Saturday, August 20, 2011

"Interesting" Trumps "Real" In Advertising And Editorial Concept Photography

This photo of a body builder, photographed in a studio and composited into a sky image, represents strength and power.
I photographed this body builder against a black background in my studio, then used Photoshop to strip it into the sky image. Even though the lighting isn't "realsitic", the image works for a concept photo about strength and power.

“Real” Photos And An Epiphany
When I first started taking pictures I was a strong believer in “real”. That is, I didn’t believe in filters or other “tricks” to enhance photos (this was in the early 1970s waaay before digital). I doggedly held onto that belief for many years. My epiphany came one day when I was thumbing through a magazine and a picture of a runner jogging along a trail caught my eye.

The Image Is The Most Important Thing
The runner was obviously lit by strobe light even though she was on a trail outdoors. My first reaction was my typical one, derision that the photographer had resorted to such an artificial technique. But as I continue to leaf through the magazine the image stuck in my head. I realized that the image was more interesting, more “alive”, than any of the other shots in the publication. That was my “aha” moment. Journalism aside (now there is a whole other can of worms), I realized that the image was the most important thing, not how it was made and not whether it conformed to reality. In commercial photography the image is there to grab your attention, and it is pointless to argue about how the image was made and whether or not it is “real enough” if it does its job and grabs your attention.

Reality Is Less Important Than Interesting
So here I am decades later, and every image I touch gets clobbered in Photoshop. When compositing images digitally, which is pretty much all I do now, I will also add that reality is less important than “interesting” with one caveat. That caveat is that the image must work. Sometimes that means adhering with all the little details, lighting, shadows, perspective and so forth, that make an image look real. Other times though, the image is far more effective if the lighting is more dramatic than reality, or the perspective is different than what one would encounter in an un-manipulated photo.

Enhanced Reality For Advertising And Editorial Concepts
A common technique I employ is to add rim lighting on subjects stripped into a new background in scenes that rim lighting would not exist in. Done well, the images work better than with “real” lighting. The key here is to make the changes subtle enough that the illusion of reality is not interrupted.  You end up with “enhanced reality” that for advertising and even editorial concepts works better than plain old “real”.


donfarrall said...

HI John,

A few years ago I sent an image to my editor at Getty, it was an out door scene produced in studio, dramatic, but a bit odd as you suggest in this article. His reply " It looks so fake that it's cool" seemed to fit and he accepted it as is. That image went on to sell very well, and still sells today, in spite of it's unnatural lighting effect. I too used to be a purest for authentic lighting, but at times, breaking that rule produces a better image. Don Farrall

Jaak Nilson said...


You have a great sense and know-how and you can create an interesting concept photo situations. It is real key into stock business success.