finding a great photographer

A good photographer’s picture will be of a beautiful ring. A great photographer’s picture sends you dashing to your nearest jeweler to demand that ring be put on your finger this instant.

Dear Lilian,

What is your suggestion for hiring photographers to capture publicity photos of jewelry, especially when jewelry photography tends to be outrageously expensive?


Stuart Berger
Berger & Son Fine Jewelers, Las Vegas

Dear Stuart,

Some will say “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But in the jewelry business, and in PR, a picture is worth thousands of dollars.

The right picture will create an emotional response, and emotions are why a woman happily spends tens of thousands of dollars on a ruby necklace to make her feel like Richard Gere is madly in love with her (while, perhaps, thanking her husband for paying the Amex bill …).

That’s a tall order, which is why jewelry photography can be quite costly.

A good photographer’s picture will be of a beautiful ring. A great photographer’s picture sends you dashing to your nearest jeweler to demand that ring be put on your finger this instant.

A great photographer has a distinct ability to translate emotion into imagery; a savant-like understanding of lighting, and when absolutely necessary, advanced knowledge of Photoshop.

I say “absolutely necessary” because using Photoshop to correct an image is time consuming and, subsequently, expensive. Great photographers know this, so they shoot to ensure minimal editing will be required, which brings us back to your question.

Stuart, I’m going to share with you one of my many, many secrets of how to stretch a client’s $0.15 into $5.

Let’s face it–when it comes to marketing and PR, we PR people are the red-headed stepchildren. Companies know they need us, but because they don’t quite understand what we do, we always end up with scraps once the real budget has been allocated. What makes PR people spectacular (if I do say so myself), is that we understand scraps are something, and as long as we have something, we can make it work.

So here’s how to make diamonds out of coal.

I spoke earlier of the great photographers, the ones who have an almost transcendental understanding of how lighting can make the exact same object appear devilish or angelic.

Well, before those top photographers started commanding $3,000 a day, they were young ‘uns who saw the world beautifully through their camera lens while dreaming of the day big companies would recognize them as the Michelangelo reincarnate they knew they were.

I’m of the mind that great artists, whether on canvas, on paper, or on film, are born, not made. Training may help someone be good, but great artists were always great; training just brought out their innate talent.

I find these future great photographers while they’re still building their reputation.

I’ve posted calls for portfolios on Craig’s List, Guru.com and Elance.com. I’ve contacted photography departments of advertising schools and spoken to teachers to get recommendations on their best students. I’ve searched high and low to find these phenomenal, young photographers who will look at my client’s $0.15 and see a smiling Abraham Lincoln.

And when I find them, not only do I hold on to them for dear life, I send them as much business as possible so they too may one day be asked to photograph a Sistine chapel equivalent.

I’ve been lucky to find such a talent in Haim “Machi” Versano, who has been a phenomenal photographer for my clients and me for many years. I highly recommend him.

So, Stuart, you’ve posted on these sites and spoken to art school teachers. Your inbox is full of online portfolio links for novices looking for their big break. Assuming you remembered to ask them to include their rates when they email you (you did remember, yes? And of course you remembered to tell them how many products you need photographed, yes?), immediately get rid of anyone $100 or more above your budget. This isn’t essential, but I personally hate negotiating down rates for individuals working for themselves–big companies, no problem, but not the little guys.

Once you’ve gotten rid of the ones asking more than you’re willing to spend, it’s time to look at portfolios for the remaining.

I typically start by going through portfolios very quickly. If I find myself pausing on more than one occasion to really look at a picture, then I know this person has that je ne sais quois. Ideally you’ll want to see experience shooting jewelry; but most likely, as newbies, you may not find this. Instead, look for food photography.

Wait. Do I hear professional jewelry photographers across the country screaming blasphemy? How possibly could a food image compare to a jewelry image?!

It doesn’t. But you, dear jewelry photographer yelling at your monitor in hopes I’ll hear you wherever I presently am, will agree with me that it’s all about lighting and understanding shadow play. Food photography is one of the more difficult shoots. I’ve had firsthand experience with this, and trust me, you really don’t want to eat that delicious steak you’ve seen in ads.

If this young Padawan photographer has the makings of a future talent, you’re going to crave the food in his pictures. If he can do that with food, he can certainly do it with diamonds and rubies and pearls (oh my!).

Narrow down your choices to about three to five photographers. Send each an email with a final total number of pieces you need photographed, when you’d like to schedule the shoot, and confirm their rates based on what was initially quoted in the introduction email. Also tell them you’d like to retain all rights to the photographs, although they’re welcome to use the images in their portfolios.

And yet another chorus of profanities from jewelry photographers across the country.

Retaining rights is a point of contention for professional photographers, and I can’t blame them. No one wants to give up the rights to their work. But what they want, and what you or your client want are two different things. The bottom line is that you don’t want to have to pay the photographer every time you want to use your images for something new.

While you’re communicating with these photographers, in addition to evaluating their answers based on your needs, also pay attention to how they respond to you.

You see, the challenge with working with young talent is they can sometimes be unreliable. How they respond to you will give some hint as to how business-like they are. You want to look for any unexplained delays in getting back to you, any hesitations in confirming the final rate, any wishy-washiness whatsoever.

You want Mario Testino before he became Mario Testino, but always knew he would become the Mario Testino and behaved accordingly, kapisch?

If the person you’re dealing with doesn’t act like the professional he hopes to one day become, move on to the next one.

Lastly, make sure the person you select knows how to use Photoshop well. He’ll need it if this is his first jewelry photo shoot. Any retouching, however, should be negotiated into the final rate.

And voila; you now have one of my secrets for working with a budget so tight, a diamond must naturally appear.

I would be doing a true disservice to my press friends, however, if I ended here.

You have your images–they’re fantastic–now you want to share them with the press. Keep the following things in mind and you’ll be welcomed into the exclusive inner circle of PR contacts editors love.

Always, always, always have products shot on a white background. No exception. You can have lifestyle images for your website and marketing materials, but if it’s going to press, they want your product on a white background. It makes it easier for them to get creative with their layouts.

Unless told otherwise, only send high-resolution images, even if it’s to an online-only publication. It’s easier to resize a high-res image than a low-res one.

Never, ever, ever send an editor an image as a PDF. Only send JPEG, GIF or PNG files. While some editors have incredibly expensive Photoshop and Illustrator software and can manipulate PDFs, most don’t.

A writer friend told me of his refusal to include a major jewelry brand in his Oscar jewelry writeup because the publicist sent the image of the celebrity wearing the brand’s jewelry as a PDF. He couldn’t edit the file and so the brand lost an opportunity for coverage.

Last but not least from my dear friend, the TrendTracker herself, Cindy Edelstein: name your image files descriptively. Nothing turns an editor’s hair gray faster than trying to quickly figure out which image belongs to which company and what that image is of. Keep in mind that you’re not the only one sending her images. A file named image1.jpeg will frustrate; berger_yellowdiamond_ring.jpeg will delight.

So there you have it, Stuart. Good luck with your search for America’s Next Top Photographer. And double good luck for your upcoming December opening of the new, larger location of Berger & Son Fine Jewelers.

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