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One of the most frequently asked questions I receive is how a commercial photo shoot is done. In this post I’ll be doing a little walk-through of the steps involved in one of my typical productions, from pre-shoot to final product. Whether you’re an upcoming photographer or just a hobbyist, I hope it sheds some light on the behind-the-scenes and you will find it an interesting read.
Before I start, I should also mention that typically for major clients, there is usually a large team of people working on a campaign. In those instances an executive producer will handle everything related to preparing the shoot, and thus often, all that’s needed of the photographer is to prepare his treatment (more on that in a bit), show up, and shoot.
However, for many other jobs, it’s becoming increasingly popular these days for the photographer to quote and execute the full-scale production of the photoshoot themselves. This post will cover a project’s process on this scale.
1. How It Begins – Quotation RequestIt begins with a quotation request from the client or advertising agency, for the sake of consistency I’m going to use the agency as contact point in this post. The typical email will include details such as the following:
- Date of shoot
- Date of ad launch/deadline
- Number of images
- Usage terms (for how long, which medias)
- Visual reference/layout for how the ad will look like.
- What they’d like you to include for quotation. (Is it just photography and usage? Or also studio, stylist, hair, makeup, models?)
From here, I’ll use the above as reference to create a checklist after confirming my availability. It’s important that I can commit to the days I’ll estimate to need for production, as well as to be completely available on the date of shoot itself.
Following that, it’s time to request for rates from my team and vendors, the usual costs may include:
- Wardrobe (the stylist will usually give you an estimate)
- Hair stylist
- Makeup artist
2. The Next Step – Photographer’s Treatment
This happens two ways, sometimes it’s requested during the job bid, sometimes it’s part of pre-production after you’ve been confirmed. (I highly recommend billing 50% upon confirmation.)
For those unfamiliar, the photographer’s treatment is a presentation of your mood boards detailing all the photographic aspects of the shoot, such as:
- Lighting and mood
- Color treatment
- Makeup and hair styles
- Model’s poses/expressions
- Camera angles/framing
It may sound a little weird to those who’ve never done it before, that the photographer would have to go into detail with the shots in this manner. Hasn’t the client already agreed to what’s in the visual reference anyway?
Well, sometimes it feels like it has been, but sometimes the agency/client just need to make sure you get it too. And sometimes, because we’re good at our jobs, we know exactly what and how that drawing or composite photo mashup will look in our end product (and it’s not going to be exactly like the drawing or photo mashup), so this is to help us express what we’ll be doing before we can provide the finished work for the ad.
The treatment will help avoid misunderstandings and mismatched expectations (I’ll always mention the things I’ll try to achieve, but also highlight the word ‘try’ for more challenging elements. You can’t control 100% of outcome all the time. So do expectation management now.)
When the model agencies send you quotations for the job, they would often have attached packages of their available models already. From there you can shortlist the faces you like and arrange for a casting, don’t be afraid to request for more options if you don’t see anyone that fits the look and feel you’re going for.
I want to emphasize here that casting is an extremely important part of production. In finding the perfect model and face (and attitude!), your job will be a lot easier on set and you’ll achieve great pictures with so much more efficiency. It also ensures you that you’re up to date on exactly how the model looks like and no surprises will happen (imagine if they can’t fit into the clothes)!
4. Your Team
This one is relatively straightforward. You should already have a few regulars you love working with, whether from doing editorials or test shoots. Unless the client requests specific names for the job, there is no reason to try getting someone ‘bigger’ or ‘better’ — your team has stuck with you for editorials and test shoots, you have a good rapport and know exactly how each other work, you want to thank them for their time and ensure you have a supporting team behind yourself. Hire them.
5. Risks and BackupsAlmost every shoot will have a small chance of something going wrong, be it camera failure, last minute cancellations, models falling sick, or the studio becoming unavailable. Always make sure you have a backup, a second and third option on hand for someone you can call.
As the productions get larger, there will be more and more external factors to consider. Understand that certain things are simply out of your control, such as weather challenges, location limitations, travel difficulties, etc. Evaluate the risks, discuss your concerns with the ad agency and formulate plans for what to do case things don’t go as planned.
Whatever happens, stay calm and work it out in an orderly fashion. In the absolute, absolute worst case scenario, it will be a lesson learnt so you can prepare and handle it better should a similar situation arise in the future. We all start somewhere and will have to make some mistakes, so long as you learn something from it, it’s not the end. Stay positive!
6. Pre-production Meetings (PPM)
You have finished your treatment presentation, cast and shortlisted the models, confirmed your call time, studio, hair and makeup team, and your stylist has prepared a list of options for wardrobe. You sit down at the meeting with the creative team and client to go over details for your ideas and shooting schedules. These meetings will make sure that everyone is on the same page, so if you have any questions and concerns, address them!
