Catalog shoot for entrepreneur :: how to art-direct your own

This article starts a series on my blog dedicated to client awareness, written with the intent to close the gap between photo professionals and their customers, often on very different way of thinking about the same job.


Frequently I am asked to work on imagery for catalogs, whether they are for printed publishing or web presentation.

Differently from advertising work – where we usually work with higher budget – the main concern of an entrepreneur who needs all his collection photographed is how to get all those shots quickly and within a reasonable expenditure… still achieving a good quality of course!

Yes, quality of course, because although some in today’s industry think that everything is about on-line deliverables and that a third-world pack shot will do, we at mjf photography still believe in good quality at a reasonable price.

And this is how anybody could achieve that goal for his/her own catalog shoot:

As an entrepreneur, you will probably want to attend your catalog’s photo shoot, at least the first few times.

Maybe you're just curious or like to be involved. Or perhaps you're breaking in a new creative team and need to be sure they understand your catalog's goals. But quite often you need to be more than just an observer - you will end to participate to the shoot in first line, by being the art director.

No need to be worried: the main qualities for an art director on a catalogue shoot are good marketing sense and organisations, skills that most probably you already have!

How to do it? Here are some advices based on my professional experience and freely extrapolated from an article by Susan J. McIntyre, The Catalog Doctor, McIntyre Direct:

Choosing the right photographer

When interviewing potential photographers, look for someone with catalog experience. There are several key differences between catalog photographers and advertising photographers.

Catalogs have lots of merchandise and need a lot of photos. On catalog shoots, photographers are accustomed to working fast and taking many shots each day. And they understand that catalog rates are lower, because of the tight margins in cataloging.

On advertising shoots, photographers think different - they expect to work more slowly and charge more.

Ask to see photographers' portfolios. Notice the range of work each has done. If you see lots of shots you like, you'll probably like the work the photographer will do for you. But remember to review a lot of photos, not just a few that the photographer has specially hand-selected.

Be sure to check references. It is not unusual to run across prima donnas who are moody or emotional. Such attitudes may be okay in advertising photography, but they have no place in high-volume catalog photography.

Agreeing the correct licensing and rights

Before hiring a photographer, discuss "rights." Many photographers think of themselves as artists, who create a piece of art and then sell you very limited rights to use it.

That doesn't work in cataloging.

Although in most of the cases photo copyright remains to the author (the photographer), you need to buy an ample licence to use. This is important because you may reuse a specific photo for many years. Some companies successfully reuse the same photo for decades. When that happens, you don't want to have to go back to the photographer and pay again for each use.

In case you agree to buy "all rights," remember that you own the photographs, including their physical/digital support, so be sure to receive it from the photographer and keep it organized, backed-up, labeled and in a safe, waterproof and fireproof place (there might be no other copies left at the photographer’s studio).

Be especially aware of rights when you deal with models. Model costs can skyrocket if you don't understand exactly what you're buying. With models it is often not possible to buy all rights, but be sure the model contract specifies all catalog rights. Remember, rates and rights are negotiable with models.

How to save money on your photographer

Your photographer will cost more than your designer and copywriter, so it is worth looking for ways to save money without compromising quality.

Make sure your photographer hires an assistant to help with camera and equipment, and a stylist to handle the product on the set.


The reason is that assistants and stylists cost less per day than photographers. It doesn't make sense for your expensive photographer to spend hours on jobs that an inexpensive assistant or stylist could handle. In a well-managed photo shoot, the photographer will be constantly busy with camera angles and exposures, while lower-priced assistants work with computer, lighting, etc. and the stylist changes products on set keeping a steady pace on the job.

Organise your merchandise to cut costs

Be sure that all your products, props and supplies are in the studio when they are supposed to be, organized and labeled so you can find them. Once again, a good stylist could help and save time.

The crew must eat


Consider bringing in a some lunch for the crew from a decent nearby take-away food service. This may sound lavish, but you'll actually save time and money, because the crew will start working again sooner after lunch than if they all leave the studio.

