How to communicate your brand is no easy feat. Here are some tips on how to effectively set the stage and articulate visual storytelling strategies to make your brand relatable and engaging to your customers.
My name is Krystin Leigh Smith and I’m the owner of Hacienda, a curated home decor collection of accessories, art, and gifts. I’m also a professional prop stylist. I’ve always loved home decor and design, and I decided to move from a career in social work to something creative. I hunted for opportunities and began working as a prop stylist’s assistant in 2014. From there, I quickly gained my own client base and began working on my own.
Most of my job involves designing sets and selecting small props, tableware, paint colours, furniture and art for commercials, photoshoots and magazines. In a nutshell, a prop stylist’s job is to make products look beautiful on camera and to help the client tell visual stories. Not only do we style products to be camera-ready on a set, we also curate and select the perfect items to help each client create a world in which to tell their brand stories — it’s my passion and one of the favourite aspects of my job.
Having had 6+ years as a stylist and a prop buyer for advertising, I’ve had tons of experience working alongside large and small brands to help them create images that will speak to their customers. I have seen and contributed to my share of brand books and have learned a lot of strategies for creating beautiful sets and taking amazing photos for businesses.
(Credit: Paula Wilson)
As a stylist, creating images for social channels feels like second nature, but for those with less experience in this field, this may seem like a daunting task. However, I believe there are three key principles that are accessible to any business owner in achieving a great social feed.
1) VISUAL STORYTELLING
Visual storytelling is a way to communicate creatively to your customers through images. Objects, shapes, textures and colours can all be used as signifiers or ways to give your customer information without using words. If you aren’t sure where to begin, or you don’t have a clear vision from the get-go, start with making a list of what you like and compiling inspiration images on a platform like Pinterest. Save images of anything that speaks to you: it could be a colour swatch, a fabric pattern, a font, shot angle, or even a lighting scheme. It’s also important to have a look around at what your competitors are doing, not so you can copy them, but so you have an idea of what brands are doing in your niche and what your ideal customers are attracted to. Learn about colour theory and how different colours evoke different feelings and emotions, stay on top of interior design trends, and create your own look that is built from the inspiration you’ve drawn from.
(Credit: Melissa Sung)
Images representing your business should communicate your brand story and stick to a consistent look and feel. Businesses often develop brand books to help them create rules for how the brand is visually represented. This document can contain font choices, colour palettes, photography guides and lots more. You don’t have to create an entire brand book for your small business, but it’s worth thinking along these lines to help you stay consistent with your brand’s imagery. For example, Hacienda’s consistent message is “home is your haven” which informs the type of photos I take and the type I don’t take: no harsh lighting, no hard shadows, no super bright neon colours for backgrounds or props, etc. When people think of the word haven, they envision soft lighting, comfort, peacefulness, and it’s one of the ways I ensure Hacienda’s images and brand message feels and communicates the same message.
No matter what you ultimately choose, remember to try and stay true to what you love and this will guide you in everything you create for your brand. Nothing is better than your genuine love of your craft and passion — it’ll show through to your customers.
Deciding how you want to showcase your product depends on a few rules that’ll guide your composition.
Simple, on-white product shots are most easily achieved with an inexpensive lightbox (you can get on Amazon, or you can make your own with foam board, following instructions easily found on Youtube or Pinterest). This type of image is best used for product pictures on a website to show customers every angle of the product you’re selling. When shooting product images, it’s good to think about what details your customers might be most interested in seeing and do your best to position your camera to capture and showcase these features. For instance, if your product is a vase with a hand-painted design, you’d want to ensure the customer gets to see every angle. Some customers want to know how wide the opening is for floral arrangements, so taking a top-down shot would be adding real value for your online shoppers. This is also where you may add a lifestyle shot that would show the scale of the vase and give the customer a really good sense of what it looks like in the appropriate context.
Lifestyle images allow the customer to see the product in use. A lifestyle image can be shot in a location like on a beach, or on the mantle of a beautiful home, or can be a creatively styled shot using props in an eye-catching flat lay. A lifestyle image can be simple too; for instance, showcasing your candle brand by placing the candle on a table next to a window with a book and a cup of tea can be a lifestyle image that shows people your candles create a relaxing ambience. Check out #3 for tools you can use to create an atmosphere within lifestyle images that excite people about your brand.
(Credit: Melissa Sung)
The Rule of Thirds
Learning to compose a good image takes practice, but there is a basic photographic principle that can instantly elevate your work: the rule of thirds. This is a compositional guideline that breaks an image down into thirds both horizontally and vertically. There is a setting in most smartphone camera apps that will allow you to turn on a grid that appears over your phone. This can be very useful for lining up shots. Positioning key elements along the gridlines will help you to create a balanced, visually appealing composition. The lines will also help ensure your photo is straight. Each intersection where the lines meet are points of interest. Align your main subject along with other elements of the frame along these points to create a balanced and visually interesting image.
(Credit: Tyler Bowditch)
3) ATMOSPHERE AND TOOLS
Think about how you can use props to create a mood or tell a story to show off what your brand is all about. Your objectives for the visuals you create are to communicate key points about your product, show off its best qualities and reinforce your brand identity. For instance, an image of a coffee cup on a table with soft light could indicate a breakfast scene. An image of sunglasses on a towel could make a customer think of the beach. Think about this when selecting props and creating scenes to shoot your products in.
Images are an opportunity to help your clients visualize themselves using your products. This image can also help to tell the story of your brand. I like to use images to show my Instagram followers exactly what type of home environment they can create with my home decor collection: a cozy warm haven. I’ll show cozy throw blankets and pillows on a soft stylish sofa, candles glowing on a table, or a warm cup of coffee on a tray in my Instagram stories. This type of image is a perfect portrayal of my brand’s cozy vibe, so go ahead and ask yourself what emotional connection you are trying to evoke in your customers. A trendy clothing company may use bright colours and modern geometric props to communicate a youthful, high-energy feeling. A high-end luxury clothing company may use softer tones and expensive antique furniture to convey that this product is for a wealthier clientele.
(Credit: Jake Killorn)
Good lighting is number one. Lighting can completely change the mood of a photo, so it’s important to know what style and look your customers will respond to and aim to create images that will appeal to your target market. Is it a moody, dim image with just a bit of sunlight peeking through a curtain? Maybe your customers prefer a brighter sun-filled image. A good way to discover a lighting style you like is to go back to the inspiration images you saved on Pinterest and examine which ones have the look you’re going for.
Note that depending on the look you want, different times of day will give you different types of light. Shooting on days when the sky is grey will give you a softer, more flattering light than shooting on a sunny day at noon. Try it out and see what time of day gives you the look you want. Lighting can get pretty technical, so if you’re shooting your own images, let the internet be your friend. There are some great resources online to learn about artificial lighting techniques and how to create different types of lighting conditions.
Most importantly, have fun. Exploring your unique brand identity and taking pictures of your products should and can be a lot of fun. Test out what works for you and what doesn’t, and ultimately it will help to elevate how your brand is presented to the world.
About the Author
Krystin Leigh Smith is the owner of Toronto-based home decor shop Hacienda and also works as a professional prop stylist and set designer. She has worked with a diverse mix of clients including Chatelaine Magazine, Holt Renfrew, Samsung, Starbucks, Loblaws, and many more.
Learn more about Krystin at shophacienda.com or on Instagram at @shophacienda