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.


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger Eduardo Tejeda said...

Good read.

Were can i see the photos of the assignment?

December 14, 2009 12:38 PM  
Blogger David said...

I'll do an OA after the magazine comes out. Pix looked cool, too...

December 14, 2009 12:42 PM  
Blogger reg said...

great article dave.
Perfect description of a shoot

December 14, 2009 1:13 PM  
Blogger DLM said...

How is this defined as an editorial vice a commercial shoot, thus not requiring a permit? I did not see anything regarding and editorial shoot in the regs. (I admit I did glaze over after the first couple of pages.)

December 14, 2009 1:27 PM  
Blogger Reinoud said...

Do you teach courses of the Obi Wan stuff as well? ";-)

December 14, 2009 1:28 PM  
Blogger David said...


Regs said permits needed for commercial and "instructional" shoot, but not editorial. We were good as per the rules, but still exposed if some yayhoo decided we looked commercial, which we would have...


re: Teaching the Obi Wan stuff:

This is not the blog that you seek...

December 14, 2009 1:36 PM  
Blogger Thann said...

This kind of "stuff" is as much a part of the process of making great images as is depressing the shutter release. Great content - thanks for all the things you make us stop to think about on a regular basis. I'm looking forward to the OA!

December 14, 2009 1:38 PM  
Blogger Rob Greer said...

I love your blog but I'm disappointed in your comments about how photographers should contact permitting officials so that they can throw around a name during the shoot. From the way you present it, I think many readers would come to the conclusion that you're promoting gaming the system.

Additionally, given the example you provided, I think your editorial shoot was in fact a commercial shoot. Your client is presumably a magazine that sells their publication at a profit. You in turn are selling your photographs to that magazine. I don't see how you see any gray area.

December 14, 2009 1:47 PM  
Blogger Larry Eiss said...

Excellent information, David. This is yet another great example of the reason why you are in my feed reader. This is helpful and I'll be putting it to good use. Thanks very much, Sir.

December 14, 2009 1:58 PM  
Blogger captaindash said...

Cones. Traffic cones, my friend. Nobody questions them, nobody goes through this impregnable area for some strange reason. I've taken them out of my truck and 'saved' good parking spaces. Caution tape, or even simple string works wonders. I've used fake barriers in all sorts of situations and nobody ever questions their silent authority. It's the strangest thing, but it works to keep people from impersonating your backpack. It gives you a good place to send people juuuust behind if they start to pester you. I also give a fake liability argument if they think of crossing the Queens Guard.

December 14, 2009 2:10 PM  
Blogger David said...


Not quite sure how to say it more clearly, other than that as an editorial shoot we *were* in the bounds of not needing a permit.

The other stuff is improve-your-odds strategy, in case some groundskeeper onsite who does not know the difference tries to thwart the shoot.

I can be right and he can be wrong, but if I fail to get around him my shoot is still screwed up. That's an occupational hazard, and this is a way to minimize it.

As for this being a commercial shoot? Nope. Assuming based on your question that you are not an editorial photographer. But FYI, a magazine shoot is about as editorial as it gets. The fact that the magazine is or is not a nonprofit has nothing to do with it.

I shot for The Sun for 20 years. Some of those years, the paper made a profit (I would hope.) That would not make the shoots in those years commercial shoots...

December 14, 2009 2:12 PM  
Blogger captaindash said...

@Rob Greer: Newspapers are sold for profit, and the photographers are paid in real dollars they can exchange for good and services. So what if the magazine pages are more glossy. Still editorial. Also, it's not 'gaming the system' if you are 100% within the rules, and throwing around the actual name that has authority.

I bet you never drive over the speed limit.

December 14, 2009 2:13 PM  
Blogger Gary Christenot said...

DH is spot on about using Google maps and associated tools to plan the location shoot vis-a-vie sight lines and sunset direction. I've done 2 recent shoots this way, coupling a Google map satellite view with sunset direction and azimuth pulled off the U.S. Naval Observatory. Based on that analysis I was able to completely revamp my site location plan before I ever stepped foot out the door.

December 14, 2009 2:15 PM  
Blogger David said...


FWIW, Rob is a photographer, but he shoots weddings, products and portraits, etc. I.e., he is not necessarily familiar with what constitutes an editorial shoot. No worries.

But I am with you on the cones thing. I used to keep one in my trunk at the paper. It is a magical device -- just enough nondescript authority so that people blindly obey it. Great for reserving a parking space before the fact at an event.


December 14, 2009 2:18 PM  
Blogger Michael Natkin said...

