Behind The Scenes: A Photo Shoot
Photos are funny things. You look at one, and it gives you this idea- this depiction of what was going on at the time, what happened.....you think.
In reality, it's not what it appears at all. I like to use the movie business as an analogy. When you hear about a movie being made, you hear about the locations they flew to to scout possibilities and then later to shoot. The actors and actresses that auditioned and were cast, the hundreds of people working together in various jobs over months or years to create this one, short, finished piece for our entertainment. It's all behind the scenes.
Making a photograph is the same thing. And one thing that isn't often understood is just how much is sorted through in the process to get to that one perfect thing.
Various locations are scouted before one is settled on to be used.
Tables and tables are covered in props to be tried and put back and tried again.
Ideas are settled on. Thought out. Then tossed aside and started again.
Foods are shot before they are in season (sometimes overnighted from California), so that, when the ad is released, they are in season for the consumer.
For food photography, when you go to buy the ingredients (you can really let your OCD out here), you pick through each and every Arugula leaf to gather up a giant bag of hand-picked leaves which are then brought to set and, once again, picked through to find the perfect singular leaf for that particular picture. Often times this means scouting multiple grocery stores/farmers markets/specialty shops to find a special ingredient.
Another funny thing about photography is the "hero." This is one we use a lot in shooting food because the food will sit for a while on set while we tweak the lighting, try out different props, and make changes according to what works best for the ad/book/campaign/recipe. The "stand-in" is the food (let's say burger), we have in the set while we are building the image and finalizing things. The "hero" is the fabulous, juicy fresh burger we switch in for the final image.
And all of this takes time. Lots of time.
For each shot, we begin by conceptualizing.
Conceptualizing is a really fun part of the process. It begins when I'm handed the Creative Brief. The Creative Brief is a document detailing the message, target audience, medium (web, book, magazine, campaign), and specifics of the project. I receive this and use this information to direct my lighting plan, prop sourcing, aesthetics (angle, composition, etc.), and the environment and feeling I want the image to evoke to appeal to it's target audience. A big part of being a professional is being able to take the product, parameters and restrictions (of which there are often many), into play and still create a beautiful image that communicates it's intended message, represents it's brand and appeals to it's demographic. You don't always know what you are going to get and, often it's much different than the brief or what was discussed- or it may not even be known until the last second. Working with what you have to make the different elements, considerations and goals come together is how you successfully create a winning image.
Once you've got the concept down, comes the planning. Planning is the longest part of the process and varies wildly depending on a photographer's own specific methods. I lean way into the super planning side of things which means I wind up with lofty divided binders for every project detailing just about everything that could be broken down.
I will lay out lighting plans. Put together collections of props to be on set. Print out checkable lists of Equipment and Materials. A shot list (a list of the shots we have to shoot that day). Recipes. Briefs. Sketches. Timeline. Background. Notes. Mock-up (a layout of the ad given to the photographer by the designer), and of course, Moodboards.
Moodboards are a huge part of the "creative industry." Designers, Art Directors, Prop Stylists, Food Stylists and more use them to guide the direction of a project. A moodboard is basically a collage of images, patterns, type, hand lettering, movie clips, textures- anything that evokes the "mood" you are looking to reach. Collectively, they paint a wonderful picture and communicate far beyond words the goal and aesthetic. It can be difficult for everyone to be speaking abstractly about a highly specific visual thing that is yet to exist- one person's interpretation or description car vary wildly from another's.
We then have to book a date, location and any stylists (food, props), assistants (food/prop/photo), and/or models. There are anywhere from 2-14 people on set for a food shoot and more the larger the shoot becomes. Most of the time I work as my own food stylist. This is very different from other photographers and has come to be due to the fact that I began cooking and styling the food for my photos when I was in school for photography and have continued to do so for myself as well as other photographer's from time to time. Props stylists can be less common to have on a food shoot.
I shoot images on location (farms, restaurants, hikes, etc.), in a food photography studio and at my home studio.
Once we are on set, things move much more quickly. A lot is invested the day of a shot. People have driven or flown in, props and food that will go bad have been purchased for the day, models may have been booked and paid, a deposit has been put down on the studio and often the weather has dictated when we will be shooting. Getting sick or having something come-up is not really and option.
Since we've flushed everything out ahead of time, everyone is on the same page and knows what to expect so problems or miscommunications are less likely to arise in a critical time. I arrive early to unpack and set up. This usually takes one to two hours. If we are using a food stylist (someone who shops, cooks and styles the food on set), they will show up shortly after I have and we will both prepare and go over the shots lined up for the day. Working with stylists (food, prop), is a very collaborative part of the process. Each person has their own specialty and can bring something valuable to the shot.
From here we continue to the actual shot!
If we are shooting in a studio I have my camera set up on a tri-pod connected to my laptop by a cord (known as "tethering"). This allows me to have each image I shoot immediately pop up in the shooting software I am using on my computer. These softwares allow me to zoom in, crop, adjust colors, adjust the warmth/coolness of a photo and put the photo into the mock-up (to view with text/graphics). The majority of images need to be shot to specific crops (website banners, large-scale posters, cookbooks), and must be shot with room for text in a way that compliments the text and the image.
Once we reach this point, we'll work the photo for 1-8+ hours (usually book covers), looking at each image as it pops up, viewing it in the mock-up and adjusting as needed. Minute-seeming things are pondered endlessly. "Does this knife look too aggressive pointing towards you?," "Is this peppercorn reading as a peppercorn or a black spot?," "Is it apparent from this setting one should use this cheese to make these dishes?," "Is this section of the salad too heavy with almonds?." You would scratch your head at how detailed the conversations get.
I find it hugely important to spend ample time thinking things through and having a solid plan to bring to set. That said, I feel it's equally important to react to the moment. If the strawberries are less than desirable but the watermelon is in it's prime how can we play up the best parts? If we get to set and the summer produce is so gorgeous our elaborate table setting seems to compete- let's pare things down. These things are intuitive and come with experience.
So we've reached the final image and everyone is happy and we clapped and blew the horn and we're ready to eat any extra food we didn't wind up using on set (set food sits out for hours and goes through a lot of poking and probing). First we will eat followed by me immediately making multiple copies of the images to multiple hard drives (it's my worst nightmare to get home and find out my memory card malfunctioned).
Upon getting home and selecting the final image (sometimes done on set, sometimes picked later by the client), I will edit the image in editing softwares. I use two softwares to edit the image- 1 for overall edits and 1 for specific areas within an image. I will then upload the image to an online file sharing system and send this to the client. The client can download the image/s from here (I will have discussed the image size/resolution/file type with the designer beforehand).
Weeks or months pass before the image winds up in it's final place and the ad/campaign/cookbook/article is released. It's gone through many more things on the design end and, if the medium is print, been adjusted for printing. It will "live" as we say for anywhere from forever (in a printed book), to a couple weeks (for a sale), to anything in-between.
And that is the full cycle of a shoot. The number of images and other variables determine the time a project will take. A fair account of 1 image from the initial e-mail to sending back the final edited image will span 4 weeks. Much like the shoot itself, a photographer's portfolio is a mere peak of the images and jobs they have worked on, curated into a representation of them and their work.
And that, my friends, is the essence of a photoshoot, start to finish.