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Michael Meadows Creative has been in business for over 18 years, providing our clients with on-target creative messages that set them apart from their competition. Contact us if you want that next big idea to be for you.

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Tuesday
Jul302013

When should you use an illustration and when should you use a photograph?

Back in the early days of advertising, there was never a question of whether you should use a photo or an illustration. You had one choice, and that was illustration. In particular, a line illustration. Photos didn’t come into the picture for mass communications until the advent of the photo halftone, invented in the early 1850’s. Halftones could also be used for illustrations, and in fact the earliest halftones combined both line art in an intaglio process and the dot matrix of the halftone. This is the photo of Steinway Hall on East 14th Street, between University Place and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It’s the first halftone print of a photo used in a periodical in the United States, and ran in December, 1873. 

But today, we don’t have the technical problems of times past. In fact, you don’t even have to convert your photo or illustration to a halftone dot matrix any more to get that message out there. TV and online communications are quickly making print a minor (but still necessary) player in the modern world of mass communications. But the question posed by the headline is still pertinent. Do you use an illustration or do you use a photograph? Through much experience in trial and error, I’ve come up with a maxim that I employ when determining what to use—photo or illustration. This is what I ask myself: is it absolutely critical that you want your viewer to believe this is the actual product, person or place? That there is absolutely no doubt that this is 100% real? Then use a photograph. But if you want the viewer to understand an abstract concept that can’t be easily produced photographically, to convey a sense of whimsey, fantasy or a certain age group like small children, or to give a sense of a period style, then you would use an illustration. It’s as simple as that. 

There will always be grey areas where the decision to use a photo or an illustration is not easy to determine, but for the most part, this exercise has held me in good stead throughout my career. 

As technology advances, the lines between photography and illustration are going to blur more and more. A prime example of this is the depressing movie “A Scanner Darkly” based on a Phillip K. Dick story. The entire film was converted from filmed images (which we all know is just a whole bunch of photos strung together to give the illusion of movement) to illustrations—one frame at a time. I think I would have gone insane if I had to do that. The illustrative technique was flat colors that looked like illustrations made in Adobe Illustrator, but I’m sure that eventually they’ll develop a technique where you can convert a film into a Van Gogh or Rembrandt style. Now that could be pretty interesting. Imagine the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” produced as a continuous Van Gogh painting. Crazy!

Reader Comments (1)

I agree with the original idea about the reality principle. Why illustrate if a photo works.Illustration should be something that could not be accomplished in a photo, but over the years I realize that sometimes the mood that is created by an illustration, even realistic, has a different quality. But as you said the distinction is getting very blurred now that artist are using tools like PhotoShop to do what we used to do by hand.
(A Scanner Darkly was so sad - art wise).

August 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStan Dark
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