In an age of digital manipulation, traditional photographic skills may seem like a dying art. But it takes more than clever jiggerypokery in the retouching studio to bridge the gap between the master commercial snappers and their league of imitators.
A talent for post-production still cannot compensate for discipline and a good eye. "Standards aren't as high as they were ten years ago because there are more shortcuts, but the best photographers do not take them," Brian Fraser, the executive creative director at McCann Erickson, says. "That, and not taking the easy route, is what singles them out."
Creatives also look for the ability to communicate a message effectively. "For me, one of the most important aspects of a commercial photographer is the ability to tell the story and to get all the right cues and information across to the audience," Mark Norcutt, a creative director at JWT, says. "A lot of photographers can do this in their personal work, but when the perimeters are set and the brief is tighter, it becomes a lot harder."
One photographer who combines both of these talents is Nadav Kander. With his eye for a story and a body of high-quality commercial and personal work, the Israeli-born snapper still ranks as the industry's photographer of choice. "The thing about Kander is that he is an extraordinarily good craftsman," Malcolm Poynton, the executive creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, says. "He really understands what it is that people are setting out to achieve. Sometimes there is a struggle between a photographer's vision in a pure sense and the content and purpose of what the ad is trying to communicate. Often, things are hindered and slowed down but he has an ability to hit the nail on the head every time."
Kander has also won his army of industry fans by constantly changing the goal-posts for commercial photography. "He always pushes the boundaries year in, year out, reinventing and redefining what can be done," Adrian Rossi, a creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says of Kander's campaigns for Levi's, Heal's and Mercedes. "I would trust him to come back with something that is nothing less than perfect, whatever he shoots - from a landscape to a portrait. His catalogue of work is huge. The hard thing is finding a duff Kander campaign."
Nigel Rose, a creative director at Euro RSCG London, concurs. "I first worked with Kander when he came to this country more than 20 years ago. He has been at number one for quite a while and just gets better and better. He's constantly reinventing himself and evolving. He doesn't stick to the tried-and-tested approach that so many photographers do. Many can have a fantastic career doing the same thing, but he's constantly ducking and diving, bobbing and weaving. He's got a lot of imitators and by the time they've copied him he's moved on and left them in the dust."
Kander's exacting standards do not just apply to his own work. He can be equally picky about other aspects of a campaign. "He will turn down work if he doesn't like the layout or typography," Rose says. "He sticks to his principles, and that's rare. In this business we're all prostitutes."
While this level of perfection makes Kander high maintenance, creatives think he is worth the effort. "He can be very difficult to work with but all really good people are, because they have an aim and are very focused on what they want," Rose says. "But that doesn't matter; the end result matters."
Ultimately, his pictures speak for themselves. "Kander's trick is his controlled use of light and a subtle colour palette," Nicola Jackson, a creative director at VCCP, says. "He gives ads elegance and cares about the details. He makes good ideas into beautiful, award-winning images."
Not far behind Kander in the industry's list of top-ten photographers is Nick Knight. Like Kander, the UK's Knight has moved progressively into the art world. As well as exhibiting his pictures in galleries, Knight has produced editorial work for titles such as Vogue, Dazed & Confused, i-D, The Face and Visionaire, and works on films and interactive projects with the online fashion broadcasting company SHOWstudio.
"He's at the forefront in terms of imagery and the advancement of effects that he brings is immense," Poynton, who puts Knight in the same category as Kander, says. "They are both able to do justice to the work they take on. They are not jacks of all trades - they are masters of what they do."
Knight, whose advertising portfolio includes campaigns for the designers Yohji Yamamoto, Christian Dior and Alexander McQueen, has managed to dodge any industry-particular label by constantly moving into new visual media. "Knight has been able to avoid being pigeon-holed," Poynton claims. "When you look at the great photographers outside advertising, they are not one-dimensional. They are very interesting and shoot across a huge range. There's no reason why that cannot also be the case for photographers in advertising."
Mark Roalfe, the chairman and executive creative director at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, is unequivocal about Knight's talent. "He is the best photographer in the country," he says. "His work is the most inventive and he is pushing boundaries in style. He usually uses post-production pretty heavily."
Another regular on any rundown of the hottest snappers is Nick Meek. With a mantelpiece crammed with D&AD, Association of Online Publishers and Campaign awards, the London-based photographer shoots for clients such as American Airlines, Volkswagen, Wallpaper*, RAC, IBM, The Times, PlayStation and the Samaritans. "Meek has a great ability to capture an atmosphere," the JWT art director Mark Norcutt says. "His wide American landscapes and still lifes give a real sense of where you are and give insight into these people's lives. You feel like you know these people, which helps tell the story."
This, coupled with his trademark bleached-out aesthetic, has created a winning formula for Meek. "His pictures have a luminous, slightly ethereal, other-worldly quality," Rose says. "They have a strange feel to them which is refreshing. Like Kander, he will constantly change."
