Any writer worth their salt knows that a good story is comprised of three primary components: Character, Setting, and Plot. The same can be said of visual storytelling, regardless of the medium.
As a commercial photographer, my goal is to tell a brand’s story as succinctly as possible, sometimes in as little as a single image. To do this effectively, I lean on those same three story motifs and lots and lots of planning and preparation. Let’s dive in.
Developing a character in the context of photography and commercial film involves several different factors. The first is demography – what does the brand’s ideal customer profile look like? If the product you are shooting is a watch, think about the price of the watch and the age range of those purchasing that watch. Wardrobe is another key component in character development.
If you are photographing an Apple Watch, your talent might be dressed in activewear as opposed to a three-piece suit; the latter is perhaps a better fit for a brand like Rolex. Sometimes the line is more nuanced; for example, a Breitling diving watch might have similar applications underwater as an Apple Watch, but the clientele is significantly different. The Apple Watch concept might involve a group of friends snorkeling in the Caribbean whereas a Breitling shoot might involve a seemingly upper-class man in a wetsuit going spearfishing off the coast of some faraway place.
Of equal importance to who you’re shooting is where you’re shooting. In a recent brand story I shot for Ellicott + Co., I knew I wanted a location that matched the products’ patina and coloration. Using Airbnb as a resource, I found what I was looking for at the Elizabeth Flat in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Conveniently located less than five minutes from the shop itself, the flat offered the charm of a New York brownstone without the added travel time. The overall concept for the shoot, adapted from a Dreamscape I drafted beforehand, follows a young man from his apartment to a distant airstrip where he sets off on an adventure to an unknown destination. Therefore, it was key to also be in close proximity to a small airport that could pass as something more remote. In this case, I had more latitude to tell the story over a number of images, but it is often the case that we have to condense that aesthetic into simply a few hero images. That being said, it’s important to realize that we can leave a fair amount to the viewer’s imagination.
The final motif that drives an effective brand story is an established plotline. For the Ellicott + Co. shoot, my plot was largely driven by the brand’s customer profile. The majority of Ellicott’s product line is geared toward young men, and the price point suggests a certain level of luxury and esteem. As a self-proclaimed “curator of uncommon goods,” I wanted whatever I created to be something original. Together, these elements led me to create something adventurous and aspirational, like flying off in your own personal Cessna.
By incorporating this “hero’s journey” sort of storyline, I gave myself room to capture Ellicott’s apparel and gear in multiple environments used for a variety of different applications. As I mentioned in the previous section, tackling a shoot from every possible angle is oftentimes unnecessary and can even work against you if done without care. Sometimes the best vehicle for creativity is opening the viewer’s mind to one of either the beginning, middle, or end of the story then letting them fill in the gaps.
Telling Stories is Sustainable, Virality is Fleeting
Brand storytelling is a differentiator in the industry today. While Instagram can be a powerful tool for gaining exposure and connecting with brands and other creators, it has led most photographers and commercial filmmakers to seek out one-hit wonders trying to go viral. The reality is, the factors that lead to viral content are not necessarily the same factors that lead to commercial viability, and knowing the difference is half the battle. Telling stories that are targeted and well-defined on the other hand, that is a skill that transcends even the most viral trends.
About the author: Brad Vassallo is a commercial and outdoor lifestyle photographer based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A creator since his earliest days, he once had the dream of being a National Geographic photographer. In spite of those aspirations, he spent the better part of his life chasing other people’s dreams of what he was supposed to do and who he was supposed to be. At a certain point though, the voice inside got to be too loud, too persistent, and told him that the path he was on was not his own. He began to listen to that voice, affirming his own creative aspirations and returning to his creative roots. You can see more of his work on his website and Instagram.
This story was also published here.