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Industry Insights with Le Book: How to secure a commission on an integrated brand campaign

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Graeme Bulcraig, founder of Touch Digital, on how a new wave of photographers, ones adept and versatile across multiple styles and media, are now leading the way in commercial photography 

Being commissioned to shoot a major campaign for a big brand can change a photographer’s career. A commission can provide the financial security you need to fully commit to a personal project that has never been realised because of financial imperatives.

One commission might also make other top brands take notice. Shoot for Chanel, and Gucci might reach out. Shoot for The Washington Post and The New York Times might come calling. Get in with BMW and Mercedes might want you too.

Today, more than ever, many brands and publications want an ‘integrated’ campaign. In other words, they don’t just want a certain type of still photo, made in a certain style and in a certain way. Rather, they ask you to blend and cross-pollinate a variety of aesthetic and visual languages.

Brands won’t just want one type of photograph either. They will likely want to be able to choose between tactile analogue imagery processed in a dark room and top-tier digital imagery made with the highest post post-production standards.

Rosemary's Room, 2018. From the series What To Do With A Million Years © Juno Calypso

They may also want moving imagery, which they can post on their social media feeds, their website and maybe even on TV too. They may also be looking for a photographer with the confidence to act as a director of a crew, and to oversee a film shoot that interlinks with the still images. This individual will be able to demonstrate an understanding of design, of montage, of fine art, of text and of old fashioned advertising skills, so the images can work in conjunction with a multi-tiered campaign.

And, increasingly so, they may want the photographer they commission to have a social media following that aligns with their brand principles. Someone who is able to demonstrably tap into the demographic that their brand is targeting. They will want the creator of their branded content to have their own identity.

From the series The Honeymoon, Eternal Beauty II Film Still 2014 © Juno Calypso courtesy of the artist

Does that mean you have to be good at everything, be entirely versatile, and be able to give a brand any style and media they want? Or can you still specialise in a niche of still photography and be in the running for a great integrated campaign?

Graeme Bulcraig is the founder and Managing Director of the London-based post-production lab Touch Digital. Bulcraig is also closely involved with the international photography and creative industry publisher LE BOOK, as well as Connections by LE BOOK, a custom-made trade-show for the creative community which has recently migrated to the online space with the launch of Connections Digital.

Over the course of his career, Bulcraig has worked with scores of photographers to produce imagery for countless brand and advertising campaigns. He has witnessed the changing wants, needs and desires of brands in these last three decades.“When we started out, everyone shot on film, and there was a very regulated approach to commercial photography,” Bulcraig says. “A photographer would shoot with negative film, then we would help them to scan and retouch the imagery. Then digital came along and took over the world.”

© Juno Calypso

“These days, you’re seeing photographers coming out of universities with a lot more skills and a real autodidactic approach to their work. They’re really adept at Photoshop, and they’re teaching themselves how to shoot, cut, edit and grade in motion and stills. They’re blurring the lines between working as a photographer or working as a director. Brands today are really responsive to that.”

The sudden digital boom led to a scenario where career-long photographers “were suddenly expected to try and do everything,” Bulcraig says. “I can remember well-established photographers trying to shoot films on DSLRs. They were creating all of this new content – and, sometimes, it wasn’t of a very good quality. Brands would try and tack on a moving image piece onto a commercial job. It was quite difficult for a lot of established stills photographers to do it well. Brands were desperate to get more content, but they weren’t always getting it delivered.”

Today, brands’ thirst for multimedia content is being fed by a new generation of image-makers. “Brands now want integrated campaigns,” Bulcraig says. “They want the photographs and the moving image aspects of a campaign to match, and to be able to work with everything else – the grading, the editing, the social media, the tone of voice.”

Increasingly, young photographers are able to demonstrate the versatility needed to deliver an integrated campaign. “These days, you’re seeing photographers coming out of universities with a lot more skills and a real autodidactic approach to their work,” Bulcraig says. “They’re really adept at Photoshop, and they’re teaching themselves how to shoot, cut, edit and grade in motion and stills. They’re blurring the lines between working as a photographer or working as a director. Brands today are really responsive to that.”

© Juno Calypso. Subterranean Kitchen, 2017. From the series What To Do With A Million Years

This new trend has meant brands have been willing to overlook very established photographers in favour of younger, newer, less experienced photographers with distinctive voices. 

Tyler Mitchell, the 25-year-old American photographer from Atlanta, Georgia. Is perhaps the best example. As a teenager, Mitchell developed a large online following for skateboarding videos after teaching himself to shoot and edit via YouTube tutorials. Mitchell’s social media platforms came to the attention of an editor at Vogue, and, in 2018, he made history as the first Black photographer to shoot a cover of American Vogue with his portrait of Beyoncé. His first solo exhibition, I Can Make You Feel Good, at Foam Fotografiemuseum in Amsterdam, premiered as many video works as still images.

In the UK, Juno Calypso amassed a huge social media following off the back of two photography series and accompanying short films based around self-portraiture, the first series made when she was a student at the London College of Communication. As a graduate, Juno Calypso started making waves in the industry and, before the age of 30, shot major campaigns for Christian Louboutin and Dior. In 2018, she shot Burberry’s flagship seasonal TV spot.

“It’s important for young photographers to not define themselves just as a fashion photographer, or just as an editorial photographer. Because there’s far too many of those types of photographers, chasing far too few jobs. Instead, it’s worth developing your distinctive voice. Once you know what that is, then you can express it in all sorts of different ways.”

“Brands want photographers with Instagram kudos,” Bulcraig says. “Because it means a guaranteed captive audience. You’re seeing a new hybrid image-maker who has a really intuitive understanding of social media platforms like Instagram. And they’ve got a lot of really engaged followers. They know how to create content that naturally lives on the web. That’s exactly what a brand wants to see.”

So is photography now just limited to how good you are on Instagram? Not at all, Bulcraig says.

“There’s been a massive resurgence in analogue,” Bulcraig says. “A lot of photographers are coming out of university shooting in analogue, with a really good understanding of dark room and processing techniques. That’s meant a lot of brands are interested in that skill again too.”

It can sound overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be. The most important thing, Bulcraig says, is not to define yourself in a limited way. Be open to learning new things and try out new ways of working. But, at all times, try and stay true to your distinct and unique vision.

“It’s important for young photographers to not define themselves just as a fashion photographer, or just as an editorial photographer,” Bulcraig says. “Because there’s far too many of those types of photographers, chasing far too few jobs. Instead, it’s worth developing your distinctive voice. Once you know what that is, then you can express it in all sorts of different ways.”

Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is a Correspondent for The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper*, BBC, The Telegraph, CNN, Independent, Foam, New Statesman, Wired, Vice and The Royal Photographic Society Journal, for whom he won Writer of the Year at the PPA Awards 2020.

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