The Key to a Successful Shoot

Preparation, preparation, preparation.  Well that, and knowing how to use your camera, and how to control light, and of course, having a camera in the first place.   But after you've got all those, preparation is the key.  As I do more and more editorial portrait shoots I'm really starting to do more preparation and more research.

The photographer Platon took portraits of Vladimir Putin for Time magazine last year and there is a great video online where he talks about the shoot and the days leading up to it, and how he broke through the walls a guy like Putin has got to have up by bringing up Paul McCartney.  Apparently he found a photo of Putin meeting McCartney and it was the only photo he could find of Putin smiling.  You should watch the whole story if you're into portrait photography because it's a good one (inside 2008 > top row toward the right).

So I've started to prepare more for shoots.  Figure out the person before I get there so that I'm not just some guy with a camera, but rather a person who's really interested in what they have to say.

When I shot Charley Maxwell (see yesterday's post and the above photo) a couple weeks ago, I went and read interviews he gave, articles about him and ones he's written, watched him on Charlie Rose, and then went to Wikipedia and read up on oil reserves around the world, new oil field discoveries, as well as 'peak oil' predications and theories.  I'll admit that I found it fascinating even if I hadn't had to talk about it the next day, but I'm generally an curious person into random useless knowledge so it's all good to me. So when I walked in the room and sat down with him, I feel that I immediately had his attention and his comfort level high. We chatted as we shot; it was a lot of fun.

Now, I'll contrast that to yesterday when I had another shoot with another smart, powerful man.  However the night before I had to go to the emergency room with a family member, so I didn't get to do as much research as I had liked, and while it didn't bite me in the butt too badly, I felt a bit off balance.  I can see that in the future, this research portion of the preparation is going to be a ritual to help calm my nerves.  The more unknowns and gray areas in a shoot, the more scared I get, and while I'm definitely one of those people that thrives when I'm nervous, there is always too much of a good thing.

Preparation is also important when things don't go as planned.  The subject is a very busy guy, so he had only one hour to do both an interview and pose for my portraits.  I was told going into it that I would get about 20 minutes with him, which is not really enough to get someone into their comfort zone, but I work fast so I wasn't too scared.

So the reporter went and started the interview, but as we came up on the 40 minute mark, he was still in there.  And then came the 45 minute mark, he's still in there...  In the end, I had 9 minutes to do the shoot which was rushed and frustrating, I felt a little jipped but you do what you have to do.  When I saw the office we were going to shoot in, I noted the nice indirect light coming in the windows, so planned to use that as much as possible. I like using available light.  However once we got in there, I learned that the overhead fluorescent were on a motion sensor and couldn't be turned off. <arghh>  So then it's 9 minutes AND bad light.  I'm usually a fairly deliberate shooter, rarely if ever shooting more than a shot a second.  I'm definitely not one of those sports guys who's doing burst of 10 frames a second (come on people, that's almost video). But then I started to notice that he was a blinker, which meant that I couldn't trust that his eyes would be open in my deliberate shots, and I wasn't about to be checking each image on the screen with only minutes to work, so I starting shooting more frames than I usually would, much more of a burst shooter than I ever normally shoot.  In the end I got stuff that I'm proud of, but I was not in my comfort zone for most of it; too many unknowns and little curveballs.

While I think my photographic style is starting to gel, and I've become competent with the techniques I use, I think the improvements I make in the short-term will be more about pre-shoot flow and preparation. More research and more shot setups in my head. Not as canned shots that I do all the time, rather a more deliberate plan of what I'm trying to capture conceptually.  I need to think about what that means exactly and how to implement it, but I'll certainly let you know if I figure anything out.