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On Assignment: What, Me Worry?

When on an assignment, my goal is for the actual shoot to be as worry-free as possible. That's why I try to get all of my worrying done beforehand.

Some people call this as "pre-production" work, but I tend to think of it as worrying in advance.

A worrisome, pre-planning walk-thru, inside

I did an assignment a couple weeks ago for a magazine that I won't name today, as the cover does not come out until next year and it's not cool to scoop a client.

But while the shoot was fresh in my mind, I wanted to run through my advance worrying before the actual shoot, as it is at least as important the time when you are actually taking photos. I will probably OA the shoot when the magazine is published, but for now it shall remain generic.

As someone who came from an environment in which much of the advance worrying was done for me by assignment editor Chuck Weiss, learning how to work out a game plan for before the fact has been a big help.

I would show up in the mornings, get my assignments for the day and hit the road. The assignment sheet was a framework, with most of the details worked out. And beyond that point it was the photo version of "Whose Line is it, Anyway," with photogs reacting real-time to the daily stream of curve balls that were thrown our way.

Which, of course, made the job very interesting, in a can-you-hit-a-curveball kind of way. Nowadays, all of the prep and pre-thinking falls to me. This is good in that it gives you control, but bad in that there are more variables to screw up work through. The goal, of course, being to leave as few surprises as possible for the day of the shoot.

Before the Shoot: A Walk-Thru

The first email for this job arrived from the magazine's art director while I was away in Mexico. They had a quick-turn cover assignment (the subject was to be leaving for an extended trip shortly) in the DC area. They wanted to know if I could I shoot it within a few days for publication early next year.

No problem, I told them. I would be back in town as of next Weds., and could talk more then. So I put that conversation on top of the to-do pile, as it was time sensitive.

As soon as I got back, I got details on the subject and how to contact him. The ball was now rolling, and the clock was ticking, with a couple of days to pull it together.

First: Worry About the Subject

Before contacting the subject, I first found out everything I could about him -- web pages, his personal site, YouTube videos of him in action, etc. Think somewhere between book report and full-blown stalker. The more you know, the better. Not that this is going to give you an amazing photo idea (then again, it might) but it will probably keep you making a completely stupid and irrelevant photo.

By the time I called the subject for the first time, I had a pretty good working knowledge of him. I knew what I would like to do (kind of a hero/epic looking shot, a little painterly, maybe) and where/when I would like to do it. But the "when" part depended on the subject's availability.

Worry About the Location

Not having any access to his normal working environment (this guy typically operates on the fringe of insanity, in some pretty exotic locales) I'm looking for a backdrop to connote water and build on that.

First destination: Google Maps. It's a godsend. I can scout locations -- including user-supplied photos for popular destinations. More important, I can plot sight lines in the direction of sunset on any given day of the year.

I settled on Centennial Lake Park in Howard County, MD as it was near my house and I was pretty sure it would be cool to shoot there. I knew I could get a clean look into sunset with water, so could use the wide variety of light that happens before, during and just after sunset.

A trip to the park with my point-and-shoot confirmed sight lines in the direction of the setting sun. I did a direct flash test of my hand against the sunset, just for a quick look.

I was also able to see what our immediate shooting area would look like, and find an alternate spot in case we had wind. In the end, we went with spot #2, as it was in a more windward direction. This bought us some calm on the water in the foreground before the wind laid down completely.

Worry About Permits

A quick look at the park's rules and regs told me I would probably be okay, as they only required permits for commercial and "instructional" shoots.

Permits are a double-edged sword, and we were potentially in a squishy area on this site. For me, there would be a short-timing issue (we were scheduling fast) so I definitely wanted to work around getting a permit if possible. But a permit also gives you a little ownership of the shoot area, and without that sheet of paper you are somewhat at the mercy of the other people there.

Technically, this shoot is editorial. So I figure we should be safe. But that won't make much difference if the guys who work there look at the lights and decide we are commercial. So I call in, ostensibly to make sure we will not need a permit.

But that is not the real reason I call. The regs already say we do not need a permit. What we do need, however, is the name of a higher-up to throw around in case we get disturbed by site workers while trying to shoot. Then we can say, "Nope, it's cool. We called and checked in, and (Jane Doe) said we did not need a permit because we were editorial."

Note: If you are going to go with this line of defense, it's all in the way it is delivered. Last thing you want to be doing is to be asking for permission again with the tone of your voice. You are merely assuring them that this is not something that is about to add to their day's responsibilities, because someone above them has already signed off.

Park worker: Let me see your permit.
Photographer [with a small wave of his hand]: You don't need to see the permit.
Park Worker: We don't need to see the permit.
Photographer: These aren't the photographers you are looking for.
Park Worker: These aren't the photographers we are looking for ...

Scheduling a shoot on a Saturday when the main offices are closed helps, too. Then they can't call Agency VP Jane Doe and say, "But they have a whole lot of lights and stuff flashing. Sure you do not want us to shut them down just to be safe?"

Funny thing about that, actually. During the shoot we were approached by a group of park workers. As they drove up in the truck and rolled down the window we were lining up the best line of BS we could muster. Then one leans out of the window and yells (and I quote) "Hey, look at these mother f-----s!" before driving off.

