Being a commercial photographer is truly an underestimated profession. An astonishing number of people assume as a commercial photographer you show up take photos, and that is the scope of your work. In reality it has many complexities and nuances. After having good hard laugh when someone makes this assumption, the question of ‘what goes into a commercial shoot?’ is posed. Without the assumptions I still find I am asked this question a fair bit, particularly by those who are just starting out.
Depending on who hires you, that answer may vary. As a photographer you may be brought in to do a variety of responsibilities which includes target market research, concept creation, budget allocation, scouting etc. It truly varies between productions and is often based on what the client is expecting and how large their organization, or budget is.
As a commercial photographer, you are not always asked to wear that many hats but, you do need to be educated on them as at times you’ll be communicating with those who are responsible for those jobs. It is difficult to operate in an industry without knowing the different mechanisms that work together. You also need to be prepared for the clients that do need you to tackle a more than one role.
There are 3 main steps for any shoot, pre-production, production, and post production. I will break down some tips and things to think about with each stage.
During pre-production it is important to get a feel for your client or those you are working for and with, this is where you may need your research hat. Some basic things to find out or learn about are:
Company background: Know the history, and values your client holds, this can help you with direction.
Target Market: You will need to determine your audience so you can determine who this advertisement is directed to, this will contribute to the emotion and feel of the end result.
Marketing Objectives: What are the results your client is looking for from this advertisement. How do you want the target market to respond?
Marketing Plan: Where is your work going, what format, and for how long. Will a trend go out of style by before the ad is retired? Even if you are not part of the creative direction some of this information will still be needed for usage rate calculation (I will go into more detail about this fun task in the future).
After you have made peace with your research hat, you may begin to make headway on creative concepts to take on for the brand, product, and audience. The creative director and Art director do quite a bit of work to get to the final decision when they present you a creative direction. To be able to run a successful campaign takes a quite a bit of experience and education, intuition can only take you so far. If you have either of these individuals working with you, they are your friend, collaborate with them to create something glorious.
The makeup artist, hair stylist, and the stylist will have a major impact on the outcome of your shoot (i.e. being in charge of the aesthetics involved with the focal point of your shots). Their taste and style will have a dramatic impact on the shoot so it is best to sit down or speak with them in regards to your mood board to make sure you are conveying the correct message with your mood boards. I will go into detail on how to create an effective mood board in the future.
If you are shooting on location, it may be time to put your scouting hat on. And possibly fill your vehicles’ gas tank. If you are working with a scout see what they have to offer if not, the first step should be using Google or Google Maps street view. You can search and narrow your prospective choices dramatically so you don’t have to waste time driving to Timbuktu and back. That being said, scoping out a location in person does have its advantages, elevation, angles, space and light can all be wildly different than what a few shots online seem to depict, plus it’s a fantastic excuse to be outdoors after a post production marathon. When you make your final choice be sure to get permission, permits and insurance specific to a commercial photoshoot before bringing a full team in, because no one likes trespassing charges on their rap sheet.
After determining location, it becomes time to figure out what equipment and supplies you will need. Is it a half day, single day, or multi-day shoot? Will you need generators, hair and makeup trailers or, production vans? How many assistants will you require? The idea is to imagine what is required to execute the creative, all of the possible elements that will help everyone on set, then… make sure to have two of each, because things will go wrong if you don’t plan on it just be reasonable, because even after packing light you will still end up with hundreds of pounds of stuff to bring with you.
This is the part everyone’s familiar with. When it comes down to actually taking photos. It’s a long day but for the most part it’s a great time. As I have explained before with my campaign for the White Cashmere Collection, every shoot has its own challenges. There is a lot of down time waiting for hair and makeup. But if you plan accordingly there should be good food, music, and a great mood on set. These days usually go by a lot quicker than expected, particularly when you realize your awake for almost 24 hours straight, it’s an odd sensation, but any creative will come to embrace it.
After you’ve had several decisive moments, the team has gone home, your gear is packed up and hopefully found its right place in storage, and you’ve gotten a few hours of sleep. The post production hat comes out. You will have between 500 to a few thousand images to go through depending on how long your shoot was. It becomes your job to sort through and narrow down the best few from each look. Depending on your method you may feel like you are performing a self-run eye exam- Which is better Left or right… left or right… right? … left?.. left or right? It’s just one of those weird things you never really expected yourself to do when you decided to go to school to become a photographer. None the less it’s an opportunity to see how your commercial photoshoot actually turned out and its success.
Depending on my schedule, at times I will hire freelance post production artists to take care of this end for me…<rant> For the love of god, please don’t take this as a job offer, I get 3-4 emails a day on average for people all around the world telling me how great their post-production is, especially for commercial photography… </rant> There are a select few that I trust and know hold the same artistic preference, and excessively keen attention to detail. When I do undertake retouching there are days or at rare times weeks spent on this process. Depending on the client, company, and level of approval the retouching list can be quite extensive. My secret is always keeping a natural and realistic balance within the work. You don’t want to start with a human in the photo and end up with an alien coming out the other side.
The colors of your work must be extremely accurate to achieve the realistic natural result. Assuming you have calibrated your camera during the shoot, for your post production ensure your monitor has a good color gamut. Invest in a monitor calibrator, LCD monitors lose their color profile quite quickly, so monitor calibrator should be done on a daily basis with your retouching, or you may end up paying dearly when it comes time to print.
At this stage, good chair, good mood and great music will help you focus on the work, it can become a daunting process so anything that helps keep you comfortable is an asset. I also highly recommend a tablet. For those who have never worked with a pen & tablet for your retouching, you must switch asap. There is something natural about retouching images with a pen. I find working with a mouse is no different than drawing with a brick and a pencil at the end of it. It doesn’t seem weird until you’ve crossed over to the other side, but once you try it you will wonder what sort of madness you were caught up in.
Once the editing is done and you’ve forgotten what sunlight is, images will be submitted for implementation. The vast majority of the time you will not be responsible for said implementing, whether it is printing or uploading the commercial campaign. Just don’t forget to check your color profile, dpi, dimensions & file format before submitting the work.
As this is not a unique experience only for a Toronto based commercial photographer, it’s good to note that different countries do have a bit of a different process, for example, some governments do require lawyers to be involved in the process of obtaining a location permit. But more on those experience in the future posts.
If you understand how all the pieces work together you will have a better understanding and control over how your shoot unfolds. Keeping on top of things prevents you from feeling like a commercial cat herder, because every commercial photographer knows shoots can be quite the monumental production and undertaking.