How To Choose A Photographer in China

If you have to find a commercial photographer for your next project in China, there are several things which you need to consider that will affect the outcome of your search.  How can you be sure that the photographer is good?  How can you know if the photographer offers a good value?  How do you know if he or she is the right one for your project?  The most important challenge is to better educate yourself to make a thorough decision.

The aim of this article is to offer a recommendation to marketing managers or anyone having to choose a commercial photographer in China.

China offers a wide range of commercial photographers, ranging from individual freelancers to small lane studios to larger photography companies with their own large studios and full-time employees.   According to the China Photographer’s Association, there are 12,000 photographers registered in China (and for example more than 2,000 photographers just in Shanghai!).

Regardless if you need to need a product, portrait or architectural photographer, the general aspects which need to be considered when choosing a photographer are universal and always the same.   Commercial photographers in China come in various sorts and kinds which can be differentiated and evaluated by following characteristics:

  1. Portfolio
  2. Experience
  3. References
  4. Studio
  5. Team
  6. Personality
  7. Language
  8. Value
  9. Equipment
  10. Logistics

The above points are now explained in detail below.

1. Start with the photographer’s portfolio.

Start by looking at the website of the photographer and see if you like his or her style.  Do you like the way the shots are composed?  Do you like the atmosphere or tonality of the shots?  Photography is highly subjective which means that each individual will have a different opinion on an image.  Also have a look at how the website and the portfolio are presented:  Does it have a nice look and feel?  Is it well-structured and easy to navigate?  Does it contain all the relevant information and a bio or vita?

2. Check the experience of the photographer in your area.

Often photographers get questions asked like “I see that you’ve shot oranges but can you also shoot apples!?”.  This question is of course beside the point as you can’t expect any photographer to have shot the product you are looking for in the exact style you are looking for.  Rather check if the photographer has done some work which is relevant to your area, or in the style (lighting, background, composition) you like but with a different product.  A good photographer can easily adjust the shooting style according to your design.

3. Look at what other companies have used the photographer.

Good photographers usually have a loyal base of regular clients which work with them on an on-going basis. Check if the website reveals some information about the photographer’s references.  Ideally, the website shows some real comments from clients (testimonial section) with their company names.  Established photographers will also always be able to give you 2-3 references which you can contact before signing the quote.

4. Check out if the studio would be okay.

About 70% of all jobs are done in a photo studio and 30% are done on-location (estimated).  If your shoot takes place in studio, see if the studio size and location fits your requirements (look at dimensions, ceiling height, floor plan, storage space, make-up room, infinity cove, ease of access, etc.).  Ask if the studio fees are included in the photographer’s day rates, also ask for studio half-and full-day rates.

5. Make sure the photographer has a good support team.

Even small photography projects can become pretty labor-intensive.  Products need to be picked up or sent and assembled and prepared, models have to be scheduled and styled on time, property release forms have to be drafted, faxed and signed, and so on.  Photographers who don’t have a full-time support team, usually consisting of project managers/ producers/ account managers, stylists, photography assistants or runners, end up having to do all those little tasks by themselves.  This typically makes them spend a lot of their attention, time and energy on secondary tasks which can (and should) be done by an assisting team member.  Ask for other talents who support the photographer and check how experienced they are.

6. Learn a bit about the photographer’s personality.

Photographers are normal people with all kinds of strength and weaknesses.  As photo shoots can get quite exhausting, intense and challenging for all involved, so it’s vital that the photographer has the kind of personality traits which are important to you.  Consider the testimonial from Mike Gatti (Arnold Worldwide) about the awesome photographer Tom Nagy:

7. Find out about the photographer’s language skills.

Now this is something which is probably only relevant in China – see how good the photographer’s Chinese or at least his English is.  Photography is part of the visual communication sphere so it is fundamental that the people involved can communicate well with each other.  If a client requests “More Warmth! More Harmony!”, the photographer has no other choice but to ask “okay, but how?!”.  Therefore, it’s important that the client and photographer talk at least one common language.

8. Look at the value, not the price.

As prices are always relative, it always depends on what you get in return for what you input.  For example, if you pay $10,000 US for a car this might be a great bargain or a total rip off, depending if it’s a Ferrari or a unknown car brand from the former Soviet Union.  Same in photography!  Good photographers get you what you want efficiently and without loosing any of your time!  Bad photographers might also be able to get it done, but they often need much more time and you need to manage them a lot more.  Therefore, always consider that your time is very valuable and you should train your photographer to know what you want and like so that you can spend your time on your core business.

9. Equipment is not everything, but it’s a start.

Probably you already know that the best photographers can create amazing shots with almost any kind of camera or equipment, and inexperienced photographers will often explain that they can’t create this or that effect because they don’t have the right equipment.  Fact is that equipment is for sure important, but it is also often overrated.  Ask the photographer what equipment he is usually using (camera model, lights, computer) and if you need billboard size, what maximum resolution (e.g. 5616 x 3744 pixels at 300 dpi) his images can get.

10. Pay attention to how well the admin side is taken care off.

Some paper work is not avoidable, even in a creative area like photography.  The most important documents are: quotations (often referred to as quotes, estimates), invoices and release forms (model or property release forms).  See if the documents are setup properly and documented well (numbered, filed, complete information, etc.) as this might become important when there are any legal issues with property owners or models.

Bottom line: Choosing the right commercial photographer for your next project in China is actually an easy task once you know what to look for.  The above 10 points should help you to navigate you through your search.

You can also use a Point Rating System (see a sample result below or download the excel file to create your own) if you need to write things down or rationalize your decision to your boss or colleagues.  This Point Rating System helps you to look at each factor independently, while coming up with one final result (or sum of points) for each option.  The photographer with most of the points should then be your preferred option – and get the job!