APA Panel Discussion on Websites

- - Websites

Last night I gave a presentation and sat in on a panel discussion on websites for the APA San Francisco chapter (website). It’s always nice to get out from behind the computer and have a discussion about photography with fellow art buyers and photo editors and of course meet photographers. I certainly enjoy talking shop.

On the panel with me was Zana Woods, the photo editor of Wired Magazine who was previously and art buyer at Foote, Cone & Belding and Debbie Mobley the Senior Art Producer at Venables Bell & Partners.

I loved hearing the different approaches we all have to working with photographers and I thought I’d highlight some of the interesting things that came up.

Zana prefers to see a book over a website and in fact bases all hiring decisions off looking at books. That was a refreshing point of view for a panel on websites. The website is not an end destination or even the place where decisions are made about hiring photographers.

Debbie leads the typically busy life of an advertising art producer. Websites are tools for quickly looking at portfolios to see if the photographer has the look or skills you need for a project you’re working on RIGHT NOW. She catalogs photographers by the printed and emailed promos photographers send her and when it’s time to find photographers for a campaign looking at websites is efficient and fast. She almost always uses printed books when discussing photographers with creatives and *never* shows a website to a client (they’re too literal).

When I was presenting all the different parts of photographers websites that I use when making a hiring decision (bio, personal work, tears) Debbie was looking over at me like “are you crazy, how in thee hell do you have time to look at all that stuff” and so we talked about some of the big difference between how commercial and editorial clients view photographers websites. In advertising it really is “all about the photography” and you can be a complete a-hole but if you’re photography matches the creative for the campaign. You’ve got the job. Additionally she never deals with the “I need a photographers in Canton, OH who can shoot a portrait for $4500. Monday.” So, she does way less crystal ball gazing on websites than I do. On editorial shoots the photographer and subject need to match up or you can have serious problems and on most shoots there’s nobody on set so you’ve got to make sure this is the right person for the job. In editorial, shoots fail, in advertising, never.

At one point we were talking about Matt Mahon’s website (here) which I’ve mentioned a few times here as something I find very entertaining and proposed a theory to Debbie that creatives might champion a photographer who they find interesting and entertaining at which point she whipped out an email where she asked her art directors what websites they particularly enjoyed to which they replied how much they dislike photographers who think they’re flash designers. “We just want to see photos, you’re photographers for crissakes, not designers.” Theory debunked.

I really enjoyed Zana’s point of view because she works on a national magazine but doesn’t live in NYC which was my experience for many years. She kept talking about this guy Andrew Hetherington (here) who’s some kinda hot shot photographer who shoots for Wired (had to bust your chops on that Jacko and yes she brought you up several times). Since she’s worked at Wired since 1999 she’s built a group of trusted photographers that she likes to work with, keeps a wish list of photographers she’d like to work with and uses the traditional methods (mailers, other magazines, contests, photographers recommendations) to locate new talent and call in their book. It was interesting to find out that she never reads email promos unless the subject line or email is personal and that they keep a database of all the photographers they’re interested in that’s searchable by location and shooting style.

Much of the conversation with Zana came back to this idea that she enjoys looking at websites but uses them to call in books. It’s never the place where decisions are made about hiring people. This is how many photo editors use websites and it’s important to remember that.

The panel really showed that everyone uses a photographers website differently but first and foremost for everyone was finding your portfolio and viewing the images cleanly and quickly. Some of your clients will continue on to check out other parts of the website some will call in your book and others will catalog you away. I think it may be disappointing for photographers to discover that a slick website and nifty features won’t really increase your chances of getting a job. I’d be willing to bet that changes in the future… just not when.

There Are 32 Comments On This Article.

  1. Last nights event was quite informative for me as it was a great chance to peer into the minds of editors and buyers. In this day and age standard web best practices only go so far, so it was interesting to hear everyones viewing/site design preferences. What I found comical was how everyone had contradictory preferences. Web design preferences are clearly as arbitrary as individual tastes in photography. The end all take away for me… it’s about the photography stupid. Putting lipstick on a pig isn’t going to help… you need a solid foundation of work. BTW it was great meeting you at the event.