Exactly the same as what we do preparing for a dinner, especially if it is offsite. Have to think through every dish, how it will be prepped, how it will be plated, will plating take so long that it won't be hot anymore, do I have enough servers to carry them, what if one of them gets sick, what if I can't even get in to the venue at the appointed time, and 10k other things that can go wrong. Worry it all out in advance so you can "cook" when the time comes, whether it is potatoes or pixels.

December 14, 2009 2:20 PM  
Blogger Marc Pritchard said...

Best line of the article:

"That is a very gracious-looking perk, for what is essentially a kidnapping"

Thanks for the tips, some good stuff in there.

December 14, 2009 2:47 PM  
Blogger Kristin Joy said...

So true! Most people think that the life of a photographer is the easiest thing ever...it's not

December 14, 2009 2:47 PM  
Blogger Seán Cook said...

Sincerely helpful post. I think it is more often these major details which go undiscussed. Really helped fill in some gaps in knowledge/gave helpful ideas.

Thanks for all the hard work.


December 14, 2009 3:13 PM  
Blogger dan.brady said...

David, I've been reading this blog for about 2 years now, and this IMO is one of your best posts. Real life shoot and the thinking that goes into it. Much appreciated and some useful tips. Dare I say it, this is the style that your book should be written in … like McNally's 'hot shoe diaries' but more detail, so more useful.

Pedants corner: My two penneth (cents to you) re the regs … this was most definitely a commercial shoot. Your distinction between commercial and editorial is from a photographer's perspective. I bet the park authorities wouldn't see a difference (they aren't bothered about the nuances between work for a magazine, and for an ad agency). Commercial = you are getting paid. Instructional = you are teaching. Guess what, you were doing both! ;) Double result. Not that I really care. Your tips regarding sourcing the name of the 'superior' are great - expert blagging. Hats off.

More posts like this please, or put them in a book and I'll buy it. Can't wait to see the photo.

December 14, 2009 3:18 PM  
Blogger RC Pilot said...

....But I am with you on the cones thing... Great for reserving a parking space before the fact at an event....

Shhhhhh! This is a secret that only the initiated should know!

Looking forward to the OA.

December 14, 2009 3:40 PM  
Blogger Mark Wernham said...

Maybe this isn't quite an option when shooting for a deadline/magazine, given the risks of a shoot getting canned while in progress, but I abandoned seeking permission and/or permits ever since the last time I thought I'd better ask. I wanted to shoot behind an old factory which was, ironically, being rented out as artists' garrets by the art-loving corporate property developers who own it. I asked, they said no.

I now subscribe to the 'it's easier to say sorry afterwards if you get busted' theory. I shoot for my own self-commissioned art, so the stakes aren't as high as when you're meeting some explorer guy for the front cover ofd a magazine, though. Having said that, I worked for Melody Maker for years (as a writer) and I never saw any of the snappers I worked with bother with permits or the like for the many cover shoots we did on the streets of LA, London, Tokyo etc. Mind you, these days we'dget tazered for some of the stuff we pulled outside, for example, the London Stock Exchange.

December 14, 2009 4:01 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I met a local guy in India. He told me "In India, rules are for suckers." I go with that generally, but it's good to be safe. Most people just wanna watch/ask if it's for Playboy/have their own picture taken.

Great talk on a new subject, David. Thanks.

December 14, 2009 4:10 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Eliuk said...

I really appreciate the discussion about editorial vs commercial. I assumed "commercial" simply meant "being paid", as I suspect many park workers might as well. I don't really understand why it matters, what the end use of the product is. Can anyone elaborate? Why would the exact same set-up for a portrait the subject was buying need a permit but not because the magazine is buying it?

December 14, 2009 4:14 PM  
Blogger Myron said...

Love the post, thanks for sharing your behind the scene pre-production work flow. Now, I'm aware of another part of the process I've completely lucked out on. At least I'm now know that actual "planning" is part of the process.

Another fun thing is when on location at a park or scenic lookout, I'd be shooting away concentrating on the images in front of the camera only to look around and see a whole flock of tourists all lined up shooting "over my shoulder" so to speak capturing a similar shot.

On the other hand, I had been advertising a photo shoot concept on the net; surprisingly, the next thing I discovered was that a Commercial TV Reality Show somehow did the exact same theme for their talent search reality show.

Imitation is the highest form of Flattery.

We all imitate or are inspired by you, Thanks.

Imitation plus imagination is the Mother of creativity.

December 14, 2009 4:29 PM  
Blogger Rob Greer said...

