The Three Phases of Photography

We’ve all heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.” In the context of designing a catalog, this saying should be uppermost in one’s mind. Of all the elements that make up a catalog page — layout, paper stock, density, copy, iconography — photography is perhaps the most powerful implement in your toolbox of sales instruments. ▪ Your photography has a huge role — it has to communicate the brand essence and positioning of your catalog; attract a scanning customer and get him or her to look closer; immediately create a sense of interest and desire; quickly communicate product features and benefits; and anticipate potential barriers to the sale and visually circumvent them. And most important, the photography has to sell! In a retail setting, the merchandise is displayed in a way that invites the shopper to pick it up and try it on or try it out. In a catalog, the photography has to create that same allure. ▪ Although photography itself is artistic and creative, the organizational process can be very complex and administrative in nature. Your ability to organize the myriad details that go into a photo shoot can determine the success of your photography — and make or break your budget. Organized correctly, the catalog photography process allows for maximum creative flexibility as well as for scheduling efficiency and adherence to budgets. ▪ The photography process can be broken into three distinct phases: planning, thinking, and execution. Each phase is crucial to your key objective: catalog sales.



The first step in the planning phase is to share with all involved in your catalog design information regarding the performance of the photographs in your prior catalog. This will help your designers create a better-performing catalog with photographs customized for your audience’s tastes.

If possible, set aside a day for a “turn in” meeting — a chance to conduct a postmortem with the key players. Examine which photos did and did not sell, paying special attention to the types of shots that performed well. In the case of apparel catalogs, look at which models are selling the most and whether on-figure or off-figure shots are pulling the strongest.

A square-inch analysis should also be part of the review. Ideally you should analyze by product, by category, and by product type to determine what should and should not stay in the catalog. And don’t neglect to discuss any customer feedback that you’ve received from your service reps or via e-mail. In addition to studying the most recent catalog, review what worked and what didn’t work for the same season of the prior year.

The second step in the planning phase is scheduling. You need to develop a schedule with checks and balances built into it. These checks and balances are key dates when management has the opportunity to modify the direction that the photography is taking — the date for approval of models and shoot locations, for instance. Building them into the schedule will prevent costly mistakes. (For an example of a schedule, see the “Production Log” chart on the following page.)

Next comes the critical product review. This “show and tell” will provide you and your merchandisers with the opportunity to communicate every aspect of each product that made it special enough to be selected for inclusion in your catalog. You should also inform the creative team of any strong feelings you have about how the product should be photographed — whether it deserves a “hero” treatment, for instance — and how much space should be allocated to the product on the final page. Let the team know of all the product features and benefits that must be communicated via photography, along with any unique features that need to be highlighted with inset photos or other treatments. Discuss your photography “rules” as well — issues regarding scale, model requirements, and prop likes and dislikes.

Production Log Spring ’03 Catalog
Catalog Tasks Day of Week Date
Presentation of initial creative with look boards, model and location recommendations Monday 9/23/02
Turn-in meeting with postmortem of prior book Tuesday 9/24/02
Client feedback received on creative and model and location recommendations Thursday 9/26/02
Final creative concepts presented Monday 9/30/02
Final model and location selects to client Thursday 10/3/02
Initial page layouts presented to client (with sketches illustrating how new products will be shot) Monday 10/7/03
Client feedback received on initial page layouts Wednesday 10/9/02
Revised page layouts to client Monday 10/14/02
Final photo notes and photo shoot plan to client Wednesday 10/16/02
Catalog photo shoot Monday-Thursday 10/21-10/24
Catalog film review (if shooting traditionally) Wednesday 10/30/02
First Quark proofs (with photos and copy) to client Monday 11/4/02
Random/scatter proofs to client Wednesday 11/6/02
Client feedback received on first Quark proofs and randoms Friday 11/8/02
Final Quark proofs to client Friday 11/15/02
Composed final proofs to client Friday 11/22/02

Note to apparel marketers: Consider having a fit model at this meeting to help you determine additional features that should be demonstrated through photography, such as back interest, length, fabric details, and finish details such as cuffs and buttons. This will help you determine the need for inset shots that must be included in your daily shot count and ensure that your designers include these inset shots on their page layouts.

Pagination is the final step in the planning phase. Your best bet is to identify every item for every spread, and to paste pictures or other representations of the products onto sheets of paper labeled with the page numbers. Then you can determine which products should be heroes or subheroes — and don’t forget to determine cover products.

