Last Friday I had a studio portrait shoot for a magazine. I'll keep you in the loop and show you outtakes when they get back to me about their selections and what issue it'll be in, but I bring it up to talk a little bit about time. That is, the amount of time you have to shoot your subject and how you deal with that.
I once read about when Platon shot Bill Clinton for Esquire back while he was still president and he was given 7 minutes in the President's schedule. I'm pretty sure Platon had a similarly short amount of time for Vladamir Putin when he shot him for TIME last year.
The flip-side of this might be when Bert Stern shot Marilyn Monroe back in the day. She showed up a couple hours late and he was very worried that he had lost his window, but when asked she said that she was prepared to stay all night if need be.
Now, if you know ahead of time that you'll only get a sliver of time, as with the Platon shoots, you can generally do more work up front. Know what shots you want to get, have lights setup, or at least experiment before the subject gets there, so that you can hit the ground running.
Temperament comes into play here though, as you don't want to make your subject uncomfortable by coming on too strong because you feel rushed. In fact I think this is a good point all the time. In my opinion, the subject should always feel like you are in control and have all the time you need. Making them confortable is job number one.
The there are the times when the plans change in real time, as they did on Friday. My assistant Meg and I had gotten there about 30 minutes early and setup the lights and chosen a nice burnt umber paper that happened to be leaned against the wall. I was told I'd have the subject from 1:30-2:30. 1 hour. More than enough time for a photographer like me. Not too long, not too short.
But 1:30 comes and no author. He was getting interviewed before the shoot and it seems the writer was running long. 1:40, nothing yet, 1:50, ixne. So couple minutes before 2, they show up. Which means my 1 hour is now down to 30 minutes and that my experimentation time has been cut way down.
I was looking at a book of Mario Testino photos the other day. And I've always loved his use of light, but I started noticing that he had a definite set of 'safe' setups that employed more often than not. It was like he had a book of recipies that he liked to cook. Which is funny because I think we all of these safe zones.
When you've got 30 minutes to get a shot good enough for a full-page portrait in a national magazine, you've got to KNOW you've got it. These are the times when I think it's perfectly reasonable to shoot at least some of it in your safety zone. Once you've got that in the can, then you can mess around.
So this is what I ended up doing. I shot for about 15 with a simple single soft light setup that I could probably shoot with blindfolded. Only then did I pull out another light with a grid and get a bit more adventurous. That said, I don't think that anyone would ever accuse me of being a multi-light whore, so even these setups were pretty straightforward. Plus a lot of my look is in post-production, so shooting for me is more about connecting with the subject and getting good source material for my final image.
In the end we finished a few minutes early (something photo editors seem to remember positively) and I'm happy with the images. Would I have setup differently if I had known I'd have 30 minutes instead of 60? Perhaps a bit. I would have brought more lights and had setups and ratios ready so there wasn't a minute here and there lost getting the lighting right. That's also a minute that you've lost the attention of the subject, which can be the difference between something great and something exceptional.
Anyway, just some thoughts.