Antonio Cuellar

LUXURY TRAVEL GUIDE – Hotel Photographer Interview

How did you become a hotel photographer?

Early in my career, there was an increased demand for high quality architectural images and I began building a portfolio due to the fact that the real estate market was booming.  Initially I wasn’t particularly interested in architectural and interiors photography, but over time I developed a deeper interest for this type of photography.

Architectural photographers have a unique ability to showcase space and structures; however I was interested in more than that.  I began to focus on mood and lighting and the ability to convey an environment and an atmosphere.

Through this process I developed a unique lighting style that was ideally suited to luxury hotels. It was a style that took full advantage of digital technologies but retained many elements of classic photography.  Improving my lighting techniques became somewhat of an obsession as I strove to produce my vision of the perfect image. Hotels began noticing the results and my career as a hotel photographer began.

How do you capture the essence of a hotel through photography?

As a hotel photographer the most fundamental thing to understand is the type of traveler the hotel is appealing to. I think it is vital to take a different approach when a hotel’s key market base is business travelers as opposed to leisure travelers.

Business hotels tend to be located in an urban setting and the imagery must reflect this. My personal preference is to photograph a business hotel at night to be able to create elegant yet inviting images where clients can envisage coming and relaxing after a long days work. A business traveler’s days are invariably busy, so the evenings are when they will spend most of their time in their hotel. This might be for private relaxation or business entertaining.  This is why I like to focus on areas such as the bar, restaurant, lobby and of course I highlight the sophistication and elegance of the accommodation showcasing at least one type of room. Hotel staff interaction is kept friendly and cordial while guests are showcased elegantly dressed, tidy and professional

I take a very different approach for hotels such as beach resorts that focus on leisure travelers.  Most of the images will be produced during the day focusing on areas such as pools, beaches and perhaps areas where kids enjoy daily activities. Hotel staff are showcased in a much friendlier way and guests are portrayed in very much a casual fashion.

These are very general ideas; construction and hotel location play a very important role in telling a story. When dealing with destination hotels that give guests a taste of their location it is also important to keep this in mind.

The luxury hotel experience in the 21st Century goes beyond offering a comfortable and stylish place to sleep and now includes a whole host of facilities and services from fine dining to fully-equipped spas. Has this altered the landscape for what is required from a hotel photographer ?

There are a growing number of hotels that now offer extensive spa services as increasingly sophisticated travelers expect personal wellness whilst on the road. Hotels generally also market their spas to the local population in addition to hotel guests in order maximize revenues. Therefore, as a hotel photographer, I do find that it is important to capture the essence of health and wellness services offered by hotels especially if those services are very much a part of their identity. Fine dining is also a stabilizing source of revenue. Most luxury hotels have more than one restaurant and they also are marketed locally with a high demand for quality imagery.

What equipment are you currently using?

As a rule of thumb, if there is some equipment out there that improves the quality of my images, I will acquire it without any regard to costs. My wife obviously has a problem with this because we are running out of rooms in the house to accommodate it!

I use Hasselblad medium format cameras and lenses. I also use the latest drone technology for aerial photography when utilizing a Helicopter is simply not feasible. I use continuous lighting as well as strobes with an extensive range of color gels in order to better capture the mood.

As mentioned before I am very much obsessed with the constant improvement of my lighting techniques in order to create the perfect image. I put an inordinate amount of work into my productions until I am 100% satisfied with the results.  Creating images that are evocative of the amazing atmospheres that these hotels have created requires a lot of work on location and in post-production. It became apparent that luxury hotels were the only ones willing to support the extent of the production required in order to create images that accurately portray their hotel and ultimately increase sales.

With an increasing amount of travel that I do, I have really focused on becoming more practical and simplifying the process where I can without affecting the quality. I am increasingly able to produce better quality images in less time and with less gear.

Can you talk us through your typical assignment?

Regardless of the location I tend to have a 3 step approach to most of my jobs. The pre-production stage involves meeting with the clients in order to coordinate logistics and discuss ideas. It also involves a very extensive location scouting in order to determine the best angles and the best time of day for photography. Finally I meet with the stylist to determine what props are needed or allowed by the brand guidelines in order to help accentuate the existing decor.

