A day in the life of a catalog photographer

People often ask what I do for a living and I answer that I am a catalog photographer. Now the photographer part they understand but the catalog part sounds weird to most. Basically I photograph product that is meant for the sole purpose of selling that product. It’s kinda like shooting it for advertising except I need to be able to shoot 100 items a day and make them all look the same, but at the same time highlight each items selling points. Many times I have to figure out what to highlight and what not too on my own. Think of a catalog of car tires. Notice how all the tires are shown from the same angle, all the tire show the logos in the same place, all look the same size. Now throw in a steering wheel, same basic shape (round), still not so hard to light and pose the same. Now add in a can of oil, a cover for the steering wheel, a bottle of car wax. All of these items need to be shot with the same lighting and with a certain amount of continuity so they all look like they belong together. Now imagine photographing each item days, weeks, months or even a year apart from each other, sometimes done at multiple locations. Do you remember what you had for lunch a week ago? Try remembering a lighting set-up from 5 months ago at a location that doesn’t exist because the company has moved.

That’s what I do, it’s not glamorous but I love doing it

 Not to long ago most companies would create a printed catalog once to a few times per year. These catalogs would show their newest product and carry over items from the previous catalog. An ordinary assignment would consist of setting up in a clients office or warehouse space where all of the product would be ready and shooting anywhere from 100 to 500 (upwards into a couple thousand), spending anywhere from a day to a week (maybe a month at most) shooting non-stop. These days, printed catalogs do not compete with the web. Clients will still do printed catalogs but they want it NOW for the web. Printed catalogs take time to design, layout, proof, print and distribute. The web, it goes live and is available for sale instantly. Direct mail campaigns are now done via email. A new product becomes available and a client wants to email a photo to their customer now. The photos are as important as ever and quality photos even more so. Years ago I may shoot 2,000 items for a client in any given year, but now instead of shooting 20 full days throughout the year it’s been broken up into a few hours here and there. I’m still shooting 2,000 items, just not all at once.

I spend most of my time going from one client to another. I shoot a few here, then a few there. It is a lot more economical if the clients were to send me the items and I could photograph one item after another, one client after another, quickly and without interruption. It can save clients a lot of money and save me a lot of time. There is only one problem. Clients are also now selling items without having the merchandise in their hands. They will get one sample piece and start selling before they even place the order with their supplier. Most do not want to let their only sample out of their sight even for a day or two. Today many companies will have their own in-house photo set-up and have an existing employee, assistant, IT guy or relative of the owner (whoever owns the best camera) do the picture taking (usually for no or very little money). For lack of a better description, that is my competition. When the company finally decides it’s time to step up (or because the guy with a camera is on vacation) they see the difference that quality photography can do and will never go back to what they used to get.

I’ve also heard folks saying that CGI (Computer Generated Images) are replacing product photography. Personally, I have yet to see any and most of what I photograph would be too expensive to do that way. The only evidence I have seen is when special effects are involved.

Most companies don’t realize that they will never be competitive in their marketplace if they don’t take the photography (and marketing) seriously. Next time you get a catalog or flyer in the mail take a close look at the photographs, count how many are used? Are they well lit? Is there a consistent uniformity?

Don’t get me wrong I love what I do, I love the challenges, I just wish companies would care as much about their photography as I do

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About vrbuzard

Photographer of table top and product for catalog and web. Most recently working on photographing cycling races
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