Perhaps one of the most difficult objects I’ve ever had to light – directionality is needed to show finishing textures, but at the same time, diffusion for the polished surfaces. Reflections are controlled by carefully constructing the ambient environment and positioning of the lights and watch. This is a single image, not a composite.
This article is almost certainly going to not just going to make me unpopular with other photographers, but my clients, too. But it has to be said: I’m crying myself hoarse but nobody seems to be listening. There is a growing disconnect between physical reality and commercial ‘reality’. And if those people bridging the gap don’t say or do something about it – where does it end? As they say, the truth hurts. Read on if you’re masochist.
I’m of course referring to how fake products look in advertising – there’s a very, very thin line between finding the best angle and lighting to represent an object, and portraying an unrealistic and physically unfeasible vision. Let me backtrack: there are three ways to light and photograph an object. The most realistic way – if photography can be though of as having any degree of authenticity in the first place* – is to place the object in a feasible ‘normal use’ setting, perhaps have the target audience interact with it, and then hit the button. The second way is to set up artificial lights around the subject in such a way as to control reflections, texture, etc – this is the optimal method, and requires both some understanding and appreciation of the subject, as well as knowledge and understanding of lighting.
*It is, after all, a very subjective representation of the world by the photographer and in this case the art director and/or client
Both of these methods are physically plausible: you can use your naked eyes and see the same thing, form the same angle, by moving your head around a bit. Even in the studio lighting scenario – if we used continuous lighting, we’d be able to see exactly the same thing as the finished photograph, tone and contrast adjustments aside. Leaving aside retouching – I think removing stray dust and ensuring that the colour accurately represents the actual physical object is fair because it matches intentions and nothing more – I feel this is about as far as we can go and retain some degree of integrity over what the image represents.
The problem is, almost nobody wants to stop at this point. In fact, nine out of ten clients tell me they want their output to look ‘punchier’ or ‘shinier’, to ‘have more pop’, or worse, pull out a magazine ad with a product that’s been photoshopped to within an inch of becoming an illustration. In most advertisements or commercial product photographs, what we see is no longer reality, or even a reasonable facsimile of it. This is because of two things: a lack of education and imagination on the part of the client or art director, and a lack of executional capability on the part of the photographer. Instead of making a product that looks good, then finding an angle and lighting setup that actually makes the product look good, inevitably the shoot resorts to composite lighting** and heavy photoshop. It’s nothing but pathetic mediocrity all round.
**Where the camera position is static, but each face/ facet is lit differently and then blended together in photoshop. This is physically unrealistic because the light spill from one face/ side will affect the others; reflections are natural, and something to be used to define angles and lines, not feared and airbrushed into oblivion. Think of a car advertisement: how many cars have you seen in reality that actually look like that? I’m willing to wager it’s zero.
The real deal – here you can see the actual lighting setup used. The finished image was taken with a longer lens to project the car onto the plain velvet background. There is an On Assignment post from this shoot that goes into much more detail here.
I believe it is necessary to do things with a bit more integrity; it is much harder (some objects simply do not like to be lit in the way you envision) because you have to get everything right for that one single shot. But the end result is that what the potential customer sees is exactly what they get in reality. And this is infinitely preferable to being disappointed; (better yet if we can make the product look not quite as good as the real thing, but then that would be doing ourselves as photographers a disservice). To photograph with a single fixed lighting setup and one shot only is not easy, because you have to be very conscious of interaction of lights with backgrounds and reflections and everything else – controlling spill and direction is paramount, and often results in lots of odd flags and blockers surrounding both light and objects. In case I haven’t already made it clear, I don’t do composites because I feel there’s something dishonest about them, and as a customer, it isn’t what I’d want to see. There’s no point buying something and either knowing it’ll never look like it does in the ads, or being constantly disappointed because it doesn’t. Very, very few photographers I know work in this way – partially because it isn’t as efficient (and therefore not as profitable) – partially because they don’t have the ability, and mostly because they don’t have the balls to tell the client they’re wrong.
In the long run, not taking the more authentic approach is damaging to client and photographer. The ultimate arbiter of success of an advertisement is the consumer. If the product does not sell because it appears disappointing in person compared to the advertisements, then the client will not prosper, the art director (if they even hired one in the first place) will be blamed by the client, and ultimately the buck stops at the photographer, and they can kiss their reputation and future stream of work goodbye. Nobody wins because everybody wanted to take an easy shortcut.
Any physical object can be made visually compelling with the right quality of light. Composites not required. From the photoessay ‘artistic experiments in the home’
There is one large grey area, however. What if the product or service you want to represent requires some sort of back story to make it work? Or has that back story as part of a campaign? Some things that instantly come to mind are the recent set of Louis Vuitton ads by Annie Leibowitz. They do not represent reality at all, nor are the products feasibly depicted, but then again it is clear that they are not meant to – unless you are completely stupid, it’s pretty difficult to misinterpret. The very grey area in the middle is what troubles me: it almost feels like misrepresentation. I sometimes lie awake wondering if one day a very irate customer for a very expensive object might land up suing the photographer for misrepresentation – and if so, it seems that we have very little defence against it. ‘Your honour, the client told me to do it’ is not really an excuse – and without explicit written instructions (again, subjective) there is no way of proving anything.
I suppose one way of looking at the whole situation is that it is no different to the pre-photography days: when things were advertised with illustrations or paintings. There was no ambiguity then: the customer knew that there was no way the car they were going to buy would look like a line drawing. Since then, we’ve passed through reality, to hyperreality, and now are well on our way into the realm of surrealism – except unlike before, I’m not convinced that every consumer knows it. There is this subconscious expectation that what you see is what you are going to get; the number of times I’ve been asked by various non-photographers why the actual product looks nothing like what’s in the photograph is worryingly high. I don’t know whether to be more concerned about the lack of integrity in the work, or the lack of education all around. What happened to normal healthy skepticism? Are we too saturated by media to be able to tell the difference? And surely clients must be able to see this, too.
You are probably wondering why there are no specific examples of bad work in this article; it would be unfair to single out a photographer or company or client; we are probably all guilty to some degree. But there are some industries that spring to mind as being extremely misrepresentative – fashion/ beauty, automotive, luxury goods. Just look at any advertisement in these sectors. Put on your photographer’s cap. Unfeasible lighting is your first key; the sun only shines from one direction. (I was once shown a very, very bad architectural composite with two suns in the frame and told that they wanted work like that; I resigned the commission immediately.) Then there’s depth of field, and lack of reflections on polished surfaces – especially those that must face other things given then placement of surrounding objects in the scene. Photoshop should be used to enhance the presentation what’s already there, not to make misrepresentations and fix the shortcomings of the photographer or art director.
Now, ask yourself: does this make sense? How can you make a decision on what to buy, whether to buy, based on something that is a falsehood and technically unfeasible? If the company you are buying from is capable of this degree of obfuscation – what else is this saying about their ethics, operating principles and general opinion of their customers, and their faith in their own product? The worst part is that most of these ads are so badly laid out and visually ugly they are offensive to our sense of aesthetics – it can’t even be seen as artistic license anymore, just poor composition and sloppy work.
I’m going to close with a challenge to prospective clients and agencies (those who work with me already know what I think, and agree with me): instead of ‘fixing it in photoshop’, how about spending a bit more time thinking about how to best represent your product in a physically feasible way? If you can’t figure it out, hire a photographer with the experience to do so. Actually listen to their opinion, and look at the output. Your product is probably good enough to sell itself; after all, somebody had to design it and think ‘yes, this is what I want; this looks good’. How about making it stand out by giving it a chance? MT – commercial photographer-at-large and available for hire
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