What do the creative processes of a Vogue fashion photographer, an award-winning National Geographic photographer, a drone expert, and an Instagram star have in common? That was my core question as I embarked on a recent series of interviews with the glitterati of the photography world, developing profiles supporting the launch of a premium stock collection.
Their perspectives were interesting to me because as a writer, I’m often asked to help develop visual content, whether it’s creating a series of instructions for a graphic design partner on a campaign or brainstorming ways to tell a story with data. Looking through lists of this type of content, thinking about the visual angles of specific stories, and even looking at other examples of successful content, however, leaves me uninspired.
After sitting down and talking to photographers about their creative process, I walked away realizing I was thinking completely wrong about how to develop powerful digital images. Here’s what I learned about different strategies for sparking creative thought and delivering a message visually (and effectively).
Visual Content: The Memento Mori of Marketing
Susan Sontag famously said, “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
Whether the photographer’s passion was chasing wild bears on Alaska’s Katmai Peninsula or capturing the latest runway show in Milan, each one viewed the visual medium as a way to capture the world as they saw it—at least for a single moment—and share that experience with another human. If the goal went to the next level, the artists got the chance to shape reality. After seeing a photograph, a viewer might feel moved to visit a new location or look at motion in a whole new way.
Through this lens, it’s clear that artists share the same goal as marketers. Visuals are about fostering connection, understanding, and engagement. The photographers ask, “What am I trying to say, to this specific audience and through this specific image, in this moment? What do I want them to understand about this subject?”
For marketers, this same set of questions provides a starting point on a creative visual journey. What are you trying to achieve? Your goals might range from telling an engaging, complex story visually to making original research accessible or choosing an arresting, brand-aligned photo for social media. Setting the course for where you want to go, both in terms of what you want to communicate and how you want your audience to respond, lays the foundation for innovative creative thinking and visual communications.
Shaping Reality and Driving Action Through Visuals
George Lakoff, a retired professor of cognitive studies and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, has said that photography shapes reality. Yet experts have argued there’s no single reality. Instead, visuals resonate differently with individual audiences, and each person views images and content through their own perspective.
As one scholar wrote, “We live in a multi-reality world making the possibilities and interpretations of constructed ideas infinite. When images are photographed, we are only looking at one small piece of a socially constructed reality; however, depending on one’s past experiences with a societal norm, they will then come to different conclusions about an idea”
When creating your visuals, you’re influencing the narrative around your products, services, and company. Creative choices need to be driven by the answers to these questions:
- What story are you trying to tell through this specific piece of content?
- Based on your knowledge of your audience, how will individual segments react to or interpret your visuals?
Three Questions to Ask to Fuel Visual Creative Thinking
Once you’ve established your creative destination and thought about filters your audience may have, you can dive into a series of questions to help you further refine and develop your image content.
Image attribution: Rob Morton
1. Does your work authentically inspire you?
One photographer specialized in working with heritage brands and western-lifestyle companies. Fishing roads, pickup trucks, and laconic cattle dogs shot against sprawling mountain ranges give you a preview into his world. These images reflect his day-to-day life living in the modern west, but his career didn’t always follow that trajectory. He experimented with wedding photography, landscapes, and other subject matter. Until he followed his creative impulses and let his own voice drive his work, it didn’t take off in a meaningful way.
Developing effective images follows a similar vein. When you’re setting off to make visual content for social media or create a data-rich graphic, it’s natural to look and see what’s already been done. Understanding how best practices work and what’s resonating in your industry are important. But ultimately, your visuals need to reflect your unique brand voice and authentic positioning. In the same way two companies in the same industry could tackle a topic completely differently in a blog post, it’s best to let your natural perspective emerge in visual content as well.
Image attribution: Matthew Kane
2. Can you stress test the image and will it hold up to your creative vision?
A consistent theme across photographers was the power of creative vision and creative thinking. Whether they walked into a shoot with a preconceived notion or captured something beautiful moment by moment, it was all about taking an image that was faithful to a large vision.
For example, I interviewed a Vogue fashion photographer who staged a multi-hour photo shoot with a model covered in talcum powder that left her studio covered in grains of powder for weeks. The image, however, has become iconic, often copied, and one of the best studies of motion in the high fashion world today.
Taking your creative thinking to the next level sometimes requires embracing a bigger idea. For example, is it time to experiment with interactive storytelling instead of defaulting to an infographic? Perhaps your brand would benefit from an original photo shoot or illustration rather than simply going after the best stock image you can find. Consider your biggest potential creative vision and stress test the result. Within the reasonable constraints of your budget, staff time, and likely ROI, is this content the most audacious version possible? If not, could you stand to push the boundary further?
Image attribution: John Salzarulo
3. Could new technology or platforms give your visual story a different perspective?
One of my favorite interviews was with a drone photographer who loved the images he took of coastal California but struggled to develop a breakthrough style. He wanted to show the world the way that he saw it and really establish his creative voice in his field. Often, his work led him to find vantage points above the city or the coastline that would offer the chance to capture a wider view. Poised on the edge of a cliff, he could capture the endless sea, the wide blue sky, surfers dancing on the waves, and the festivities on a boardwalk in a single image.
One day, he saw the work of early drone photographers and had a lightbulb moment. New technologies that allow you to connect a camera to a drone make it possible for the casual photographer to take shots from 500 feet overhead. When creating visuals, it’s useful to ask yourself: Are you looking at this from all the right angles? Is there a new medium that could tell this story in a different way? For example, ask yourself whether there’s a version of this visual story that leverages 360-degree perspectives or whether an immersive approach would be more engaging. When creating visual brand content, try changing your perspective (literally) to take a different angle on the content.
The creative processes behind photography and developing marketing visuals are highly aligned. Start with a bold vision of what you want to create in the world, and then use your personal voice, perspective, and inventiveness to bring something unforgettable to life.
Featured image attribution: Joe Ridley/Beth Martin