Sometimes you don’t choose your profession but your profession chooses you. This is exactly what happened to a Paris-based photographer Janelle Sweeney. She realized branding photography was something she can do for a living only after taking part in a large project by Booking.com.
For Janelle, the experience was challenging but exciting. She took photos of 120 locations during six weeks and managed to stay motivated all the way through. If you’re curious about the details of the project and the peculiarities of branding photography in general, read Janelle’s story.
How I made it into photography
I am from New Zealand originally but I moved to Paris in 2017. Back at home, my profession was a social worker. At that stage, I had never owned a DSLR camera. Photography was a hobby for me and I have just borrowed a few people’s cameras when I went on trips.
Paris is so photogenic. I feel like it’s so easy to become a photographer in a city where everything is an inspiration.
When I moved to Paris, I couldn’t do social work anymore because I didn’t yet speak French. I had to try and figure out a new career. In my early days in Paris, I spent a lot of time taking photos everywhere I went. I started out on an iPhone and I just loved it. Then, I bought a camera and, with a friend, did walking tours around Paris. We also took photos for the people on the tours. From there, we got a lot of feedback that people loved our photography.
It all started after the Booking.com project
A bit later, my friend and I were approached by an online agency that does branding photography for different clients. They had a project for Booking.com that wanted to create a Paris city guide.
There was a small group of photographers hired to take photos. At the beginning of the project we were given really clear guidelines of the style of photography they were looking for, and the type of photos they were needing. We also did a practice shoot together with a manager to ensure that we had the right idea of what we were doing. After the practice shoot was approved, during the next six weeks I took photos of 120 locations in Paris.
I had a little checklist in mind of what I needed to shoot for each location. But after a while, I figured out that if I just go to each location and just wait, the perfect moments will come. I really wanted all the shots to look authentic and natural because, in branding photography, it can be easy to take photos that you commonly see, like the typical top shot photo of food.
I ended up just spending a lot of time waiting for the perfect moment to capture. As we weren’t using models, but rather photographing people who were already there, this took more time. This also meant that I made sure people weren’t recognizable in the photos and that I wasn’t capturing people’s faces unless they had previously signed a consent form.
I found all the locations I went to really interesting. I captured a lot of restaurants and cafes but also I went up the Eiffel Tower and to the amusement park with the oldest carousel in France. I photographed a cabaret and a couple jazz clubs. Doing projects like this are so much fun as you learn new places to go to, get into cool situations, and meet really interesting people.
The challenging part of this project was that all the photos had to be done in good weather and in sunlight, not when it was rainy or gloomy. This makes sense, however it was very frustrating because one time it rained the whole week. When you have a tight time deadline, this can be difficult.
I am grateful for the experience they gave me. This project gave me the confidence to say I am a professional photographer.
I think that branding photography chose me
Before the Booking.com project, I just photographed people and I was comfortable doing only people. The project pushed me out of my comfort zone because I had to be creative every day. My skills in that area developed so fast that after the project, I realized I could actually do branding photography.
I started with a local cafe that I worked in and visited frequently. I’ve become good friends with the owner and I just said once: “Your Instagram looks like you need some more photos. Would you like me to take photos for you? We can do a contract”.
Now I have six brand clients but most of them have come from personal connections. They are all small brands that are growing. I work with a cafe, a bike tour company, an art gallery, a vintage clothing line, a kombucha brand, and with a life coach as well. They are all so different and that is why it’s so exciting. I also continue doing portrait photography.
The essence and obstacles of branding photography
From my experience, I could say that the essence of branding photography is understanding the culture, aesthetics, and the heart of a brand. For instance, the images I take for the cafe are not to show that a place is just Instagram-worthy. In reality, it’s all about people. The baristas know every single person that comes in. So for me, doing branding photography for that cafe is making sure that all the photos show their welcoming spirit.
Because I did not do any photography training, the biggest obstacle was having confidence in myself and in my skills. It’s also about having the confidence to ask what a brand should do for you to make sure you get a good finished product. It’s about expectations at the start as well, because I think quite often clients would like a little bit more from you and you need to have strict boundaries of what you’re providing to them.
Planning and preparing is the recipe of success in branding photography
The very first thing I would do if I got a new client is I would make sure I will take a meeting before to really find out what the brand is about. I would ask about their story, what are you going to provide for them and some administrative questions as well.
Here are some questions:
- If your customer had to explain your brand what would they say?
- What are the keywords of the culture and values of the brand?
- What do you want these photos for, a website or social media?
- What are you expecting out of photography?
- What style do you like? (I even like to ask my clients to show me different Instagram accounts that they like or different photo styles to get a really good idea of what they gravitate towards and what they prefer.)
- Did you have a previous photographer? What did you like and did not like about their work? (This will help you avoid mistakes.)
- What’s your biggest need with branding photography?
For the administration aspect, you just need to make sure you’ve got a really good contract. You should also sort out the amount of time and pictures you’ll be photoshooting and figure out the way you’ll be providing photos to them. The prices should be decided at the start, as well as when exactly the payments will happen.
The recipe of success is planning and having a really good idea of the brand before you even pick up the camera.
It’s good to have everything super clear at each level. As a photographer, you need to have strong boundaries in place so you never feel like you’re being taken advantage of. Only then, you’ll have the freedom to be generous.
From there, I actually take some time thinking and coming up with a plan. What I’ve also learned is that you’d better take it a bit slower at the start.
Advice to those who are just starting out or interested in branding photography
Just go out and take hundreds of photos. For every single image you take, you don’t have to edit it, share it on Instagram, or do anything with it. You just take it to have fun and try new things.
When I started out, once a week I went out and took photos for an hour at least. I just played around and I believe this is the best way to learn and get confidence. Knowing your camera really well is the best advice for a young photographer.
My plans for the future
In the future, I would love to grow the company in a few different areas. I would like to hire younger photographers and create a community because I know how it is to just be starting out. I’d like to create career opportunities for other people.
I’d also like my company to grow and to be able to offer brand servicing with a team of photographers who do that. I’d like to continue doing portrait photoshoots for people who visit Paris. It’s fun and the people I meet are really interesting.
I have a lot of plans and dreams for the future.
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