  2. No, a nifty website won’t increase your chances, but having a poor one will hurt your chances. I like the info you present here, but this seems like a small sample to be basing website relevance on. I think websites are more important to more art directors and buyers than it was to these featured speakers, which is good. I’m glad not everyone is just looking at web. But you’re right it will change, and my bet is sooner rather than later.

  3. Keepin' Down Low

    I’m a Jr. Art Buyer at an agency that reps one of the big three automotives and can tell all you photographers that from our camp, we like simple, quick loading, easy to navigate websites. Period. It doesn’t mean we won’t consider a shooter with a lousy site, but if you’re up & coming, have work that’s trendy or interchangeable with many others, a poorly made site will just make it *that* much more difficult for you. Flash or HTML, it doesn’t matter. Heck, we once called in a book for a photographer that was using a free Blogger account.

    Personally speaking, I HATE when there are arrows or Prev/Next buttons that keep moving around as your images change from vertical to horizontal. And PLEASE do not use Simple Viewer flash templates, because 90% of the sites that do, we get a request to update our Flash plug-in.

  4. So some people who print images on real paper like to see images on real paper first.

  5. “We just want to see photos, you’re photographers for crissakes, not designers.”

    Amen to that. I can’t even tell you how nuts a site full of flash graphics and whiz-bangs makes us art directors. Let your work do the talking. It’s like when junior art directors and writers used to send me books in drum cases or old luggage or hat boxes to get attention. Doesn’t work. In fact is usually was a red flag that crap work lay inside. Seriously, an over-cooked website just slows down the decision-making process. Just like over art directed ads. There’s nothing worse than showing a photographer’s website to your creative director and senior art buyer when the damn thing won’t load or takes forever to get through the intro. And for the record, we always hit “skip intro”.

    Just make your presentation clean, simple and effective.

  6. wired magazine is not all that. I have not sent out a book in a year and have booked campaigns from the biggest agencies out there. all off my site and reputation.

  7. Zana has a lot of great opinions, advice and a refined and pretty specific eye in terms of style and subject matter–it shows, as Wired has some great work featured on a regular basis. It does seem that lots of people do things differently and nothing is really a norm specifically –which is always nice to hear as I often feel like anything can be a risk when it comes to websites, portfolios, promos and meetings. It sounds like some great ideas were tossed around. Thanks for the summary, I’m bummed I missed it.

  8. @5 re: Giovanni’s comment, I, too, wonder if there is a stigma attached to walking into an editor’s office with a laptop and a slideshow versus walking in with a print book? It seems that it is good to have both since you can first show your book and can then have more work available on your laptop if the editor asks to see more. Print books are essential too if you must show work near a window. But does it appear less impressive to show up with only a laptop??

  9. Thanks for the synopsis Rob!

    It was good to hear from different facets of the industry how they find photographers and their work. I was the most surprised to hear they (mostly Zana) encourage photographers to just call.

    Cold calling has been a hurdle for me and many other photographers I know. I’m not sure what we’re afraid of. Um..I mean what I’m afraid of. I think it’s a big step to bypass the email promos and pick up the phone.

    I think first and foremost it takes confidence in your work. And also a big set of…er…sand bags.

    Thanks for a great talk,
    Michelle

  10. Question for the art buyers/directors who responded here: Can you point out a couple of site designs that you like? Specifically, do the Livebooks type sites do the trick for you guys, or are you looking for something even more simple?

    Thanks.

  11. I am sorry I missed last nights discussions, but as someone who is currently in the process of defining/narrowing my vision, I tend to look at websites the same way I am approaching my print book. It needs to reflect me as an artist. If my photography was highly designed I would expect the same presentation in print as I would on the web. I personally saw Livebooks as a way to update my portfolio easily, while focusing on my photography. Now I’m not trying to sell Livebooks by any means, but your site should reflect your vision, just as much as your print book.

