Life On Set
One of the most common topics that I get questions surrounding is what happens on set for a large production. All too often it is a personal aspect of a photographer and kept secret from those that are just making their way into the industry. While I do believe that learning through trial and error strengthens our overall knowledge base, I do not like the idea of keeping my approach secret when I could help others from experiencing some of the snags that I have hit along the way.
I figured I would take a few moments today to give some of the young photographers an idea of what to expect and what will be expected of them on a production and some ways to be successful.
I wish I could say that this one goes without saying, however it sadly does not. I hear all too often from assistants that I hire about other photographers that scream at crew and talent alike. It is the ultimate expression of insecurity and there is no place for it in the studio, or life for that matter. If you want to be a photographer that impresses a client on set treat your crew and talent with genuine respect.
At the end of the day there will be an image that gets published with the photographer’s name in the credit line or an award won by said photographer. However, the part that is often unseen is the sacrifice made by his or her crew to make that shot possible.
Know The Crew
This one carries off the idea of respect and takes it to a more personal level. Whenever I am shooting a production, I make it a point to know every person on set, from styling hair, makeup and wardrobe in the dressing rooms. The reason for this is two fold. As the photographer, you are the leader or coach of this team and their success is on your ability to give good instructions. In order to do this you need to learn each person’s limit or workload and stressors. Most importantly, let everyone know that they are doing a good job, build them up and the work you produce will show it.
The second reason for knowing everyone individually I discovered on a shoot this year. I was shooting a very large sports drink campaign and the day before my dog had suddenly passed away. To be honest, my driver picked me up and I cried the whole way to the studio. The idea of putting on a professional face as if nothing had happened was incredibly tough, but it is what the client deserved. While it was very hard for me to talk to people I knew well, I found that I was more comfortable talking with crew that I had not worked with prior. I entrusted my first assistant with overall management and spent much of the time talking with a grip that we hired just a week prior. Conversation was very topical, but it was the help I needed to keep my sanity on set and I all always be grateful for that.
Produce Your Own Shoot
This is not necessarily an option for every campaign, but if you have the opportunity to produce a shoot it can be one of the more valuable lessons you will find. By producing your own shoot, I mean handling everything from payroll to prop sourcing. As your jobs get bigger, you will not be able to do this without sanity walking out the door, but there is no reason that a small shoot (less than 20 people on set) can’t be handled by a photographer. In doing this you will learn where budget will make the most impact on the image and it will allow you to deliver more to your client for their budget than a photographer that takes a hands off approach.
Now with this said, when the bigger shoots come along and you have a 40 person crew, a producer (and usually assistant producer) is a must. I have worked with many and the ability of focus that their behind the scenes work affords me is invaluable. If you have quarter million dollar campaign on the line, there is no other way to handle the sheer undertaking of the numbers as a whole without a producer you trust.
Make The Set Comfortable
For many AD’s and CD’s, the photo shoot is the fun aspect of the campaign for them and therefore making it as close to a vacation as possible is very important. The creativity that is afforded by relaxing is immensely greater than that given under duress. As much as we want to believe that the shoot is only about the images produced, it is often just as much about showing the client and agency a good time. Whether this means hiring a sushi chef for the day to cook for them, or hiring a DJ to keep the environment relaxed, you must deliver. I often look at these expenditures as investments in future campaigns. At a beginning level these aspects may not make sense, but as one progresses to larger clients, more freedom to spend on making it fun will become available. It is all a matter of progression… In the beginning I had Xbox’s on set for the clients to kick back and play in the downtime of a lighting change, now I send the Xbox’s home with the client.
Some may say that this is “buying work” or at least pandering and I don’t disagree. However, at a certain level it is the norm for photographers or artist reps to send art buyers and other creatives lavish gifts such as nice wines, iPads, etc. Heck, I know some that send prospective clients on vacations. At the end of the day, the commercial photography business is just that, a business and letting your client know how important they are is just as important as lighting.
Perhaps the most important part of this career is to stop, think about what you have, and be grateful. Being an advertising photographer, while sometimes stressful, is fun, is freedom… it is a privilege.
Thank you for reading,