When you look at a photo, what are you looking at? Composition? Lighting? Color grading? With your knowledge and expertise, you look at certain things with more intent than others, but are you seeing the whole picture?
When you look at a photo, are you able to look at it from the perspective of other viewers? Unlocking the ability to see from other perspectives is a great way to grow your skills and become more knowledgeable in certain genres. Models and makeup artists don’t talk like photographers. A creative director's needs don't always line up with what would make the best photograph. Being able to talk in their languages and understand their needs not only clears up confusions, it creates trust, because it shows you understand what they’re doing and shows you're on the same page.
In this article, I want to go through the ways different members of a team might look at the same photo. For the sake of the article, let's say this was for a beauty counter promotion for a hair brand. This will be important later on.
The photographer cares about everything from a macro perspective. They need to make sure the lighting works and and the posing is natural and flattering. Also, they're looking for any distractions that need to be removed or changed. Here is what I see from a photographer's perspective on the photo.
1. Does her shoulder look natural for the pose?
2. Are the eyes open enough for the smile, and are they an even size?
3. Are the highlights exposed correctly?
4. Are her lips natural in the photo? Can we get the teeth to show a little in the light?
5. Is the lighting picking up the hair shine enough? Should we add an extra hair light?
Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist
The makeup artist is looking at how the makeup looks under the lighting conditions. Is the highlight too bright? Are the lips even? They don’t notice the lighting or the intricacies to the pose, like if the hands look bigger than the head or if one eye is slightly closed more than the other eye. They see how the eyeshadow pops, and they’re looking to see if the wing is crooked. Here's what they see from the photo.
1. Is the eyeshadow showing up well under the light? Is the light picking up the highlight/color?
2. Is the contour too heavy?
3. Are the lips even on each side?
4. This is for the hair. Is it coming too far over the neck? Does it need to be moved?
5. Is the wind separating the hair too much? Does the wind need to be changed/moved?
You'll see from this the hairstylist is mostly paying attention to how the hair looks under the lighting like a makeup artist, but also paying keen attention to any time the hair gets out of place. They're looking at the volume, shine, and styling of the hair.
As for models, they’re seeing how they look under the lighting with the makeup. They might notice minor things with the makeup and hair, but they are mostly paying attention to the pose and how they look in the lighting. For this photo, there are a few things to point out from their perspective.
1. Are the eyes giving off the right intensity?
2. Do the lips looks good, are they open enough?
3. Does this pose look good?
Their job really works in tandem with the photographer and/or creative director. Letting them know the context and directions helps them understand how they should be posing for the photos.
As the retoucher for most of my photos, I’m also looking at the minor details like how much of the texture is showing. How much work am I going to need to do on all the little editing details that are not necessary for makeup and the model? I want to make sure the highlight is manageable, the uneven skin texture has been taken care of fully, and things like neck lines and stray hairs are gone. With this photo, I'm looking specifically at just a couple things.
1. Is the texture, specifically in the midtones even? In the highlights and shadows, it's also very important, but not as noticeable as the areas where skin tone and texture show the most.
2. Minor details are taken care of like neck lines, nose hairs, stray hairs, eyeshadow powder on the cheek — all the small details you might not notice until you look up close.
A tighter crop so you can see more of the smaller details in the photo.
The creative director is looking at everything like a photographer, but in a contextual sense. As the photographer, you are usually the creative director until you work with brands and agencies. Then, your job is more utilitarian. The creative director works with everyone to make sure the context of the shoot works from every end. Does the makeup make sense for the product? Does the lighting flatter the product and make sense in context? Are the model's pose and facial expression matching the brand identity? These are all necessary to help sell the product. You want everything to match contextually; this is their job on set. For the photo, here are a couple points of interest.
1. Is the hair showing the proper shine for the product?
2. Is her facial expression showing what we are going for? Should she be smiling?
Something else that is important for the creative director in pre-production that affects the shoot is: where is this going? An ad for a beauty counter (this context) won't work as well as a social post, because the audience is different there and is looking for different things. A part of their job is to devise creative ideas that will be successful in different environments. This is good to know for when you're talking with creative directors. Being able to understand the contextual difference from a marketing perspective shows them you understand why all the little choices are made.
Normal Viewer and End Consumer
This is where it gets tough, because the end consumer differs wildly. The one thing that connects everyone, however, is the phrase: is this interesting? Or how a lot of normal viewers will put it: does this have the wow factor? Does the photo have interest to it that attracts the regular population?
For products in a store, this photo might be great. Perfect for a conditioner ad at the beauty counter. It isolates the subject and gives you the idea that the product adds shine to the hair. But on social, this post would be easily forgotten. There's no color, no context to the photo. It looks like every advertisement they're served on a regular basis.
A great example of what normal people like and how they think comes from an Fstoppers video, when Lee has his mother on their Critique the Community series. Seeing her opinion on the photos as a normal viewer is important for everyone to understand. The end consumer does not think like you or me. And these are the people that most of us are trying to cater to. So, it's important to take their opinions into consideration when it comes to photos that are meant for their viewing.
Here are some timestamps I found interesting:
6:05: She likes some aspects to this, but doesn’t note specific things like the hands on the model or the pose. She just thinks the model has an attractive face and the owl is beautiful, but it just doesn’t work. All true, but she doesn’t note any of the other aspects on why it’s not great. Like the unattractive hands, the color grading, or the model’s expression.
19:35: She values the interest in this photo way higher than anything else. The attractiveness of the animals, the tones, the boring lighting: none of it matters to her.
23:36: This is, to me, a world-class street photo. She doesn’t see the value in it at all. The artistic value that Lee saw, she didn't. She's just not aware of the artistic details and why they're important to others.
Unlike the other groups, understanding the perspective of the normal viewer is important for pre-production and the end result. You can have a great team, make a great series of images, but if they don't connect with the audience, then it wasn't successful in the long run. Understanding who you are creating for is just as important as understanding who you are creating with.
So Dave, Why Is This Important?
I figured you might ask this. When you're working with a team, you really need to make sure everyone is on the same page. Once I started working with larger groups, I made it a point to learn how to talk to everyone from their needs. So that means knowing makeup terms like ombré and the difference between a glossy look and a matte look. From a retouching perspective, knowing what's best for the image will make my life or my retoucher's life easier down the road.
And that's what this is all about, understanding everyone's needs and helping them get their job done. The best photographers, makeup artists, and models all know more than just how to do their job. A great model will be able to understand the context of the final product and pose to match the concept. A great makeup artist will understand light sources and know how those affect the makeup before even starting application. The people knowledgeable in more than just their positions make the best team members. If you plan to be part of larger teams, you should strive to be one of these team members.