By Rick Trottier
Whether you own, rent, trade time for a studio or only shoot in the most commando-like settings, effectively managing your resources during a “studio shoot” is one of the most important elements when it comes to making the evolution from a hobbyist to a professional photographer. Understanding that a successful shoot of any type needs careful management of time, energy, materials, concepts/content and personalities is what makes the difference between a rank amateur and a seasoned expert. Proper handling of all the aspects of a shoot will set you apart from your colleagues as your reputation for professionalism precedes you. Like the Rock of Gibraltar, the professional photographer should be as steady and responsible in the control of his universe as is humanly possible.
Achieving a consistent grasp of resource management starts with finding a proper balance between the need for structure and maintaining a degree of spontaneity in your methodology. Planning and structure are absolutely essential to professionalism. The hobbyist “wings it” in most or all of what he does. The professional prepares wisely, puts thought into what comes before, during and afterwards and reflects on what went right and what didn’t and then makes the appropriate course corrections. Nonetheless, adhering to the talisman of structure can lead to a stultifying approach in how you conduct your shoots. This may sound oxymoronic, but “planning in” some opportunities for spontaneous lighting schemes, background options and even posing strategy will keep any studio experience from becoming stale. In the end though, all photographers must make the choice between trading a “devil-may-care” attitude for a mantra that embraces a mix of business-like aplomb, artistic integrity, personal affability and a healthy respect for the needs of your clients who must come first if your photography business is to thrive.
Managing a shoot starts well before the model walks into your studio. Whether the model contacts you first or the converse, detailed and clear discussions must start well before the shoot commences. While texting has become the communication method of choice and talking on the phone is still simplest, the most professional manner of exchanging ideas is through email. Detailed correspondence that can be easily preserved, carefully considered and reconsidered and serves as a written contract of terms is the best method of preparing for a shoot. Models often have many questions, all of which are the job of the professional to answer. Photographers often have a great deal of information to impart, all of which it is job of a model to carefully ponder. Before the shoot occurs, there are three main points that must be deliberated and should be done so in correspondence: image content, general expectations and the terms of the shoot. Content incorporates the basic genre(s) of the shoot (glamor, fashion, fitness, pinup, etc.) and it also includes the outfits to be shot for those content genres. Discussing content ahead of time helps to solve a pair of problems. One of them is conserving time usage. Picking through a suitcase of garments and debating what is going to be shot can be a COLOSSAL waste of time and lead to starting the shoot with a shared sense of frustration. Hashing out the general sense of what is going to be shot not only helps save time during the session, it leads to a sense of shared purpose, which engenders trust and respect. Any kind of content ambiguity leads to uncertainty and a lack of trust. I do encourage models to bring MORE than the number of outfits agreed upon, just to be on the safe side. But before a model walks into my studio, I want content to be something that is no longer in question. Expectations encapsulates all the general thoughts about how long the shoot will last, are escorts allowed, how much direction will be provided and all the other questions a model should ask so that a sense of safety and comfort is established. What photographers often forget, especially those of us who have done this for a long time, is that for the model, her shoot is something she has been looking forward to for days or weeks and there is often a hefty case of nerves by the day of the shoot. Nervousness can be apprehension or even anxiety if there are unanswered questions. The professional photographer answers ALL the questions that can be answered and even poses a few questions of the model to spur fuller explanation. I want each and every model to leave my studio feeling thrilled, validated and having had a life-affirming experience. That happens when expectations are clear. Finally, terms must also be discussed. Terms simply means what is going to be provided in regards to the number, nature and delivery of edits, the language of the model release and any other legal and commercial language that needs to be explored. Like setting clear expectations, clarity of terms is absolutely essential. The modern “playground” mentality of the internet often leads the untutored to assume that they will get whatever they want and can use images however they deem. The professional knows the nature of copyright and intellectual property law and courteously explains all of that data to his client.
Once the model walks into the studio, in essence the shoot has begun because a professional shoot is a lot more than just clicking a shutter. A model may be so beautiful that she seems to be more a work of art than flesh and blood, but she is a human being with a soul and a personality that needs your consideration and understanding. I sit down briefly with any model to go over some of my structure for the session. Depending on the experience of the model and your familiarity with her, that sit down can be only a few minutes long or as long as 30 minutes. Make sure it doesn’t become a time-wasting gab-fest, but be warm, inviting and informative. More important than anything else, I go over my “never-varying shoot strategy”. Of course, I do vary this strategy when need arises, but as often as I can, I adhere to it religiously. I ask the model to rank her outfits in order of importance. The outfit that is the least important is the outfit we start with for both model and photographer must warm up and the best imagery rarely comes at the beginning of the shoot. The outfit that is slightly more important than the warm up attire is the outfit we end with. By the end of a shoot, the model is often tiring fast, poses become lax, facial expressions are less focused and the law of diminishing returns is brought into play. In between these two outfits will be where the more treasured ensembles are set. I have found this stratagem to be one of the best ways to insure success and once set down, that wonderful sense of shared purpose has been established. During the pre-shoot meeting, I also like to discuss the backgrounds I have planned out in advance of the session. Planning out backgrounds is only possible if you know the content/concepts/outfits ahead of time, but the savings on time and energy are appreciable if the backgrounds are already in place. I have often times started conceptualizing poses prior to the shoot since I know the content and have planned backgrounds. All of this I discuss with the model, asking for feedback and ideas depending on the model’s experience, personality and comfort. Some models want to share the creative process while others prefer to leave the decision-making to the photographer. This is where flexibility of approach and chances for spontaneity come in. Assessing the personality of the model and her inclinations will allow for synergy and collaboration that can be spectacular.
