Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Anatomy of a Press Image

What makes a compelling press photo?  What makes it marketable?  We never claim to be experts on any theatrical subject, merely willing to share our perspective:  Today, I’m going to dissect our pre press photos for The Lullaby Tree.

First, we do two rounds of press photos: the first round is before we have the set built, and we’ve pushed our costume designer to have at least a rough draft of their costumes which we can work with. The images are taken a month or more before opening, so they can’t truly represent the production.  As such, it doesn’t bother me if the image is of a moment that doesn’t actually happen.  I’m trying to capture a compelling feeling from the show, not its veracity.

So our first image….

What works:  Strong contrast.  A press photo needs to pop off the page/website, so we used a black backdrop.  An easy way to test your contrast is to quickly convert to black and white.  Does it still pop in black and white?  I could get into the specifics of the lights (key, fill, soft rim—actually the rim is a little too soft in this image), but more important is the composition of a press photo.  What should you look for?  The eyes.  At least one pair should be clearly shown.  The bodies must be close together so there is minimal “dead space.”  And finally, is there a clearly defined action?  A commercial photographer once said that every portrait is better when they’re eating a sandwich.  He was right (and you can find images of, say, Breaking Bad, publicity photos where he’s shot the actors eating sandwiches).  In this case the characters are drinking and playing music.  There’s a tangible sense of camaraderie, celebration, and a hint of romance.

What doesn’t work?  Actually, this one is pretty darn good as an image.  It’s not perfect, however, because it doesn’t say much about theme of the play or tag line that will be used to describe it: “A little boy ventures into the Underworld to save his mother while above a battle rages over the fate of a patch of Genetically Modified corn… or perhaps the world.”  Yeah, not there.  But consider this—women are more likely to be the driving force behind couples going to the theatre.  Is this image women-centric?

Image 2:

Given the above, how does this one fair?  Contrast?  Eyes.  Focus?  Bodies close together?  Action?  Theme?  I removed about a quarter inch of dead space between the owl character and the mule in post, but even so there’s a little excess space.  We see the boy's eye clearly (making him a sympathetic subject), but I wish we could see the owl man’s.  The focus is clearly centered on the boy, which is good—but I might have solicited just a little more emotion out of him. Does it represent the theme of the play?  Yes and no:  this is a moment from the Underworld that closely resembles a moment in the play; it’s clear that we’re referring to “a boy ventures into the Underworld.”  However, the GM corn portion is lost, and that’s probably the more marketable angle. 

In my opinion, both of these images are above average, though shy of perfect.  Their biggest fault is in their ability to portray the subject of the play—though that is, in fact, the most difficult part of press photos.  And perhaps an unrealistic expectation.  The Lullaby Tree is extremely complex.  It deals with GMOs, but also with death, childhood, tales, mythology, repeating relationships, depression, corporate greed, betrayal, and devotion.  Try fitting all that into one image.

Now go out and shoot something.

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