The issue of whether or not photographers should work for free is a polarizing one. Some of us feel we should not haul thousands of dollars worth of lighting and camera gear to a location and spend a full day shooting just to gain a reward that comes in the form of intangible exposure. Others feel doing regular collaborations with like-minded peers to produce new work is valuable in nurturing a photographer’s creative process.
Many photographers are familiar with a type of free shoot known as a test shoot. There is a type of free shoot, known as a spec ad, that requires more time, money, and collaboration than a test shoot. A spec ad is an advertisement or advertising campaign that you create for a brand or product even though you have not been hired by the company. You may spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars creating this spec ad. The final images or video that you create are not likely to be used for a real campaign by the company. With these concerns in mind, why would any creative devote time and money to creating such a project?
I spoke to creative film director, Isaac Alvarez of Unplug Production about the value of doing a spec ad as a personal project. He begins by addressing how difficult it can be for a new photographer or filmmaker to break into the business. “It's hard to start filmmaking or photography when you don't have any work underneath your belt. People are much more likely to hire you when you have work to show them. So creating a spec ad, or any project in general for yourself, is the quickest way to get some work into your portfolio so that you have something to present to those interested,” he said.
Another benefit of doing a spec ad is gaining experience in all aspects of producing a large-scale shoot. “Suppose you treat a spec ad just as you would a client job. In that case, you will gain experience in all the different tasks it takes to finish that project, from the planning process in pre-production to all the hiccups and curveballs that come at you during production and properly piecing all the videos, sounds, colors, and effects in post-production. Whether simple or complicated, you learn with every new project,” said Isaac.
If you are a photographer who wants to work on larger shoots than you are currently doing, you need to become skilled at managing areas of the shoot that go beyond just taking photographs. Even something as seemingly simple as catering food for a shoot can be more complicated than it initially seems. Do you know how much it costs to feed a crew of 10 people? How many tables would you need for the serving trays? Do you have a full-size garbage can to hold all the discarded plates when the meal is over? Small issues such as these can become major concerns when they occur on a real shoot. Imagine how a client may lose faith in your ability to nail the shoot when breakfast doesn’t go as planned. It is best to gain experience in the various aspects of a shoot when the stakes are lower and you are your own client.
It would be inadvisable to invest your money in creating a spec ad for a specific brand with the expectation that you will recoup that money when the company hires you for a real shoot. However, the possibility does exist that you could be hired by that company. “If you put your best foot forward, give your spec ad a total effort, post it online and share it, and the company you created the spec ad for sees it, they may very well decide to hire you for an actual project. There are several stories of filmmakers creating spec ads for a company, only to get hired by those companies with hefty budgets that can wind you a nice payday,” said Isaac. It is also possible, that a similar brand might respect what you have done for another company and want to hire you for their next campaign. Even if you are not hired by a company as a direct result of your spec ad, the skills you gain in producing the ad will benefit you when you are in discussions with a client about a large-scale shoot.
Recently, Cody Jay of Jackfruit Media and Rafal Cwiok of Unplug Productions collaborated to produce a series of Halloween-themed ads for Liquid Death’s water and sparkling water products. Although these canned water may seem mainstream in concept, the branding that the company uses is extreme. The company encourages its users to “murder your thirst”. In creating a spec ad, Cody and Rafal considered the company’s aesthetic. They decided that a Halloween-themed advertisement would fit the brand. Cody and Rafal focused on the names of the products such as Severed Lime and Mango Chainsaw and used props such as a knife and chainsaw that were befitting of these names. The shoot was done in Cody’s garage to keep costs as low as possible. Three lights were used. An Aperture 600D with a snoot was used as a key light. A Godox SZ150 RGB was bounced off a garage wall to create edge lighting. A Godox SL200 with a snoot was used to light the fog. The team spent a day figuring out the lighting setup before doing the shoot. This allowed them to focus on creative aspects rather than technical concerns on the day of the shoot. “I think it’s important to remember that you don’t have to have an amazing location to create product ads. As long as you know how to light, set-dress it well, and use the right camera settings, you can come up with some pretty amazing ads,” said Cody.
When doing a spec shoot it is important to remember that the shoot is designed to call attention to the product rather than the photographer. If your lighting or technique is so creative that a viewer can’t actually see the product or understand what the product does, then the ad is not an effective one. “We wanted to make sure that our lighting made the brand name clear and easily readable, and that our set decorations complimented the flavors, without drawing attention to themselves,” said Rafal.
Check the video, accompanying diagram, and photographs for a better understanding of how Cody and Rafal created this spec ad. It is worth noting that the team is having fun on this project. If you can find a project of your own that you would enjoy working on while also creating something that you can use to get more work, that might be a project worth pursuing.