After the pre-shoot meeting, shooting the sets becomes the order of business. Since you know the content, the outfits, the backgrounds, the point to the shoot and have a sense of shared purpose for the outcome of the imagery, it is now a question of managing time and energy. I have stated more than once in my articles that I reject the idea of machine-gun shutter clicking. I embrace crafting the pose, arranging lighting purposefully and making each shot count. As such, the frame count should be low for each set. Certainly you want to shoot a few frames for each posed tableau, but this is NOT like shooting a wedding. A wedding is a series of candid situations no matter how much the bride tries to script the day. Catching each candid moment in multiple exposures insures success. In a studio session, there are moments of spontaneous combustion, but most of the success created during each set is a product of careful craftsmanship. Since I am expecting a great deal of physical exertion from the model to hold a pose for a lengthy period of time, I try to make each set short and focused and the overall pattern to be diverse. One set might be primarily standing shots, while the next might be lying down. As such you spread out the use of specific muscles. I often demonstrate poses and explain why something works a certain way or happens under certain circumstances. These little breaks refresh the mental and physical energy of the model, help to create chemistry and are wonderful learning experiences for the novice model. Managing time and energy throughout each session leave everyone with smiles on their face at the end of the shoot. I try to keep studio shoots fewer than three hours and no more than four hours if possible. Marathon shoots do little but exhaust the model and burn enormous amounts of time that can never be recovered. Thoughtfully focused shoots that achieve precisely the desired result of the photographer and model are jewels of exceeding value.
One of the things I am most proud of when it comes to managing a shoot is my use of human resources. Since my earliest days as a photographer, I have encouraged models to bring an escort or two. While I understand the concerns many photographers have about the presence of escorts, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. I make it clear that an escort cannot interfere with a shoot, but there is a simple way to insure the no-interference policy. Get the escort involved and do not allow them to sit on the sideline like a grumpy gargoyle! I utilize escorts as assistants. They help me move and construct background elements. They help fix or move hair and attire. They fetch needed articles of clothing or hold a fan or reflector. They run smoke machines or apply skin glossers. The more involved the escort, the more the atmosphere is one of shared experience, the more jocular and joyous the mood, and the better the shoot will be. From a legal standpoint, having more than two people in the studio makes it so that no question of behavior can easily be raised. Finally, today’s models have been educated in school systems that preach “stranger danger”, buddy systems and all kinds of other “safety in numbers” thinking. The days of models coming to studios alone and being fully accepting of such conditions are long over. Making the studio a safe and comfortable place will also make it an efficient place. Upon meeting a model and her entourage, I thoroughly enjoy unleashing a broad smile and triumphantly declaring to a willing escort “I’m putting you to work”. It has been my experience, they love to help, the model feels supported and everyone wins.
After the sets of the shoot are finished, there is one more part to managing the entirety of the experience. I show my age and station when I state this, but I still prefer to sit down with the model after the shoot, review the images and make the image choices right then and there. Of course, if the frame count is ENORMOUS this becomes problematic, which is just another advantage to shooting fewer exposures as opposed to more. There are many reasons why sitting down to review the images together makes sense. 1) Giving the model some input allows the client to feel like she is getting what she wants. Too many photographers do not allow for any input. This is pure arrogance. No matter how expert, how learned and how sage you become, the photographer is part of the equation, NOT the entire mathematical expression. 2) Photographers are usually more experienced in composition, lighting, framing and all the other elements that make a first-rate image. Explaining WHY one image is superior to another is always better than unilaterally deciding for both. 3) All people are subject to their own personal insecurities and foibles. Helping a model to get past some of the those insecurities to see the bigger picture of the image as well as listening to her legitimate concerns will lead to compromise on which images will suit both party’s needs. Without your input, the image choice a model makes can often be an emotional one as opposed to an informed one. All too well do I remember a young lady remarking how much she liked a picture because her stomach looked so wonderful, but she had no idea her face was mostly obscured by a shadow from her hair because her focus was on her overmastering insecurity. Acting in an advisory capacity helps the model to make choices she will be thrilled with, as will you. 4) Placing images in an on-line storage facility is the popular method of allowing models to choose the pictures they like on their own. Beyond the problems of ill-advised choice mentioned in the prior points, the problem with such facilities is that they are not safe, no matter how strong the encryption. I hear daily stories of storage sites getting hacked and content being compromised. I back up all images to external drives which are safe from being co-opted so that all content is disseminated in a manner acceptable to all parties. Having a well-developed sense of customer service will aid the professional in managing every aspect of the shoot from beginning to end.
While the excellence of the imagery is deeply important, coeval with that level of achievement is the need to leave each and every client satisfied and happy. It is one thing to be a supremely talented photographer, but if you don’t get returning clients and referrals from those regular customers than something is amiss with your shoot management skills. The studio is a place of art and business, not a clubhouse. While a sense of fun and delight should prevail, people always want to feel like their time and efforts are well spent. Learning how to manage your shoots in the most effective manner possible will make you more successful and all who enter your domain pleased with their decision.