How to choose a photographer

The creative director on Glenfiddich’s latest campaign explains how to choose the perfect photographer for your next advertising, branding or marketing project.

Beauty imagery is photography taken specifically to show off the most attractive and show-stopping elements of a product. After 20 years spent creating beauty photography, I feel I can now safely call myself an expert – I’ve definitely done my 10,000 hours. Purple’s latest major beauty imagery project was for Glenfiddich in June 2015, when we created images for some of their most iconic whiskies – each of which followed the brand’s new visual identity we launched last year.

The project got me thinking about all the phenomenal photographers I get to work with, and how much effort goes into picking the right one for each job. So I’ve put together some thoughts on how to find the best photographer to help bring your products to life, and to amplify the best bits of your brand, your identity and your messaging.

I also look at what should be done to ensure your clients believe in you and the photographers you choose. Hopefully it also gives photographers some tips to get in front of brands and their creative agencies.

The power of the portfolio

When choosing photographers, we look in detail at portfolios and websites to assess styles and skill levels. For beauty imagery, we usually have quite a fixed concept (it's already been refined and worked up on a Mac). Then it's up to us to find the right photographer to bring the concept to life.

Mostly this is in terms of what they have done before - if they specialise in luxury goods, for example – but it can be based on production (if they have a team that can source and build the right set) or post-production (if they have a recommended team that can retouch post shoot) or budget (what we can afford!).  

If we take the Glenfiddich projects as examples, the stand-out points from the photographer’s portfolios we picked were:

The right team: for our Glenfiddich 21 Year Old image (below), Benedict Morgan’s portfolio told us he’d worked with paint before, which filled us with confidence on such an experimental shoot, but after talking to him we realised how important having the right build and post-production team behind him was too. 

Specialist equipment: for the Glenfiddich 12 Year Old shoot we were inspired by Ted Humble-Smith’s work with the latest equipment – something we used in the shoot by using the Phantom Flex 4K.  


Being experimental: while looking through folios and websites we came across some photographic experiments Jonathan Knowles did on his personal blog called Sparks – which perfectly fitted our vision for the Glenfiddich 15 Year Old image (below).

Behind the scenes shots of Jonathan Knowles' shoot for Glenfiddich

Have honest briefings

It’s obviously important to pick the right photographer – one you can work with on a personal level as well as a professional one. I’d also stress that being able to have a clear dialogue between you and them is hugely important.

Briefing sessions prior to the shoot are vital to its success – it's where all questions are answered and any technical discussions should be had. It’s all well and good coming up with some amazing ideas, but if you can’t achieve them with the collateral and the budget that you have there’s no point.

Tip: Make sure all questions and interpretations of a brief are answered and cleared up before going into production of the shoot. It will save a lot of time and money on the day.

Involve the client

We always believe in involving our client when choosing a photographer. We put together a shortlist, and make recommendations, and then refer to them. Having a client who believes in high quality beautiful work, and who is willing to invest in great assets, makes our job a lot easier.

Getting client input also invests them in the project more - and they will in turn sell it in better to their bosses. It also means they're more excited about the shoot - which they're always invited to. 

Tip: Involve the client – don't simply dictate. 

Choose the best photographer for the best result 

We’ve been lucky to work with the photographers who are in the highest demand. Forgetting budget issues, we're always aiming to push the boundaries of photography by recommending the most pioneering, relevant or inspiring photographers from around the world. I am obsessive about getting every tiny creative detail as perfect as possible, and our photographers are as into it as I am, and determined to achieve what we want.

On a Courvoisier beauty image project (below), working with the very talented Tim Hogan, we went into photographic minutia to make sure everything was perfect – using an angle grinder to get the right energy in the sparks, and then going through extensive retouch to create the most alluring shot.

Tip: Aim to work with the best, they’re the best for a reason and they bring an extra level of attention to detail and quality to a project.

Work as a team

It’s all a discussion from the start. I like to think that a project is only successful if both sides want to work on it and sometimes that means making compromises – whether it’s on the concept or budget. When it comes to art directing the image, it’s important to do just that: direct. It is vital to get the photographer's creative input and eye, as it’s the reason you’re working with them in the first place. You can rein them in or steer them to a result, but you should also be willing to listen or be open to better executions

Our Glenfiddich Rare Collection image (above) involved a larger team, including a specialist leather expert giving advice and cutting on set, which meant we all had to work collaboratively, listening to each other’s opinions to get a shot we were all proud of.

Tip: Work collaboratively, and maintain a good conversation throughout. Listen to a photographer's ideas and be accommodating, but don’t forget you have the final say.

Build trust

The shoot doesn't end when the photographer puts their camera away. The next stage of any modern shoot is post-production and retouch. You need to be able to talk honestly about your vision for a shot - and sometimes compromise on various aspects. The best photographer relationships are forged (in the long-term) when photographers go above and beyond the call to ensure the shot looks the best it can be.

It creates trust and keeps agencies like ours coming back again and again. 

Gary Westlake is creative director and founding partner of Purple.

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn't affect our editorial independence. Learn more.

Read Next...