PHOTOGRAPHY: Lifestyle vs. product shots

When should I use lifestyle photography rather than product photography?

Estin B. Kiger: “Lifestyle” is one of those elusive terms that means something different to everyone you ask. To some it means showing lots of environment; others think it means showing people in action (rather than posed); still others claim it’s more a matter of styling and “attitude” in photography – a casual approach to positioning your product in locations that look like real scenes. I think lifestyle is probably all of the above.

Lifestyle presentations are fun to create and entertaining to browse through; they can help define your identity, show your products in action, and add ambience and interest to your catalog. The problem is that lifestyle presentations are often not very efficient at selling product. Products tend to disappear into the atmosphere, and real lifestyle catalogs seem to be more about image than about selling off the page. So here are my guidelines for using lifestyle photography:

1. Use it with gusto if your catalog is a support vehicle to a retail operation or other sales channel, as is the case with upscale cataloger/retailers like Patagonia and Nordstrom.

2. Use lifestyle photography with discretion if your catalog is your primary source of revenue. It’s a safe bet to use lifestyle on your front cover or the opening spread of your catalog – then lightly sprinkle it throughout your book to spice up the pacing and convey your image. Lifestyle can also be implied by propping your photography, but be careful that the propping doesn’t overpower the product. We have used $500 plates to prop some of our Harry and David shots, but the lowly pear is always the hero.

3. If you’re selling commodity products and price is your main point of differentiation, as it is with many business-to-business books, don’t waste your money on lifestyle photos.

A final thought: When people are about to part with their money for a product they have only seen pictured in a catalog, it has been my experience that the larger the image of the product, the better prospects respond.

Lois Boyle: First and foremost, remember that the ultimate goal of any image is to sell product! Unlike other direct mail, the catalog reigns supreme as a visual medium. It’s the photos that grab attention – not the copy, headlines, or price. So the photo must represent the features and benefits of your product. If the photo image has your customer’s attention, the other elements will close the sale.

Many catalogers use lifestyle photography to present an attitude, an event, or a place in time, which can set you apart from the competition. The Southwest-inspired Sundance gifts catalog supports its product with lifestyle photography to position its unique mix of old and new in an earthy presentation. Lifestyle photography can also create or depict a situation that describes a product’s benefit.

On the other hand, gifts cataloger The Sharper Image typically uses product-only shots but takes advantage of high-tech color backgrounds to support its cutting-edge merchandise. Because it positions the item as the hero, product photography does the best job of presenting the product on the page and properly showing details.

If you opt for lifestyle photography, choose your props carefully and use them only to:

– explain the feature or benefit

– demonstrate usage

– demonstrate fit by using a model

– show scale or size of the product

– support your brand or theme.

Catalogers often add a wild or interesting prop to grab attention, but sometimes the prop gets too much attention, and the product suffers.

Many catalogs use a consistent mix of product and lifestyle shots to keep their catalog fresh and interesting. Whichever style of photography you use, it’s important that the creative presentation is consistent with your theme and supports your brand.

Jean Giesmann: The trend in catalog creative is definitely leaning toward heavier use of lifestyle photography, which can help draw the customer into your book. But we must keep in mind that the merchandise is king, and we can’t let lifestyle take away from product benefit.

Plow & Hearth sells functional, practical items in several categories, so we tend to shoot more product photography. We work hard at getting the photo to show the unique benefits of each item, using tight crops, sharp focus, and often insets to demonstrate added benefits. But we’re doing more lifestyle shots with the recent expansion of certain product lines, such as furnishings, and now the launch of our gifts and home title, American Country Home.

With American Country Home, we use lifestyle photography to show the customer the end result and how she can put together a variety of products for a country look in her own home. We use more hero shots, which may show as many as seven items. The photography is lit more dramatically to imply a time of day and propped more casually to suggest a candid moment. We typically reshoot products that appear in both titles.

When I was creative director for puzzles and games cataloger Worldwide Games, we did a creative makeover to incorporate more lifestyle photography. We spri nkled at least 15 quality “family time” lifestyle shots throughout the catalog showing family members having fun with the product and enjoying one another’s company. This strategy helped to differentiate us in an increasingly competitive marketplace, which resulted in a 25% lift in some list segments.