Interview with Art Buyer, Heather Morton

Heather Morton is a Toronto-based freelance art buyer and photography consultant. She was a photo producer for 10 years and worked with some of Canada’s largest ad agencies. Her blog at, has lots of great content on it, including her popular “Ask an Art Buyer” series.

I recently had a chance to ask Heather a few questions about art buying and her thoughts on portfolios.

For students and those who may be new to the field, what is an art buyer?

Art Buying refers to the act of securing still imagery for Commercial use. In a nutshell, I help advertising agencies and design firms find the right photographer or illustrator for their concept and manage the process of producing that image.

The Art Buyer fulfills two important but different functions. On one hand, it is a creative role- collaborating with the Creative Team to source the right creative supplier takes a keen interpretive eye combined with a comprehensive knowledge of current photography and illustration trends and styles. In a completely different way, an Art Buyer is also a Project Manager. It is my responsibility to negotiate a fair price for the photograph or illustration and ensure that the budget is adhered to throughout the process. As well, proper rights and clearances needed to be secured and managed. The Art Buyer also manages all areas of photography production from the agency side. This means establishing a workback, trafficking approvals of all production elements (location, talent etc.) between photographer and Art Director, running a pre-pro meeting, and troubleshooting any concerns that may arise at the shoot or during production.

I know there is some healthy debate out there on this issue of “going sleeveless”. What do you think is at the core of this debate and what are your thoughts on it?

I think photographers are keen on the ease of use that plastic sleeves offer- if the book needs to be updated or tailored to a client’s specific requests, its as easy as pulling one image out and inserting another. Although I’m not completely up to speed on portfolio page suppliers, I think that there are other options that give the photographers the same flexibility. I’ve seen books that use matte paper, with adhesive hinges that can go in and out of a book shell- in my mind, this is just as easy for the photographer and much better for the viewer.

Another big topic out there revolves around the issue of online portfolios verses portfolio books. What are your thoughts on this and the importance of both or one verses the other? What kind of portfolio do you think is crucial for someone who’s a student or new to the field?

I think it’s important for shooters to have both a physical book and an on-line presence. Although books aren’t as crucial as they used to be to show your work, it’s still important to be able to show your own edit of your book- ideally beautifully designed, printed and presented. The two outlets can complement each other- the book should be very selective whereas the website can showcase a lot more of your work, can spin off to microsites or to blogs, can include archive and personal project sections.

In terms of someone starting out, I think there are options that are inexpensive and easy- it’s not about blowing the bank or making a huge investment in a multi-faceted brand identity right out of the gate. But it is important to have both streams going at once.

As an art buyer, you see so many portfolios on a regular basis, both in print and digital form. What do you think distinguishes the very best?

For the site: simplicity of design and use. I can’t overemphasize the importance of this. Ideally your design would be unique but very simple. Occasionally I go to sites that are too clever- it takes me a minute to find the thumbnails, things are always scrolling- this can be immensely frustrating and time-consuming, especially when I’m casting around through dozens of sites looking for something to match my layout.

Print wise, I think the most important thing is that your images look good- nice paper, no obscuring glare bouncing off the plastic sleeves. Also, I am a firm believer that you should show what you WANT to shoot not what you CAN shoot. I love to be hooked by inspirational, passionate, unique images. Also, I like a page or two of thumbnails in the back of the book to show how others have used your style. The main part of the book should be saved for your best, aspirational work- 15 to 20 images is a nice number.

And finally, I think one of the biggest questions right now is – for photographers struggling to make ends meet, what advice do you have for finding work out there?

I think it’s a really tough time to be a photographer- there is a ton of competition and the camera technology and media outlets for your work is changing so fast. The most successful photographers will be able to develop a unique and well-applicable style that they are also able to mold and bend as demand change. But, this must be coupled with a collaborative, hard-working attitude. I think that the personal connection will also be increasingly important in the future which is where blogs, twitter, FB etc. can be fantastic tools over the long term.

In the short term, I don’t think most agencies are sure what to make of much of the new technology. Photographers who can offer solutions and new products to their clients, who help them understand how the technology can help them deliver a convergent message, will be able to establish important partnerships. I think this notion of creative collaboration will make up the most exciting opportunities for photographers.

Questions or Comments? What do you think?

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