#effortless or #elaborate?

BY Carey George

The Instagram look is the style du jour, but this interview with photographer Sandy Nicholson reminds us it’s not as easy as it looks.


“We’re going for ‘the Instagram look’ ” is a phrase that’s been appearing lately in many of the creative briefs our agency receives.

With its seemingly effortlessly vintage aesthetic, a look that used to take years of training to perfect on film, Instagram offers the promise of one-shot simplicity recreated on your smartphone.

When anyone can hop on Instagram and find beautiful photographs, the cost of professional photography might strike you as astronomical—after all, if you’re looking for an impromptu moment captured in all of its imperfections, why should anyone fork over thousands of dollars for lighting, crew, locations, talent, catering and all the rest?

On one hand, the value placed on a photo’s simplicity— witness the popularity of the #nofilter hashtag (even though “the Instagram look” is most commonly achieved with a heavy filter)—has served as a bit of a course correction for an industry that had become infatuated with Photoshop tricks and elaborate staging.

On the other hand, as Toronto-based photographer Sandy Nicholson tells us, Instagram’s impression of unstaged effortlessness isn’t quite as simple as it appears to be.

“Probably three to four years ago, we started getting briefs with images that were selected with lots of filters laid on top,” says Nicholson. “We often talk in our studio about how the perception of what is real, and what is an ‘authentic moment,’ is actually a moment that’s being filtered through an Instagram filter and being manipulated. Because people are seeing these all the time now on their phones, that’s how they think of the real, authentic moment.”

But there is a gulf between the photo you take of your ramen and the ones that routinely get pushed to the top of Instagram (that is, the best photos are the ones that appear at the top of your search results, while the poorer quality ones get pushed to the bottom), even if, at a quick glance, the differences aren’t noticeable to the agnostic.

“Instagram is filled with the greatest photographers taking pictures now,” notes Nicholson, pointing to the success that National Geographic has had on Instagram. “So when clients say, ‘we want photos to look and feel like an Instagram picture, simple and natural,’ they figure it’s just something you take from your pocket. They don’t realize that the pictures they’re thinking of—the ones they see at the top of their search on Instagram—are in fact the most complex professional ones.”

Staging spontaneity

Nicholson describes a shoot he did for Air Canada Rouge that was spec’ed to have an Instagram-like look for a series of photographs taken on an airplane. While that sounds easy enough—hop on a plane, take a few dozen candids, choose the best ones, move on—you’re leaving yourself entirely up to the whims of nature. What if the lighting’s off? What about turbulence? What if the flight’s full of the, well, unphotogenic?

In the end, it made a lot more sense for Nicholson and his team to just rent out an airplane in a hangar and shoot inside the cabin at 4:00 in the morning. That way, he could control all those little things that “real life” has a habit of throwing in the way of the perfect photo.

The end result has the same casual, effortless look you’d expect to find on Instagram, but achieved by considerable skill and effort.

The same goes for Nicholson’s work with the Toronto Raptors (see photo gallery above), for which he and his crew shot a series of candid, heavily filtered photographs of outdoors basketball—in the middle of the winter.

“All the shooting we did for them involved teams of people, and all these simple occasions needed to be coordinated, and then filtered afterwards,” says Nicholson. “Yet they look like they just ‘happened.’ ”

So, controlling wind and rain? Easily accomplished by a professional. Want a sunset lens flare? A pro knows how to do it on a cloudy day (not a bad idea if your CEO is only available for a three-hour window on Thursday afternoon). Otherwise, you and your iPhone may have to wait, and wait and wait some more, until the elements are just right.

Where have all the logos gone?

And there are other aspects of the curated look of Instagram that a professional photographer needs to account for if they’re going to deliver exceptional content. Namely, making sure they’re not setting their client up for a lawsuit.

“Clients ask us for ‘real moments’ that are completely devoid of logos or insignias or street signs, and they’re very beautiful and simple, but they’ve been orchestrated,” explains Nicholson.

Nicholson points to publications such as Kinfolk as curators of this unbranded, and therefore artificial representation of everyday living. “The look and feel of Kinfolk is completely aspirational but very played down and laidback. It’s completely logo-less; there is no type unless it’s hand-generated type. But there are no brands, no references to the outside world. These are people who live in a world without anything on their T-shirts, without anything in the background. To make that world, it actually takes a team of people to construct it, because there are so many logos in the world.

Kinfolk is indeed beautiful to look at, and Nicholson says he finds it refreshing to have the focus in commercial photography shift toward the staging and creation of a photograph and away from post-production.

But try taking a photograph of downtown Toronto or Vancouver without getting a logo, utility wire or street sign in the shot, all the while maintaining a standard of professional photography, and you’ll soon find it’s very difficult to do. While logos and brands are fine to have in a personal photograph—and often, a far more accurate representation of reality—in the world of commercial photography, a stray logo that you don’t own the rights to could cost you. A lot.

With a professional team, you can rest easy knowing that all the rights have been secured. Nicholson’s crews also all sign non-disclosure agreements before they go on set, to make sure that the client is in total control of distribution.

Turning the model upside down

Social media has, however, led to an interesting shift in the balance of power in the modelling world. In the past, only supermodels could cite a fandom worthy of a large fee. Social media has given us the ability to quantify all followings, to the extent that a model’s following on Instagram now represents the equivalent of a secondary media buy in its own right—when you contract a model, you get direct access to their thousands, or even millions, of followers.

No longer are talent agencies the only way to land professional models—spend enough time on Instagram, and you can bypass those costs altogether. In turn, this has led to a proliferation of photo shoots of photo shoots, feeding appetites for exclusive content, and, of course, spawning more work for photographers.

“It gets very meta,” laughs Nicholson. “Almost always, we have a team filming us as we’re filming, and then creating a behind-the-scenes video or a set of images for them, or our clients will be photographing us, and they’ll be controlling how the posting goes.”

Pro versus semi-pro

Control, essentially, is what differentiates professional photography from the amateur or “semi-pro” photographers that make up the vast bulk of Instagrammers. A million amateurs taking hundreds of photos each are bound to produce some beautiful shots, just purely out of coincidence and happenstance. But being able to produce those shots on demand—and deliver them on time and on budget—requires a lot more than chance.

More and more often, Nicholson says clients will ask him to reproduce a photo they’ve seen on Instagram for their own campaign. Recreating a “spontaneous” Napa Valley picnic in the depths of an Ontario winter, though, isn’t something that can just be captured by a person whipping their phone out at the right moment.

“We have amazing semi-pro photographers and bloggers that we meet all the time, but they make it in their own time when everything works for them,” he explains.

“What professionals do is make amazing pictures happen for you by next Thursday at four o’clock. We can pull a team together to execute exactly the type of picture that you want, and deliver it on time and on budget.”

In other words, deadlines can’t wait for the weather to change. A lot of planning, a whole team of experts, boundless creativity and careful budgeting are needed to turn the inspiration from a couple of sample JPEGs into a successful photo shoot.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that what you’re getting when you pay for professional photography is professionalism. But, as tastes head ever more into world of the “authentic,” maybe we need to question what’s really behind the “real.”