We all carry cameras now, so accidental photographic genius is everywhere. For photography-based creative such as NAB’s annual agribusiness calendar, however – in which photos must tell a story – the approach is a long way from ‘point and click’.

Six Black Pens Art Director Ollie Towning shares his insight on what it takes to capture Australia’s most successful agribusinesses through photography, the craft of telling a story through visual perspectives and how even the most careful plans can come undone – with fabulous results.

Slow shutter on planning

In November 2018, Six Black Pens produced NAB’s flagship agribusiness piece – the NAB Agribusiness Calendar – a rich, visual feast, crammed with stunning photography and stories of 13 Australian agribusinesses.

According to Ollie, the secret’s in the planning, which takes about seven months.

“We begin the planning process in May for a launch in late November,” he explains.

The 2019 calendar has a theme of ‘growth through innovation’.

“We start with one-on-one in-depth interviews with each of the businesses, which are then expertly crafted into stories by our in-house editorial team. These form the backbone of the individual customer photography briefs, which include quite an extensive ‘ideal shot’ list. We then sit down with our clients and photographer and run through the list, which has some flex because you never know what might happen on the actual shoot day.

“The photography itself takes about a month, travelling from property to property.”

Big picture to zoom lens

The striking 2019 cover shot of Pardoo Beef is an aerial shot of beautiful green grass lined with veins of red earth and dotted with black Wagyu cattle as small as crows. The animals gather on a large red disc, sliced by a long, white irrigation pivot.

“Using the drone camera is a new approach for us and a key element of this piece,” Ollie says. “You see the world of agri from a different perspective up there and we wanted to really capture these epic landscapes; we wanted to demonstrate the symmetry involved in agriculture.

“Most people living and working in cities have no idea of the scale.

“The cover image for this year’s calendar is a top-down of the cows in the paddock, showing how Pardoo Beef is growing beef on a large scale and also how, through irrigation innovation, the red desert has been transformed into lush green grass.”

“It’s an unfolding story for the viewer,” Ollie adds. “On the back cover we selected a close-up shot of the cows. You can see the shine on their noses, the detail in their fur and the tags in their ears.

“It shows the quality of the product and it contrasts with the macro view of the property, so the viewer enjoys the whole spectrum of images – seeing the business from every angle.”

Magic in the unexpected

Unexpected events on shoot day can sometimes lead to the most beautiful shots. For EP Seafoods mussel producers, the January story was taken on a fishing vessel off the Eyre Peninsula. The team wanted to shoot the innovation, which was a long-line mussel harvesting method, in relation to the boat. All was well until the weather turned up.

“EP Seafoods was our first shoot day and a storm blew in,” Ollie says. “We were on an adjacent boat and the boats were rocking so it was a challenge trying to get the right angle.

“We were also operating a drone that we had to launch and land on the boat itself.

“In the end we got some great aerial shots of the boat and the rain lent great texture to the water, with flashes of white. It’s another angle most people would never have seen – a seagull’s eye view of a working fishing boat.”

The result was a very real depiction of the mussel production process end to end.

“You’re trying to tell the story of EP Seafoods loosely, in just a few photos,” he explains, “from long-line mussel harvesting to hauling the stock on-board the vessel, the quality of the product via close up and the post-harvesting factory process. There’s a lovely perspective to all of that, from the open ocean to the shine of the mussel shell in the producer’s hands.”

Full blossom, no filter

“Seasons are key in agribusiness, so our photography planning has to take that into account,” Ollie adds. “We’ll often shift a shoot day to align with an orchard or crop bloom, or a harvest day.”

Costi Farms macadamias photo shoot, the March feature, was moved from late winter to early spring, in order to capture the macadamia trees in full blossom. The resultant long tendrils of white flowers hanging in clusters from rows of rich green trees is spectacular.

Capturing a texture

For United Wool, the April feature, the challenge was capturing the tactility of a product worn by consumers around the world.

“Throughout the calendar we want to mix up the photography,” Ollie says. “United Wool was an example of capturing the product in various stages of production and then capturing the feeling of the product. We chose a close-up of the producer’s hands pulling apart the fine white fibres. It’s a very soft and very tactile image.”

Creative contrast

Diversity in the palette and textures is a tool of the craft, to create interest throughout the piece. August shows a dramatic black textured background that, on closer inspection, is organic soil lined with parallel tractor tyre patterns, accented with a bright green tractor.

“Creese North East was another example of the shoot day giving us a great opportunity, as the tractors were out grooming the soil ready for turf seed planting. The effect of the drone shot is stunning – the grey patterned lines look like roads in the earth.”

Faces behind the farms

“It’s hugely important to capture the people,” Ollie says. “They work on these farms or boats and it puts it all into perspective, I think – showing the human side to these businesses and their everyday life.

“NAB’s brand is very human so we make sure we capture them,” he adds. “They’re often family businesses, handed down from generations, so showing them is part of telling the story.”

A word on the team

“We’re all perfectionists on the team, from the design team to the editorial team and account services. Our photographer is never satisfied with his work, even though it’s amazing.

“We push ourselves hard, because we’re proud of what we do and we never stop communicating with each other, and the client, to bring a great result across the line.

“With agribusiness, though, the challenge is that you don’t have any control of what the animals are going to do, or the weather. Sometimes you have to roll with the punches and often the result is even better than expected.”

Tarnee Jacobson

© Six Black Pens 2019