The camera never lies, but it can help sell soap Studio zooming in on products, profits


Here at the Straight Shots photography studio in Columbia, Judy Herrmann is fussing with a bunch of snappy, colored craft )) beads. She appears to have the patience of a surgeon.

A dozen times she looks through the lens of the mounted 4-by-5 view camera, then pops back to a table board to fuss with the beads. She takes pains to group the beads in such a way that none will appear snipped in half in the photograph. "And I don't want any spaces between the beads!" she declares in frustration.

So much for the myth of the photographer's life always being filled with action and glamour.

How about an afternoon photographing truck warning lights or, say, a box of soap?

Such are the subjects Ms. Herrmann and her business partner in Straight Shots, Michael Starke, zoom in on regularly.

While the photo subjects may sound ho-hum, the company rang up revenue of about $100,000 last year and has built a cache of clients in the region, including Chaselle, one of the largest distributors of school and learning supplies in the country, and McCormick, the Sparks-based global spice concern. Mr. Starke projects revenue to remain stable this year but to improve in 1994, to about $125,000.

Last week they landed another national act: Massachusetts-based Merriam-Webster of dictionary fame.

Welcome to the world of product photography.

"It's what we do best," trumpets Ms. Herrmann.

After several years of eeking out a living in commercial photography -- a term that includes virtually any assignment from flashlights to sunsets -- the two decided to launch Straight Shots.

The company only photographs still lifes of products, and the two photographers don't travel to an assignment. Products must be shipped to their studio, in a nondescript Columbia office park.

Says Ms. Herrmann, "Product photography is all about light, and we're both fascinated by light. Neither one us got too excited waiting for a model to get the hair and the makeup just right.

"In fashion photography, it's all about getting the model to emote, and the setting. We like to think light provides the emotion in product photography."

With the explosion in mail-order catalogs and company brochures hawking products, photographing showcase items is a big business. But it's also cruelly competitive and only a handful of photographers make big money.

Ms. Herrmann and Mr. Starke were convinced there was a way they could carve a niche, regionally at least, marketing their expertise for making products look sharp.

"This kind of photography you can do very fast once you have the light right. You don't have a fire extinguisher telling you to wait," Ms. Herrmann says.

The partners also came up with a simplified service and pricing concept they thought might help them stand out from the crowd.

Instead of charging a standard hourly fee or a day rate for assignments -- something many commercial photographers do -- Herrmann and Mr. Starke fashioned a tier of prices.

They decided to simplify choices for clients by offering a set price for assignments based on the sophistication of the lighting techniques, props and backgrounds used for the set.

For example, Straight Shots charges $75 for one photograph of a single product taken using even light and a neutral background.

A photograph portraying a product in warm glowing light with props, say seashells or starfish, to evoke a mood costs $250. The company pitches the pricing concept through a fancy brochure designed to resemble a restaurant menu. Clients with large orders are given a price break.

"Their price is right, and they are very fast. They take a ton of pictures for us," says Tom Morton, art and production director for Chaselle, the Columbia-based school supplies distributor.

The company, which produces four catalogs annually showcasing its inventory, has been using the two photographers since their salad days handling commercial work. Straight Shots photographs, on average, about 800 products for each catalog, from marking pens to craft beads.

Straight Shots has built an unusual business tactic into its marketing: handing over to its clients the slides of photographs taken and all rights to use them anywhere, at any time.

That's a significant departure from the practice of most professional photographers, who usually retain all future copyrights to their work.

"We don't view product photography as art," says Ms. Herrmann. "So why make a fuss over future use rights?"

The system also eliminates the company's need to keep pictures on file for clients.

"We photograph thousands of products each year. Keeping track of them all would be crazy. And besides, most companies change their product lines fairly often, so it's unlikely many photographs will be used more than a few times," Ms. Herrmann says.

With the product photography service on a roll, Ms. Herrmann and Mr. Starke have plans to move into what's called "style-based" photography for products. That service will be marketed under Herrmann/Starke Photography.

Using sophisticated lighting techniques, the style-based milieu has more of an artistic and conceptual flair. It attempts to create a mood or feeling.

For example, in the portfolio they are pulling together to market the service is a photograph of a box of Cascade dishwasher soap. The box of soap lies in a bright splash of magnetic yellow and green light. A shadowy band of utensils floats around the box.

"Product advertising is trying to break borders. The goal is to make the photograph so unusual or pleasing to the eye that someone flipping through a magazine will stop to look at that picture," Ms. Herrmann explains.

The two are including in their portfolio products surrounded by neon-like colors, evoking a frenzied, pop look.

They also have created photographs that have a softer appeal. The sepia-toned pictures have a watery light effect that makes them look like a still-life painting.

"We think this is the way advertising for products is going to go," says Ms. Herrmann.

So does Marjorie Finer, art director for "American Showcase," an annual industry book based in New York that's distributed to advertising and art department directors nationwide.

Photographers pitching their work and services can showcase their work in the annual for about $8,000 a page. Ms. Herrmann and Mr. Starke decided to advertise in the 1994 edition, due out in January, as a way to drum up national accounts.

Ms. Finer spotted their work as she was reviewing about 1,000 submissions while looking for a photograph to anchor the back cover of "Klik!" a new photography sourcebook that "American Showcase" plans to publish in 1994 aimed at the avant-garde advertising market.

Ms. Finer liked a photograph of marbles and a couple of jacks bathed in a watery brown and gold light so much that she selected it for the back cover of "Klik!"

"There is a a lot of movement in the image. The still-life market is looking for this kind of appeal," Ms. Finer says. "Their work is really quite good."

Ms. Herrmann and Mr. Starke were ecstatic at the news.

"When we went ahead and got our brochures printed up for Straight Shots, there was a moment when we thought, 'Uh, oh, we're really going to do this,' " Ms. Herrmann recalls.

"Now, we say, 'Hey, we're living our own dream.' There aren't too many people who can say that."

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