Why Production Matters
Whether it’s a quick portrait with one subject or a huge set with live animals, fireworks and stunt doubles, production can make or break your shoot. There’s so many great producers out there, but what do you do when it’s on your shoulders. With today’s budgets, often it is, follow the old Boy Scout Motto- be prepared.
If you are a photographer that doesn’t know how to produce your own shoots, how can you possibly deal with problems? When you are working with a producer, how can you direct them so that the shoot goes off as intended? These are things that are a part of running your business, and you need these skills, here’s some advice and some stories behind three very different productions of mine.
The Jersey Shore Season 5
This was a fun challenge, I had been traveling for almost two weeks when I got the call from MTV that our shoot date would be moving up, and could I get back in time to shoot the cast of The Jersey Shore on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, NJ. I was on the west coast at the time, so first and foremost, I needed to change a flight and my first assistant and I would have to get from Las Vegas to NY. While this went on, the decision came down that we’d be shooting overnight as opposed to during the day. Our call time would be 2:30am, and the cast would show up at about 4am. From Las Vegas, we’d be on a morning flight, swing past my house for a minute to pick up some additional equipment, then drive to the Jersey Shore, marathon day to say the least. Loosing production time on the plane would be annoying, but thankfully I had the Photo Director at MTV working out the details on getting all the cast and crew necessary to be on set, hotel reservations, security, permits, schedules, catering and so on. Not having that on my shoulder was a huge help. On my side, I got three additional assistants in NY to pick up a rental van and fill it with my pre-arranged rental lighting equipment, drive it down to the shore and wait for us to arrive. Having great crew on hand is huge, and to be honest, we could easily have used one or two more assistants! I set up the guys, the van and got the equipment squared away boarded a plan and tried in vain to get some sleep. The comfort of knowing the Photo Director had things on her plate taken care of, I need only worry about my guys making it to NJ and getting myself and my first assistant there. Along the way, I made sure that I had sketched out my lighting plan in my sketch book. I stress the importance of this to assistants and young photographers all the time. Having a history of your shoots is a great resource, and being able to show your assistants a birds-eye view of the set is a huge time-saver on set, especially when you have your client and subject(s) to entertain.
The stars aligned and we made it in time to do a quick scout, lay down for maybe 45min then get rolling. The adrenaline surge I get shooting was enough to keep things moving, and we knocked out four group sets, and individual and pairs of the cast, wrapping at a record pace.
Despite the challenges with travel and coordinating so many people, this is an example of a fairly easy production. I say this because although there are so many moving parts, there was a good budget, enough to get the right crew, the right equipment, and accommodate the difficulties with getting from Las Vegas to NY, then NJ and get the shoot done.
This is an example of a medium level production. Jamrock Magazine hired me to shoot Hip-Hop artist Ky-Mani Marley (one of Bob’s sons), for their cover. Not a huge budget, but it was decent enough to hire an assistant and rent a room at the Chelsea Hotel for the shoot location. I was able to rent some of my lighting equipment to them as well, but I don’t have a ton of lights, so I had to work minimally, no more than two lights were used in any set up, and much of the shoot was done with the original light, the sun.
I had to produce this one, which was cool as I had the idea to shoot at the hotel, and knew exactly what I wanted. I tried to get the hotel to work with me in return for credit in the magazine, but being a landmark, and home to many photo shoots, they knew they could get some money out of this. I explained it was a low budget, and they agreed to “rent” the room as if we were staying there, and as well let us have access to the hallways and the rooftop. I think because I was fair to them about the room, the manager would be fair about giving me a variety of locations. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, worse case- they say no.
The magazine had a stylist- which is huge when you want to do a few different looks, so I was thankful for that. There are many cases though where I will call in a favor from stylists I know, especially if there’s something they could benefit from for their portfolio. If you are just starting out, befriend makeup artists and stylists, we are all artists after all, and collaborating with or without a budget is a part of what we do.
As always, I had sketched up a plan before, not knowing if I would have 2 minutes or 2 hours with Ky-Mani. As it turned out- he was amazing, loved the idea of shooting in the same room as a famous Bob Dylan shoot, so he was game for anything and gave me plenty of time.
This is an interesting one. I actually got the assignment on Facebook of all places. A “friend” of a client I have shot for in New Zealand who is “friends” with me posted that he needed a NY or NJ based photographer for a shoot a day away. I replied and asked what they needed, pleasantly finding out that it was a portrait for a feature story on a former Australian Rules Football Player who was in training camp with the NY Giants. I emailed a few times with the art director-who was in Australia, and the writer, who was in NY and pretty quickly realized the Giants PR was only going to give me access to the press pit on press day. This means that I would have to shoot with a long lens and get nothing much different than any other reporter there. I couldn’t rely on the Art Director to call the Giants and sort it out since the shoot was the next day. I was able to get a contact number for the subject and the Giants PR from the writer, it was clear I needed to take the reigns.
First I called the subject, and asked if he was available another day, knowing he wanted this press, so he would help. Next I called the Giants PR contact and explained that this was a feature story for a magazine that’s more like a GQ or Esquire and I’d need to get access with the subject to do portraits and more artistic shots, as opposed to straight-up action. He was surprisingly accommodating, and he said as long as the subject was available, we could have the newly renovated stadium to ourselves! What?!? OK by me! We made arrangements, and I was able to get a completely empty stadium and as well shots outside the stadium after.
This was a very small production, small budget, no room for rental equipment. At the time, all I owned was a Profoto 7b and a Q Flash. Thankfully, I had just bought the Pocket Wizard Flex tt5 and Mini tt1. This allowed me to override normal sync limitations with the Q Flash and shoot at 1/500” to make this image.
On shoots like this, it certainly helps to own some lights, but that aside I try to minimize my expenses so I can maximize my take home. So again, pretty simple lighting, this shot is only one artificial light and the sun, and the other portraits we used one 7b with 2 heads. I brought only what I needed, no more. I did have an assistant, but he thankfully worked with me at a slightly lower rate. There was no other crew, and I of course filled up the tank in NJ to get the cheaper gas.
One big point I want to make here is that the pictures are what they are, the quality should be as good regardless of the budget. Being able to control the production variables is paramount to succeeding.