7. Equipment Rentals & Final Checks
When everything has been confirmed, I usually have three checklists I check off from:
- The crew: pretty much everyone that receives the call sheet, to confirm they know their call times and the shooting schedule (and that the date hasn’t been changed.)
- The vendors: deliveries, locations, etc. Whether it’s catering, additional equipment/props, or locations we’re renting by the hour, confirm all the bookings.
- Equipment: a pack list of my own things to bring, as well the rental list for equipment I’ll be using.
Once all that is set, the last thing is light test. You may not need to do one if the visuals for lighting and mood are something you do on a regular basis, as you’ll already know all the nuances to those setups quite well. Personally, I like to play around with lighting for both editorials and personal work, so when I know there’s something very specific that I have to get exactly right for for a campaign, I always spend a couple hours at the studio testing the setup. It’s best to be completely prepared for the shoot, you’ll feel better too.
What equipment I use will depend heavily on the approved visuals. There’s a lot that can be done with the same gear just by varying up the set up, ratio, distance, and processing. For me, the quality of light itself depends on just a few quintessential lightshapers I always like to use:
- Profoto Softbox RFi 5′ Octa for a large, beautiful and even light.
- Profoto Softlight Reflector White (The “Beauty Dish”) – the definitive item for a beautiful, sharp and strong image.
- Profoto Softbox RFi 1×4′ for fill or edge light that don’t spill too much.
And so, usually from the above list, I’ll pick out my key light, find a suitable backdrop, and set up the light test. After some tweaking, changing of backdrops, and sometimes adding and removing lights, I’ll arrive at what is the perfect combination for what I need. I then mark down the positions of light, model, backdrop, and write down my settings. After that, I do a colour processing test on the spot and save the settings to my shooting computer.
It sounds like a lot to do, but my motto is to over-prepare than under. This gives me more confidence and a peace of mind for the actual shoot, and I’ll save time in setting up as well.
9. Shoot Day
It’s your big day! Arrive early, have some coffee, buy some donuts and bites for everyone, we all love some yummy food to start the day. :D
This is where you just do your thing — be confident, you’re thoroughly prepared and ready.
Hang around to check on hair and makeup every now and then just to make sure it’s exactly what you and the client want. Don’t be afraid to pull the model away for light tests. Foundation and products will affect the model’s skin and hair colour and textures in pictures, allowing yourself moments for these tweaks will ensure that there would be minimal downtime when the model’s fully prepped and ready to shoot.
That aside, just remember that your art and creative directors and stylist are your best friends on set. You’ll have each other’s backs should there be any hiccups or problems, stay calm and polite. If you really get upset about something, talk to people privately, sort it out. Tension and bad atmosphere is contagious just as a happy mood is, you don’t want everyone uncomfortable and unable to do their job. Also don’t forget to have assistants time-check to stay on schedule.
At the end of the day (or as you shoot), the art director may have already picked out a selection of shortlisted images. Go over the pictures with them and vote your favourites too, it’s a team project, but it’s your work after all.
10. Post Production
Naturally, how much work there is to be done here depends on the complexity of the visual. Just let your retoucher do their thing (or your thing, if you’re retouching it!), make sure markups and notes for retouching are detailed and clear, and any hours and rounds of revisions that exceed your original quote are billed for. From there on after the final image delivery, the rest is up to the ad agency. (Bill for remaining 50% here.)
11. The Final Things
One last checklist:
- Get high resolution artwork from ad agency
- Send files to your team
- Request for invoices from your team and vendors for those you haven’t paid, pay them
When the campaign is launched, remember to get the high resolution artwork from the ad agency. You may not be a big fan of the ad, it wasn’t shot in your style and you won’t include it in your portfolio, so why bother? Well, you never know when you’ll need something for a pitch or presentation one day. It’s also just good habit to keep an archive of all your work and to stay organized. When I was applying for my O-1 visa two years ago, my commercial portfolio was one of the most important things in the application.
And since we’re on the topic of organization, file all the documents from the shoot as well! I like to keep all the casting details, lighting setups, crew and vendor information saved and organized. Once again, you never know when you’ll need a contact or reference back to an old project one day.
Last but not least, don’t forget to have your team invoice you so you can pay them! Freelancers can get lazy about paperwork, if you let it lapse, it’s only going to become a bigger pain later on. Do it right now!
And that’s it! I hope this was helpful and offers some insights to what goes on behind the scenes from my end. Leave a comment below if you guys have any more questions!
Want to learn more? Check out my online course Artistic Portrait Photography.
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Profoto Blog Series:
- Commercial Photoshoot Walkthrough, from Request to Post-Production / 中文翻译
- Personal Project Walkthrough, from Idea to Realization / 中文翻译
- 14 Steps to Improve Your Photography / 中文翻译
- 15 Tips on How to Break into Fashion Photography
- Top 10 Photography Lighting Tools
- 14 Tips for Photographers Who Want to Go Pro
Article first posted on the Profoto Blog, 3rd April 2014.