Photography for tech startups

Tech startup photography

By David Mytton,
CEO & Founder of Server Density.

Published on the 17th September, 2014.

After having released the new homepage for our server monitoring tool, I thought it’d be a nice idea to share the creative decisions we made, with a focus on photography. It’s not a particularly new idea for a tech company to invest in design, but it is unusual for photography – especially considering we only had a small budget. With that in mind (and a homepage in the balance), we needed to get it right the first time around.

Why photography?

As well as being a great way to digest content (a million words and all that jazz), photography is the number one way to sell a product online. If you take a look at Amazon, Apple or even Google Glass, the way they convince you to hand over your credit card details is with pictures. Text reinforces the boring bits that you need to know, but images sell the products.

Now if you transfer this to the startup scene, although companies are starting sell their software in the setting of how it will be consumed – they tend to be the big ones with endless marketing budgets. Couple the cost with the fact that a software company has nothing tangible to photograph and you start to realise why few startup marketers ‘expose’ themselves to the alien world of photography and art direction.

Despite the obvious difficulties we faced, we wanted to use photos because they’re a great way to link our product to real life, and the many ways in which our customers use our product. Instead of using screenshots to reinforce that message, setting the screenshots within a context that the visitor might be familiar with is a much better way of communicating the benefits of using Server Density. A whole lot more information gets transferred, not to mention they’d look nice… Hopefully!

As it was my first ever time being ‘creative director’ of a photo shoot, it was a nervous time. There was a lot of money riding on the photos, and let’s be honest the success / failure of our redesign. Here’s a few of the major stumbling blocks I came across, alongside how I alleviated them as problems.

The cost

The major downside of focussing designs on beautiful photos is that you first have to take those photos. Unless one of your team is also a still life photographer with 5+ years of experience, you’ll be paying a pretty penny for it. Or you’ll be getting some pretty amateur looking photographs. So first you have to find a great photographer, for a reasonable price.

Enter awesome photographer

This part was rather difficult in my head, but quite simple in practice. As we’re based in London, we needed to find someone local to us. I therefore trawled online for a few hours to find a selection of good photographers. After having a better look through portfolios we ended up with our favourite who I contacted. They key things that came out of our multiple phone conversations were:

  • We needed a relaxed photographer who could roll with the punches.
  • We needed them to bring both indoor and outdoor equipment.

Plan meticulously.

So the idea here is to plan every detail before the photographer comes. All they should then have to do is spend an hour sorting the lighting out and then a few clicks on the camera. In our case and a lot of others in the startup world, our photographs need text to be overlaid on to the images. With that in mind, I gave our photographer a visual reference of how the headings / navigation / call to action would be formatted so he understood the distribution of whitespace that was needed.

Startup photo - whitespace

That was an important step done, because these images need to fit around the content, not the other way round.

Storyboard the photographs

With that complete, it became about storyboarding. This provided the photographer and our team an action plan for the afternoon and a guide for us to use as a reference throughout the day. We stuck to it meticulously:

startup storyboards

Scout the locations

We made sure that we visited each of the locations prior to the day, and that they were suitable for the photograph that we wanted. The two processes weren’t mutually exclusive, and the ideas from the storyboards derived from what we felt was possible. We needed to plan and capture 3 photos that fit our timeframe, which meant they all needed to be located close to our office in Chiswick, London.

Here we are in the park the day before the shoot, picking the best location:

location-scouting-startup

The photographs

We wanted to capture three distinct use cases. Monitoring dashboards displayed on a screen in an office; diagnosing / fixing infrastructure problems at a desk; and getting a monitoring alert on the go.

Looking at these uses of Server Density as: Passive, active and reactive helped with creating a suitable environment for them to be shot in.

Server Monitoring Dashboard

This photo was about showing off how you can use Server Density in your office environment, for this one we wanted to create a hipster feel with an interior brick wall that gave the impression of creative as opposed to clinical. We found a white brick wall that (until a few weeks previous when the roof had been knocked off) had been an interior wall. Here is how it looked to any passers by:

Behind the scenes dashboard

Server Monitoring Graphs

The graphing photograph was about showing Server Density off in a more clinical environment of getting the problem fixed. We did this in our office, where we had all the appropriate equipment. We found a nice wall, moved the office around for a few hours and generally caused chaos in an otherwise rather peaceful working environment.

Oh and I almost forgot about the pièce de résistance – The Deathstar! The end result of this was also a hat-tip to our friends at New Relic, who used a similar homepage image a while ago. Of course, we added our own local touches like coffee from our local shop and our custom dot notebooks.

Server monitoring graphs

Server Monitoring Alerts

Finally it was important to show how you might receive an alert in your day to day life as a devops practitioner or sysadmin. There’s no better change of scenery than a park and we’re lucky enough to have an office a minutes walking distance from greenery.

We also wanted to see the underground in the distance as a reference to London, and to emphasise that you’re away from the hustle and bustle, but still able to stay in control, and on top of your infrastructure.

Monitoring Alerts behind the scenes

A little bit of luck

I consider ourselves pretty fortunate (or maybe it was good judgement) to have ended up with the photographer we did. He was incredibly knowledgeable, shared our vision and was more than happy to problem solve along the way. I think this was the real make or break factor of this project.

We were also lucky in the sense that we didn’t get rain on the day, which was important considering two of our photographs were taken outside. We did however capitalise on this opportunity by timing our shoot correctly. For example, we spent the early afternoon getting the park shot done in the clear daylight; we then completed the office shot which was the easiest; and then had enough time to finish the dashboard shot as the sun was going down. You might be able to see from the previous image, the shadows on the walls would have been a problem any earlier in the day.

The editing

Now I don’t want to destroy the smoke and mirrors that we’ve so eloquently created, but our photos did have to be edited. Particularly the dashboard shot which:

  1. Wasn’t shot inside
  2. Wasn’t mounted on the wall
  3. Didn’t have a lightbulb hanging

Also naturally all of the screenshots were added in at the end of the process so that we can update them going forward as our interface gets tweaked.

The big unveil

In the interest of keeping the page load of this blog post less obscene than it already is, then you can take a look at the final images on our updated homepage.

The legal side

Interestingly we hit a little bit of a stumbling block at the final stage when signing off the pictures. Contrary to what I thought, it isn’t standard for you to own the full copyright of the images once they have been completed. The photographer usually licenses them out to you for an arranged timeframe and predefined use.

Naively this is something that should have been sorted out with our photographer prior to commissioning the photographs, terms of use and length of license should be talked through more formally than we did. However, thankfully our photographer was one of those good old fashioned English gents to which a handshake was as good as a signature, so all was fine in the end and we completed the contract after having completed the photos.

After our 10 year license runs out, we’ll have to talk to him about renewing on separate terms / perhaps redoing the pictures. Goodness knows how big the iPhone will be in 2024!

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