Sometimes, Improvisation Is Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

As a former newspaper reporter who later became the head of large corporate communications departments, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with both photojournalists and corporate assignment photographers. And while many of the best assignment photographers I’ve worked with have also been photojournalists, I’ve found that some photojournalists don’t make the transition to corporate work very well.

There are a couple of reasons for this. In many cases, it’s an attitude thing. Just as many former newspaper scribes can’t make the jump to PR because they don’t like the profession, so many ex-newspaper photographers can’t transition successfully to corporate work because they can’t get passionate about it. And in creative endeavors, a lack of passion typically leads to subpar work and, ultimately, failure.

A second reason, which I’ve seen trip up more than a few former newspaper photographers, is an underemphasis on advance preparation for shoots.

The Art of Reacting

The best photojournalism is improvisational. It’s about capturing life as it is — the art of reacting. As photographer Mark Meyer puts it so well:

…street photography and photojournalism are essentially improvisational. Rather than improvising as a performer, the photojournalist is an improvisational audience. Rather than creating a work over time, they develop the art of seeing and capturing the moment as it happens. The skills required to do this well are similar to those of the performing improviser.

Many photojournalists — particularly newspaper staffers — are used to being sent out on an assignment and then quickly figuring out how to capture the moment. They show up at a plane crash or a city council meeting and have to come back with an image for the next day’s edition. Even on feature assignments, there’s often not a lot of time for advance preparation.

Unfortunately, that improvisational approach doesn’t always help on a corporate assignment — and can sometimes be “notably unhelpful,” as Donald Rumsfeld used to say in his cranky press conferences.

The Discipline of Preparing

I once produced an annual report in which the primary art was a series of photographs depicting my company’s employees posing alongside customers for whom they had gone the extra mile. One of the photos was to be shot in front of a firehouse, with a group of smiling firefighters standing with one of my company’s sales directors.

Since customers were involved, I decided to attend each of the shoots, which took place in various cities across the country. In the case of the firefighter shoot, I flew to meet the photographer and art director at the location at the appointed time.

I saw a group of men standing next to a firetruck in front of a firehouse — sweating profusely. The shoot had been scheduled at a time when the afternoon sun was beating down directly on the men’s faces, making the experience awkward for all involved. But because of the fire station’s placement, there was no other angle from which the photographer could get the shot.

No amount of retouching could completely repair the resulting images — or erase the forced smiles on the subjects’ faces.

This wasn’t bad luck. It wasn’t bad improvisation, either.

It was lack of preparation.

Vetting for the Right Kind of Experience

Corporate photography is different from spot photojournalism because of the amount of coordination that must be done in advance for shoots. For a photojournalist to make a successful transition to assignment work, he or she must learn the discipline of preparing for every conceivable thing that could go wrong on an assignment.

Many photojournalists have no problem with this — having done fashion, food and other kinds of staged shoots that require significant preparation. Others, however, have spent the bulk of their careers chasing down spot news and quick-turnaround features — and these are the photographers a corporate client should take a close look at before entrusting with assignment work.

In the case of the fire station shoot, if I could have done it over again, I would have requested to see the photographer’s resume and portfolio in advance, rather than simply leaving it to my design firm’s art director to make the hire. I would have ensured that the photographer had plenty of experience scheduling and organizing shoots of this kind.

Because, ultimately, when the shoot didn’t turn out as well as it should have, I was the one who had to answer to the sweating customers, the embarrassed sales director — and the disappointed CEO.

7 Responses to “Sometimes, Improvisation Is Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be”

  1. Excuse me but who ultimately set up the time and location for the shoot? Yourself, the creatives or sales or the photographer? This situation needs further explanation before you go and blame the photographer for a too-sunny day.

  2. The photographer determined the location and scheduled the shoot in coordination with the art director. It was some years back, and there may have been some finger-pointing between the two ... but if I'm a professional photographer shooting a full-page image for an annual report, I don't let it happen. A shot at this particular location should have been done in the morning, not the afternoon.

  3. Editorial involves working faster than sitting there trying to get a CEO to loosen up for an annual report shot. But editorial is at least genuine because you’re catching subjects in more honest/off the cuff moments. Corporate is all about staging things in the best possible light. (No pun.) Nothing though compares to trying to get a CEO to eek out a smile.

  4. I have nothing against a reporter or a photojournalist who doesn't like corporate work because it's about projecting the client's desired image rather than telling the journalist's sense of the truth. But if you're a reporter or photographer who doesn't like corporate work for that reason, DON'T GO INTO CORPORATE WORK. You'll just do a crappy job of it.

  5. "The photographer determined the location and scheduled the shoot in coordination with the art director."

    Fair enough then. Thanks for clarifying.

  6. "A second reason, which I’ve seen trip up more than a few former newspaper photographers, is an underemphasis on advance preparation for shoots."

    Scott, I totally agree. But any photographer that specializes in corporate photography is not someone who doesn't prepare in advance.

    I know of many fine newspaper photographers who moved successfully into this niche.

    On the other hand, if the client and you were looking for something good on the cheap? Well, chalk it up as a learning experience:)

  7. I don't remember it being cheap 🙂

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