly on the wall, I think you’ll get the same pictures. They won’t be as special but it’ll be close.” She and the other photographers try to bond with the talent before the shoot.
The photographers said that the subjects feel more at ease without the clients hovering. Zelman said, “Not every client is comfortable handing you a big bag of money and then leaving the room.” He recommends giving the client a detailed treatment that explains why a closed set will produce better photos. Renee said she offers to set clients up in a separate room with iPads so they can preview the shots from a distance.
All the photographers said that when it comes to finding energetic, charismatic talent, video casting works better than looking through head shots. Said Bee, “I ask them questions like: ‘What’s your favorite thing to do?’ And, ‘Have you ever been in love?’ to see the sparkle in their eye.” Zelman noted, “It’s important to have a couple of extroverts, because I know that if I give them a little caffeine they’ll lift the energy of the group.” When a shoot calls for a couple or a family, the photographers strive to hire people who are married or related in real life. Zelman said that on a shoot for Microsoft, he hired a band to play during a party scene, then photographed the fans who showed up. (“I had some hero talent sprinkled throughout,” he explained.)
While Bee prefers to shoot in natural light, Zelman said, “I like the paparazzi flash. I’ll take a real, touching moment in crappy lighting over a fake moment with blank faces in beautiful light.” Renee said she’s often shooting libraries of images that call for both interiors and exteriors, so she relies on lighting to give the images a consistent look—and, at times, compensate for bad weather on location. She’ll light a large area in which the talent can move. Her budgets don’t often allow her to use continuous lights, so instead, “I use a lot of broad sources,” she says. When photographing kids, popping strobes can be distracting. “You just have to get them to the point where they’re focused on your little dance, not on the lights.”
The photographers keep retouching to a minimum. Zelman often adds grain during post, to compensate for the crisp perfection of modern digital cameras, but tries to follow a five-minute rule: “If I have to work on it for more than five minutes, I picked the wrong picture.”
And how did these photographers land so many advertising assignments? By constantly shooting personal work and then sharing it. “I try to shoot as much as possible when I’m not working,” says Renee. “I think you have to be constantly shooting and put your work on the internet across all social platforms,” said Bee. “Promote the shit out of yourself. No one else is going to do it for you. “