    @5 – I think having a print book and having to go through the thought process of presentation – how things will flow, the layout and sequencing; the paper used, matte, luster, or glossy; and the type of portfolio, bound book, sleeved black leather, Lost Luggage,etc – will only help you refine your vision and the experience you want your viewers to have. I think there are too many possibilities for things to go wrong with the laptop presentation – program or computer crashing,etc., and I would hate to waste a potential client’s time trying to get my presentation to work when I could simply show a printed book. “If it can go wrong it will” – Murphy’s Law

  12. It’s good to hear that as much as photographers seem to love flash, it’s not actually helpful most of the time. I’ve always thought that flash was overrated if you’re just intending to show work.

    After doing a little unofficial polling, and updating my website almost every day for the past year, I decided that scrolling was best, and the entire website should take only 10 minutes to update… just rename the images in bridge, drop them in, rename an html file, and copy and paste one line of code: instant gallery of new work up there. Finally, my site actually represents what I’m up to instead of some slideshow of two year old work.

  13. So the print book still reigns supreme then, huh?! I guess since editors are in the business of producing a finished paper product they like to see print portfolios. Although I understand their continued appeal, many photographers will actually be shooting digitally, editing on screen and sending digital files and not necessarily ever making any prints for a magazine assignment. But I guess a print portfolio is more helpful for judging the quality of a photographer’s work since it shows preciousness in the printing and editing and is tangible whereas a website always remains virtual.

  14. @5: I am clearly not an AD or PE, but I did one meeting once where I showed up with a laptop to show my work. Where to start?

    First problem: desk was buried in paperwork, folders and computer. Actually finding somewhere to put the laptop was problem numero uno. With a book, people don’t need desk space.

    Second problem: light was streaming in through the windows and you couldn’t properly close the blinds. Result? Viewing the photos was extremely difficult.

    Lesson: never, ever again.

    There is also a real, tangible feel to flicking through a portfolio book that just can’t be replaced by a computer.

    Bring both if you wish, but my first preference would always be a book.

  15. When some genius out there simplifies and unifies colour management we will all be better off. Who the heck wants to make profiles for printers, spend forever messing around colour calibrating monitors every 5 seconds so we can work out what the heck its going to look like in print.

  16. Although I occasionally land jobs based solely on my Web site, the great majority come from portfolio reviews. The Web site is often the first stop for me, followed by a portfolio request. I can not speak for magazine-based art directors, but many advertising people look at photographer Web sites for inspiration. There’s no better inside track to a new job than having your photographs used in a preliminary layout. You are automatically the front runner, so if the $$$ side works out, the job is yours. That’s a big reason why your site should be simple to navigate, ample, and relatively rapid to load.

    Life would be much much easier without print books (ten books x fifty or sixty new images x every six months = many Advils and much self doubt) but I am glad to hear they are still in demand. Most work looks so much better in the context of a finished portfolio.

  17. Johann Gutenberg

    I can’t imagine walking into a meeting with a laptop instead of a book. Maybe if your shooting style was “video game, HDR, HiPassFilter” it might be appropriate, but for the most part, AD’s are working with ink on paper; that is their domain.

    It would be like going into a car showroom, and instead of looking at the real car to test drive, you’re shown a television ad for it, or a set of blueprints for it. It’s one step removed, which can’t be a good thing in any business.

    I remember when inkjets first came out, and I was enamoured with matte rag paper, and I redid all my books on that paper. It did not go over well — ADs thought i was some “art guy”, instead of a commercial photographer. It simply introduced an element of doubt, or like a hangnail, it was something to just get hung up on, (and not in a good way). Not a good decision on my part; I loved them personally, but it did not produce jobs.

    When in Rome, do as the Romans do — ink on glossy paper. You’re not selling photography for websites; you’re not selling photography for framing. You’re selling photography for publishing in a magazine or brochure or annual report. (At least for the time being, until Mr. Haggart gets his way, and he sends Mead Paper and all the others packing…) At THAT point, I’d say it was appropriate to whip out the 17″ laptop for presentation, but it’s not there yet. If ever.

