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An Interview with Dharmendra Patel, professional photographer

In this interview, Dharmendra, a photographer, shares his passion for photography, his process, and the online tools he uses.

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9 minutes

    By James

    James has seven years' experience as a Content Marketer, bylines on Left Foot Forward, Submittable, and INOMICS, and a Master's in History. In his free time he likes to read, play guitar, and write for his personal blog.

    Dharmendra, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview today. We at Mailbutler are curious to find out more about you and your life.

    Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in photography?

    My father bought his first camera in 1976 - a used Yashica Electro 35 which he bought for £30.00. I remember the first time I put the camera's viewfinder up to my eye, I was in awe: The sound of the mirror opening and closing; the feel of the lever to wind the film forward; it was all was amazing. It captured my imagination. That’s one of the moments that started my love of photography.

    We did photography as an elective at school. We used to visit the local polytechnic to use their darkroom to learn how to develop film. It’s a fantastic process. It also gives you an appreciation of how old-school photographers learned their craft.

    Over the years, the camera has enabled me to focus my mind and communicate. I’ve been a photographer for 30 years. I’ve been a professional photographer for 15 of those years. Around 2009 I saw some images online from a female photographer. She had photographed DJs in their home environments using off-camera flash. These images blew me away. That’s when I decided I needed to learn more about lighting. I contacted the photographer and found out what lighting she used. I went out and bought a lighting kit. I started to learn the craft of lighting.

    How did you get started in product photography, and what drew you to this particular niche?

    As with a lot of things in life, it was accidental. A commission came up to photograph a collection of Indian weapons and armor - not just any collection, but one of the largest private collections in the world. Some of the pieces dated back to the 14th century. They comprised swords, guns, shields, armor and more.

    Photo by © Dharmendra Patel

    Photo by © Dharmendra Patel

    The initial brief was for documentary photography. This would allow the client to catalogue their collection. It then changed very early on in the project. They wanted a book of their collection put together and published. The project is the longest I’ve worked on. It was a part-time project due to the client's other commitments. The project started in 2013 and the book, The Hindu Warrior, was finally published in 2021.

    The learning curve was steep as I’d only shot a few products at this point. I was shooting at the client’s premises with limited space and the client was present at the shoot. The challenge helped move me in the right direction. This development of my skills coincided with the boom in e-commerce photography.

    That’s where it all started: Photographing beautifully crafted artifacts.

    What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a product photographer, and how do you overcome them?

    Some of the biggest challenges that we face are not unique to product photography. The biggest one is uncertainty about the future. The pandemic is a great example of this. Our clients primarily source their products from China. They were the first ones to shut down production. Almost overnight, the stream of products stopped. It’s taken some time to recover, but we’re getting there.

    Now, there’s inflation and the economic downturn, in part, due to Brexit. People and companies are tightening their belts. There’s very little that one can do except diversify and continue. To ensure our growth, we’re expanding our service offering into product video production.

    What role do you think product photography plays in the success of a business, and how do you measure the impact of your work?

    Product photography is one cog in the wheel of the success of a business. It needs to be combined with advertising and marketing to have an impact. I've seen products on e-commerce sites that have steep consistent sales, and the photography is mediocre at best. I’ve also seen the reverse with amazing images. Having said that, great images do help, especially in a competitive environment. They set the bar.

    When a client approaches us, we find out their requirements and their products’ USP.  We then develop a shoot list for the client.  This includes both photography and infographics. These images help to get information across to our clients’ customers.

    Example of product photo by Dharmendra Patel

    Example of product photo by Dharmendra Patel

    We measure the impact of our work by gauging the clients’ responses to the final set of images and asking ourselves, "did they get what they wanted and needed?".

    To measure the impact of our work we rely on three things: The production of high-quality images, the consistency within those images, and open and effective communication with the client.

    For us, the production of product photos are usually the final stage in allowing the client to get their product seen online. For the client, it's also the first stage in kick-starting their product sales - when combined with the correct mix of advertising and marketing.

    Can you talk about any particularly challenging or rewarding projects you have worked on in the past, and what you learned from those experiences?

    The Couch Stories project was both challenging and rewarding. I developed the concept around 2011, to allow me to learn about lighting on location. The project was about capturing images of people in their home environment, sitting on their couch. I’ve always been fascinated by other people's spaces. I wanted to tell the story of the person in that single frame. This was a snapshot of their lives.

    Couch stories photo by Dharmendra Patel

    Couch stories photo by © Dharmendra Patel

    That’s where the lighting came in. I could control what was seen and what wasn’t. I also asked them two things: If they wanted an object that represented them in the image, and if they could have anyone on the couch from the past or present, who would it be. I have a fondness for paintings by old masters, especially the Chiaroscuro painting style - the extensive use of light and shadow. Rembrandt's The Night Watch is a great example of this.

