Getting a professional photographer’s opinion

A picture is worth a thousand words. Photography is an essential part of selling your hotel, both in terms of displaying features and creating the emotional sale. We all know this, but it seems the message is getting lost under the weight of smartphones and the ability for anyone to snap off a half-decent image. Standing in between management and guests are the professional photographers, and it’s important to hear their point of view. That’s why I approached Darren Edwards, a professional photographer I’ve worked with in the past, for a quick interview, hoping he could offer some pointers for managers on what makes for good pictures and how to better prepare for a shoot to reduce the budget.

Larry Mogelonsky: Photography generally starts as a hobby. How’d you make this a career? Why hotels? 

Darren Edwards: I got into photography when I was in high school. With my first paycheck from my first real job at age 15, I went to the drug store in Soldotna, Alaska, and bought an Olympus OM10. I remember that day very well. I was hooked from day one. A few years later, after my high school photography teacher suggested I consider making this my career, I decided to attend Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.

After Brooks, I moved to Vail, Colorado, and assisted for an architectural photographer there while also working in the hotel industry. I really enjoy working with hotels because it allows me to shoot a wide variety of subjects within one genre. From lifestyle and food to landscapes and architecture, hotels need it all. If I can provide exceptional work in all the areas they need, it makes the process easier for the client and keeps the jobs interesting for me.
LM: Describe your typical hotel photo shoot. How long is it? What equipment do you use? What crew do you usually work with?

DE: Every hotel shoot is different, which is great. Sometimes they simply need some updated room shots, but others are just opening or have just completed renovation, so these can be much longer. On average, we complete most jobs within a few days. The days can be very long or with strange hours, however. Unless the hotel is brand-new, it is always open, with guests everywhere, so we really have to take advantage of the overnight times and dawn when things like the lobby and restaurants are typically empty. I love getting that dusk or sunset light, but in the evening when that’s happening, so is everything else at a hotel.

I bring a lot of gear to most hotel jobs. We always end up shooting a wide variety of subjects and often have unforeseen situations, so you never know what you’re going to need. I have acquired enough gear through the years to light up just about anything a hotel can throw at me, indoors or out. I do, however, have the ability to travel fairly light, (if you can call 198 pounds light). I have my travel gear at exactly one pound under the limits for most airlines, so that helps save on the budget side.

I can get most of the work done with just one assistant, but it’s always nice to have two or more. Having that extra body or two to move gear around the property, through the airports and in and out of rental cars makes the process so much easier. Besides, because of the way we light things, it’s nice to have a dedicated digital tech and a lighting assistant. I completely understand, however, that most times it’s all about the budget, so we work with whatever we are able to bring. Hotel photography is all about being able to adapt to the situation. It seems there are always unforeseen problems that arise, but when we overcome them with creative solutions, it keeps everything on track and the client happy. Extra people always help that process.

LM: What are the most important aspects for hotel photography to showcase?

DE: Hotel photography obviously has to showcase the main areas of the property, guest rooms, restaurants and spa. But beyond that, I think the focus should be on the guest experience. Too many times hotels get caught up in what they want and aren’t looking at it from a guest perspective. The customer wants to envision themselves in the photos, so exceptional photography is one of the most important parts of a hotel’s website. It needs to sell the experience of the property in order to entice the guest to want to choose them out of all the options they have.

LM: What steps do you take to prep a guestroom?

DE: In most cases, if the hotel is prepared, the rooms are shoot-ready when we arrive. We have, however, pressed sheets, fluffed pillows or moved things around for the best composition. The room has to look spotless, so we also hide cords, clocks, cards, menus or remotes to make it look as clean as possible.

LM: How do you go about using lighting and framing to evoke a certain mood or feeling? What’s your favorite time of day to shoot?

DE: Lighting is one of the things that sets us apart from many other photographers. We’ll light every scene in a variety of different ways in order to have all the options we want for post-production. I generally see an image in terms of how it will be put together, rather than in one shot. This way, we can create just about any look we want after the shoot is over. We like everything in the image to have depth, so lighting may come from many different directions. It will often depend on the mood or feel the hotel is trying to achieve. Some really like the over-lit look, while others prefer more of a journalistic, natural feel.

My favorite time of day to shoot is almost always dusk and dawn. Even when they are not asking for it, I will often just go out and shoot during that time to see what I can get. I like to over-deliver, and often these are the shots that can make the difference.