Completing the photographic trinity of Nicks is the Royal College of Art graduate Nick Georghiou. After winning awards for VW, Land Rover, Adidas and Barnardo's, Georghiou attracted a different kind of attention this summer with his shot for Wieden & Kennedy's Nike poster campaign. Depicting Wayne Rooney painted red and white in a Christ-like pose, the image was criticised in the press for its reference to the Crucifixion. But, for Ken Sara, an art director at Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, the picture pushes all the right buttons. "The Rooney ad is phenomenal," he says. "It blew me away. It's so visceral."
It may be controversial, but Georghiou's shot of Rooney is typical of his photographic style. "He can create light and dark in equal measures. The end product is some of the most harrowing and some of the most graceful images in print," Rossi says. "You can see this in his work for Barnardo's to Adidas to American Airlines. A man of iconic images, which at their best will be burned into your mind."
Georghiou has the rare ability to put commercial images on the same footing as his private projects. "He is one of the few photographers whose commissioned work is equal to or exceeds his personal work," Rossi says. "He is always absolutely focused and passionate in a grim, Northern kind of way."
Sue Parkhill's commercial or personal work also has a unifying feature. Aiming for empathy without any sentimentality, she manages to convey a story using the most minimalist set-ups. This documentary style is best seen in her series on social housing in Eastern Europe, which she shot using the money from her AOP bursary in 2004, as well as the "Christmas wishes" Guinness poster ad for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.
"We have consistently worked with her over the past three or four years and she has constantly produced good work for us," Katie Grogan, the head of art buying at AMV, says. "She has a great eye and she is a classic example of someone who is a contemporary photographer. She is able to look at a layout with an art director and assess ways of bringing it to life and problem solving. She doesn't get bogged down in details and she's highly technical."
Parkhill's skills also lie in her ability to put people at ease. "She makes you feel confident with her whether you are an established or a young team," Grogan says. "She is incredibly approachable and has very little ego."
Chris Frazer Smith has a similar talent for collaborating with the whole team and seeing beyond his own contribution to campaigns including the Financial Times, Peroni and American Airlines. "As well as talent, Frazer Smith has a great understanding of the shot you are trying to get and appreciates the other elements that go into the ad," Norcutt says. "You will not just discuss the photography with him but the whole process, the crop of the ad, where the typography might go."
Another photographer able to see the bigger picture is the Swiss snapper Guido Mocafico. With an impressive portfolio of ads for Clinique, Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzoki and Sergio Rossi, Mocafico brings his editorial slant to a brief. "He is not just a photographer but an original, creative thinker," Rossi says. "This means the more freedom you give him, the better the results. He does a lot of editorial work, so when he does apply his skills to advertising he often produces something truly unique. He has a particular take on everything he sees, from the micro to the macro. He is the God of detail."
Taking a more painterly approach is Ben Stockley. His shots for McCann Erickson's campaign for MasterCard and DDB London's Harvey Nichols ads all display a fine art approach to light and texture. "The images were very photographic," Fraser says of the MasterCard shots. "So much work you see now is digital and thin but in these the colour is rich; you can almost see the emulsion in it. It looks like it is done in camera. His images are more ethereal. They don't look like classic advertising images."
Leading the charge for commercial fashion photography is Paolo Roversi. Originally from Italy, Roversi has carved a niche for himself shooting high-end campaigns for luxury brands such as Christian Dior, Cerruti, Valentino, Yves Saint-Laurent and Comme des Garaons. "Roversi simply has natural cool," Jackson says. "He's a sort of legend but also a family man, so he's not into adman wankery. And he loves his craft. He uses unique film and eccentric styling - you can recognise a Roversi image instantly."
Also instantly familiar are shots by the British/Turkish duo Mert and Marcus. Their work, which ranges from ads for Louis Vuitton, Roberto Cavalli, Missoni, Giorgio Armani, Hugo Boss, Bulgari and Gucci to editorial spreads for Vogue, W and Pop, is renowned for its high camp and heavy post-production. "What I love about them is that they have had tremendous success from absolutely nowhere - a loft in Shoreditch - and they have an idiosyncratic approach," Jonathan Mildenhall, the strategy director at Mother, says. "The ad industry would look at it and say 'where is the idea?' There's always an uneasy tension between fashion campaigns and advertising campaigns. Advertising campaigns are all about the idea. Fashion people shoot with the look and feel and that's what keeps it fresh."
UK'S BEST PHOTOGRAPHERS
The UK's most highly rated commercial photographers
1. Nadav Kander
2. Nick Knight
3. Nick Meek
4. Nick Georghiou
5. Sue Parkhill
6. Chris Frazer Smith
7. Guido Mocafico
8. Ben Stockley
9. Paolo Roversi
10. Mert and Marcus
Source: Campaign; based on interviews with the UK's top 20 advertising
agencies, according to the Campaign Top 300 Agencies report, 2006.