The traditional higher ed photography project is a compromise approach for gathering authentic images. It’s quite rare an institution is willing to risk their limited marketing resources on chance. As a result, set ups are arranged to give the perception of authenticity. They are very difficult to pull off successfully, no matter how skillfully constructed. The actors in these reconstructions are students and faculty, not skilled models.
Now, I want to suggest a better solution. First, trust the skills and intuition of the photographer you hire. You most likely chose him or her based on their portfolio. If the strength of the photographers work is catching moments, it makes sense to construct a photo shoot that will give the best chances for the photographer to find those moments and minimizing set-ups .
Second, when set ups are necessary, create situations that can work. If the goal truly is authenticity, be sure to prepare your student and or faculty models with information about what you are trying to accomplish. Throwing students together with a professor they do not know leaves too much to chance. Making strangers comfortable with each other takes time. If the shooting schedule is tight, consider it good fortune if that kind of set up works.
The picture above was not set up, but it’s easy to see how it could have easily have been selected as a great setting.
Third, do not overuse your talent. It is easy to ask a group of cooperative students to participate in a photo shoot, but limit how many set ups they are in. Expect that you will only be able to use one shot, even if you placed them in three different situations. Perhaps consider holding back some of the images for later use if you use the same talent multiple times. It erodes the authenticity to use the same students, dressed in the same clothes, with the same people in the same publication multiple times.
A good higher ed photographer armed with clear goals and access on a college campus can and should provide more authentic images without an over reliance on set ups. After all, isn’t the goal to give perspective students a sense of what life is like on your campus? High school students can spot a fake a mile away.
I just finished my first project for Texas Tech in Lubbock, TX. Looking over my final edit it dawned on me that the first visit a higher ed photographer makes to a campus has similarities to a student college visit.
That first impression is valuable for me. Getting a visual overview of a campus helps. By the time I arrive, I’ve already researched the school and taken advantage of campus maps, virtual tours and google images. It helps me wrap my brain around the project. That overview tour puts the institution into visual perspective.
I’ve talked to many high school juniors and seniors about their college visits (Disclaimer: my wife is an upper school art teacher). They come back with similar impressions.
Most higher ed photography project have a schedule to keep, as was the case at Texas Tech. By our 12:45pm lunch we had dropped by 6 locations around campus. That’s pretty good planning on their part. Looking over the schedule for this shoot, I understood that they wanted to cover a lot of ground for a university with 10 colleges and 150 undergraduate majors.
Weather is always a factor but Texas Tech approached it in a most practical and effective way. Classes, labs, student union and recreation when the weather was less than perfect, then a day working outside, knowing the weather would be on our side. I think it worked quite well. I understand that it took some last minute rescheduling, but I never sensed anything had changed.
The first visit does matter.
Associate Professor of Goverment Michael Bailey working with groups on team projects.
Gallop yesterday released a study of more than 50 higher education institutions mission and purpose only to find more similarities than differentiators regardless of size. The need for institutions to strategically rethink their purpose, brand and culture is on the top of this study’s suggestion list.
What’s clear is that following the pack is a dead end for recruitment. When I get on a college campus, I want to know what makes it tick, what is it’s personality. At times I am asked to capture scenes or moments which reflect similarities to images I’ve seen before. Will I shoot them? Yes. But will they be effective? Most likely not. I always carve out time to find things on my own. My greatest satisfaction comes when those found settings give my clients a new way of seeing their institution. Just ask my clients.
Yellow post-it notes litter my desk with thoughts on how Instagram is utilized by the 232 colleges and universities I follow as of today. How that social channel is best being used is a matter of choice. The University of Utah posts a great number of stunning images depicting the beauty of the campus and surrounding mountains. Indiana University and Syracuse University concentrate on their eye-catching campus environment. Appalachian State University lets students tell the school’s story in their own unique and quirky way. Millsaps College used Instagram last week announcing late class starts due to winter weather. Last Monday the University of Richmond announced the selection of their next President, Dr. Ronald A. Crutcher with a great portrait. Kansas State University on the other hand is all about basketball. To be fair, they do post some decent campus building shots, but they pull out the stops for hoops.
A college Instagram feed can do a lot of things. There are a number of potential audiences to engage: Current students, prospective students, alumni, fans and of course parents of current and prospective students. Should you choose one or try to serve them all? I don’t think so. The best mix I have observed is speaking to prospective and current students. The audience is already there. The quality of the feed comes down to how well it is curated.
If you are looking to find a higher ed Instagram feed to learn from, none stood out more to me than West Virginia University. I confess a personal bias since they are my client. None the less, WVU makes the most of Instagram from their main feed. They provide a great mixes of campus scenes, events, news, people and sports. It communicates to their intended viewers.
There are a lot of well executed feeds out there. If your institution is not putting much energy into this feed you are missing an opportunity to engage with as big an audience as you can currently find in social media.
Paul O’Mara Photography and Multimedia
Over the past year I have been following 200+ colleges and universities on Instagram. The utility of that social media space is easy for me to grasp. My work clearly can benefit from Instagram. But hey, photos are my world.
Instagram is a great place to visually differentiate yourself from others by way of an image or short video clip. From what I’ve observed, each institution I follow has a different twist on visualizing themselves. Some concentrate on campus scenes others on events or social life and others on sports. What surprised me most is how many of the 240+ Instagram feeds I follow rarely post. What a lost opportunity.
Of course I have a visual bias, but the simplicity of using Instagram with it’s incredible reach (more than 200 Million users) is reason enough. BusinessInsider in December 2014 reported that 85-percent of teens use it as their go-to network. It’s pretty hard to ignore the opportunity an institution can leverage to get the attention college-bound students.
On a later post, I will talk about a few colleges that I think are doing it right and it will not be a listicle.
Paul O’Mara Higher Ed Photography and Multimedia
This post is a bit different from what I normally discuss, so if camera gear ain’t your cup of coffee, don’t fear, this will be short and sweet. We’ll get back to normal shortly.
Over the summer I took on a personal photography project: Dirt Track Stock Car Racing. I shot the entire project with a Leica film camera. Sounds were captured with a small digital audio recorder. During the last week of the year it was published on Roads and Kingdoms, a wonderfully interesting publication. The small, quiet Leica allowed me to get close without drawing too much attention. Capturing sound added another dimension to the story.
As a result, I am adding a Fujifilm XPro1 camera to my bag. It has many similarities to my Leica. The Fuji is an elegant solution for me A great deal of my work involves close in work with my subjects. The XPro1 creates extraordinary image files that I am certain will please my clients. Audio on the other hand lends itself to more in-depth story telling so it’s always available for the right project, especially now that these sort of stories can be published without resorting to video formatting. Roads and Kingdoms and ReadyMag publishing, are examples of the new generation of website platforms.
I plan to roll this out slowly but I’m looking forward to putting the Fuji to work as I continue exploring the unique cultures and personalities of Higher Education.
Fall travel took me to GA, MN, PA and WV. But it was WV and my meeting before the shoot that sticks in my head. When asking about some of the details of my three day project before starting the answer came back, “The schedule is just that, but we want you to do what you do best.” With guidance like that you can’t go wrong.