Planning a Commercial Lifestyle Photo Shoot: How Not To Blow It

I had a nice meeting today with a new client this week, an online-based home goods reseller. They’re a new enterprise. The client came to me interested in capturing the mood and character of their product line of high end glassware, cooking utensils and other luxury dining and entertainment accessories. This post is going to outline what lining up a shoot like this entails: all the whats, hows and whens. Let’s get started.


Concept

Here’s what it seems like the client is looking for:

We’re looking to incorporate their products into a dinner party setting with a story. Shots will focus on people conversing, holding our fancy glassware, or chefs preparing hors d’ouevres on gorgeous copper-core pots and pans. The copy for these products would, along with the image(s), tell a piece of the story and how the product plays in to it. We are going to weave together a tale of intrigue relating a few characters in our dinner party story. Each product, and its piece of the story must stand on its own, since we can’t determine the reader’s sequence, or whether they even look at all the items involved in the story.


Logistics

A shoot like this will require securing a suitable location to host a posh dinner party. The location will need to be staged with nice furniture and decor. Using someone’s home is our first choice, whereas an empty home would necessitate furnishings and decoration. We will need guests. We’re going to stage the dinner party with real food, real drinks and real guests: a few dozen neighbors and friends. We’re going to have a team of hair and makeup stylists to keep everyone looking awesome throughout the evening. Since I will be running and gunning throughout the shoot, I will need an assistant to help me set up, meter, and move from shot to shot, according to our game plan (outlined below). I am planning on renting some extra lights, so I can have 2 lighting setups, the one I am currently shooting, and the next one being set up.


Estimate

At this point, a fair estimate of the shoot’s cost can be made. The concept and the logistics are the raw materials you’ll use to create your proposal to the client. What do my vendors require of me? How much should I be paid to do the calling and organizing to have the shoot go off without a hitch? How much is my experience and talent worth? How will the images be used? Etcetera! These questions are extremely important. Luckily, a far better man than I am has covered these questions in explicit detail. If you haven’t purchased Best Business Practice for Photographers by John Harrington, you are throwing your career in the trash. Don’t freak out on these like I used to do. I would get panic attacks and put my prices just criminally low. I had no budget, cut corners, and sometimes, it would blow up in my face. It’s a vicious cycle, but paying yourself is just plain good business. Negotiate your way to an agreeable budget for your shoot. Once you’ve got the finances taken care of, and a contract signed, it’s time to move forward.


Scheduling

The next thing we’re going to need to settle is the scheduling. Are there any real, hard deadlines that need to be met? Do these images need to be delivered by a certain date, no matter what? That needs to be known first. Beyond that, it’s a matter of lining up availabilities for stylists, talent and location. I find that it really pays off to have a fat rolodex (ha! does anyone use those anymore? i don’t.) of stylists and models. Line up back ups as well. I covered this a little bit before in my post on lining up TFP fashion shoots. The difference here is that this is a paid gig. Unsurprisingly, stylists are far more amenable to make time for paid work. Imagine that. I’ve said before that free work is worth what you pay for it. Paying someone is basically the only way I know of to hold someone accountable. Don’t be afraid to hold someone’s feet to the fire when you need to. Be a leader, not an asshole. I usually pay in 30 days, so I don’t have to float the cost of stylists waiting for the client to pay me.

Lastly, this is a location shoot. Think of your location as another person, with its own schedule of availability. Oh, and it also needs to be insured. The difference is that it can sometimes be impossible to substitute in a different location at the last minute, unlike stylists. The idea is to line up all of these schedules to find a shooting date that works for all involved parties. Book a potential back-up date in case Murphy decides to drop in and screw everything up. The best way to anticipate problems is to imagine all the worst things that could possibly happen and then address them in your mind.


Game plan

The date and time have been set. Now, it’s time to figure out what you’re going to do throughout your time slot. At this point, the client and I will head to the location, if necessary, at a time when the lighting matches that of our proposed shoot, and decide how we want to present each product, basically storyboarding. Once I have a list of how each product is going to be shot, I can sequence those shots based on the logistical realities created.

It then becomes my job to create a stream-lined and efficient process to get myself through these shots. How many shots can I line up in a single location, or with a particular set of lighting modifiers? I optimize my shot sequence to maximize my creative versatility. These images are source material: the greater the variety of images, the greater the value I present to the client.

Your game plan is how you work smarter instead of harder. I’ve got to make sure everyone knows their part and is moving in the same direction. Write up a nice schedule of shots, and give a copy to all your stylists, your assistant, and the client, if present (they will be).


Execution

Ideally, I can get access to the location the day before the shoot to bring in gear, get set up and prepared, and to check out the location in the proper lighting for our shoot. I take notes and determine my camera settings for my different shots. I walk through the whole shoot, running worst case scenarios through my head, and deciding how I would deal with them. Paranoia is just good business.

I get a good night’s sleep, and on the day of the shoot, I am prepared. Having done the best I can to squelch any potential explosions, I can now focus purely on making creative decisions. Call everyone and verify their arrival. Check all your gear and show up early. Batteries? Focus working? Lenses clean? Your sensor clean? Laptop? Cables? Between the time that people start showing up and the stylists are finished getting everyone done up, stay out of the way. Don’t meddle with the stylists unless they’re doing something you’re sure is wrong.

With adequate preparation, the job of moving through your shoot becomes easy. Smile, relax, schmooze with your subjects, and get your job done. Stay on top of what your assistant is doing, and make sure you’ve got a hair person and a makeup person to maintain the subjects while they are being photographed. While I am concentrating on my lights, my composition, metering, focus, and the model’s positioning and gesture, it is usually too much for me to stay on top of hair and makeup as well. It’s nice to know that there is someone who is standing by, concentrating on just the kinds of things I tend to miss.


Conclusion

The whole process is one of reductionism. I am solving problems before they can become problematic. Have a plan. Prepare for contingencies. This is what you are being paid for: 10% of it is getting the shot, and 90% is making sure you get the shot.

That’s enough for now, I think. See you later. I am going to get to play with the Canon 100mm macro lens this week!

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