    I’d practised the setups with people I knew, but now it was more of a freestyle. I also had a limited amount of time and varying sizes of space. The challenge helped me to focus. I was nervous before I got on location. Once I was in and started setting up, I was fine. At the beginning of the project, I was hesitant of asking things of people, some of whom I barely knew. By the end of the project, I had built a lot of confidence and interpersonal skills that would help me in future work and projects.

    How do you stay current with trends and new techniques in product photography, and what resources do you rely on for inspiration and education?

    We live in a time where among other things, news agencies and social media give us information that allows us to stay on top of trends. Targeted marketing with personal news feeds funnels information that sources deem relevant to us. There are also a vast number of online educational resources. These allow me to continue my personal and professional development. When I need inspiration, I go online. I look at creative work. This includes photography and videography.

    As technology and software improve, new techniques in our workflow are created. The efficiency gains in updating hardware and software can sometimes be beneficial.  We often review whether these are necessary and what the costs and benefits are of making these changes.

    People who develop digital skills by themselves mainly do so in an arbitrary manner and on a need-to-know basis. There is a lot of information available online that helps us to develop our skills, enhance our efficiency and fill gaps in our knowledge. The main resource that I use is YouTube to help me achieve this. People do things in different ways and I’m always open to improvement.

    How do you approach working with clients, and what steps do you take to ensure that their needs and expectations are met?

    Our primary goal in working with clients is relationship building. We want to develop long-term relationships with them. We want to ensure they go away happy and hopefully return. We provide a high-quality service with open and effective communications. We want our clients to feel that they are getting a seamless service.

    We listen to what they say and to what they don’t. We provide a holistic service. We understand the e-commerce sector. We work with consultants who understand it too. That’s why we’re able to guide them so well and ensure that their expectations are met.

    What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career in product photography?

    There are several areas I would look at:

    • Camera functionality
    • Studio lighting
    • Editing software
    • People

    Once you’re comfortable with cameras, lighting and software, put yourself in situations to help develop your people skills. I did this by working on personal projects and shadowing photographers. There is also a lot of good online video content available to help you learn.

    I’d say, hit the ground running.  If you have the means, learn what you can about lighting and the technical aspects of photography. Keep practicing, use household items, use models and environments to practice on and in. Models also get something out of it: it helps to build their portfolios.

    This will hopefully help develop your experience and communication skills. There are a lot of free resources available online. Don’t get caught up in the latest camera gear. Use the stuff that works. It’s the photographer that makes the image; the camera just helps to make it a little easier.

    online tools you use in your daily life

    What are some online tools you use in your daily life and how do they help you?

    We have a mixed software working environment.  This includes both Windows and macOS, which do work together.  

    The mail client is one of the essential online tools that we use to help us communicate with potential and existing clients. I use extensions in my email client to help add functionality that works for me. Specifically, Mailbutler.

    I also use a calendar app that’s linked to Google Calendar, and the Mailbutler Tasks feature. They help me to plan, organize and execute our projects.

    We work with a lot of large files that we send back and forth, and for that we use both Dropbox and WeTransfer. These are no-hassle services that fit perfectly with our workflow.

    The other frequently used tool is Google Docs. Google Docs is a great online collaboration tool, which works in real-time. With a team that isn’t necessarily on location all the time, it makes for an effective tool for getting things done.

    Your Inbox, Smarter

    Designed for business owners and freelancers using Outlook, Gmail and Apple Mail.

    How Mailbutler improved your email productivity? 

    Mailbutler has helped me to create a workflow. The first work function that I perform in the morning is email. I respond to inquiries and complete desk-based tasks first, before moving on to photography.

    The main features that I use Mailbutler for, not necessarily in order, are:

    • Tasks. I use this frequently to remind myself to do things or follow up on emails. I’ll then get notifications to do so. I sync it with Google Tasks so I can remind myself of things on the go, rather than trying to remember something myself that I will inevitably forget.
    • Smart Send Later. This feature allows me to schedule emails so that they arrive at a time suited to the client. It also means that the email won’t be at the bottom of the pile.
    • Email Signatures. The Signatures features provides professional-looking email signatures which can be customised to suit the look that you want.

    What specific features of Mailbutler do you find most useful for managing your email?

    This is a tough one. Thinking about it, I use Email Tracking the most. It’s the key to effective communication.

    This is how I found Mailbutler. I was looking for a tool that allowed me to find out whether an email had been delivered. We all send emails; however, we don’t always know whether they've been delivered. They may end up in a clients’ junk mail, which means a wasted opportunity. I like to know whether an email has been delivered. This then allows me to follow up, whether an email has been delivered and read or not opened.

    Can you describe a time when Mailbutler helped you complete a task more efficiently?

    Mailbutler has helped me to make my communications more effective and capitalize on potentially missed emails by reminding me to follow up on a message or complete a task. 

    It also allows me to add and share notes. Working in a busy environment and on time-sensitive tasks, we need to be efficient with time. Mailbutler allows me to do this by reminding and prompting me to complete tasks. It's my own personal email assistant.

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