Case Study: The Photo Call

Rebecca Adlington

This photo call test shot of Rebecca Adlington was more interesting than the shot the PR lined up for us.

Since the majority of my work now involves working directly with companies on their corporate photography, I don’t get to do so many photo calls as I once did. Besides which, photo calls aren’t so popular as they once were.

Back when I was on staff at The Portsmouth News, and subsequently when I freelanced for national newspapers and agencies, photo calls were generally used by police forces for missing persons appeals or during a crime investigation. It was one way to control how much information got out to the press. Other photo calls would be for a new theatre production, a gallery opening, book signing or product launch. Anything really where a few different publications and maybe TV and radio would be invited along to help publicise something.

Though they are less common for PR uses, the police still use photo calls. For PR they can be a bit tricky to manage effectively, and if managed too effectively everyone ends up with the same stagey photo. Often a PR will do better to get some decent shots taken by a single photographer and send those out with the press release than have a room full of clever-clogs press photographers managing to make something amusing out of the wording or shapes on the wall behind the main speaker’s head. I’d still argue that press coverage is press coverage, and if the pictures are too sterile they’ll get no news space at all. You takes your pick…

Perhaps the other reason photo calls are out of favour is that newspapers have let so many staff photographers go, and cut freelance budgets so far, that they simply don’t have the resources to send someone along to an event which might take them out of circulation for over an hour while they’re wooed by PRs, held up by shifting timetables and badly planned itineraries and then have to be dragged away from the canapes and free drinks to go to the next cheque presentation.

It’s easier for a paper to wait for a finished press release, complete with photo, to waft into the newsroom so they

Martine McCutcheon book signing Harrods

Martine McCutcheon wrote a book about the first ten minutes of her life.

can add a reporter’s byline and publish the story and photo verbatim. Job done.

The photo call used to be a good chance for me to catch up with fellow “smudgers” from other agencies and newspapers, but on the rare occasion I am sent to one now I tend to find myself in the company of people who have a camera, but no real clue.

It may be that as new media channels open up, and quality returns to journalism (I happen to believe and hope that tablet computers may be the dawn of a return to quality content) the photo call will make something of a comeback, though I suspect it may be dead for good/better.

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3 comments

  • Brooks Anderson June 7, 2011   Reply →

    Tim,

    As always, enjoyed your post about photo calls.

    Here’s the shortlink to my latest post.

    http://wp.me/p12D6P-5Z

    Any suggestions about how to improve my photos will be greatly appreciated. I’m just starting to discover the possibilities with Photoshop.

    Cheers,
    Brooks

    • Glass Eye June 7, 2011   Reply →

      Hi Brooks

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I’ve seen your work before. I think you could do worse than to study the work of Magnum photographers, and in particular James Nachtwey. Avoid trying to “rescue” pictures in Photoshop, but concentrate on composition and lighting. You’re covering interesting subjects, but it’s not always easy to take pictures that really convey the story. That’s what photojournalists do, and it’s a skill that not everyone has.

      Keep it up though.

      Best wishes

      Tim

  • robertday154 June 17, 2011   Reply →

    Tim,

    From the other side of that particular fence; I once worked in the press office of a minor (but for a while, quite high-profile) government department. One of my jobs was helping arrange and set up photo calls. For a while, they were popular; but once our doings ceased to be of any real interest to the big hitters, we found that there were increasingly fewer takers. By about 1998, we were getting no takers at all, even for quite big national announcements. We shifted our publicity stance to proactively seeking out people who we wanted to engage with and who wanted to engage with us.

    I’ve also been associated with groups at the other end of the spectrum, trying to get representatives of the local press to attend an event. Occasionally, we’d be able to arrange a shooter for advance publicity, but generally all we got from local media was a deafening silence (unless the local carpet warehouse wasn’t holding a sale that particular week).

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