In reference to David who implied that I don't know the definition of an editorial shoot, I'd like to mention that I've had the cover of several business magazines so I'm quite familiar with the difference between editorial and commercial work. But Dan Brady hit it spot on--if you went to the park directors and told them you were shooting the cover of a magazine and that you were using light stands and modifiers, then I'd guess that they might look on this as a commercial shoot. It's not about our definition (as photographers) of commercial photography (versus editorial); it's about the location owner's / manager's definition. Now if you were able to convince the property owner that it wasn't commercial, more power to you--as long as there is full disclosure.

December 14, 2009 5:19 PM  
Blogger David said...

Rob, if you are talking about what the groundskeeper might think, yeah, he might think it was commercial.

But then again, he might also think a commercial is what comes on right during the good part of his WWF show. So in that sense, I do not care what he thinks. He is just a potential obstacle to get around.

But what you actually *said* was:

"Additionally, given the example you provided, I think your editorial shoot was in fact a commercial shoot. Your client is presumably a magazine that sells their publication at a profit. You in turn are selling your photographs to that magazine. I don't see how you see any gray area."

A magazine cover is an editorial shoot. The only way a mag cover might fail to be considered to be an editorial shoot is if the magazine was a wholly-owned, in-house corporate publication that is designed to look like an editorial mag.

There are also segments inside newspapers by local businesses and institutions that do this. They call them "advertorial," which is BS, because they are ads that look like other parts of the paper. They pay full advertising/commercial rates, BTW.

FYI, this distinction often comes up in the assignment process, as it determines the amount a photog is paid for the shoot and usage.

If in doubt, a very easy determinant of whether a magazine-looking corporate publication is editorial or commercial is whether the publication accepts advertising from third parties. Additionally, photographers' credit are part of the deal with editorial, too. But it's the outside advertising that is the clincher.

This one is not even close -- it's straight, cut-and-dried editorial. The ads inside the magazine are not editorial, but the cover and other contents are absolutely editorial, no question.

And as for the rules and regs inside the park, we were legit. The call and getting the name of a super (to use for the groundskeeper onsite) is just insurance.

In the same way that I'll he will not know the difference between a commercial and editorial shoot, I will also bet that a "we called and checked with [Jane Doe]" will suffice for him.

And directly to your bet, I did call the lady in charge in advance and tell her what we were to be doing. I said it was for a magazine, and then immediately compared it to the dozen or so shoots I had done there for The Sun, in case she didn't know the difference.

Big Surprise: If you are offering up reasons for people to put up barriers to your shoots, that is exactly what they will do. You find your best route, run it, and use whatever you need to CYA on the scene.

And again, Saturday at 5pm, what she thinks might not be important to Bob, the groundskeeper. That's why you have Jane's name on the top of your tongue, to allay Bob's fears that he will get yelled at later by someone.

This is not the first time I have done this sort of thing, FWIW. It's just common sense and doing what you need to do to make a picture. SOP.

And if you think those bizmag covers you are shooting are, in fact, commercial, try to get the biz mags to pay you commercial rates. They will explain why they are editorial, just as above.

But if they are *not* accepting outside ads, you absolutely should be charging them commercial rates. Although they will certainly be trying to pay you editorial rates.

December 14, 2009 6:27 PM  
Blogger David said...

p.s. FWIW, of the hundreds of photographers I have worked with over the last 20 years, that's the first time I have ever heard "Full Disclosure" mentioned as a compass point. ;)

December 14, 2009 6:30 PM  
Blogger Fenix Fotography said...

No this is clearly an editorial shoot, not a commercial shoot.

I shoot fashion for a magazine in Charlotte which is editorial (because the stylist and I are executing a vision on behalf of the magazine free from the influence of the clothing manufactures). It looks EXACTLY the same as when I shoot for an advertising client. The difference is initial INTENT.

Of course I retain copyrights and often do something else with the photos after my blackout agreement (as David says, scooping the client is not cool).

December 14, 2009 6:44 PM  
Blogger Rob Greer said...

It appears I chose some poor words in my original post. And you can focus on those in your response but that doesn't change the fact that most park systems would consider this particular work commercial. I can't speak for your local park system, but on the federal side, your project would be considered a commercial project. You can certainly receive authorization to complete a project like this by speaking to the appropriate supervisor (which you did), but according to the national park system and most permitting bodies I'm familiar with, your work would be considered a commercial project. Please take a a look at what is considered commercial by the National Park Service here:


I understand the difference between editorial and commercial in the world of photographers. However, what I'm trying to say is that commercial == editorial to most permitting authorities (not inclusive of breaking news).

December 14, 2009 7:17 PM  
Blogger Basswork said...


Given that this is Maryland in late autumn, how did you plan for the weather? What if you got one of those dreary days? Or rain? (I grew up in Camp Springs and recall those awful days.)

Google maps is a great tool, but Google Earth can be even better. I scouted a shoot in Santa Paula, Ca I did a week ago with GE.

