“Authenticity” has long been a buzzword in the marketing and commercial photography industries, but what does it actually look like? Well, according to a survey commissioned by the WordPress hosting company, WP Engine, in 2020, a whopping 82% of Gen Z customers say they trust a brand more if it uses images of real customers in its advertising. In lifestyle photography, realness and relatability are key, as we all want to see ourselves and our loved ones reflected in advertising.

Changing attitudes towards marketing have fundamentally shifted what kinds of photos resonate with brands and sell over time. Today’s customers are adept at spotting staged photos, and they can easily differentiate between genuine and fake “authenticity.” Following a challenging year, we crave something much simpler from the brands we support and the visuals we consume: honesty and trust.

In many cases, that translates visually to small, everyday “micro-moments” and immersive storytelling. In recent years, this realistic, relatable style has emerged as one of the most critical trends in commercial photography and Licensing on 500px, and although it continues to evolve, it shows no signs of slowing down.

This push for authenticity in advertising might be a defining trait of 2020-21, but, of course, it has been a long time coming. As early as 2015, research from Neilson revealed that ads depicting real-life situations resonate the most with customers, as indicated by 44% of 30,000 survey respondents. The finding was consistent across all age groups, as familiar themes, relatable characters, and simple, upbeat storylines, conveyed through striking visuals, proved to be among the most powerful ways to connect with customers.

Interestingly, the Neilson survey also showed that there was no “one-size-fits-all formula” when it comes to relatable marketing images, as it can depend heavily on location and local preferences. In North America, for example, many customers said they prefer humor, while health-themed messaging resonated most in Latin America, and ads focusing on family proved resonant among customers from Africa and the Middle East.

For that reason, we recommend getting creative with your lifestyle photoshoots and seeking inspiration from your community. Look at what your friends and family are posting and sharing. Run a search on 500px or Getty Images, and ask yourself, “Do I see myself in these photos?” Think about subjects and themes that are both universal and unique to you and your location, and remember to stay inclusive: research from Getty Images shows that 80% of people expect brands to be committed to diversity and inclusion on a consistent basis.

Similarly, research from Facebook and YouGov recently found that, during the holiday season, authentic content that shares a brand’s values in its unique voice was almost 20% more important to customers than hearing about the latest deals. Commercial photographers, like all media professionals, should take this principle to heart by shooting what’s familiar, meaningful, and true to them.

Ask friends, families, and couples to model for you; it can also help to ask your models about what they do in their daily lives. Document activities they enjoy in locations they frequent; shoot wide and include the environment for an immersive feel, and then zoom in on the smaller details to create a sense of intimacy. Highlight the ordinary and “everyday” moments we all recognize, and look for candid, unscripted moments. Steer clear of overly “stocky” posing and instead embrace natural, spontaneous expressions.

“Bring your own creativity and personality to what you’re shooting and how you’re shooting it,” the 500px team advises. “Photos that capture the conventional in new and novel ways stand out amongst similarly-themed content. Even if you are someone who does not typically shoot lifestyle content, challenging yourself to become more disciplined in every genre of photography will allow you to further develop your skills.”

That same natural and authentic sensibility that you cultivate on-set can also be enhanced in editing. Post-processing is necessary for almost every shoot, but a light touch goes a long way. “Simple edits like sharpening, contrast, color grading, etc., may be needed to complete a photo but should only be used to maintain a natural look,” the 500px team tells us. “The best edits are the ones you don’t see.”

If you have to remove any branded details or intellectual property issues, such as small logos on clothing or buttons and ports on technological devices, feel free to do so using the clone stamp tool, but make sure it’s not noticeable. Similarly, avoid converting to black and white or sepia or adding filters, as they could significantly limit the commercial potential of your photo. Buyers can always add their own edits, so it makes sense to give them a clean slate to work with. As long as you keep your edits natural, your photos will remain versatile and appeal to a variety of clients.

In a similar vein, avoid heavy retouching of the skin or body. Simple retouching is acceptable, but 500px will not accept images depicting models whose body shapes have been retouched to make them look thinner or larger. This guideline coincides with a French law requiring labels for retouched photos of models, and the banning of retouched body shapes from Getty Images. While retouching of skin is still acceptable, tread lightly and maintain authenticity; skin positivity has been trending in commercial photography for a while now, with prominent models with conditions like vitiligo and acne taking center stage in ad campaigns.

It’s also essential to note that, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have favored brands that offered support, comfort, and hope. Research from PepsiCo and Ipsos, conducted in the spring of 2020, found that empathy has grown among American consumers, with four in five respondents saying empathy has become more important in light of the crisis and even more (86%) agreeing that it’s critical for brands to show empathy.

Of course, this push for more empathetic brand messaging has carried over into the world of commercial photography, and the Getty Images Creative Insights team relates it back to the overall movement for “realness” in advertising. In the last year, buyers have searched for creative ways to visualize our collective human experiences, with a renewed focus on the way we relate to and connect with one another. Many of today’s clients crave photos that highlight strong stories and personal anecdotes over generic scenes and setups.

Lifestyle photoshoots provide the opportunity to express your personality and contribute to the changing culture of advertising, while giving us an inside look at your real life. Be yourself, and it’ll shine through in your pictures. As the team at 500px explains, “Being able to bring your style to different genres of photography, including family and lifestyle, can be a great challenge that helps you further develop your talent as a photographer.”

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