Photographers and Casting Directors on the Pros and Cons of Using “Real People” for Advertising Shoots

September 12, 2018

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Commercial photographer Kevin Arnold notes that almost every ad campaign he’s asked to bid on comes with a brief that says, “We want to show real people.” The push to cast non-professionals in the lifestyle and portrait-driven campaigns he’s shot, Arnold says, is part of a trend “to be more ‘authentic.’ That’s become a buzzword.” He notes that “a younger group of art directors and creative directors [who] come from a world of social media” want their advertising to blend with the images people share daily. He adds, “They can see through the ‘stocky’ lifestyle photography” that features models.

Making portraits of people not used to being in front of the camera offers both advantages and challenges for photographers. Models, Arnold notes, “want to look model-y” when they’re on camera. Fashion and advertising photographer Misha Taylor, who has worked with both unconventional, “perfectly imperfect” models and “real people,” notes that many professional models bring “a lot of bad reinforced habits,” to a shoot. When you want someone to look unrehearsed, he says, “sometimes it’s easier to work with someone who hasn’t built up those habits.”   

Some clients choose to use real people in hopes of saving on fees for modeling agencies. That’s short-sighted, say photographers who have photographed real people. “If anything it will cost more to cast real people because it will take more time to cast,” says photographer John Keatley. Paul Bernstein of Donna Grossman Casting says, “Depending on the needs of the shoot, a real people casting can take one week or it can take months,” including time for finding, screening and interviewing prospective subjects. Subjects may have day jobs, so arranging call times for them can be challenging.

Shoots with real people can also require extra time and attention from the photographer. Kristin Gladney, in-house photographer for Wieden & Kennedy says that, compared to photographing models, who step on a set ready to perform, “working with real people takes more time, and it can take a lot more shots.”

All Photos © John Keatley

For a billboard campaign for the credit union BECU, John Keatley photographed actual credit union members. All Photos © John Keatley

Keatley prefers to collaborate with actors or models—unless photographing actual customers or employees works “strategically” with a brand’s message, he says. That was the case in a campaign Keatley shot for BECU, a Seattle credit union. Keatley made closeup portraits of actual credit union members; the images appeared on billboards and in print ads with the tagline “BECU Own It.” He landed the job in part on the strength of a personal project he had done making iPhone portraits of strangers he encountered.

To cast the ads, BECU posted a banner on their website, “asking members to submit photos of themselves if they were interested in being in their new ad campaign,” then Keatley helped sift through the photos looking for expressive and interesting faces.

Different versions of the ads included copy pointing out either the advantages of a member-owned credit union—or the disadvantages of commercial banks. “We were trying to capture people in 15 different kinds of emotional ranges corresponding to the different messages,” from frustration to happiness, Keatley explains. Because he had dozens of BECU members to photograph, “I could work with each person and gauge quickly what they were capable of doing. I could focus on their strengths, and not feel that I was forcing someone who’s stoic to be upbeat and outgoing.”

To give the subjects privacy during the shoot, he built a small, enclosed space out of foamcore. “Even though there were 25 people 20 feet away, the subject could only see me in the enclosure, and that makes a big difference to someone who may feel nervous or vulnerable.” He also used the foamcore as reflectors, bouncing large sources off the white walls to mimic the natural light in his iPhone shots.

Keatley provided the clients with a viewing station and monitor, but placed it at a distance from the mini studio. Clients, he notes, “may think it’s helpful, saying, ‘Oh she looks like Ariana Grande’ or someone, but you have no idea what Ariana Grande makes [the subject] think of. I don’t like comparisons, or saying, ‘You look cute.’ Maybe someone hates to be called ‘cute.’”

Keatley says he gave the subjects explicit directions, and simple words of encouragement, such as “great” when something worked. Constant feedback is important with real people, he notes. “Even if you want someone to be natural, you still have to guide them.”

© Kevin Arnold

Kevin Arnold photographed employees of BOSS Snowplow on the floor of the company’s factory. © Kevin Arnold

Brands that want to tell the stories behind their product sometimes use actual employees in their ads. For BOSS Snowplow, Arnold photographed some of the welders who make the heavy-duty plows. In the first year of the campaign, he shot documentary-style images of the welders as they worked, but a year later, the creative director at agency Jacobson-Rost proposed he make posed portraits of the welders on the factory floor. Arnold says, “I thought that they had to be in their work clothes, and the best way to do that was just to pull them from their welding for five or ten minutes.” He devised a mobile lighting setup that could be rolled around the factory floor to spots where he could find an appropriate backdrop.

