On Monday, you’re on your own with an artisan at work in her studio, photographing her with available light. On Thursday, you’re on set with your crew, directing models as they bring to life a story about how a new product fits into family dinners. The narrative series of images you produce from both of these shoots will use a naturalistic style to convey a message about the client’s brand. Both of them are brand narrative photography.
So what precisely is brand narrative photography? At Wonderful Machine we define brand narrative photography to “depict real life, but by telling a story (using multiple pictures in a series) about a consumer or producer’s engagement with a particular product or brand.” As we’ll soon find out, another aspect of brand narrative is the fact that many clients are looking for the final deliverables to have a documentary-like aesthetic when communicating a branding message.
Los Angeles and Mexico City–based photographer Nicole Franco has spent much of her career doing documentary work; in recent years, however, she’s used her skills as a documentarian to move into brand narrative. Brands have sought out Nicole and her style to create relatable series of images for use in online and social media campaigns.
The conversation has always started like, “We want a campaign and what we’re looking for is trying to connect people.” There are always the same words, like “identifiable,” “relatedness,” and “real,” as in, “We want real-looking people.”
I think it has a lot to do with the time we’re in. There’s a real need for empathy and community, and we’ve all been really divided and isolated. So I think these brands are trying to connect their clients or users with something real. I think they’re hungry for bridging that gap.
Nicole has done brand narrative work for large corporations like Driscoll’s and Hyatt Hotels, and much of the preproduction for those jobs is similar to what’s required for a conventional commercial ad shoot. Knowing how to handle aspects of the business like estimates, bidding, treatments, and contracts is a must for editorial shooters who want to land brand narrative commissions with larger clients.
Preproduction can also involve a lot of creative collaboration, which continues into the production phase. While brand narrative photography doesn’t usually involve the hair, makeup, and wardrobe stylists who work on conventional commercial shoots, larger assignments do require a crew with digital techs, assistants, and (sometimes) videographers and drone operators. More from Nicole:
You can’t do these jobs by yourself — It’s definitely not something you can just fly into and start shooting guerrilla style. With the brand narratives I’ve done, it’s been very, very involved. There’s a lot of preproduction, and it’s about really understanding what the client is looking for. It’s asking a lot of questions. It’s listening. To create a visual and unique identity specific for that brand, it has to be collaborative.
It’s also a huge commitment. I always tell my clients: once we start shooting, we are in this until images are delivered. We need to always be in conversation. I’ve learned that this type of work requires a lot more creative thinking, a lot more creative problem-solving. That requires ample trust on the client’s side and it’s plenty of responsibility for the photographer as well. You’re responsible for how they’re being viewed, and getting it right is really important.
Not all brand narrative photographers work with large companies or on large-scale shoots. Photographers who work with small businesses and individuals can shoot in the same pared-down style as a documentary photographer, without a crew or a lot of gear. But unlike with documentary work, there is still a preproduction phase for developing the brand message.
Cleveland-based Angelo Merendino shoots brand narratives for small businesses and independent artisans, sitting down with each of them beforehand to talk about the story they want to tell about their business.
The narrative part comes from listening and asking questions, and trying to help the person I’m working with to fine tune what it is that they’re trying to say. If they don’t already have a good grip on that, then it’s a matter of just working together and talking things through. All this has to be a two-way street, the same as any good conversation where two people are both talking and listening.
With a background in editorial and portrait photography, Angelo started doing brand narrative work after a documentary series he shot went viral. The series was personal work that documented his first wife’s battle with terminal cancer and had no connection to commercial work. But after it gained attention, Angelo started hearing from businesses that were attracted to the relatable quality of his work.
For photographers who want to get into commercial work but think they don’t have the portfolio for it, Angelo’s experience is proof that even the most personal work can demonstrate a photographer’s value to commercial clients. He says that he’s recently seen more demand for imagery that offers a genuine reflection of people’s everyday experiences:
Sometimes, if I see photographs that are insanely conceptual, I can respect that for what those are, but I don’t personally feel a connection to it or an emotional connection to it. Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard more people talking about people wanting to see photographs that seemed like their life or that seem attainable.
