How to Successfully Navigate a Photo Shoot that Pushes You to Your Limits

Well, it’s been awhile since I’ve posted on the blog. I can assure you though that it hasn’t been out of laziness. In the time since my last post, I’ve spent a week in Texas, toured the island of Penang in Malaysia, busily worked a week-long shoot in Singapore and shot a wedding in New York City. I’ve also managed to purchase a house (try providing financial documents from a hotel in South East Asia) and now find myself knee deep into renovating it. So let’s just say I’ve been pretty busy.

In the middle of all that, I managed to shoot one of the biggest productions of my career. Big productions mean lots of people, props, sets, gear and – stress. It takes a lot for the stress to get to me, but every once in awhile a project comes along that pushes even me to the edge of my comfort level. This was one of those shoots. Managing it all and ending up with a finished product that fits the client’s expectations is definitely not easy. But, in the end it all worked out and I made the client happy. Here’s some lessons from the experience that I’ll share with you.

Please note: The images in this post, taken from the Lark.com website and shot by me, are not from the project that I’m referring to in this post. 

1. Plan for every contingency. If shooting outdoors, what will the shot look like in full sun? What will it look like with overcast conditions? Think through all the what-if’s and plan accordingly.

2. The more complicated the shoot, the more hands you’ll need on deck. Don’t shortchange yourself by only having one assistant when the job may call for two or more. In my case, I had four and couldn’t have gotten the job done without everyone working together.

Advertising Lifestyle Photoshoot; Man and woman in bed waking up in the morning

From photo shoot for Lark products; http://www.lark.com

3.  Before you get started, talk about your expectations with the team. I went over the whole shoot and then laid down some laws – absolutely no using cell phones on the set during photography for example. By explaining the shoot in detail, I create an end goal and clear vision for the team – which helps with the esprit de corps.

4. Never stop thinking nor planning. Prior to the shoot, I’d scouted a location for the primary shot. But on the morning of our setup, I did some walking around and found a spot that I liked better. We’d done a lot of planning for the other area, but the new location made more sense – so we switched gears a little. Your job as photographer is primarily to provide the vision and then capture the vision. Don’t ever forget that.

5. Don’t move the gear. The corollary to the above point is that you can’t be thinking and planning if you’re schlepping gear around and setting things up. That’s what you have a crew for. Yes, you may feel awkward sitting on your ass while your assistants are hauling boxes of gear around and fighting big pieces of equipment. Get over it! Your job is to oversee the process and constantly be thinking about how you can do the best possible job. Either that or schmoozing with the client.

Organic produce on a slate background

6. Test your gear. You may have used your gear many times over and over, but that’s still no substitute for testing out your entire system from top to bottom before the client shows up and you start shooting. During our camera test, we caught a lens that had taken to back focusing ever so slightly. Had we not caught it, I’d have been dealing with a lot of soft images. You can fix a lot of things, but focus is not one of them.

7. A good digital tech is worth the money. When shooting tethered, having someone who’s baby-sitting your computer while you’re shooting is priceless. Knowing that someone is continually checking focus, organizing files and dealing with technical issues while you’re working in a stressful situation that demands your full attention is priceless.

8. Shoot day is not the time to be testing new techniques. Make sure that you have your process down cold because if you start trying new things, you’re likely to fall on your face. Now, having said that, if there’s plenty of time and you’ve got things under control, then absolutely experiment. But if you’re working under the gun with a big production and no room for error, don’t muck around. Know exactly what you’re doing forwards and backwards. If you have to go onto a photography forum to ask how to use a certain piece of gear two nights before your big shoot, you shouldn’t be using it.

Man waking up in bed in the morning. Light coming in from window.

9. Trust your judgment. When you’re working with a large crew, everyone will have an opinion about how best to get the job down. Taking in feedback is important. However, at the end of the day, it’s your butt that’s on the line. The buck stops with you. If you feel strongly about a point, have the strength of conviction to get it done your way. You’re the one who’s been working with the client so you best know their expectation for the shoot. Don’t let others reshape your vision.

10. Stay cool but concerned. Never lose your temper (unless you want to have your crew pissed at you). No matter what happens, just take it in stride. Turn bad news into a joke. It helps break the tension on the set and keep the crew doing the hard work that you need from them to get the job done. At the same time, never let your guard down and assume that you’ve got the shoot in the bag. Things rarely get easier – but they often become much more difficult.

11. Keep your client happy. Think about their needs. It doesn’t matter how great a job you do if the client is unhappy at the end of the process. Just because you’re working your ass off doesn’t mean that you can’t offer the client a wonderful experience.

12. There’s no substitute for experience. When you’ve got way more stuff being thrown at you than any one human can process, the only thing that will get you through it is experience. Reading this blog, watching videos, attending workshops or reading forums is not enough. Practice as much as you can right now so that when you’re called upon to do something big, you’ll be ready.

Product photography on white background

13. Pay attention to the details. What’s going on in the background? Is there a distraction that will ruin your shot? What can you add to the shot to get it to pop? If something is the shot that you don’t like, get rid of it. If there’s something missing, add it in. It’s the details that often elevate a shot from mundane to extraordinary.

14. Don’t underestimate the amount of time necessary to produce a shoot. If you’ve got the experience, you thought through the details, planned for contingencies, you’ll know what it takes to get the job done. It’s too easy to think that you can put a big shoot together in a couple of days. The reality though is that it may take weeks. That’s normal – don’t be afraid to get the help and time that you need – and the budget necessary to support it.

15. Hire a producer. A producer on a still photo shoot is the person who takes care of all the details. When I’m off on the other side of the world, I can’t possibly be dealing with pulling props, working through set selection  and model picks on my own. Enter the producer. He or she keeps the wheels turning no matter what.

16. Don’t skimp on the equipment. Stuff breaks down. Conditions change. The client wants a different angle. For whatever the contingency, you need gear in reserve. When doing a big shoot, I like to hire a grip truck with all the stands, flags, rolling carts, sand bags, etc I’ll need all ready to go.

17. All this stuff costs money. Charge accordingly. The fact that you didn’t charge enough to get the job done is never an excuse you can rely on if you don’t meet the expectations of the client. Be realistic on the budget. If you don’t know how to estimate a job, consult someone more experience. (I’m available for pricing help.)

As you read this, you may be wondering exactly what constitutes a “big production.” It’s hard to say though since it’s different for everyone. What I might not think twice about might be a stress-filled week of planning for you. Ultimately, it’s any shoot where there’s multiple components that must come together perfectly for the shoot to succeed. The more pieces to the puzzle, the more stress for you. Be prepared!

John Mireles

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About johnmireles

Photographer, writer, thinker, climber, outrigger canoeist, bad guitar player and even worse singer.
This entry was posted in Knowledge. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How to Successfully Navigate a Photo Shoot that Pushes You to Your Limits

  1. Oliver Asis says:

    Excellent write up on how to managed a photography, big or small, these are great points to keep in mind.

  2. Ashley DuChene says:

    Great topic, John

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