Library of Inspiration

Picture the Sell

A veteran of commercial photography, Jay Alonzo has spent 21 years in this field. His creative knack and camera savviness have brought him a long way, but it is his marketing background that really helps his images be truly communicative. His aim is to help a business grow rather than satisfy his own creative whims, but most times he finds it is a balancing of both.

His interest in photography was found in an unexpected place, the movie ‘Jaws’ by Steven Spielberg. It was the 1970’s and Jay found himself watching a scene where a diver encounters an underwater camera at sea. The diver then proceeds to process the film in a darkroom, revealing a picture of an attacking shark.

“I got interested in the process of immersing the photo paper in the developer bath. For me it was a magical moment when the image of a shark appeared in the tray.” Jay began hijacking the family camera to satisfy his photography experiments, his parents often hid the camera from him to conserve precious film, but that rarely stopped him.

Jay found himself collecting a series of double spread magazines not long after, it was not for the thought pieces or the catchy headlines but for the photography found in the advertising. He was particularly drawn to images of airlines and the subtle interior details that were depicted. “I was amazed at the photography of their ads, and more importantly, the way they lighted the flight attendant, the aircraft cabin, the on-board dining paraphernalia and food”.

It was in university that Jay’s interest in photography was amplified even further; taking marketing classes he uncovered the importance of professional photography and how it impacts a business. Originally, Jay was set on opening his own tourism-oriented business however after college his former classmate invited him to contribute images for a magazine, and that was his first of many jobs in commercial photography.

Jay describes himself as an ‘old-school photographer.’ He believes in the value of perfecting an image on set and not relying too heavily on post-production techniques. “One of the things that I make sure is right in every shot is the lighting. It is something most people will just take care of in Photoshop, but I still want to make sure it is right in the shot to evoke the right mood in the photo. I try to make my lighting as simple as possible, yet functional and flattering at the same time. From concept to lighting, I prefer it to be zen-like; simple and clean.”

When it comes to commercial photography, at a glance it can appear to be simple and straightforward, perhaps even uninspiring to some, but the point to remember is that this genre of photography is made to sell a product or service. In Jay’s words, product is king.

“I believe it should not be overpowered by artistry that you can do in non-commercial portraits, art photos, non-commercial fashion shoots. The product’s desirability is the essence of the shot. That means you have to consider how the shot will fit into the client company’s marketing campaign. If they are planning to project elegance and status in their product, definitely you will have to avoid lighting and shooting the product that would say otherwise. If the product is a conservative item, like a fountain pen, why shoot it like it is a fun toy item?”

For Jay, commercial photography is a balance between many aspects, knowing how to manipulate lighting, having an extensive grasp of your gear and also a creative flair for showcasing products in an aesthetically pleasing way. A dialogue with clients is key as their requirements and goals should always be taken into consideration from the very beginning.

Jay loves a good challenge on set, and this is when his technical know-how comes in to play, “There is a challenge every time I set a range of products or food in front of my camera. Why? Because products and food come in different sizes, but also in different shape, form and textures. This will definitely affect the way you set up the camera and light up the subject. How you illuminate a bottle will surely be different to how you might illuminate a bag.”

Light is something Jay is very conscious of when shooting commercial products. He is constantly asking himself, ‘Do I have enough light? Is it at the right place? Does it illuminate the product or the people not only well but also in a flattering manner? Do I need to augment the light? Reduce? Change its colour?’ Lighting is the only element that gives him such immense control when constructing an image, which is why he places such an emphasis on it.

As of late, Jay’s camera of choice has been the Nikon D810. At 36 megapixels, it covers all the print requirements of most printed promotional materials for his clients, including wall sized prints or even a billboard.

“The full frame sensor of the D810 gives wider dynamic range and cleaner images compared to a cropped sensor camera yet at a cost without requiring a loan just to procure an exorbitantly expensive medium format system. Aesthetics wise, it is mean looking but it feels comfortable and solid in the hand, suggesting great quality and craftsmanship from Nikon.”

His favourite image captured on the D810 was taken amongst one of the Seven Wonders and was not done on assignment; it was during a travel to the pyramids of Cairo, Egypt when he was there to host a product photography seminar. Killing time before his flight, he knew he couldn’t miss the chance to see the monolithic structures. On arrival, he was quick to see that the pyramids were packed with tourists all clambering to get inside for a viewing. Jay faced the challenge of photographing the pyramid in a way that would make it appear less busy and touristy.  

