The Particular Hustle of a Commercial Photographer
Longtime collaborative partners Neil Kremer and Cory Johnson are the creatives behind Kremer Johnson Photography. They founded the Los Angeles-based agency to explore their shared vision, specializing in character-based & narrative-driven environmental and studio portraiture. They work together throughout the entire cycle from ideation to post-promotion, for clients like Hulu, CBS, and Proctor & Gamble.
For Polarr, Emily von Hoffman speaks with Neil about the highs and lows of being a photographer in advertising, Kremer Johnson’s creative process, and how they balance client needs to create images they’re personally proud of.
EvH: How does your process work? How much do these tend to change between the original idea brought in by the client, and the finished product?
NK: If it’s a personal project, the final image rarely looks like the concept that we started with. These shoots can get rather expensive so we typically have to cut corners on things like location talent or wardrobe and prop. One example is an image of two SCUBA fishermen eating in a restaurant:
The original scene was set in a 3-star restaurant filled with people. There was to be a giant puddle surrounding them and people complaining. Because that shot would have cost more than a mid-sized European luxury car, we decided to reduce the footprint and build a small set in our studio. When we’re dealing with clients, the budgets are obviously bigger so we can get closer to the original vision but budgets are getting smaller and smaller.
We’ll typically receive a deck from an ad agency and develop an estimate. If we win the bid, the budgets usually reduced and that means cutting some corners but not as much as we do with personal work. The decks we receive are typically spelled out in detail. We then create a treatment that shows the agency exactly how we’re going to create the image and what the final product will look like. In the end, it’s a collaboration but main concepts are created by the agency.
EvH: What is it like to be a photographer in advertising? Which part of the process is most difficult or labor intensive, and most fun?
NK: It’s magical when you’re busy but there are certainly times when you don’t know if the phone will ever ring again. You wonder if you’ll have to give up and go find a job. It’s very competitive right now and I think it will get worse. The market for custom crafted still photography is shrinking while there’s an abundance of highly skilled photographers. Photographers have to hustle and wear many hats to be successful today. I think that’s always been the case but I believe it’s more so, now.
The bulk of our time is spent on marketing. That means sending e-mails, creating new work, creating and mailing thousands of catalogs and small books, web-site management, SEO, social media, source books, award entries, blogging, etc. etc. etc. We also have to get in front of potential clients, following up to get appointments to start a relationship and then hopefully, presenting our printed portfolio in person.
We receive a lot of requests for quotes and simply replying, creating estimates and treatments are a full time job for anyone. For smaller budget jobs, we often self-produce the shoots because there’s not enough money to hire a producer. Production takes up a great deal of time and energy.
The good stuff: Once we win a job, we get to create what we believe is refined imagery that we’re very proud of. We get a pile of money to make cool stuff. We get to tell stories that lead to commerce. We’re able to work with talent that we develop long lasting relationships with. We work with retouchers to create fantastical scenes that live in our heads. All of the “work” is worth it when we see the final images.
EvH: What are some things that you do to create the conditions for a great shoot?
NK: There’s never a time when we have to get into a mood to create an image. We both wake up thinking about how to create any of the hundreds of ideas we have listed in little book. We could produce shoots for the next 30 years and never get through all of the ideas we have. It’s not something we have to force, it’s something we can’t wait to do. We spend more time thinking about how to create an environment that inspires our subjects to give us the expression that we’re looking for.
Expression is everything in conceptual imagery. For us, it starts with casting. If it’s not in their portfolio, we don’t consider them. If we see what we’re looking for in their book, a quick interview allows us to see if they can give us what we want. Once on set, we use different methods to put them in the right frame of mind. Along with music and ambient lighting, we find that our subjects are like mirrors. They give us what we give them. If we’re somber on set, they give us somber. If we’re happy loud and fun, they give us the same thing right back.
EvH: How much do you feel like you can bring in your personal style to the images, while meeting client needs? How do you negotiate between or balance the two?
NK: It’s funny, getting into this work, we were shocked at the first jobs we bid. The decks that we received looked like finished products to us. Agencies use illustrators, retouchers and stock imagery to create mock-ups of what they want the final campaign to look like. They really come out rather nicely.
We thought they expected us to copy their vision exactly but that’s not been the case. Although the main concepts are pre-determined by the client, we genuinely get to make it the way we see it. We offer options for things like color stories, locations, talent, wardrobe and set constructions but the ideas typically come from us. I would say that in the end, it’s a collaboration between the brand, the agency and us.