If these initial steps are completed successfully then my focus during production should be lighting, propping and coordination with talent should models be involved. Because of my unique approach to photography and my commitment to high quality of work, a substantial amount of time is spent in post-production. My style involves several techniques such as light painting, where multiple images are blended together in post- production. My work is really heavily dependent on post-production, however all steps in the process are equally important.

Has your perception of the luxury hotel industry or the hotel industry in general, changed since entering this profession?

My perception has definitely changed. A few years ago you were able to find plenty of independently owned hotels. These slowly disappeared as the big players in the industry, with the rise of the internet, began dominating online bookings. Brand recognition is increasingly important with big franchises acquiring many smaller hotels. This constant acquisition and development by the larger hotels has however, created a problem for travelers looking for something unique. This, in my opinion, is why we have seen a rise of the luxury boutique hotel. The luxury boutique hotel offers the traveler a unique experience.

Bigger brands have recognized this and began exploring this demand for travelers wanting to experience a different culture while traveling.

It is now very common for a luxury brand such as Ritz Carlton to acquire properties that offer something different and reflect the local culture.  This is a very important aspect that must be considered while producing images abroad. It is something that is often overlooked by international hoteliers. In an effort to appear sophisticated, or at least to appeal to their own concept of sophistication, some hotels try to recreate a western feel while located in exotic places. The location is more often than not one of the biggest attractions for a destination hotel and it should be embraced and celebrated rather than being replaced.

What do you feel is the most important criteria when you are judging a hotel on its quality?

Aside from the obvious criteria such as location, amenities and service, I tend to look for hotels that offer a unique traveler experience. One that exposes travelers to local cultures with its architecture, cuisine, décor and sense of style. A hotel that also embraces the area by offering unique activities for its destination. As an example, the Sofitel Legend Cartagena not only has beautiful colonial architecture and delicious Colombian food but an activity available for guests is horse chariot rides offering them a unique colonial experience. In the same manner as Ashford castle Ireland offers falconry and Archery.

Another important factor is the friendliness and warmness of the staff. It is common for luxury hotels to have very cold staff.

In terms of your own travel experiences, can you give us an insight into what your travel diary looks like?

It is always busy!   I am constantly receiving requests to quote as a hotel photographer worldwide, many with a very short lead time.   Logistics will always be a challenge.   In the upcoming months I am highly likely to be in Los Cabos Mexico, Doha, Dubai, Nashville, The Seychelles and Jamaica.

From your travel experiences do you have a personal favorite? 

I am always excited to visit and experience different cultures. I am also very curious as to their unique approach to hospitality. With the internet the world is shrinking by the minute and unfortunately the approach to hospitality has become more standardized across the board. This is partly due to large hotel conglomerates opening hotels worldwide and spreading the influence along the way. I tend to favor hotels for two different reasons.

I am always impressed by sophisticated architecture. It was very hard not to be impressed by the level of luxury some hotels have achieved in Beijing. Éclat hotel comes to mind. This is a hotel that has the highest level of energy efficiency certification along with a stunning contemporary art collection that includes the biggest private collection of Dali sculptures and Warhol art scattered throughout.

The warmth of staff was something I never thought was important until I was spoiled by two hotels that surpassed my expectations. Ashford Castle in Ireland and Grand Solmar in Los Cabos Mexico. Their service was exemplary and simply at the highest level; hotels can only achieve this if the staff are genuinely in love with their work and the hotel.

Finally, do you have any travel advice for our readers? 

As a hotel photographer I do get to travel on a regular basis and I actually have blog posts giving regular advice to fellow photographer on travel. I currently have a blog post for professional photographers and advice on how to travel with equipment. “Hotel photographer advice on travel”.

Here is some simple advice for the regular traveler. Travel as light as possible, do your bookings with as much anticipation as possible and be nice to people in the travel industry. Most likely, people in the travel industry have heard all kinds of complaints from annoying customers attempting to receive some sort of upgrade. Being nice to people and maybe connecting with them on a personal level puts you at a better position to request an upgrade or perks.

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