Commercial Photography, a case study “The Blood Donor”


Writing a blog on a regular basis can be difficult if, like a photographer, your work flow is not always constant. Like buses jobs come along in groups so you always end up working like a Trojan for several weeks and then your head comes up and you surface looking around for what is next?

So, you can probably guess this is the period of what’s next, I’ve just finished a run of  event photography and commercial photography that has been demanding. I’d wanted a week or so ago to write up my experiences on a job in Leicester but work had got in the way.

I’m very lucky in having won a contract for photography some years ago for part of the NHS supplying images for the Blood and Transplant division. I must have been doing something right because after a 3 year contract had been extended to 5 years when the contracts were tendered for a second time I won again.

You can imagine after some 9 years now of having supplied the organisation I have quite a bit of experience at their type of photographic needs and requirements. In fact having previously worked for the Department of Health, before all photography was issued via contracts, I had experience in everything from Medical photography, like filming open heart surgery to Health Ministers promotional images and work both in health issues in hospitals and in the community.

The job in Leicester the other week was at the University, a blood donor session primarily for students but of course all comers were welcome.

Trying to take pictures to suit a subject like blood donation suitable for promotional purposes is quite a challenge. Firstly no needles can be shown as this can deter prospective new donors.

Secondly the images have to portray a light and pleasurable experience in donating therefore I have to achieve images of donors relaxed, smiling if possible while in discussion with the donor carer or involved in an activity like reading or using a mobile while donating to illustrate the relaxed nature and lack of pain the process causes.

Thirdly, in the ideal picture, there should be no background detail, a clean image of just the subject matter. The last of the three is the one element I have little control over as a donor session can be set up in a church hall or dark wood panelled classical style university meeting hall as in this case.


Blood donor venue
A dark panelled room not ideal as a background, but plenty of space.


As you can imagine those are the basic rules I have to work with in but then there are also marketing guidelines, the framing and artistic preferences of the marketing department. These sort of guidelines are a bonus to a photographer because when you know what a client doesn’t want artistically then you are halfway there to working only on images that the client will want.

Should you ever find yourself with a job to do at Leicester University please take my advice, 1) Don’t take a car, there is no parking within half a mile 2) Don’t take a boot full of location photography equipment!

Luckily I always travel with a heavy duty trolley and years of experience makes the muscles toned to drag it loaded with kit much greater distances. Another piece of advice I can offer is never ask a student for directions unless it’s for the students bar as no one will have any idea of a buildings name or location unless they actually drink there!

I arrived in good time to park up and walk the walk and find the hidden location and was greeted with surprise as no one had told the team I was coming. This is always a shame as information not getting passed down the chain of command can lead to resentment from people who actually have to do the work and any interference with their normal schedule or procedure can be upsetting.

Luckily this wasn’t the first time I’ve had to do with a situation like this and since I’d arrived before my contact or the local area manager I could spend time befriending staff and trying to put their minds at rest that no one unwilling to participate in the pictures had to do so.

Commercial photography of this nature is more akin to event photography as the photographer cannot ask for a retake of the action or control the process that is the subject of the shots.

Although the location was not perfect, the dark wood panelled walls were soaking the light out of the room there was at least enough space to move round the donor tables to get the best angle of donor and carer interacting.

Because we as photographers have to interact with people to get their cooperation, or help calm a nervous portrait sitter one of the most underrated skills of a photographer is that of understanding people. Unless you are going to specialise in studio pack shot photography you must become proficient in putting people at their ease and that means while you are calculating the mechanics of setting a correct exposure, depth of field and framing of a subject, the artistic use of the available light or where you might be adding your own lighting you also have to be carrying on a conversation showing interest in the subject (And they say men can’t multi-task?).


doner nurse at work
With a clean white background or neutral colour this picture would have been much stronger. Not impossible with todays technology.



Something comes over me in these sort of situations, I think I go into what best can only be described as showman mode. I approach the subjects with not just a polite request for their assistance and the winning smile but also appeal to their better nature to assist a poor photographer who can’t do his job without their generous help. Utilising the nature of the good cause the pictures will be put to!

Positive actions produce positive results and by the time my contacts joined me I had not only identified the most likely carers to get the best shots, outward, relaxed type characters but had also secured a line of donors happy to oblige.

In these situations not every subject and carer combination result in good pictures as again I’m dependent on getting the two of them to interact and as you know not every person you meet in a day will necessarily be one you can bond with. So my job is to identify which combinations of carers and donors are going to work for an image and move on quickly to others if it isn’t happening. Of course sometimes my presence with a camera can either stimulate a better reaction between subjects and at others the complete opposite.

Doing several hours of this sort of photography is actually quite tiring as not only is it quite physical continually moving to get the best angles but the intense concentration of looking for “The Moment” to hit the button can be mentally quite tiring too.

The students were very cooperative  and gave us many opportunities to capture not just the interaction shots but also some of the more relevant shots of today, those using their phones or I-pads while donating.


relaxing donor
Correct camera angle obscures the needle and shallow depth of field helps concentrate the eye to the subject.


An interesting aspect I did note however was a higher rate of donors feeling faint than I usually see. Normally in a session of 4-5 hours I might see one person during the whole time feel a little faint after donating. Perhaps they hadn’t drank enough water prior to donating or had been tired or stressed but this session I saw 3-4 in a similar time frame.

When I asked the senior nurse there she said it was normal for a younger age group like students to be like this because of a combination of factors 1) nutritionally they may be less balanced than older people eating a higher proportion of junk food and 2) More vivid imaginations at younger ages can cause more problems. Logically both these points made sense when I thought about it.

By the late afternoon our work was completed and I left the donor team to get back to their usual routines and a long evening session ahead of them. I headed back with my loaded trolley to a welcomingly comfortable seat in my car to while away the several hours of motorway driving ahead of me. Thank you radio for and a means to play my own music to while away the hours!


If you have ever had a thought to give blood, do it! It doesn’t hurt and it doesn’t take much time. The benefits apart from helping someone else is it’s also good for your self-esteem.


Brian Russell

Copyright 2013.