(Translation: It's close to quitting time, and we don't need the extra work of trying to figure the situation out.)

Perfect. But we were ready whip out some Obi Wan if necessary.

Worry About Logistics

Back on the planning front, we call our subject and get a date and time locked down. There is flexibility here, so of course we are gonna sked it to happen through sunset. That's a major advantage compared to getting your assignments all cut-and-dried. Take the timing reins when possible to get yourself the most chance of a good picture.

After locking down a place and time, I post an open call for VALs/assistants on both the location scout photo photo page on Flickr and on Twitter.

Alas, Flickrmail was borked for some reason (imagine that) and no responders got my follow-up mails. But Twitter backstopped it nicely and we had three sherpas assistants (Les, Mark and Linh) for shooting and some decent pizza after. (The magazine's budget was not assistant-friendly, but a location shoot and pizza is usually a pretty cool way to spend an evening. I generally enjoy being on either end of the equation.)

Next step: Send out a Google Map to all, with exact locations for shoot and place to park. People can pull directions from their home this way. Everyone gets everyone's cell number, email, etc., too.

And even with that level of info, pad the schedule If possible. Leave time for things to go wrong. They usually will, in some way. If you have planned for it, no big whup. Our subject was about 30 mins late, but we had planned for that. We only missed some late afternoon light, but still had him for the twilight transition.

Interesting note: Photographer Robert Seale sometimes takes it a step further, sending a car and driver for his subject. That is a very gracious-looking perk, for what is essentially a kidnapping -- and total control of your subject's whereabouts. Smart.

Worry on Paper

At this point, I have already begun a notebook for the shoot. Just a pad that stays with me and soaks up every idea I get for the shoot in the few days leading up.

This is maybe the biggest help of all of my advance worrying. Just having that pad/iPhone/back of your hand/whatever to jot down ideas allows you to just keep stuff percolating in the back of your mind and grab the good ideas that come along.

Worry About the Comp

I had the mag send me pdfs of several past covers. This lets the AD show me what he likes, and lets me see the range of what has been deployed in the past WRT logo, blurb space, etc.

This was very important in this case, as this particular mag has a humongous logo up top, and it will really dig down into the composition.

Can we float the head into the type? Yes we can, they say, into the bottom half at least. (That helps some.)

Worry About the Photo and Lighting

Any photo/lighting ideas I get within the next coupla days will go into this notebook, in very basic shorthand form. I want to be able to create a few different looks in short order. And having a playbook to go to will keep me from spazzing out with no ideas at the shoot.

The point is to have a script of ideas at the ready, but still be open to improvisation.

And every photo idea has a lighting scheme attached to it. This helps me to plan for what lighting gear I will need, and keeps me both from not having something and from overpacking. Well, too much, anyway.

This also helps me to previsualize the final image, for a better compass point when designing the light at the shoot. And I can group ideas into similar lighting themes, to allow me to swap out very efficiently at the shoot if time is short.

In the same way I might diagram a photo after the fact for this blog, having those diagrams pre-drawn is a big help. Those ideas, on paper, help to clear my thinking and to help others with the lighting setups if we are moving quickly.

Worry About the Gear

My approach to gear go with the lightest pack that includes no single point of failure. I.e., no one thing can break and kill the shoot. Since that usually means backing up lights somehow, it also give me the ability to improvise on the scene.

For gear this time, I am light on cameras and glass and heavier on light. One body to shoot, one backup body. One long zoom and one short zoom. One point-and-shoot to use as a setup camera and/or BTS video camera if we want.

The zooms meet up at 70mm (one 24-70, and a 70-200) so if one goes bad I can shoot at 70mm. Just fine for a portrait, worst case.

Lighting is more complicated. I have monoblocs, which gives me redundancy. (If everything runs through one pack and that pack goes, that's a bad thing.) I just take one extra mono than think I will need. But power is a weak point -- I only have one Vagabond II pack because my second inverter borked and in for repair.

So I shove four SB-800s in to the camera bag, and throw a few umbrella adapters for them into the stand bag. Now, even if the other Vagabond fails, I will be okay. I will just have to wait until the ambient gets a little lower to overpower it.

Speaking of lighting -- bringing along an AA-powered, strong LED flashlight means I can focus on the subject's eyes well past sunset and into the dark. You only forget that one once, and never again.

Shoot Day: No Worries, Mate!

Some stuff defies pre-planning. On the scene, we had a couple of lookie-loos who literally wandered right into the lights, checking stuff out.

"What's that? An AB800? Why, Iamthinkingaboutgettingoneofthosemyself. Excuse me as my curious young offspring steps right up and starts touching the gear! Nevermind the potentially fatal voltages -- if he gets electrocuted I can make another one just like him!"

Yeesh. That's a downside to working without a permit -- it is difficult keep people out of your shoot. So we talked with them for a coupla mins, stayed diplomatic, then invited them to watch. From a distance. Like, over there, behind that bench. Or maybe from across the lake.

At about sunset, a friend biked by with her always-present iPhone. Thus were photos of our in-progress shoot ported to Twitter before we were even halfway finished. Felt like we were on The Truman Show or something.

But for the most part, all went well. And in the end the smoothness of the final shoot was largely a result of the many layers of worrying that went into it.


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