Learning to Communicate as an Art Director

I think it’s safe to assume that nearly every designer out there who has worked in either print or digital media has encountered a job that required custom photography. It’s true that low-cost stock photo sites like iStockPhoto.com and Creative Commons-based sites like Flickr have become ubiquitous, but plenty of jobs require a designer to hire and directly work with a photographer. As an early-career designer, I thought it might be useful to describe the process I’ve used for organizing and art directing a shoot.

You may have a short list of photographers that you’re comfortable working with, but if not, don’t fret. When I was working on a personal Web site redesign, I didn’t know where to find a photographer so I started with the first place that I could think of — Craigslist.

I posted an advertisement explaining in brief what the project was, and when the replies started to pour in (and believe me, unless you live in the middle of the desert, they’ll definitely pour in), I started to look for someone whose artistic abilities seemed to jive with my own vision. I knew full well, though, that I needed to find someone who could communicate with me. The worst thing in the world is hiring someone that doesn’t listen to you, and I firmly believe that if someone can’t answer your questions via e-mail or on the phone, you have no business hiring them.

Communication Is Key

Once I’d found a photographer that I liked and agreed on a price and scheduled a shooting date, I wasn’t able to meet him in person beforehand, but I did speak to him on the phone and sent him several detailed e-mails explaining what I had in mind and what I envisioned the end product to look like.

Photographers are visual people, just like designers are, so my photographer was more than happy to look to the photos that I sent him for direction and inspiration. Plus, it’s not uncommon for good photographers to make suggestions that you may not have considered — mine, for example, suggested some outdoor shots, which I hadn’t thought of. When you have this kind of synergy, you just increase the likelihood that the photos you’ll get back will be exactly what you wanted — or better.

Art directing at the actual shoot is often a bit nerve-racking for designers, especially if it isn’t something that they’ve had to do before. The first time that I was asked to art direct at a photo shoot for my job, I had no clue what I was doing, but it didn’t matter to the photographer (a 20-some year veteran behind the lens); he wanted my direction, because I was the one who was ultimately going to manipulate his photographs into their final finished form. Once I made this connection in my own mind, the entire process became much easier, and I really enjoyed what I was doing.

Assert Yourself, But Listen

Giving the photographer direction was much easier when I remembered that he was working for me. Personally, I have to work very hard not to feel anxious in novel work or social situations and it can be difficult for me to say if something is bothering me, but it was helpful to remember one thing: This is a business.

I didn’t hire a photographer so that he could indiscriminately shoot photos that I wasn’t happy with. It’s true that most photographers would say that they are artists, but in this instance the photographer is an artist for hire. If you aren’t happy with what you’re getting back, say so, though this wasn’t really an issue for me. I tried to give specific directions (“Can you frame the model so that there’s more empty space over his left shoulder?”) and I made an effort to indicate if something needed to be reshot (“Let’s do a couple more of this pose, maybe from a higher angle this time”).

Finally, I made sure to listen to what the photographer was saying to me. The photographers I’ve worked with so far have been true pros, and they’ve kept me abreast of everything going on as we worked (“We’re going to need to move to our next location within an hour so we’ll have enough daylight left”). This continuous channel of communication is vital, and when the two of you are talking you’ll almost always end up with the photos that you need. So far, it’s worked for me.

[tags]art directing, photography advice, graphic design[/tags]

5 Responses to “Learning to Communicate as an Art Director”

  1. As someone early in my career too, it's nice to read about learning the business as you go ... which I think is how it works for most people. I can definitely relate.

  2. Hi,

    great article - I'm putting togheter some lessons for art directors to be and I will include this when I come to the topic "photographers" - If you want to link to me or contribute you'r welcome.


  3. Im so glad I found this article. I have to direct a small shoot this week and it's a relief to know that everyone gets nervous but you get more and more confident as you learn. You gotta start somewhere 🙂

  4. Thanks for the article 🙂

    Really boosts me up for tomorrow photo shoot..
    Nice to know that everybody has or had the same situation..

    Cheers 🙂

  5. I have been art directing the shoots for several years and sometimes find it difficult to recognize how much of art direction is called for. Are there set rules on which decisions are made by an art director and which are to be left for the photographer?
    You are right communication is the key but once in a while I worked with a photographer who was not willing to take direction on the shoot. Do you have an advice on how to set the boundaries and remind them that after all they are working for me in an professional and effective way? The last thing I want is the photographer who resents me for putting him in his place, if you know what I mean.

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