The images would be in gritty black-and-white, emphasizing the intensity of the men and women who work in the BOSS factory. But as soon as the welders prepared to step in front of the lights, Arnold recalls, their personalities seemed to change. “They’re brushing their hair down, and I’m saying, ‘No, no. Go get your helmet and your welding tool and bring it over.” When subjects were unsure what to do with their hands as they posed, he told them to hold the piece of metal they had been working on. “Even if you’re only capturing their face, when you can give them something real to do or hold,
it makes a difference.”

He used two battery-powered Profoto B1 heads, placing one low and to the side,  the other bouncing into a reflector for some fill. He used the same lighting arrangement as he moved from place to place within the factory. “We wanted consistency in the look and the way [the subjects] were placed in the frame, but we wanted the background to change so that it didn’t look like we just popped five people in front of the same background.”

Some ads require subjects with specific skills or abilities. For Equinox gyms, Gladney has shot trainers and amateur athletes. The client would provide employee lists, and then she would look through their profile photos. She’s also cast shots for Duracell and other Wieden & Kennedy clients by calling on coworkers, friends and friends of friends. Whether she’s photographing action shots or portraits, she takes the time to give her subjects lots of direction. “I describe what I want from them, whether it’s an expression or a gesture,” she says.

One challenge is that when most people face a camera, their instinct is to smile. “Unless you really know what you’re doing, it can look like a high school portrait,” says Taylor, who has street-cast shoots for Nike and other commercial and editorial clients. “If you say, ‘Look at me more intensely,’ it will confuse people.” Instead, he distracts people, or he simply waits, “just longer than they’re used to. They’ll look awkward, and that can be great. Or if you want someone to laugh, you say something ridiculous, and then they’ll laugh at themselves.”

Given all the challenges, clients look for photographers who have experience directing or finding and directing non-professional talent. Gladney notes, “There are kids who have come up with their iPhone shots of their cool, good looking friends.”

However, sample shots of real people may not be enough to reassure clients wary about making a non-professional the face of their campaign. Arnold, who has photographed several lifestyle campaigns with real people, says he has been awarded jobs after writing detailed treatments about how he plans to cast and vet nonprofessionals only to learn, in the midst of pre-production, that the client has decided to use models instead. “Somewhere it’s become ‘Oh, we want real-looking people,’” he says. Sometimes, he says, clients have preconceived ideas of how the subjects should look. Other times, they are concerned about the risks of using untried talent.

“You want someone who will show up sober, be professional and not do anything crazy afterwards so that they have to be pulled from a campaign,” Taylor notes. It’s easier to find someone who fits those criteria among “people who have already volunteered” than to ask strangers on the street, he says. Though he has done his own casting, he prefers working with casting directors. “We use them a lot because good casting agencies are incredibly valuable part of our business.”

Ben Sealey, founder of Cast Partner, says that clients have a “romance” with trying to find real people on Instagram or social media, but that decision requires “a looser approach,” he says. “It might look a certain way and that’s great, but it’s not going to be all buttoned-up with strict call times.”

“The casting director represents the photographer’s interests and the client’s interests,” says Bernstein of Donna Grossman Casting. A good subject is “someone who is camera friendly, who will respond to the photographer, and will follow up on directions,” he says. “You’ll never know that from an emailed submission or a photo.”

For a Land Rover campaign shot by Michael Bernard, the client wanted actual customers, all in different locations, who had “interesting behind-the-scenes stories,” Bernstein recalls. The casting directors winnowed 600 submissions down to 60 to show the client. Next, he says, they contacted each prospect to have “a Skype interview, or invite them to a casting session to get a feel for what they bring to the table.”

Arnold says the process of working with “real people” “always involves a lot of educating and handholding of clients.” In treatments and creative calls, photographers have to explain the effort needed to find and vet non-professionals.   

“Clients get excited about working with real people, that it’s going to be so authentic,”says Keatley. “But the dirty little secret is yes, it’s real people but [a casting director] spent six days looking for the right people. They’re curated and vetted.”

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