The Art of Annual Report Photography

I recently offered two posts with advice for clients tasked with shooting executive portraits. Portraits focus on a company’s personalities. But a corporation also has a personality of its own, which can often be even harder to capture than that of a small team of leaders. It’s a feeling that’s ingrained in the company’s work sites, products, employees and brands.

When those sites are scattered around the world, when the products range from soap to financial services and when the employees number in the tens of thousands, communicating that personality becomes a very special test of a photographer’s skills. That’s especially true when the means of communicating that personality is through the firm’s annual report.

The Most Important Shareholder Communication

The annual report is the most important formal communication that public companies have with their shareholders. Although a large corporation may have many different ways of appearing to the public, none is more important than the yearly account the firm provides to its owners.

The figures are vital, of course, and so are the reports of the company’s achievements and successes over the previous 12 months. But the images the report contains have to communicate that success, the company’s self assurance and its dedication to continued growth—and do it all at a glance.

This is not something that a stock agency can supply. Shareholders and investors want to the see the company’s employees and the corporation’s offices, not generic images of happy workers and busy desks. They want to see who will be taking their capital and how those funds are likely to be put to use. They want to gain a feel for the company as well as an understanding of its fields of operation.

Good photographs in an annual report inspire confidence, tell shareholders what their company is doing and reassure them that their investments are being employed effectively. Weak images or photographs that are not of the highest quality can create doubt in the mind of the viewer and raise questions about the company’s professionalism.

Expressiveness Combined with Technical Perfection

Photographs used in an annual report should have two characteristics to be of the highest quality. They must be technically perfect: focused, balanced and free of noise and distortion. And they must be expressive.

Any skilled photographer can shoot a picture of a location that shows what a storage tank looks like or how the bottles roll off the production line. An experienced photographer for annual reports, though, knows how to view a location and understand where the stories lie, what those stories say, and how to capture them in an image.

Says Ryan Pyle, a Shanghai-based photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Fortune and Time, and who regularly shoots annual reports for Black Star’s corporate clients:

An image used in an annual report has to be perfect. It has to capture the moment, it has to be representative of the company and its work at that time and that place.

Technically it can’t be too creative or strange, it needs to be sharp, clear and crisp, leaving no room for confusion or misunderstanding. Every image has to invoke a clear and strong statement about what Company X is doing in their particular space.

Collaborating with Art Directors

It’s in defining the statement that the real challenge of photographing for annual reports lies. Usually, that decision will be left to the art directors, but they tend to provide different levels of instruction to photographers.

Some art directors may have a very clear idea of the type of images they want and the style in which they would like the photographs to be taken. Others may provide a more general direction, allowing the photographer to take the lead and decide on the best images to produce based on the location and the opportunities available at the time.

Each approach carries both advantages and disadvantages to the client—and both present challenges to the photographer.

Close direction can produce greater efficiency, making it clear to the photographer exactly what sort of images the art director is looking for and reducing the margin for error. Although photographers will always be happiest shooting images with complete freedom, professional photographers understand that they are creating images that have to serve a purpose.

To do that successfully, they need to know what that purpose is and, ideally, how the client would like the images to appear. One way to provide this direction is to supply samples of previous work. This provides a visual guideline to the kind of imagery the company likes to use and lays a foundation on which the photographer can build.

The art director can also be present on the shoot, a situation which few professional photographers will object to if the result is a more efficient use of time and resources.

The photographer wants to complete the work as quickly and smoothly as possible and to present the client with a broad choice of top-quality, usable images when the shoot is finished and the post-production has been completed.

Says Kenneth Hayden, a Black Star photographer who has been shooting professionally for almost a quarter of a century:

I want to know things like the “look” being sought, how the image will be used and what we are trying to communicate. It makes for a more efficient shoot and involves less of the subject’s or facility’s time. I can then get in and out quicker while maintaining quality and creative integrity.

The alternative approach is to provide very loose direction, granting the photographer the freedom to decide which images are most likely to meet the client’s needs. As long as the direction is focused enough so that the photographer doesn’t have to second guess what the client will like—and what the company is likely to reject—the results can still be the right photographs with minimum intervention on the part of the company.

Being in the Right Place at the Right Time

This kind of approach is particularly important in situations in which not all the elements are under the photographer’s—or the art director’s—control.

Shoots for annual reports often depend on people and objects being in the right place at the right time, but it’s not unusual to find that the room that has been set aside for the shoot is locked or double-booked, that the machinery the photographer is meant to photograph has developed problems, or that the truck bringing the products has failed to arrive or has brought the wrong items. Outdoor locations, too, depend on the weather, which never seems to take into account an annual report’s production schedule.

In these situations, the photographer must be informed enough to understand what the art director is looking for—but also creative and experienced enough to find a substitute shot that still achieves the desired effect. That makes the choice of photographer particularly important.

Just as an executive portrait photographer needs to be confident and diplomatic, a photographer shooting images for an annual report needs to have a set of abilities that go beyond an understanding of f-stops and light levels.

Qualities of a Good Annual Report Photographer

A good annual report photographer needs to be able to work closely to direction, listening to the art director and following instructions so that the company’s representative remains in control of the shoot’s results. But he also needs to be independent enough to make decisions for himself based on the guidelines provided.

Just as importantly, the photographer must be experienced and professional enough to take charge of the shoot itself, managing his crew and his assistants.

Photographing images for annual reports doesn’t always involve one man or woman and a camera. Often, it’s the work of a team that understands how the lead photographer operates and which can function together efficiently, even as the team members are moving heavy lighting equipment or directing people who may be needed for the shoot. It’s a job that requires leadership as well as the ability to translate an idea into an image.

Says Pyle:

The biggest challenge involved in corporate photography is getting used to the control you have, and how to exercise that control effectively. As a corporate photographer you can control the scene, the lighting, the people, the mood, the motion . . . everything is in your control and is your responsibility.

A corporate photographer is essentially a still movie director, communicating with everyone to be in the right place at the right time with the right lighting.

Finding a photographer who can bring all of these qualities to a shoot for an annual report isn’t easy. That’s why the photographers that Black Star commissions on behalf of its corporate clients have to undergo a stringent acceptance process before being assigned projects for annual reports.

The Black Star Way

Our staff reviews dozens of portfolios every week, rejecting most of the photographers whose work they assess. That’s because in addition to looking at the pictures themselves, we want to get a sense of who the photographer is, how he or she thinks and how they operate when on location.

We want to see that the photographer’s images display creativity and imagination, as well as technical skills and a close attention to detail. We want to see a resume that proves the photographer has worked on large projects in the past, has taken direction and is also capable of independent thought and action.

Above all, we want to see that when we send the photographer to a location, we can trust that photographer to deliver precisely the images that the client needs — on time, every time. Just as an annual report is the most important representation a company sends to its shareholders, our photographers are the most important representatives we send to our clients.

The preceding post is an excerpt from Black Star’s new e-book, “When to Use Assignment Photography.” Download the free e-book here.

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