Philly Creative Guide

Guest Columnist

Zave Smith

I Have Had Them All
by Zave Smith, 1 Sep 2007

Zave Smith is a Philadelphia-based, visually compelling, lifestyle photographer in the advertising field. Check out his assignment and stock work at

In twenty years of commercial photography I have had them all. There's Art Director Silentius, who sits on a stool and reads old art magazines like he's at the doctor's office. And Art Director Interruptus, the one who is right over your shoulder the whole shoot telling you how to move your lights and how he was a photographer in New York before he became an Assistant Art Director at Low Budget and Now.

Then there's Art Director Wait-A-Minutus, who stays silent while you spend an hour setting up a blue background only to pipe in just before going to film that the client really hates anything on blue. And of course, Art Director Baby Sittus, who's always asking for something, like "can your assistant run over to the store to pick up a gift for my wife?"

In between these Excedrin headaches there are many talented art directors of still photography. These are the art directors who understand their client's goals, who help you reach further creatively, and who foster an atmosphere of trust and excitement during a shoot.

What are the qualities that separate the I can't wait until they leave from the I can't wait for them to return art directors? I believe it comes down to three areas: talent, communication skills, and trust.

Zave Smith | Zave Smith Photography

TALENT. No matter how nice an art director is, if he or she has an underdeveloped visual sense and/or no power to make creative decisions, you are doomed to a day of frustration and guessing. I remember one very simple shoot which consisted of a couple of large food packages and a few small condiment jars on some sort of attractive background. The sizes of the actual products were quite different from how they were drawn in the layout, so what was on the set didn't hold together the same way as the layout presented. I wanted to switch two items so that the picture would work visually in reality and the products would have their proper billing. The art director needed several polaroids to comprehend the change I was proposing. He then spent hours on conference calls, faxes and e-mails to get the change approved. By the time he was done I wondered why I had bothered to open my mouth in the first place! If only he could have been talented enough to understand how to make a layout and visualize changes... If only he would have been empowered enough to make these decisions...

When the art director has a strong concept that makes both commercial and visual sense, even the most difficult of shoots can be, yes, joyful. I remember working on a dental equipment catalog several years ago with Jerry Robertson of Reese, Tomases & Ellick.

Jerry is a master at communicating his needs and keeping energy flowing towards a cohesive goal. We had three days to shoot five days worth of images. These were technically difficult still lifes with dental parahernalia hanging from thin wires. There were long rounds of tedious light painting with very specific color gelling, along with highly reflective objects and an exacting layout. Jerry not only made sure that we understood what was needed, he even sang songs with us at 1:00 AM when we needed to keep going. His contagious sense of creative joy and his high level of professionalism and skill helped keep our positive energy flowing, turning an arduous day into a creative and technical photographic coup. I have had the good fortune of working with many people like Jerry.

COMMUNICATION. Can the art director communicate what he or she needs and what the client's needs are? Can they describe what they need clearly and without sensory overload? Can they sketch out an idea? Do they share the important information up front or do they parcel it out like the last of a 30 year old single malt scotch? Recently I was on a five-day shoot in Texas photographing hay farmers. I was working with Michele Reinecke, from Dudynck Advertising, an art director whom I met for the first time at the departure gate of the airport. We flew to Texas and spent two days location scouting, interviewing talent, and planning before the day of the shoot. What we found wasn't always perfect for our needs, but she was able to see the potential in it, and she had the power to make decisions. Her ability to understand her client's goals and to mold them around the reality we had to deal with made this shoot one of my favorite recent outings, and we produced pictures that made the client smile. Her upbeat attitude during some long and hard days was inspiring and energizing to the whole project.

TRUST. Is there trust between the art director and the photographer? Does the art director ask the photographer to bid on an orange and then expect an entire grove? Did the photographer oversell his or her talents? Does the client like the photographer and not the art director? If there is no trust between them and the rest of the creative team, it is hard to communicate and even harder to know what the client really needs. So how do you make sure that there is good communication and trust on your shoots? It starts with the pre-shoot communication. These questions in the following four areas should be asked:


What is the purpose of these photographs?
Where and how are they going to be used?
What are the client's expectations and desires?
What are the art director's expectations and desires?


