You've seen Bill Truran's work. You've probably even held it in your hands—in the supermarket or in the kitchen. His food photography entices a bumper crop of marketing and packaging clients because they know his images work for them where it counts: in the marketplace.
And there's another very good reason. His doctrine of nurturing client relationships means at every opportunity he'll make sure whomever he works with looks good to their supervisors—and knows he appreciates them and had fun working with them. It's not just a strategy, he insists, but his outlook on a job he absolutely loves.
"My studio's slogan is ‘We'll make you look good for your bosses,'" says Truran, a 28-year veteran of the commercial photography industry. "I'm working for somebody who's working for somebody else, and the more I can help them succeed, the more likely I am to get a call when they need photography again. My steady clients know that they can throw anything at me, and it'll come back to them looking great. That way, when they show the work to their boss, or to their clients, they look ever so smart for having hired me."
Truran's philosophy has served him well, and he credits that success to a team effort. He thinks that in commercial photography, from the product to the ad concept to the final, printed advertisement or packaging, it's never just his own contribution that breathes life into a job. He will continue to grow the relationships he's forged, always mindful of what it means to his own bottom line. "When a client calls me, the answer is always, ‘Yes, whatever you need, we can do it!' I give it my all, and each new job, each success, and each relationship born out of the last job means something to my business. I work hard at building new relationships, and I work hard at keeping old relationships happy."
The fact is, Truran is comfortable with people and appreciates that they have goals. And when he's looking out for their business needs, he's getting to know them in the process—and feels that bringing personal relationships to the business table is not a bad thing.
"Life is life. I share good times and bad times with clients. While everything we do in the studio has to be perfect, clients are real people—we're not always as perfect as the photographs. You're not hurting yourself to let them into your personal world, and you can usually find yourself in a healthy spot if you let yourself into theirs. You'd be hard-pressed to find a client of mine that doesn't also consider me a friend, and that's important to how I work. There's a trust when we have fun or discuss life or their job. Personality and trust are extremely important."
A day in the life of a commercial photographer, Truran knows, is in the details. His images are known for their great lighting and image quality, and he's certain he knows how to achieve those particulars. For starters, he has his favorite two camera backs. He uses an aging Leaf Volare, which he confesses he adores. It has a black-and-white chip—so with three captures, it puts a red, a green, and a blue filter in front of the sensor, and assembles them as a full-color file.
"Nothing I've used can touch the quality I receive for still lifes with this camera back. I use it for food, for products, anything that doesn't move—as a three-pass camera, there are three captures. It's the uncompromised, noninterpolated files that I adore. The quality is simply amazing. A Leaf Aptus 22 is my other back; 22 megapixels is the Holy Grail for me. You can pull so much information, shadow detail especially, that even if a shot is underexposed by a stop, I can still print a brilliant photograph."
There is no typical day, Truran says, but with food shoots, his food stylist is usually at the studio by 7:30 a.m., long before he is, as she has a lot of prep work to do. "By 9:30, I stroll in," Truran says, "and the client comes in soon after. From there, we start arranging ‘quick food,' which is stand-in food for what will be in the final shot. If we have a prop stylist, too, she's laid everything out on the table. Then it's my turn. I light. I use a lot of hard light, looking to make bright images. I use my arsenal of spotlights with care, because I think they make the food pretty. From there, we select a background that works and start shooting the real deal."
Truran laughs as he describes what he feels is a constant jinx in his shoots: that one shot that always becomes a hurdle. "There's always one shot in a sequence that doesn't work. It happens every time—I pretty much expect it. Sometimes it's the background, sometimes it's the prop. We'll do two or three that are a breeze, then we find one that makes us grind our teeth. The pertinent point is that I'm the photographer—it's my job to kick us all in the butt to keep the shoot rolling. I'll always dramatically scream a little, too, for laughs. We'll switch out plates, switch out a place mat, change the background. Then it starts to work again, and the rest of the day goes fine. I can always look at my client and say, "Whew—it's over, that one shot is over; now we can get on with the day!"
While he's your man for people, products, and lifestyle images, Truran admits he's not great at marketing. He does send out holiday cards and email bursts, because he knows he's supposed to, not because he's sure it's working. With that, he thinks he makes up for what he lacks in creative marketing by selling what he knows best: himself.
"Nobody likes working with a jerk," Truran says. "I figure the average commercial photographer has an average lifespan of 20 years, after which new trends and new people, people you don't know, start to push you out. I may not have the best ideas about mailing postcards to promote myself, but I remember when, at age 25, I grew a moustache to keep myself from looking too young, to get my personality on potential clients' doorsteps. Twenty-eight years later, I still know that I have one single thing I can offer to clients that no one else can: me."
Truran, who also teaches commercial photography, offers lessons learned for aspiring commercial photographers.
"As far as keeping your business profitable, the best advice I can offer is learn from my mistakes," he says. "For instance, I felt I'd be taken seriously if I had a shingle out, so for 11 years, it cost me $400 a day just to put the key in the lock in my New York City studio and open up. It was an ego thing, and it was running me out of business. Since then, I've moved my studio to my home, and I just rent studios in New York City and New Jersey when I need to. So now it usually costs me around the same $400 a day only when I need it—and that's billable to the client. I can keep my Manhattan clients, without my Manhattan overhead."