  18. I find it surprising that this is still a relevant topic in an art buying/photo editing forum. Like Mitch says (hello!), the web usually is the first step – and sometimes the only step – to landing a project. However the book has to be of a like kind and quality experience to the web presence. It is a sales tool after all and everything needs to be consistent. I don’t see one without the other. Obviously things can and do flow differently in the printed vs. online product. Each medium being best suited for particular needs.

    I have landed many a project based on the web site alone but when the book is requested it had better seal the deal, not disappoint. Is one more important than the other? You need both!

    My view is that the website is a vehicle to show a greater volume of work that shows where you have been as well as where you are going. It is more forgiving in terms of large quantities of images and variety whereas, to me the book is a purer vision of the future. I have had the opportunity to see some books that are 60 -70 pages – huge! You can’t help but begin to glaze after 30 images – we call it “a book” – it needs to flow and tell a story like a book. To continue the analogy, the website can be many volumes.

    Next we need to see how buyers feel about sleeves vs double sided prints!

  19. I think when there are more photographers using beautiful, clean websites with large photographs then photo editors will value websites more. Just not enough people are (shameless plug for mine here).

  20. Love this post…good insight and brings up my question since I am in the process of new promotion…

    Given that your website has the latest work or enough work in volume to show who you are and what you can do, what more should a book show?

    Is it the best images from your site or images that don’t appear there? and…how many images make up a good book?

  21. “I remember when inkjets first came out, and I was enamoured with matte rag paper, and I redid all my books on that paper. It did not go over well — ADs thought I was some “art guy”, instead of a commercial photographer.”

    Johann – who the hell have you been showing your book to? Sounds like a bunch of punks. Matte paper is the best for presentation. The tonality, color depth and look is so much better than glossy paper. No reflections or finger smudges and the look and feel of the paper itself says class act. In fact when I see books (portfolios) made with gloss or semi-gloss I immediately think old school or head shot photographer. Yes you are selling yourself as a photographer. And a nice leather or cloth bound book with heavy thick matte paper and breathtaking photos will say you’re a great photographer. Again, nothing beats a clean, simple and elegant presentation. Look at fine art books for inspiration. So get out those Somerset Velvet or Hahnemuhle paper books and if anyone gives you any grief it’s because they’re a junior or an idiot.

    And here’s a tip for those of you who use the heavyweight matte papers for your books – the ink can rub off on the backside of the page preceding it which takes away from your presentation. So as you print your images from your Photo Stylus Epson, first let them sit for 24 hours and then spray them lightly with a protective varnish. This will also add to the longevity of your prints. I use Premier Art Print Shield.

    Personally, I am not a fan of presentations on laptops. First of all, at Chiat, (yes I still freelance from time to time) we never meet with photographers. It’s book drop-off only. And they are usually sent in by the Reps. So strike one against laptops. Secondly is the glare factor. And unless you have a 30″ calibrated HD screen, it’s going to look like crap. Sorry. So that’s strike two against laptops. Thirdly, we like control. I like to take my time looking through a book. Flipping backwards and forward at my own pace. And it’s not really an ink on paper thing that us art directors prefer. At least for me. I just like to flip through a book at a nice casual pace and see how images are going to hit me. As if I’m flipping through a magazine. Whether that image is going to end up in an ad or an editorial piece. Many times I’ll tell reps when I see work that is amazing and better than what an ad client deserves that their photographer(s) should also give editorial a shot. I mean why limit yourself? I know commercial photography is the big time, but a two week shoot in Tuscany for Travel & Leisure doesn’t suck.

    Hope this helps everyone

  22. Avid Reader

    One other thing I’ve noticed that should be mentioned, and this never occurred to me when I was designing my book: Many many times, Art Directors want to make four or five xerox copies of individual images to remember (pigeonhole) you by. Maybe they have their method of filing, to remember photographers. Who knows.