“Finally when our caravan stopped and I looked back, there I saw the most tranquil yet magnificent view I’ve ever laid my eyes on. The immensity of the pyramid complex yet at the same time it appeared so quiet and still. These are the things that were going through my mind as I prepare my D810 to take a picture. I hope to have captured the feeling as I pressed the shutter button. The weather was fine but cumulus clouds littered the otherwise blue sky, casting light and shadows on an already magnificent historic landscape. This is a type of lighting situation that I really like in a landscape. It makes it more dramatic as long as I preserve the details in the illuminated areas.”

For those just starting in the world of commercial photography, here are 5 top tips from Jay himself:

1. Master your camera; learn why it is important to choose a certain shutter speed and a certain aperture value not just for exposure setting. Be familiar on how different focal lengths reproduce scenes so you will know immediately what lens to grab from your bag to tell the photo’s story

2. Understand light and learn how to control it to give you a technically-great and aesthetically-pleasing result

3. It is not just about technique and photography technicalities, but commercial photography requires artistry; clients expect you to come up with high quality photos technically but with some creativity injected into it without unintentionally affecting the marketing image

4. Learn a lot about handling a business; running a commercial photography studio is a business, first and foremost. Learn basic bookkeeping and management. Master marketing not only to know how to market your photography services and yourself as a photographer, but also to understand how photography fits in the marketing campaign - that you cannot just force your “creativity” into a shot just because you want it to reflect your artistic expressions, the photography brief always comes first. The branding and market positioning of a product or service must always be taken into account in commercial photography, which brings us to the next tip

5. Always remember that the star in a commercial photo is the product or the service. Unlike in a personal work or in other facets of photography like art photo, portrait, wedding, landscape shots, you can inject your signature technique or style and make it prominent in the photo. As a commercial photographer, you have to be neutral and that the subject takes centre stage, showing its best features. Therefore before any single shot is captured, a commercial photographer must understand how the product or the service being photographed works, what it stands out for. This might involve a bit of research about the product, its benefits and even a pre-shoot meeting with the client.

Jay is never without his Nikon D810, his primary lenses are the AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G and the AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED. In his studio, he has his studio lights with modifiers ready, a light meter – not only to get the right exposure but also to get the right ratio of light when having a multiple lighting set up, and finally, a colour checker which helps him reference the right white balance settings especially when it comes to any post production work.

“If I am shooting on location, the first thing that I do after meeting the client or the subject is to scout the area to identify the best location to do the shoot, when pre-shoot ocular inspection is not possible. I then visualize how the shot will be made, decide on initial camera angle and coverage and from there think of how the lighting should be.”

Jay usually shoots in aperture priority mode; the aperture value chosen depends on whether he wants more or a lesser depth of field. That decision also dictates the output setting of his lights, which is why he always has his 18 year old Sekonic L308B hand held light meter, not just to get the exposure reading, but more to monitor the output of the multiple light sources he uses. When he can, he uses as little lights as possible – the simpler the better!

After the set up, Jay will do a test shoot with his assistant, holding a Xrite Colour Checker in the frame. Once everything is adjusted accordingly, the subjects are called in and the shoot begins! “Normally I will tether my camera to my computer especially when I am shooting in the studio, via Capture One Pro software. Doing it this way, I not only get a bigger preview of the raw shot through my laptop’s screen, but also I can set the settings on the fly and have it copied to the next incoming shots. This reduces the time I have to tinker with raw files after the photo session so that all I need to do after shooting is just export it in high resolution Jpeg or in PSD if it needs additional photo editing in Photoshop.”

All the hard work and technical know-how pays off once Jay hands over the polished goods. Being able to solve a marketing need or problem, and seeing satisfaction on the face of his clients never gets old. He shares the same sentiment when teaching his workshop students. There is pride in contributing to another artist’s growth.

Jay leaves us with this final thought – “Photography has become my vocation, a way of life, my direction, not just a career. And best of all, photography has taught me to see beauty amidst the chaos and monotony of life.”

About Jay

A Filipino photographer living in Abu Dhabi. Jay Alonzo owns his own studio that specializes in food and product photography. It was in the early days of the 1990’s that Jay first started experimenting with his Nikon COOLPIX 995, a 3-megapixel camera, photographing people, landscapes and fashion. He describes himself as an old-school type, preferring to get the right shot in frame rather than using post-processing techniques. He has been teaching the art of photography since 1996 and had been conducting product and commercial seminars with Nikon School since 2015.