What’s it like shooting for one of today’s most classic fashion brands? To get a few commercial photography tips, we caught up with Brooklyn-based editorial and commercial photographer Bryan Derballa, who’s become a go-to guy for a brand that undeniably falls into this category: J.Crew.
We talked to Bryan about how his photojournalism background helps bring J.Crew’s vision to life, what the collaboration process is like, plus commercial photography tips he has for photographers hoping to work with similar reputable brands. Here’s what he had to say.
Tell us how your relationship with J.Crew started. Did you pitch them? Or how did they discover you initially?
In my first couple years living in NYC, New York Magazine would put out these special fashion week issues with portfolios from my favorite Magnum photographers. The guys that were often shooting in war zones were all the sudden shooting fashion week. It was incredible. The photos were so visually dynamic and abstract.
I was inspired by that and got the opportunity to shoot fashion shows for Wall Street Journal and T Magazine. This helped me develop a style and indulge all my creative impulses. One of the shows I photographed for T Mag happened to be J.Crew’s presentation. I guess they caught wind of it and asked me to shoot their show the following season. It was totally serendipitous. My first day working for them was also the first day for their new blog director. Fashion week was just the start. We ended up collaborating on everything from studio visits to style features to behind-the-scenes and more on nearly a weekly basis.
You were just in Portugal shooting social media content for them. What’s the vision and direction for this shoot?
Most of what I do for J.Crew is documentary-based. I think it helps having a background in photojournalism. For my shoot in Portugal, I visited a mill that makes fabric for the men’s suits. I’ve done lots of factory visits for the brand. Sometimes I’ll focus on very specific elements. You can only show machines and process so many times, and I think it’s important to find a different approach for each one. So with the factory in Portugal, I shot a lot of close-ups, focusing on texture and quality— important features in suiting fabric.
I’m also shooting a style feature with an interesting Portuguese local. J.Crew does a lot of work with real people rather than just models. In fact, their last fashion presentation was all comprised of friends and family of the brand instead of the usual models. They choose to feature people based on their personalities, what they do, and their personal style. So we’re going to be shooting this cool, interesting, and smart gentleman in few different looks around the city of Porto. The objective is to showcase a bit about the person, a bit about the clothes, and a bit about the locations.
Who do you typically collaborate with at J.Crew for these assignments and what is that collaboration process like?
I work with an art director and a content director, who are usually on set (though not always). There are also producers and sometimes stylists and hair-and-makeup artists. There’s a big approval process on the final images too. Everyone is really hands on there and likes to see everything. The brand has a very distinct voice and they make sure to keep it consistent. But compared with the catalog and campaign shoots, my shoots are usually relatively small operations. I think because we’re mostly shooting real people, it helps to preserve some intimacy and a good level of comfort. It’s difficult for just about anyone to be themselves on a massive shoot.
For commercial shoots on location, what are some challenges you may run into? How have you learned to prepare?
Lighting is always a big consideration. A lot of times we’re shooting interiors with overhead lights. Often I just want to use the windows but occasionally I have to deal with mixed light. I try to bring my light kit whenever possible but some locations just can’t accommodate it and I have to get creative. I feel like so much of what I do is really just problem-solving. After so many years of it and hundreds and hundreds of shoots, I can think pretty quick on my feet in whatever situation.
Why do you think J.Crew hires you again and again? What do you contribute the success of your ongoing relationship?
I’m easy to work with for all my clients. No room for an ego in this business. I’m responsible, receptive, quick-shooting, good-communicating, and easy-going. It helped a lot having those years of newspaper experience too. I know that whatever situation I get into I can get a nice photo. They don’t have to worry about me blowing the shoot.
But with J.Crew specifically, I think we grew together. They gave me more creative freedom than almost any client I’ve ever had. I was free to get weird and experiment, making more abstract and intimate photos. Those pictures don’t always feature the clothes but they do create a mood and that goes a long way for the identity of the brand. As my style evolved, they kept incorporating it into the visual identity of their social media and our working relationship became pretty intertwined for a couple years.
What commercial photography tips do you have for photographers who want to connect with major brands like J.Crew? What should someone’s first step be?
I wish I had a clear answer. Honestly, I just got really lucky. I worked hard and I tried to make the best pictures I could, but it wasn’t something I planned on doing. Really it was just taking the opportunities presented and making the most of it. And I never phoned it in for them and still don’t. On my first shoot, I sent them probably 150 selects. That’s still on average about how many photos I send per shoot. It probably means I’m a pretty bad editor. But it also shows that I shoot a lot and I go hard. I care about these shoots and want to give them everything they need. That work ethic is probably the foundation of any career in photography. Shoot a lot. Even if you’re not getting paid. The more good photos you put out in the world, the more people will see it, and the more likely you are to get jobs from it.
In you opinion, what’s the difference between a good commercial photo and a great commercial photo?
I can’t say that I even look at a ton of commercial work. I usually keep up with magazine editorial and documentary photos more. I like mixing genres and hope that other types of work has an influence on my commercial photos. Overall, it seems like a good commercial photo has a sense of authenticity and puts the product in a good light. But I think a great commercial photo maintains the style of the photographer and a sense of artfulness that goes beyond the logistics of merely illustrating a product.
What’s another brand you would be excited to work with this year? Why?
There are a lot of great brands putting out interesting advertising and content. Nike is always great and everyone wants to shoot for them for a reason. I’ve shot for them in the past but it’s been a while. Vans Girls does some fun campaigns and that’s a brand that I know and love. But it seems like they usually have women shooting their ads and should definitely keep that up. I keep seeing Kenzo stuff and I’m loving that too. There are so many brands and agencies that are really shaking things up and making very different and unexpected work these day. I’d like to be a part of any of it.
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