Photographers Who Can Help Art Direct: Paul Costello for Draper James

November 9, 2016

In a highly competitive market, commercial photographers need to do more than provide nice photos. They are increasingly called upon to act as art directors on advertising assignments—by contributing ideas for the images that should go into a campaign. PDN recently looked into some ad assignments on which photographers contributed art direction help, and learned how they offered their input, why their ideas were welcome, and how their creative input helped them land more work. Here we present Paul Costello’s experience working with a startup clothing and lifestyle brand.


Before clothing and lifestyle company Draper James launched its online retail site in May 2015, the company needed a photographer to create photos that would help introduce the brand to customers. Elizabeth Mayhew, a stylist and former magazine editor, serves as the company’s editorial director. She recommended New Orleans-based photographer Paul Costello, who had worked with Mayhew on many editorial assignments. She thought he could capture the brand’s Southern influence and its “unabashedly pretty” esthetic.

Costello flew to Los Angeles for meetings with the designer, Mayhew, company founder Reese Witherspoon and other members of the design team, to view the outfits that needed to be shot. Costello offered his home in New Orleans as the location for the first shoot, which was produced with a skeleton crew, and also came up with a variety of scenarios for Witherspoon and the model to enact.

© Paul Costello

Witherspoon models the Fall 2016 line in a Nashville-themed shoot. © Paul Costello

Costello notes that he’s worked with other startups, including the launch of the American Eagle clothing brand. Some have a well-defined shot list that’s been refined and tested. With Draper James, however, he could contribute ideas for translating the brand’s sensibility into photos. “I wouldn’t be such a valuable creative partner for products—that’s not my style. But for a lifestyle campaign, that’s my wheelhouse.”

Since the first season, the production team on Draper James shoots has grown, and fashion stylist Kelly Hill has joined to style the clothes, while Mayhew styles the housewares shots. But Costello continues to work with Hill and the Draper James creatives to come up with ideas for different scenarios for the models and Witherspoon to act out.

“That’s probably the biggest role I play in preproduction: being involved in creating the narrative,” he says. Mayhew calls Costello “an integral component” of the planning of each shoot. “He comments on location, he comments on props, he can look at a chair and a dress and say you know what, that’s not going to work, he has a definite eye for the 360.” She adds, “He’s experienced and he knows what he’s doing, why wouldn’t we listen?”

© Paul Costello

Costello shot the Spring 2016 line at a retreat in St. Simons, Georgia, where the models acted out a fun weekend party. © Paul Costello

Each season has a theme. For the summer 2016 line, for example, the designers took inspiration from iconic country western singers of the past. In discussing ideas with the creatives during preproduction meetings, “Sometimes it’s just a feeling they want. So we’ll have the broad strokes,” he says, “but translating that into what the pictures would be, that’s what Kelly and I did with a lot of input from Reese.” They shot in a theater and a recording studio in Nashville. “The process of figuring out what the pictures would look like took place on the [location] scout,” he says. The recording studio needed a “cinematic look,” so he suggested bringing in extras to act as musicians, and gave the model actions to try. Once he begins shooting, he tries out variations and new setups. “Draper James is so ambitious with their shot list, we don’t have tons of time to do variations, but I like to light wide enough that I don’t have Reese or a model in just one place.”

After five seasons, Costello feels that he’s been part of a collaborative process that “just gets better and better.” The team recently reviewed scouting photos for their next location shoot and began discussing the themes and storylines.   

“I tend to build long relationships with art directors who want me to be very involved,” Costello says, “and I like to be very involved.”

Related Links: 

Photographers Who Can Help Art Direct: Brinson + Banks for Garnier

Photographers Who Can Help Art Direct: Romain Laurent for Citrëon