Every Picture Tells a Story
If a picture really is worth a thousand words, what would that be in a direct mail package? A four-page letter? Five brochures? Twenty post scripts? One hundred headlines? Like the art of photography itself, such word counts are not an exact science, but they do paint a vivid picture of just how much of your story product photos will tell in your direct mail efforts.
The primary goal of product photography is, quite simply, to sell the product. But is it enough to snap a picture and plop it in a brochure? The answer is a resounding "no," according to photographer Don Wolf, president of Kansas City-based New Vision Photography. For Wolf, the hallmark of great direct mail and catalog product photography is its ability not just to show the product, but also to show "how the product can make [a prospect's] life easier, happier, more functional." In other words, why she should buy.
Brent Niemuth, senior brand strategist for Shawnee Mission, Kan.-based consultancy J. Schmid and Associates, agrees. "People tend to buy based on either what it looks like or what it does, so show that in the best way. We always say that the photo should tell what the unique feature is," Niemuth states.
One way to portray that is through the ambience of your photography, which Lisa von Freiberg, creative manager of Omaha Steaks, feels is a critical part of the high-end food retailer's visual style. "First and foremost we are looking to make people hungry," states von Freiberg. "We want eating Omaha Steaks to be an experience. We want people to see [the picture] and say, 'That's how I want to feel.'"
Another approach is to focus solely on the product and why people might want it. For example, if customers like your product because of the colors it comes in, use lighting that represents your colors in the most accurate fashion and show all of the available color options rather than just listing them. From a production standpoint, you'll want to make sure that the end product is as close to the original as possible.
If customers buy your product for what it does, on the other hand, then one photo might not be enough to tell the whole story. For example, if your product is bendable, suggests Niemuth, a large photo of the product with an "action" inset of that same product, but bent, will explain how it works more clearly.
Tricks of the Trade
Whatever sales angle works best for your product, there are a number of stylistic elements you can use to help portray it in the best light.
First and foremost, asserts Wolf, make sure that the photo is not so artistic that it won't reproduce when it goes to print. Dramatic lighting, heavy contrasts and subtle shading may look great in the studio, but how will they translate to the printed piece? Photographers, recommends Wolf, should stick to the basics and remember that the shot is supposed to sell the product, not your technique.
Reproducibility also comes into consideration in a big way when photographing for brochures, catalogs or other media that will feature multiple product shots because in such cases, consistency is key. "Never think of an individual product when you are shooting. Think of what other products and images that photo is going to be near," asserts Niemuth. Your finished piece will look much more put together and appealing if style, lighting, background, color palette and angle are consistent throughout.
The widespread adoption of digital photography has made this consistency much easier to achieve, offering a more predictable end product, both in composition and quality. "For example, if we want to match [the] angle on a shot we did that morning, we can pull up that image and put them side by side," states Wolf. He also points out that how film is stored and processed will have an effect on color, making color accuracy more difficult to achieve with film. "We have much tighter color control now than we ever had with film," he asserts.
Consistent style also can help you use your product shots to cultivate brand, which is an emerging trend in the world of direct marketing photo-graphy. "In the last two years, the word 'branding' has become much more predominant," muses Wolf. "We [are] very careful to not introduce a lighting look or angle that is not consistent with what [clients] are used to."
Lands' End is one marketer that uses a unique style of photography to support its brand. Some hallmarks of the clothing company's style include unusual crops that draw attention to the clothing rather than the models, lighting that highlights the texture of its fabrics, and close-up shots that demonstrate the little details that make its products unique.
Niemuth points to the background color palette of The Sharper Image's marketing efforts, which features cool tones of green, blue and purple, as another strong example of branding through product photography.
Another important factor in how your products come across is lighting. For food shots, such as those that have made Omaha Steaks a household name, up-close shots and the need for fine detail require a very well-lit photo without too many shadows. Proper light also is necessary to capture texture and detail in fabric; too much light may wash out subtle variations in color. A natural lighting style can make products seem more real and give them more drama and texture. "I like to make the light look like it's coming from a natural light source, like a window, like there's a reason for the light to be coming in that way," comments Wolf.
Form Follows Function
When developing a photographic style, it is important to note that what works in your direct channels may not translate as well into other advertising avenues. While soft focus, mood lighting and heavy propping are popular in advertising photography, Niemuth contends that tests reveal these stylistic tactics don't work as well in catalogs or direct mail. The product always should be in focus and propping should be kept to a minimum, advises Niemuth, otherwise the end result will distract from the product. Tight crops that draw attention to the product, reduce background noise and show a lot of detail also are key to direct mail photography.
"Advertising photography tends to be a little sexier, a little more stylized ... the focus isn't always on the product, but [rather on] trying to create a mood," states Niemuth. "For catalog and direct mail, it should be more straightforward. The entire intent is to sell the product. ... [That] always tends to pull better response."
However, this does not mean that you need to have different photo shoots for each style of advertising you use, which can be a costly endeavor. According to von Freiberg, Omaha Steaks uses the images it features in its largest channeldirect mailacross all other media, including the Internet, in-store advertising and space ads. Von Freiberg recommends that you photograph your products with multiple channels in mind.
The key to making this work is careful preplanning to identify a style that will work for all of your marketing efforts. Von Freiberg has found that this due diligence is an invaluable part of the photographic process. Prior to any photo shoot, Omaha Steaks' corporate chef cooks up the products in question so that the creative staff can get an idea of what it has to work with and determine a direction. That direction is then very conscientiously conveyed to the photographer. "It helps immensely," states von Freiberg.
Wolf agrees that great product photography begins with great art direction. "They set the goals, and my job is to fulfill those goals."
Don't Forget to Test
Although it won't be the most important thing that you test, photo-graphy should be measured occasionally to help you find the style that best complements your product line. "We always recommend testing if you can take the time and can afford to do it," asserts Niemuth.
Von Freiberg agrees, stating that about once a year, Omaha Steaks tests photography, pitting different images of the same product in the same layout with the same copy against each other, sometimes with surprising results. "We have learned that what we like is not always what wins. It's not always the prettiest shot that people find the most appetizing," states von Freiberg. "It's a direct marketing truth: You can't second-guess the numbers. If you want to know, you need to test."
Testing can be expensive, but advances in digital photography may have a positive effect on marketers' ability to test images in the future, postulates Niemuth: "It has sped up the process so much that it allows you to experiment a little more ... and cost savings might allow you to make those extra shots."
For many prospects, the images you show in your direct mail package will be their first introduction to your product. When it comes to making that first impression, there's no such thing as being too picky, contends von Freiberg. "We are very careful with how we want to be portrayed," she asserts. "We feel very strongly about the quality of products we offer, and we won't use a photograph that doesn't reflect that."
Whatever your product, whatever your style, whatever your budget, always keep in mind that just like the copy you write, the layout you design, and the offer you make, the pictures you use speak volumes about your product.