This is also the time to give your creative team any opinions you have on how particular products should be shot. Would a certain angle work best for a particular item? Should an item be shot on location or on a model or with multiple insets?



During the thinking phase, the catalog designers must put themselves in the customers’ shoes to decide what the consumers need to see in order to make a purchasing decision. Then they must decide what types of shots — silhouette, propped, on-figure, laydown, group, lifestyle — will most effectively depict the selling features of the product and close the sale.

Each type of shot has distinct advantages when applied to the appropriate product:

  • Silhouette shots can be very effective when showing product details that might get lost or overshadowed by propping. And because they are generally less time-consuming to shoot, they are particularly budget-friendly.

  • Studio propped and background shots allow the designer to select background surfaces that complement the product and support the overall branding of the catalog. Props can also introduce scale, thereby giving the consumer a better sense of the actual size of the product. From a budget standpoint, propped studio shots typically give a lot of bang for the buck and can be taken economically when planned correctly.

  • Location shots, though generally more expensive than studio shots, are necessary when the product needs to be depicted in its natural environment so as to communicate the end use. Location shots can also lend a sense of place to the catalog, allowing the customer to feel transported.

  • Apparel laydown shots are useful when product details might get lost on-figure. When complicated messages about fabric content and patterns must be conveyed via the photography, laydowns can be a good choice. Keep in mind that the styling on apparel laydown shots can transform the product presentation for better or for worse. You will need an experienced soft-goods stylist who knows how to stuff and fluff the fabric to make it come alive.

  • Although laydown shots can often do a more-than-adequate job selling apparel, on-figure shots are sometimes the only way to show the true characteristics of the garment — fit, flow, length, details. What’s more, models can improve brand recognition and sales if they accurately reflect the catalog’s positioning and are aspirational to the target audience. For this reason, model selection is critical: An upscale audience might be more attracted to a couture model, while customers from a more moderate catalog would prefer happy faces and real-life poses. Although on-figure shots can be expensive, they generally play a crucial role in creating an ambience that reflects the customers and their lifestyle.

  • Group shots (with more than one product in the shot) can add pacing diversity to your catalog. Usually you will need to support group shots with careful keying or insets to make them easier to shop from. Also, keep in mind that it may be hard to measure each product’s success or failure from a group shot, not to mention impossible to break the shot apart should you need to eliminate some of the merchandise at a later date or if you are repurposing the shots for your Website.

  • Of all the types of photos, lifestyle shots have the most editorial or “magazine” feeling, and their styling can have high recognition value with the customer. Although a great device to enliven your covers and opening spread, lifestyle shots should be used judiciously if your catalog is your primary source of revenue, as they are more difficult to shop from and are, therefore, less likely to drive direct sales. If your catalog’s main objective is to drive retail store traffic, however, lifestyle shots can be used to great advantage to liven up your catalog and set you apart from the competition in a very definitive way.

Don’t overlook other attention-grabbing photographic techniques as well. Insets, call-outs, diagrams, before-and-after shots, in-use shots, and time lapse and sequence shots can all help tell your merchandise story efficiently and creatively.



Now it’s just a matter of focusing on the shots and looking for opportunities to push the creative and play with the magic of photography. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Overpropping can detract attention from the product; the product must always be the hero.

  • Focus and lighting can create a certain mood or emphasize key product features.

  • Lighting and angles can add drama to your photography and give your catalog a consistent look.

  • Backgrounds that are in soft focus can help highlight your product. The goal is to have the product stand out against the background, not be enveloped by it.

  • Tight cropping can focus attention on the product or on specific areas of the product that you want the shopper to view in detail.

  • Propping, angles, and lighting can all “romance” the product, holding the shopper’s attention page after page.

Remember, the ultimate goal of your catalog photography is to sell product! A catalog is a visual medium. It provides the perfect canvas for presenting your brand and your merchandise. Although your customers can’t pick up your product and try it on, you can control the sales process by manipulating how your product is displayed on the printed page. It is the photographic imagery — not the copy, the headline, or the price — that initially grabs the customer’s attention. Only if the scanning customer is stopped by the photograph can the other elements help close the sale.

Chris Carrington is president of Catalogs by Lorél, a creative agency based in King of Prussia, PA.

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