Sunday, September 12, 2010

Be Prepared (Part One)

People sometimes ask how I plan for shoots and what my thought processes might be prior to the actual shutter-clicking. I'll start with the "planning" part first.

When I was a kid, I was a Boy Scout. As all Boy Scouts know, the Boy Scout motto is "Be Prepared."

Being prepared is extremely important for photographers. Unfortunately, we can't always be as prepared as we'd like to be. There's a whole host of variables that might come into play on the day of a shoot, especially variables that fall under the heading of Murphy's Law.

This is especially true for glamour photographers, even more so for glamour photographers who, like me, regularly work in environments and on productions where photography isn't the only thing going on during the course of the production day. That might not be the case for many of you but that's how it usually is for me.

Doing the kind of work I've done for these past many years, I've learned the lessons of being prepared fairly well. What is it I've learned to be prepared for? Mostly, being prepared for things I can't always specifically prepare for, whether those things have to do with shooting locations and environments, the levels of experience of the models, the amount of time I'll be allotted to shoot, what the lighting and other conditions might be, what special expectations the clients might have and more.

Most of that stuff is usually answered within minutes of my arrival on a shooting set. Often enough, the answers are not what I was hoping to hear. Fortunately, and because I was once a Boy Scout and already knew that I always need to "Be Prepared," I've learned to "Be Prepared" for things that aren't often revealed to me in advance. Again, I usually discover them, as I already mentioned, upon arriving on a set.

Time is money. We're all familiar with that old phrase. When you're working on production sets, e.g., video production sets where a fair amount of money (sometimes tens of thousands of dollars a day) is being spent on people and things other than the photographer and/or the photography, there's not much room or allowances given for being unprepared.

Video production sets are similar to taxi cabs in that there's a meter running all the time, albeit an invisible meter. Still, it's a meter everyone is keenly aware of, especially those people who will later cut checks to the metaphorical cab's passengers, that is, the cast and crew.

As a photographer on these sorts of shooting sets, here's the two most important things that are expected of me:

1. Capturing professional-quality images that can be exploited for a variety of uses including advertising and marketing materials, DVD packaging art work, magazine layouts, web content.

2. Capturing those images as quickly as I can and with as little adverse impact on other aspects of the production (or the production's cast and crew) as possible.

So, how does one prepare for factors that are unknown until arriving on a set? I suppose, in simplest terms, the answer lies in being prepared to adapt.

The first rule of being prepared to adapt has to do with bringing along gear that can be adapted for use in various environments. Unless the production day is scheduled at a studio, I rarely know in advance if I'll be shooting daylight exteriors or location interiors or both. I rarely know in advance how many models/performers I'll be shooting. I rarely know if the environment, assuming it's a location shoot (which it often is) will be "picture-friendly" or not.

It might sound like being prepared for these unknown variables means packing a lot of gear, especially lighting and grip gear. That's not necessarily true. It does mean bringing gear that can be used in a variety of ways and can be easily moved about, set up, broken down, set up again and broken down again. Sometimes, quite a few times in the same day. (By the way, in the interest of shameless self-promotion, there's an entire chapter on gear, covering all kinds of very useful and adaptable equipment, in my ebook, Guerrilla Glamour.)

Some of you might be thinking those requirements are a good argument for using small-flash instruments like speedlites. Small-flash photography can certainly be effective, yielding great results. But, for my work, small-flash sources often don't provide enough lighting power. That leaves monolights as my usual first-choice. They certainly provide the power I'll need for most situations and environments. Since that's the case, I always pack at least three monolights. Fortunately, they don't take up too much storage space and they're usually packed in a single Pelican case.

I always bring along a moderate selection of modifiers with me, from softboxes to umbrellas to scrims. Again, these items don't take up much storage space--I usually have them packed in a single bag--and they are easily set up and broken down. BTW, baseball bat bags are inexpensive, easily slung over one's shoulder, and are great for storing and carrying umbrellas and softboxes. They can also handle a few stands and grip arms.

Light stands (and grip arms) are important. For me, stands need to be sturdy and easily moved about. I'm a big fan of "baby" stands on wheels, especially those made of aluminum alloys. They're lightweight yet sturdy and stable and, with wheels, are easily moved about. I'm also a fan of C-stands, especially those with "Rocky Mountain" legs (Rocky Mountain legs allow for leveling the stand on uneven terrain or stairs) and those that have what's called a "Turtle" base. (The riser column removes from the base for easy transport and/or attaching modifiers very low to the ground.)

Reflectors are always with me. I regularly use reflectors with artificial lighting to bounce in some fill or when I'm shooting outdoors using natural light, again for fill and sometimes for adding highlights. I usually carry 2 or 3 collapsible reflectors with me. I prefer those with interchangeable fabric covers, like Westcott's 5-in-1 reflector.

Besides lights, modifiers, and stands, I always have stingers (heavy-duty extension cords), a few sandbags, black gaffer's tape, a selection of both metal and plastic "A" clamps, and black cine-foil with me. Black foil is great for flagging light spill caused by lighting instruments as well as fashioning into make-shift snoots and other small, light-control uses. Also, I usually pack some black duvetyne in case I need to cover something up in the background or use it to flag unwanted light. Most importantly, I always bring along an apple box so I'm sure I'll have something to plop my ass on while shooting or waiting to shoot. (Waiting to shoot often takes up big chunks of my days on video production sets.)

Also, from the time I became a happy owner/user of an Innovatronix ExplorerXT portable power system, it always accompanies me to sets. I never know whether there's going to be A/C available wherever it is they'll have me shooting. The ExplorerXT takes care of that concern nicely and near-effortlessly.

All of the above, of course, is in addition to cameras, glass, wireless triggers, CF cards, light meter, and whatever else is in my camera bag.

The pretty girl in front of my camera in the picture at the top, at a location house in Las Vegas, is Devon. Please note the truly dumb placement of the power cord. Yep. I tripped over that cord moments after the behind-the-scenes image was snapped. Fortunately, only my ego was bruised. I didn't drop my camera and, while the modified light (and stand) it was attached to fell over, the Photoflex Octodome cushioned its fall.


EleganceAndChaos said...

One of the better definitions of a professional photographer that I have seen is that it is someone who can get the shot when things go wrong, not only when thing go 100 percent right.

Murphy's law will always strike no matter how much planning one does.

jimmyd said...


Ain't that the freakin' truth!

John said...

In the studio, I have (had?) sandbags, but what do you do for weights, when on location? You know, something to keep those lightweight stands from tipping? Especially if there's breezes.

Very useful column, sir.

jimmyd said...


I always carry two or three sand or shot bags with me. Usually 25lb. bags. If I bring a boom, which only happens if I know in advance that I'll need it, and that doesn't happen often--that I know in advance I'll need it, that is--I bring a lighter bag for a counterweight. I also have some of those 5 lb. weight thingies with velcro that people wrap around legs or arms when exercising. They make great counterweights for a boom as well. Generally, when shooting outdoors, I'm using C-stands which are made of steel, rather than lightweight aluminum. Still, I always weight them with bags. Also, if there's a moderate wind blowing, I won't use umbrellas (except maybe a brolly box) as they make better wind-catchers than light modifiers during those times.

GeorgeM said...

@ John -

the battery pack & inverter (in my case a Vagabond II) makes a really good stabilization weight while powering strobes outdoors. 18 pounds of weight and 20Ah of power in one easy to carry and clip to the stand package

jimmyd said...


Excellent tip, George! Thanks for the reminder on that. I've used my ExplorerXT many times with it hung low from a stand for weight as well! :-)