In Alhambra, California, photographer Tiffany Luong has found that in recent years her brand narrative work for smaller clients has attracted attention from larger ones. With a solid portfolio of family photojournalism and personal branding work for independent business people like real estate brokers, artisans, and interior designers, she started hearing from marketing directors at larger companies.
It seems like everyone who reaches out to me says, “I really like how your work looks very authentic, and these moments are very real. We want to tell a story within our brand. Can you work with us on this?”
Tiffany has been commissioned for projects that cover a wide spectrum, ranging from almost pure documentary to directing models to play out a pre-scripted narrative. But even the most highly produced brand narrative shoots — with models acting out a storyline on set — have retained elements of documentary work that are reflected in the authentic-looking final images. Says Tiffany:
Even for shoots where they gave me the narrative, I’m still thinking in that mindset, taking that 360-degree walk around the subject to make sure I’m capturing things from the perspective of each person. I’m still using my documentary toolbox to bring out the story and try to capture genuine emotions.
Like Angelo, Tiffany devotes substantial time to developing a brand narrative before the shoot with smaller clients:
It depends on where they’re at in their own brand identity journey. Some of them come with their colors and a logo. They’ve already talked to somebody who has done their visual identity. But a lot of them come to me before they’ve done any of that work, so it’s kind of a long discovery call to help them develop their brand words or their brand concept or their brand messaging, how they want to portray themselves, or how they want their business to be perceived. From there, we develop the stories, which is on me — I’m the one that develops the stories for them, including the shot and prop lists.
For all three of these photographers, getting jobs in the brand narrative genre has been more a matter of showing relevant imagery in the right places than soliciting work. Nicole says she has received upwards of 90% of inquiries through online platforms where she showcases her work.
A lot of it has to do with being on platforms like Wonderful Machine, Women Photograph, and Diversify Photo. I think it’s clients or companies shifting the overall look that they want; they came searching for a photographer that had more of that background. It was a certain feeling that they wanted to come through that was more identifiable to the day-to-day person. And that’s so much of what I used to do in the past, working with nonprofits.
Because the scope of brand narrative photography is broad, it’s important for photographers getting into it to tailor the way they present themselves online to the kinds of clients they want to work with. When Nicole started getting inquiries about commercial work, she updated her website to make it clear that she was available for commercial work as well as documentary, and added more color images to her portfolio alongside the black-and-white work that had dominated it before.
Paying attention to your website’s SEO and making sure your availability for brand narrative work is reflected in your site’s metadata is also a good idea. Tiffany gets many of her brand narrative inquiries through organic Google searches. Being highly ranked on Google for personal brand photography in the Los Angeles area brought her to the attention of larger commercial clients looking for brand narrative work.
For photographers working with smaller clients, word of mouth, networking on the ground in local communities, and finding a niche with a specific type of industry or business person are also important ways to build a brand narrative clientele.
In addition to having an online presence, Angelo reaches out to local businesses that he feels a personal affinity with, and whose brands he thinks would benefit from his personal approach to creating imagery. Finding clients that he feels a personal connection with brings a cohesiveness to the combination of editorial, portrait, and brand narrative work he does.
All of what I’m doing is people oriented. Whether it’s someone in front of a seamless or somebody in an environment or a brand narrative, there’s a common thing going through it, that hopefully there’s a connection between me and that person.
Smaller clients don’t require the kinds of estimates, treatments, and other deliverables that are standard in the commercial photography world. The business model for small business and personal brand narrative photography is closer to that of retail photography. Pricing and business practices may be more influenced by the local market than by industry standards.
But whether you’re working with a large corporation or a sole proprietor, your brand narrative client will still be looking for the same end result: a series of relatable, authentic images with a well-honed brand message.