What film photography has taught me about the fundamentals of advertising

Joanna Barnett, Strategy Director at Truant shares how photography has helped broaden her perspective

Joanna Barnett

Strategy Director Truant


Culture is at the crux of creativity. Yet all too often as an industry, culture is not treated as a tangible input. If creativity is a muscle, then you need to exercise that muscle every day. With that in mind, BITE is asking industry leaders to share the experiences which have positively impacted their creative outlook and how they have influenced their work. Joanna Barnett, Strategy Director at Truant shares how photography has broadened her perspective and reminded her of some of the fundamentals of advertising.


Photography’s ability to capture and immortalise fleeting moments has fascinated me since my GCSE art teacher introduced me to the medium. The unique appeal of film photography in particular - the magic of never quite knowing how a photo will turn out, the consideration that goes into each and every shot, and the array of creative opportunities that working with negatives can offer - led me to spend many an hour inhaling toxic fumes developing my own photos. Alas, the arrival of iPhones and the appeal of new (often alcohol-centric) activities at university meant my film photography hobby somewhat fell away after the age of 18.

So when I won an eBay bid for a Canon AE-1 I was excited to get stuck back into film photography. But I hadn’t expected my rediscovered hobby to act as such a refresher on the fundamentals of advertising.

Stories don’t just capture our attention. They keep us engaged, and they stick with us afterwards. All the ingredients for an effective ad - and an impactful photo.

Joanna Barnett, Strategy Director at Truant

If you want to engage your audience, tell them a story

Storytelling is key in creating impactful photos and can take several forms: a photo essay which lays out a story scene-by-scene, a single shot with enough detail to convey what exactly is happening, or – my favourite – the photos whose power lies in what they don’t include, leaving the viewer to imagine what was going on behind the shot. Photos that tell a story connect with us because they make us feel something - the same reason why ads that utilise storytelling are so effective. In ‘The Long and the Short of It’, Binet and Field conclude that emotional advertising is twice as efficient as rational, and delivers twice the profit. Stories don’t just capture our attention. They keep us engaged, and they stick with us afterwards. All the ingredients for an effective ad - and an impactful photo.

Perspective is everything

I often encourage myself to take a snap of something then move and take a shot from a different angle. After all, what looks like something from here will look very different to someone over there. This is practically the planner’s #1 golden rule, and yet something we all too often forget. “I just don’t think that line would make me want to buy it” must be one of the most frequently uttered sentences in every creative review. But what about Janet, the Brexit-supporting pensioner from Hartlepool? Can you walk out of your shoes for a moment and try and see things from her perspective instead? The view might be very different…

Detail is irrelevant if we can’t capture attention

On an early trip to South Bank with my camera, my eye was drawn to the big, impressive things - half the roll was dedicated to the London Eye. In fact, it took a Covid-induced stint of isolation, stuck with little more than Netflix and my camera for entertainment, to force me to find interest in the details that, in a busy and distracting world would never normally capture my attention. The detail of my mirror frame, the way the sunlight hit my bedsheets in the morning, the framing of the London skyline through my balcony doors.

Sadly, we don’t have the luxury of locking consumers in their bedrooms. This means as brands we need to be disruptive to cut through the noise and actually get noticed. There’s no use having a full body of copy detailing all the benefits of the product if there’s nothing to attract their attention to the ad in the first place. We need to be the London Eye to their Southbank.

Rules are there to be broken

There are several common rules for photography – ‘the rule of thirds’, correct exposure, capturing your subject in sharp focus. But as much as I adhere to these rules, I also encourage myself to break them - as many of the most iconic photographers of our time have successfully done.

The same can be said for advertising. A quick Google search will offer thousands of articles on the ‘golden rules of advertising’ – branding within the first 3 seconds, differentiate from the competition, include a call to action. But there are countless examples of successful ads that buck all the rules. Cadbury’s Gorilla anyone? Because the truth is whilst those ‘rules’ can be useful guidelines, they should be regarded as nothing more sacred than that.

Put an original twist on something unoriginal

Sure, I might be taking a photo of something that’s been captured thousands of times before. But I’ll always ask myself how I can put a unique spin on it. Maybe it’s the angles, the position of the sun or the clouds, or focusing on a specific feature. It’s the same in advertising. We’re so obsessed with finding something original – be it a ‘USP’ or a never-thought-of-before insight - that we often ignore a great idea that’s in plain sight. Maybe the insight is unoriginal or the product is undifferentiated, but, as Byron Sharp teaches us, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a distinctive piece of work. The message or subject might be unoriginal, but can you land it in an original way? After all, it’s not always what you say, it can be the way you say it.

Don’t be afraid to edit to fit your vision

You know when you’ve got a great end product in mind, but you’re not quite sure how to get there? In photography, it’s called photo editing. In advertising, it’s post-rationalisation. Purists in both fields like to respect the process – which means no tampering with the photo in photography and no post-creative manipulation of the strategy in advertising. My advice? Fuck the purists! If the objective is to achieve the most engaging end result then who is to dictate what the process should be to get there? If the ad works, does it really matter what the strategy was that got it there?

Guest Author

Joanna Barnett

Strategy Director Truant


Strategy Director with an obsession for understanding why people behave the way they do, then using that understanding to help businesses develop effective brand and comms strategies. Joanna uses her creative streak and logical mind, paired with an innate sense of curiosity about people, culture and the world around her, to help clients solve their business problems with innovative and creative solutions. With nearly 8 years of experience, key clients include HSBC, Nestlé, Diageo and Heineken. Most notably, Joanna worked on South Western Railway for the past 2.5 years, leading the strategy for their most effective brand campaign to date.

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