What is the proposed budget?
What can be done to save money when your proposed budget is too high?
Does the art director understand the usage rights in the contract?
Does the client understand what they are buying?


Is there a tight layout or a loose concept?
Is the layout a starting or an ending point?
How hard was it to sell the end client on the layout?
What are the client's expectations?
What happens when the photograph matches the layout but looks like yesterday's leftovers?
What happens if the layout is not achievable?
Is exact color important, or can color be played with to create mood?


What props will be needed and who is going to buy them?
What is the prop budget and what happens if it is not enough?
What talent is needed, and who will do the casting?

One of the most difficult things for me to get used to when I switched from being a fine art photographer to a professional commercial photographer was working with somebody looking over my shoulder. This was initially very intimidating and caused me to make many mistakes. Fears and youthful arrogance sometimes prevented me from asking enough questions to really understand what my clients were after. It has taken me years to learn to really listen to my client's words and to learn when to follow closely the road they put me on, when to read between the lines and when not to follow their path and rather do what I believe is best, to follow my vision.

I'd like to say a word about expectations and how they affect the shooting schedule. Most clients want to pack as much photography into a day as possible. I am reminded of a recent shoot in Toronto. No one realized just how difficult this shoot would turn out to be. We started with a very ambitious schedule that we worked like dogs to keep, plus there were major complications in assembling the merchandise to be photographed, among other things. During the shoot the client turned to me and said, "You know Zave, if you see something cool that isn't on the shot list, go ahead and shoot it". I had to ignore this remark because I wasn't even sure we could get the basic requirements of the shot list done.

I have had other shoots that allow time to play and time to shoot stuff that was not on anybody's script. For the last two years I have had the pleasure of working with Trevor Feight of Roska Direct. On Trevor's shoot we always leave time for play. Since he is able to communicate to us the whole strategy behind the campaign we will often spot visual opportunities which will enhance the story. These shots often turn out to be gold. Whenever I can I try not to let my client over-script a shoot so that we have the time and energy to explore the subject visually. Of course this only works well if you have a good understanding of the overall strategy and goals of the ad campaign.

Being a guy it can be hard to ask for more direction, for more information. My ego likes to assume that I understand everything from the minute a layout crosses my desk. I am often very wrong. The biggest problems I encounter occur when I think that I understood the goal of the photo shoot, when I don't. This usually happens when I assume the layout to be the end point of the shoot and do not press onward to create something special. Or, the exact opposite happens and I use the layout as a jumping off point for my creative vision not knowing how hard it was to sell this exact layout to the client in the first place and the impossibility of any change. When my pre-shoot questions lead to a firm understanding of what is expected, then I can be better prepared creatively for the shoot.

What happens on shooting day when things—when ideas—suddenly change? I remember an interesting food shoot. The concept from the ad agency was weak on paper and looked even worse on the set. We spent the better part of a day trying to salvage the layout. At 4:45 PM, the art director had to leave, and the end client, who had been sitting around looking at old Gourmet and Bon Apetit magazines said, "I don't like this set up at all, can't we do something like this?" as he pointed to a gorgeous spread filled with specialty props and antiques from some set stylists attic. We had no plans, no props bought for this type of shot, but we had a lot of frustrated energy lying around the studio to work with. Realizing that he was on to something, we broke the set down and started from scratch. With material my set stylist happened to have brought in for some test shots, extra props from previous shoots lying around the studio, and ingenuity, we created a beautiful and conceptually appropriate shot. Result: happy photographer, and a very happy client. This worked because it was a client who I personally like and respect plus a creative team that listened to each other. There have been times though when the client suddenly pulled an idea out of the sky and we had to say "no". The resources or the budget to do what was being asked simply weren't there. Saying "no" to a client is very hard for me to do, however there are many times when it is the wisest thing to say. When confronted with doing a project half-way and thus producing results that will not be good for the client, I believe it is better to say "no" and protect your reputation as an image creator and theirs.

What are the qualities of a good art director? A good art director is talented, empowered and able to communicate their needs. They are a partner in the creative process. Please help out the good ones by learning to ask the right questions and listen for their answers.

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