Photographers and Designers


Photography: © Copyright Dave Le

It’s no secret that today’s photographers need to have skills that go beyond shooting pictures. Just as the old-timers needed to understand film, know how to develop negatives and learn darkroom techniques to make a photo look its best, so no modern digital photographer will get far without a basic understanding of image editing.

In fact, photographers often spend more time in front of their computers processing images than they do behind the lens creating them. It’s not unusual for wedding photographers, for example, to give quotes that include two hours of editing time for every hour of actual photography. And only a fraction of those photographers outsource that editing to assistants.

So what happens when professional image editors – designers who make a living out of their ability to communicate with pictures — pick up a camera? Do they have any advantages in the photography marketplace, and can their successes suggest skills that digital photographers should learn too?

Microstock’s Biggest Earners Are Designers

Certainly, for a number of designers, the decision to create photos has proven to be a very lucrative one. Both Andres Rodriguez and Lise Gagné, two of microstock’s highest earning photographers, started life as designers. Chuck Anderson’s application of his graphic design skills to his photography has won him clients from Adidas to Young & Rubicam. And Michelle Kwajafa, who describes herself as both a photographer and designer, has won enough of a name for herself to see her work featured in The Photoshop Tennis Book.

Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Any designer who wants to create their own image will still need all of the technical and creative skills of a photographer. But adding their design knowledge to  that photographic talent should give their pictures something extra – something that the market can only value at a premium.

Dave Le, for example, is a freelance designer who has created designs for clients including Apple, GM and Nike in a career spanning thirteen years. Since 2003, he has also worked as a part-time photographer. He’s shot three weddings this year, created several commissioned portraits, completed a product shoot and will soon shoot a catalog for a luxury furnishings and home décor retailer.

According to Dave, his background in design affects every aspect of his visual life, including his approach to a shoot:

“In the process of creating an image with the camera, I run through some of the same
mental checklists as I do when creating a layout,” he told us. “What is the message I’m trying to get across with this image? How do the elements in the image support the concept? What is the context in which this image will be viewed, and how will that affect the read?”

Of course, smart photographers without a design background may well ask those questions too but it’s also likely that many photographers are more concerned about the technicalities of creating the image than producing a product that a designer will have to use. They want to create good photos. And even those photographers who do understand that a good commercial image isn’t just one that’s well-focused and finely-composed but also usable, might not consider whether there will be room for text or a headline if the image is run full bleed on a layout, or how the background elements may enhance or obstruct type and graphic elements laid over the photo. Those are all things that Dave Le says he considers when shooting products.

Photography Is Just One Part of Design

Unfortunately, the technical benefits don’t seem to flow the other way. While Dave’s photography may be enhanced by taking a design approach to his images, his design work, he says, hasn’t been affected by his interest in photography. Graphic design, he notes, is about integrating color, type, illustration and photography in the service of communication. Photography is just one of the elements he has to consider when putting together a final picture.

His photography knowledge though has made him more marketable as a freelance designer. Understanding how the images he works with are created means that Dave can give clients more accurate estimates and proposals, communicate better with art directors, and he can even bundle his own photography into a proposal.

“Dealing with fewer vendors is always a bonus for clients,” he points out.

Some of the benefits that a design background can bring to photography are simply better workflow. Photographers might know how to remove wrinkles in Photoshop or whiten the eyes in portraits but few photographers know all of the different ways of completing the same procedure in the way that designers do, allowing them to choose the best method for the job. They probably enjoy doing it more too.

But the biggest advantage, it seems, is not the technical, image manipulation skills that designers know how to do but the understanding of what images are for. For photographers photographs are their finished product – the end result of their talent and skills. For designers though (and that includes designers who also photograph), the photograph is just one element in a process that will go into creating the final product. That’s a little humbling, but it is something that photographers can learn – and understanding the role of the image can improve your photography.

“Understanding how the photo component fits into the product development process is invaluable,” says Dave. “Consider the context in which your work will be viewed, whether it’s in a magazine layout, on a package, on-screen, hung on a wall, or all of the above. Context plays a huge role in how an image is perceived. Taking this fact into account when creating an image will open your eyes to new opportunities as well as focusing your attention on communicating the concept in the most effective manner… it will help you to generate a better image in the end.”

4 comments for this post.

  1. Tiffany Kelley Said:

    I too am a freelance designer and writer that does photography on the side. I totally agree with this post. It definitely has its advantages, especially when it comes to editing.

  2. Helmut Watterott Said:

    Yup, now all that is left is for the clients to realise how important good pictures (photos) are to create good graphics, content and sell their products. Quite often, especially on lower budget projects good photography is neglected, leaving bad photos to drag down the overall quality.

  3. Denver Engagement Photographer Said:

    Great article. I have found that at least for me getting my photography business off the ground what has been most helpful to me was my knowledge of C#. It's a programming language. It has allowed me to create a dynamic website with ever changing content that I can easily manage and work with. Making updates to my website is easy and simple, and content from my blog is pulled into my pages on my website so all my pages look new to google everytime it comes a crawling.

  4. Ray Said:

    Absolutely true. I hate working with a designer that has no experience editing photos and I'm sure the same is true for the designer working with a photographer that has no clue about what is best for the design.

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