Using impactful visuals to sell the arts

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Professional camera preparing photography

We invited the wonderful Jane Hobson to talk about how careful planning results in stunning photographs – something she happens to be an expert in! – and ultimately, bums on seats.

Beautiful photo of person leaping on stage

© Jane Hobson. Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in “Necessity, Again”, by Jo Stromgren, Festspielhaus, Baden Baden, Germany, for Dance Consortium

It’s only words… or is it?

Whilst a beautifully crafted piece of copy is a joy to behold, its impact can be multiplied by the judicious use of a cracking photograph. In fact, I’m willing to bet that some reviews are only read because the accompanying image has grabbed the reader’s attention. As for getting bums on seats, a striking poster, leaflet, social media post or web ad invites the beholder to engage with the emotion or theme of the production, and to at least consider booking.

So how can you maximise the chances of this happening?

  1. Quality. Horses for courses. There are photographers who are performing arts specialists for a reason. It’s a specialist area. It takes years of experience, constant practice, and rather pricey camera gear. (I swear the camera sensor manufacturers are in league with contemporary dance lighting designers!) Even within the performing arts, there are photographers who are stronger in one area or another, whether dance or circus, opera or theatre, studio work or live performance – check portfolios and client list. The quality of the imagery is key to whether your communications will get seen/not and how/whether they are responded to. If you don’t have the budget for someone external (see point 3, and remember to budget next time) then by all means DIY/get a mate with a camera in, but please bear the following pointers in mind (and remember to budget next time – I can’t say this too often!)
  2. Plan. Do you need a studio shoot or a live performance/theatre lighting shoot? Sections or full dress? What costumes and lighting will you need? Full cast/not. What are your deadlines? Which media do you need to shoot for (see also below)? Portrait or landscape? (All of these, except for portrait v landscape, impact on timing and cost.)
  3. Budget. I know the arts are underfunded and that budgets are tight, but if you are in the lucky position of being Arts Council/Kickstarter/etc. funded, please remember to put in a budget for marketing and PR that includes photography. I know it sounds obvious but…get a quote first.
  4. Single-minded proposition. What is the one key thing that you wish to convey about the production? (Hint: it’s not ‘come and see this show’) The images selected should help you convey this.
  5. Target. Choose your media according to your target market and when/where they will be most receptive. (This probably warrants a whole post to itself – if in doubt, HdK can advise!)
  6. Shoot. Look for striking shapes, expressions, lighting, moments – they can be subtle or not-so-subtle, but things that trigger something in the photographer are likely to also trigger something in the audience. (Also, keep your photographer in water/hot beverages – it’s thirsty work, and you will become a favourite client if you do!)
  7. Select. Choose an image or a small set of images that convey key intelligence about your production. Whether it’s a theme, key character, moment or emotion (or all four!) Avoid spoilers though, and try not to overload with too many messages – simplicity is key here.
  8. Spread. Having multiple options of images (though not too many – you don’t want to reveal the whole show!) for use across social media can help keep the message fresh/keep intrigue up.

In putting together this guest post, I have probably both told granny how to suck eggs for the experienced, and made it sound too complicated for the uninitiated. Such is the nature of having only a limited space! It goes without saying that HdK are the experts and that, whatever the experience level within arts marketing the client has, HdK will be able to discuss your own particular needs, opportunities and logistics with you – in language you understand.

Jane Hobson

Jane is a photographer who specialises in the performing arts, and has a director/partner level background in advertising, brand and creative strategy (as well as market research). Her clients include Scottish Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, Rambert, English Touring Opera, Birmingham Stage Company, etc.