The Photography Style Guide

Kibwe Brathwaite
Jan 4, 2014 · 3 min read

Photography is one of the most important elements in an advertising campaign. The imagery is the first and the last thing people remember in an ad. In today’s age of branding and identity, advertising photography does more than simply sell a product; it also sells the personality of the brand.

I’ve noticed our local advertising and branding landscape being littered with imagery that is not necessarily conducive to the brands they represent. Even within the same campaign, the imagery can be conflicting. One is sometimes left to ponder whether the campaign image you see in the magazine, or newspaper belongs to the brand you know and trust. You see it every time a local mobile provider decides to change its advertising agency. Ya’ll know exactly what I mean. Whether or not these brands even possess a loosely written brand guide document is beyond me.

One gem I’ve learnt from working in branding and advertising is the importance of the development and use of a photography style guide. A photography style guide, or photo guide, is a framework to follow when creating images for a specific brand. It defines the criteria for images to abide by so that all associated works possess a definitive visual vernacular. It’s a pretty simple concept that is surprisingly often overlooked.

An established brand has a defined aesthetic, and may require imagery that complements this aesthetic. The photo guide may either exist as a standalone document, or as a part of a comprehensive brand guide document. Take for example the Coca-Cola brand. Any associated imagery is almost always definable to the less than trained eye. Their style guide, one which I have perused, is a solid manual on how to create an image that reinforces their visual signature. From the model’s garments, to a product bottle with a burger, to the colour channels in photoshop; there are very clear guidelines to follow in the Coca-Cola photography style guide (with room for a degree of creative flexibility).

So, who develops a photography style guide? It may be the designer who developed the brand, or in some cases the photographer, or other cases both parties, (probably they are one in the same person).

In my experience, I have worked alongside designers to develop photography style guides that match developed brands. I would recommend this for obvious reasons; to have an open channel of communication with the designer about key attributes of the brand.

These key attributes are the specific elements within the images that give an identifiable look. These specific elements include (but are not limited to):

  • Genre (e.g. conceptual, editorial, lifestyle)
  • The Environment (e.g. outdoor, studio)
  • The lighting (e.g. natural, artificial, harsh, high key, backlit, flare)
  • The model (e.g. sex, height, ethnicity, age, facial features)
  • The wardrobe (e.g. unbranded, casual, formal, patterns)
  • Positioning & framing (e.g. centre, orientation, spacing between elements)
  • Colour palette (normally matches the established brand-guide)
  • Treatment (DoF, retouching, filters)

A photography style guide may include more or less parameters, depending on the style of the photographer / designer or the client’s request. Consideration should also given to the medium on which the images are to be used; are they to be used on printed collateral, on billboards, or online.

Implementing a photo style guide effectively can be tricky. It’s a process that is custom tailored to the brand and/or campaign it was created for. Implementation is based entirely on the discretion of the photographer, or designer, or client, or whoever is the custodian.

At the end of the day, the point is to achieve a “look” that can be identified and can be linked to the specific brand. So regardless of who is working on the ad; whatever designer, whatever photographer, whatever agency, there is a degree of visual continuity maintained throughout. Do a google image search for ads from Coca Cola, Heinekin, Lacoste or American Apparel (NSFW) and observe the elements that are constants which defines the style of the brand.


    Kibwe Brathwaite

    Written by

    Editorial & Commercial Photographer from Trinidad & Tobago. Prefers design, marketing & humour over inspirational quotes & gear talk.

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