Behind the scenes on a photoshoot

by Chris Skelton

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to organise and art direct a four day location-based photoshoot? It’s not every day that you get the chance to do a job like that, so I thought I would share my experience with you.

  • The idea

    Before we could do anything we had to have an idea. There needs to be a concept, a theme, a brief, and objectives — these should all stem from conversations with your client or from the wider project (if there is one), and they should form a list that you can check against every step of the way. I’ll not go into the details of our idea because this is an ongoing project, but it provided us with a very clear direction for the shoot.

  • Planning

    It’s easy to overlook the amount of planning and organisation required to pull something off like this, especially when time is off the essence. I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by some really talented people who know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to the planning and organising, although there’ll always have to be a little bit of good luck required too.

  • Questions to ask during the planning phase might be:

    • What’s the total budget?
    • Where are we shooting?
    • If we’re on location do we need permission?
    • Which photographer is right for the job?
    • How many models do we need?
    • What type of models do we need?
    • When will the shoot be?
    • If we’re outdoors, what is the weather forecast?
    • How will everyone travel to the locations?
    • When will people eat and drink and who is paying?
    • Do we need a stylist/who is responsible for styling?
    • Do we need makeup/do the models look after themselves?
    • Do we need props/who is providing props?
    • How many images do we need?
    • Where might the images appear (print/web)?
    • What copyright do we need?
    • How much post-production/retouching time do we need?

    … the list goes on.

  • Our plan

    In this instance we were shooting on location over four days in October, with nine professional models and ten amateurs, one photographer, one assistant, the client, a project manager and an art director (me), with self-provided props and no dedicated makeup or styling professionals. The images were intended for the Web (with the possibility of print later on) and we needed to minimise post-production and retouching time as much as possible.

  • Challenges

    Let me start by saying we were extremely fortunate on this shoot and a lot could have gone wrong that didn’t. There were a few things stacked against us from the start such as the fact that half of our models were amateur and we were outside 100% of the time, more often than not in exposed locations. Luckily for us hidden talent and the weather were on our side, although we still faced several challenges from day to day.

  • The fact that we were shooting in October was a big worry as the weather at this time of year is completely unpredictable. The nights are drawing in which means time is more limited, and the sun stays very low, which can give a lovely dramatic effect, but means that you get very inconsistent lighting throughout the day.

    There’s also a lot of thick patchy cloud around, which means within the space of 15 minutes you can go from gloomy dark grey to harsh bright orange sun, and back to grey again. When consistency is important, this can be really tricky.

  • Besides the weather, the general public gave us something else to think about. Although we were shooting mid-week, we often found ourselves needing clear backgrounds when in very popular public places. Two city centres at midday were some of the more difficult locations, however when in that situation there’s nothing that a touch of patience (and a sprinkling of Photoshop) can’t overcome.

  • What was it like to art-direct?

    Well, as you can see from many of the images in this post, I did a lot of squatting. That aside, I had a lot to keep my eye on.

    I was responsible for directing each scene and ensuring we were getting the material we needed. The correct framing was very important, but I also ensured that the models were projecting our desired feelings for each shot. The fact that we didn’t have a dedicated stylist or make-up artist meant that I (mostly) instigated changes of clothing and props, as well as keeping an eye on flappy fabrics and messy hair, too (although Rachel, our PM on the final day gave me a much-needed hand with this).

  • The whole project was a complete team effort, and everyone around me was totally fantastic. We’d had a reasonably detailed briefing with Matt the photographer a few days before the shoot and he’d already been to the majority of the locations to scope them out, so he had a really clear idea of what we were looking for. He really kept the energy up and the models smiling from dawn to dusk. His assistant Phil also did a great job with the flashes, lighting and reflectors in general, which was quite difficult with the changing conditions. On top of this an expensive tripod was almost swallowed by a rapidly inbound tide and he braved freezing water up to his knees in order to fetch it back!

  • Paul and Rachel who were organising and managing the job day to day (and taking these insightful photos) really looked after the models and made sure we kept to time. They also did a super job of keeping our client happy from beginning to end, making sure we were achieving their vision and that they were as involved as possible.

    Additionally, our client was (and still is) a joy to work with. They were very relaxed, therefore we were all very relaxed throughout the entire process. They felt very much part of the team and came up with some great suggestions along the way.

  • What did we learn?

    It’s fair to say that we’ve got a lot experience organising this kind of thing, and over the years we’ve refined our process enough that we’re able to foresee issues and run projects smoothly, without many issues. So, besides asking the photographer to bring a small portable table to sit the laptop on next time (to minimise the squatting), there were only a few take-aways that we’ll be sure to act on in future.

  • Points to remember:

    • Never underestimate the power of the wind in open countryside.
    • Communicate with model agencies clearly to define styling (when we don’t have a stylist).
    • You can never have too many safety pins and hair clips.
    • If you have time to take printed sample shots from day one on day two, day one and two on day three, etc… to help ensure consistency from shot to shot across several days, then do.

    As the shining sun was setting over the quayside water at 5:30pm on our fourth and final day of shooting, I called it a day with the team and a wave of relief washed over us all. It was extremely satisfying to realise what we’d achieved over the past few days and incredibly exciting to imagine all the great work that we’re going to be able to create with the results.

    After covering more than 500 miles, we shook hands and parted ways with everyone involved, all more than ready for weekend ahead.

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