LM: Are there any avoidable setbacks you typically encounter?

DE: The biggest avoidable setback I usually see is simply having the property prepared for us. The rooms need to be spotless, and the staff needs to know we’re going to be there. If areas of the property need to be closed, the guests need know well in advance. Having a hotel contact constantly with us (who has the authority to get things done quickly) is almost always necessary and unbelievably helpful. Waiting around to reach maintenance or get approval from different managers just ends up wasting valuable time.

LM: A common complaint I see when reading online reviews is that the rooms do not look like they do in the photographs. Do you believe that a room should be as accurate as possible, or are you an advocate of enhancements such as floral arrangements?

DE: I believe hospitality photography is about selling the fantasy of the property and not necessarily the reality. When was the last time you got a burger from a fast-food restaurant that looked like the picture? The images need to show everything in its absolute best light in order to entice customers to choose that property. There are so many options out there, and often the photography on the website can be one of the determinant factors to a potential guest.

LM: Given the extra costs involved, what’s your stance on using models to showcase the room, dining area or lobby?

DE: Personally, I like using people for some of the scenes. I think it gives a mood and feel that a static image just can’t match for certain areas of the property. However, there are usually corporate guidelines to consider in terms of using models, and cost is always a factor. 

Some shots work great without people, allowing viewers to imagine themselves in that scene, while others are meant to show the atmosphere and really need people to complete it. 

Most of the jobs we’ve done include both. Besides, the way we shoot with people, we generally get the room or scene without them too, so the client can get both options. It does take longer and costs more, but the upside is a mood you don’t get otherwise. Smiles mean a lot.

LM: What is your position on using hotel staff in photography? Under what circumstances would you use staff members in lieu of professional models?

DE: I always prefer to use professional models whenever possible. They bring a comfort and natural look to the images you just can’t get from hotel staff or friends. They’ve usually done it before, are not shy and take direction very well. You can also predetermine your demographic, clothes choices and make sure they have the right look to give the feel you want. With everyone else, you are sort of at the mercy of what you can get. We always prefer to have as much control as possible, but also completely understand when the budgets don’t allow it. Usually we end up with a few pros as our key players and put the staff in as the smiling service people or in the background to fill the scene. 

LM: Is there anything specific you do to match a hotel’s photography with its marketing strategy and target demographics?

DE: I always try to have a creative meeting with the hotel managers or agency people prior to the shoot to get an idea of the look and feel they are trying to achieve. This can make all the difference in the planning process, not only in the shot timing, but also in making sure we are consistent with current work and the target market.

LM: By your estimate, what percentage of your photographs are used exclusively for the Internet?

DE: I would say the majority of our work ends up on the Internet sooner or later. In this day and age of photography, we generally give — and most clients expect — unlimited rights. This gives our clients the ability to use the images anywhere they want for as long as they want.

Hotels are in constant need of new photography, so the life of an image is relatively short anyway. If we can provide an exceptional product and combine it with the same great service the hotels give their guests, they will call us back first the next time they need updates or new work.  

LM: How are you keeping pace with the current technology? Have these advances freed you to get better results?

DE: I’m always working to keep up with the ever-changing world of photography by attending classes and expos, and by being involved in my local photo community. I started in the film days, so the digital world has opened up everything in terms of workflow and output. The photographer became the lab in the process too, so although it added a ton of work, it also creates unlimited and constantly changing opportunities for the creative process.

LM: How has social media changed the nature of your business? Do people nowadays undervalue the importance of professional photography?

DE: Social media hasn’t really changed my workflow in terms of making beautiful pictures, but it’s certainly changed the way we view and share them. We post a new picture each day on Facebook then add links to Twitter and LinkedIn. I think it’s just easier to get your work out there than it has ever been before.

That being said, everyone with a camera is a “photographer” these days, so in order to stand out as a professional, we have to do things that every other person with a camera can’t do. With intimate knowledge of light and equipment, a trained eye and the experience of major jobs to deliver under pressure, the need for professional photographers will always be there. Most hotel shoots are far too important to the survival of the property to be left to amateurs. Having a good camera gives you a great picture about as often as an oven makes a great meal or a keyboard writes a great novel.  It will always come back to the skill of the user.