How many shots can you get in one day?

Talk with your photographer in advance about how many shots you can expect each day. You may be surprised at how low the number is.

An experienced team with one photographer, one stylist and one photo assistant working on a high-quality clothing, food or gift catalog can produce twenty to thirty good shots in one 8-hour day. Expect one half-day for your covers.

If you need more images, ask your photographer if he's comfortable working with more than one set at a time. A "set" is the spot where a shot is set up, styled and photographed. If you run just one set, your photographer will often be standing around with nothing to do while the stylist adjusts the product or the assistant moves equipment.

But if you're running two sets, the photographer can be working with lighting and camera angles on one, while the stylist and assistant are preparing the other. This makes maximum use of your photographer's skills, and can boost your daily shot count by almost the double.

In the studio, you should always be thinking several shots ahead

At the start of the shoot, pin the designer's layouts up on a handy wall. Highlight every shot to be taken, and circle it as each shot is finished. This will help you track your shot count progress on the day, and will help your visually oriented crew, too.

Let's say you're running two sets. That means two products will always be on set, being photographed, and two more products should be standing by, ready to go on the set next.

Always know which product is up next for each set. Bring the appropriate merchandise to a staging area, and have the correct props, accessories and other supplies ready. If "some assembly is required," do it well in advance. If you're shooting garments, iron/steam them in advance. If the meat needs to be glazed, get out the glaze, brush and paper towels.

Advance preparation like this will help you avoid situations where people are walking around confused, or sitting around waiting for someone else to do a job.

When gathering merchandise for your shoot, remember that the camera sees everything. Small nicks and dents you don't notice in person will stick out under the camera. So bring multiple samples of each product if possible, so you can pick and choose the best. Avoid wasting time on "emergency touch-ups" while the crew waits. If you're shooting food, bring a dozen of each item so you're not stuck when your cookie crumbles.

Keeping on schedule, on budget in the studio

When you move a product onto the set, ask to see an initial image on iPad/computer of the rough setup as soon as possible, before the fine tune adjustments take place. If you don't like how the shot is shaping up, make changes immediately.

Many photographers will get a set roughed-in very quickly, then work on details for the next (long) minutes. Finally, only after all the details are just right, will they feel that the set is "ready to show the client." That's poor strategy - if you don't like the basic layout, the crew will have wasted precious minutes of tweaking for nothing.

Instead, make a habit of looking at and responding to each shot as early as possible. Is it clear? Is it ugly? Does it fit the space in the layout?

If a setup isn't working, rethink and change it early. And when you decide to change a shot, tell the team why, and explain what you're trying to accomplish. Don't tell them how to do their jobs - tell them what you want to see. Tell them, "I need to see this feature," or "I need to see more sparkle." Let them decide where to put the lights.

Choosing the right pictures

A major part of your job as art director will be approving each final image. When reviewing final images, keep in mind that what you are after is marketing effectiveness, not art awards. Look for clarity, attractiveness, consistency with your catalog's look, and printability. Try to avoid the temptation to nitpick tiny aesthetic details that won't really matter to the customer.

Watch out for photos with big areas of shadow. On film they can look attractively moody, but they're hard to print. Help the crew by bringing in "tear sheets" from other catalogs of the look you want, and do this before the shoot, so all the team can be prepared.

And at the end of the long shooting day I can assure that you will be very tired, but also extremely satisfied to have achieved something good for your business.

Ad maiora,

– mjf


This article has been written upon my own professional experience and thanks to a previous essay by Susan J. McIntyre, The Catalog Doctor, McIntyre Direct published on Direct Marketing in 1998.

Printed bodysuit and jackets : “The Magic Flute” collection by Carlotta Actis Barone

Jewellery buttons : Antonella Tanzini

Shoes : Nicholas Kirkwood, Kurt Geiger

Models : Frances and Ivan

MUA : Kelly Mendiola

Behind the scene image : Ilona Zielinska

Photography : Marco Joe Fazio