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Catalog Photography

style product advertising catalogs

One area of specialization in advertising photography is catalog photography. To anyone born during or before the Second World War, the idea of the mail-order catalog conjures up the image of the Sears Roebuck Catalog. Printed on thin paper (which often found its way into the family outhouse) and consisting of primitive renderings either drawn or photographed (or a combination of both), the mail-order catalog was home-delivered regularly, on a seasonal basis.

The purpose of the company’s catalog and its unique style of illustration was to introduce a product to potential customers, usually in rural areas, and to share what the object that was being sold really looked like. The catalog itself relied heavily on the written word for the major part of its message. As was true of most early forms of advertising, catalogs were designed and produced by persons with a background and inclination for the written word.

Over the years, advertisers began to realize a much larger potential market for catalog sales existed. They recognized that customers who were not in rural locations might still enjoy the ease and luxury of shopping from home. Catalogs began appearing that tried to target urban consumers with specialized needs and interests. Many began to focus specifically on one type of merchandise, such as shoes, sporting goods, or tools, but continued to use the same style that was so successful in earlier publications. The industry soon realized that a new style of design and presentation was going to be necessary to reach these specialty markets.

Evaluating the style of the illustrations that existed up to that time is important. Early catalog illustrations were basically line drawings. Early advertising photography showed the approximate shape of an object and possibly highlighted some simple features. One can find examples in catalogs, magazines, and newspapers from the late 1890s up to the Second World War. Their primary purpose was to represent merely what the merchandise looked like. Care was taken to show as much detail as possible. With the introduction of photomechanical reproduction of photographs, that style continued. The lighting in the photographs was kept to very low contrast ratios, affording maximum shadow and highlight detail.

As long as the general style of product photography for advertising stayed the same, these simplistic renderings were successful. However, with the availability, in 1936, of Kodachrome color film, magazine and billboard advertising became much more colorful and glamorous. A new style of commercial photography began to be used. This style, often referred to as illustrative photography, attempted to do more than show the customer what a product looked like. Advertisers began to try to create a mood that surrounded the product, thereby enticing the potential customer to buy it. In food photography, the expression, “don’t photograph the steak, photograph the sizzle,” exemplifies this type of illustration.

After considerable experimentation, the catalog industry now realizes that both the old, traditional rendering and the new, more sophisticated illustration have their place. Industrial catalogs need to do little more than provide a clear image of the object, supported by appropriate copy. General household or utilitarian products may be shown in a simple setting that suggests the environment in which it would be used. Less copy might be used in this case. High-priced luxury items may be shown using models, room sets, or expensive locations. The point is to make potential consumers relate to how the product could enhance their lifestyle. Many of the modern catalogs of this type—for example, the Sharper Image, Neiman-Marcus, Victoria’s Secret, and LL Bean catalogs—have virtually become books filled with glamorous magazine-style advertisements.

Over the years an attitude has developed among professional photographers that catalog photography is what one does if no other work is available. This is hardly a realistic view. Some of the largest and most commercially successful photography studios in the United States are catalog houses. The advantages they offer to both new and experienced photographers are many and varied. They allow for the option of generalization or specialization. Some studios offer the opportunity of shooting one type of situation one day and something totally different the next. Others allow a photographer to develop a unique level of expertise by specializing in photographing furniture, cars, or some other genre of product.

Economically, catalog photography is a low unit cost/high volume business. Unlike general advertising, it is less affected by economic downturns and recessions. During advertising slowdowns, the volume of business seen by catalog and mailorder studios tends to hold up very well. Even though the Web has become a major medium for purchasing and viewing products, the catalog is still a strong vehicle to showcase product. In fact, many companies only publish their catalogs online. Catalog photography is a healthy, viable industry that offers opportunity and financial rewards for technical and creative photographers.

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over 6 years ago

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