    So, if you’re “showing a laptop” you’re screwed in that regard. (Trust me, they won’t do a CommandShift3 and send it over Airport to their printer).

    And if you’re showing an Asuka/Blurb type book, then you’ve got a deal where they’re slapping the spread down on the xerox machine. Or, if you’ve got prints in pages, they’re probably removing the print and slapping their five favorites down on the xerox.

    Many times, the book comes back out of order, because they didn’t put them back in the sleeves in the same order that they took them out.

    Again, lots of human nature to think about. And some it, it’s simply hard to plan for. Even preparing a LeaveBehind is not best solution, because no two clients will pick the same five favorites to remember you by. It’s almost best to make it easy for them to xerox you.

  23. Interesting panel with diverse opinions! You did a nice job with your synopsis of the evening and comments on the websites, Rob! As a former photo editor, I also enjoyed Zana Woods refreshing perspective.

    I would like to see more discussion on personal style and branding, though I don’t care for that corporate buzz word. Branding is for cattle… How can image makers create a site that reflects their own Creative Identity? The message has to be authentic and based on their core values.
    It is interesting how branding is an imperative for commercial photographers, whereas magzine editors are still open to much more diversity in a photographer’s creative output.

    Thanks, Rob, for providing such a great dialogue for photographers. I have passed on your blog to many of my clients.
    Monica Suder

  24. “Given that your website has the latest work or enough work in volume to show who you are and what you can do, what more should a book show?”

    @22 — sounds like a good topic for APE to mull over!

    Sorry to disappoint but there is no a one-size-fits-all answer to your question. On Thursday I went to the evening cocktail at LeBook’s Paris Connections, a trade show for photography reps and prospective clients. There were literally hundreds of portfolios on view, mostly dedicated to fashion, beauty and portraiture. Some were printed and bound like coffee table books and some were on laptops. Some were elephant-sized tomes requiring a forklift to budge and some were wee shoe boxes.

    I think it was the naturalist Haldane who, when asked about the nature of God, responded that he could not really say, except that he seemed to have a fondness for stars and beetles. Maybe He likes portfolios too.

    My point here is that you will never find one “right” answer to your question. There’s just too much diversity and competition among photographers.

    The only relevant advice I can offer is that you should never think your portfolio is “done”. Finished books belong to photographers who have stopped shooting. A good portfolio should consistently evolve with new work; a portfolio, Web-based or printed, is a process, not a finished product. Remember that and you will suffer less pain when revising your print book.

  25. I can’t imagine asking for an appointment to go in to visit and art buyer/art director/designer to show my website. The answer would be “just give me your URL and I’ll look at it now”. The book gives you a way to share a finished body of work so that both you and the viewer have a shared experience to start a conversation. Assignment are initiated by my website only, but to start and more meaningful conversation the book still a great tool.

  26. photojournalists usually show their work on a laptop. i’ve never minded that because it’s usually the latest work from the front lines or even fashion week.

  27. Thanks Rob for that note. In reading through people’s comments I quickly gathered that this is not the “Perpignan” crowd–of course no problem with that(!) and one does needs a print book too–but often on the road it will be of the smaller inkjet/Fastback book kind along with the laptop.

  28. great info here. Stoked to hear this.

    I just had a discussion with my web guy this last week about possibly doing a re-design of our website, and came to the conclusion that clean and simple was a perfect fit for me and my style, but instead we’re going to change up the content a bit to have more user friendly galleries, more personal content for people to get to know who I am and such.

    I’m excited to keep my site simple so that people can appreciate my photography.

    I know that they say that a photographer’s “super creative/over-the-top” website doesn’t get the photographer an “advantage” but really, it gets people talking about them and in turn gets them more attention, and for that reason alone could easily result in a photographer’s site who would have NEVER been seen suddenly getting viewed by an art buyer/editor because someone else tells them they have to see this site/photographer.