With the image tilted to show the mountains in relief, I was able to drag the sun slider until I could see exactly when the dramatic shadows would be there for my background. Then I scheduled my shoot around that time.

Nice post, thanks.

December 14, 2009 7:40 PM  
Blogger David said...

Rob, I do not care what the national park thinks. In DC, it is deemed illegal if you set up a tripod or a light stand. That does not make them right.

This was not a commercial shoot. It is editorial. Not gonna continue to debate this, either. If you feel that passionately about it, write a blog post.

December 14, 2009 7:52 PM  
Blogger David said...


We were within the 5-day forecast, which gave us enough confidence in the weather. If it would have been iffy, we could have moved indoors and done it in a studio.

December 14, 2009 7:53 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Awesome insight into preplanning! Thanks so much for this blog, David. keep it up, you're the man!

December 14, 2009 9:37 PM  
Blogger photoshopabuser said...

Good read man. Good read. And all this time I thought I was the only one using cones....

December 14, 2009 9:57 PM  
Blogger Cam said...

thanks for reminder to BRING A FLASHLIGHT on twilight shoot for focusing -- easy to overlook and really makes a difference to have one!

December 14, 2009 10:10 PM  
Blogger Bryan Mitchell said...

Man, what bug crawled up Robs butt?
I too, like another said, find it better not to ask for permission but forgiveness if needed. But it depends on the situation. I also agree its good to have a name of a higher up to throw out.
David, you don't talk about the money, rights and so on, negotiation that goes with shooting for a mag. Thats a huge part of it. Maybe you already had a relationship with this mag and knew much of that info already.
Anyway, nice post. Like I tell my photo classes and others, pushing the button and taking the photo is the easy part. The biz, the prep, the access and sometimes the headaches are what can be tough.

December 14, 2009 10:16 PM  
Blogger CJC said...

Great post, i shall be following lots of the advice! (awesome blog btw.. long time reader who never comments)
Re. the commercial/editorial thing.
I actually followed the link to the parks policy and read it and the follow on reference to the legislation itself.
...they agree with DH's definition of commercial. Curious that someone would post a link to something that defeats their argument :)

December 14, 2009 11:22 PM  
Blogger William said...

Thanks for sharing. Actually, the planning and preparation works account for 90% of a photographer's professional life.

December 14, 2009 11:32 PM  
Blogger Phat Baby Photographer said...

Hey David - thanks for another informative post.

Thus far I've always called/checked to see if permits are required even though it means I can't play the ignorance card afterwards. Once I paid $40 for the permit (which I passed onto my client) but the paperwork was kind of a pain having had to provide a business license and proof of insurance. The other two times though I was told no problem and was even given some pointers on the best locations within the parks/museums to take photographs. So I'd list the latter as potential advantages for asking about the permit as well.

December 14, 2009 11:53 PM  
Blogger michael said...

David: inspiring. A tad different from my mag shoot today. A typical one for me: An hour to shoot an exec, which actually turns into an hour and a half on account of carrying light stands and three gear bags across a large building; plus an hour to drive there and back, plus an hour post work. That pays a grand total of $50.

December 15, 2009 12:48 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...


Love the site, I've been reading for a couple months now and actually chopped the Strobist header the other day to make a Fast Dial logo for quick viewing (firefox plugin).

So this is a super dumb question, but when do you turn your flash light off when shining it in the face of your subject to lock focus? Do you just let your key light wash it out? Do you auto focus it, switch to manual and then fire? A brief explanation would be great!

Also what do you do about displeasing your subject when your shining a bright light into their face? Understandably if shooting a model then they are getting paid to do that. But for editorial shots, how does that go over with the client?

December 15, 2009 1:10 AM  
Blogger Scott said...


About the sunrise/sunset plotting. Try out TPE (The Photographers Ephemeris). It's free.

It uses google maps, you pick your spot, and it graphically shows you sunrise/sunset, moonrise/moonset for any given location for any date.

You need to install Adobe Air which is also free


I have found this to be a great tool.

Did I mention it's free? :-)


December 15, 2009 1:11 AM  
Blogger Stormin said...

'nother informative post Señor Hobby!

Great to see the planning process and can't wait to see the end result. I do much the same, must be the A/R engineer in you to hope for the best but plan for the worst.

WRT permits etc. regardless of what 'we' photogs have in our mind as commercial, editorial, or personal art, the authorities will take the most conservative approach and usually (rightly or wrongly) you'll end up packing your bags.

'We' have a right to treat 'the man' with all due respect and pleasantly before thumbing our noses and adamantly refusing to obey lawful orders while waving our tattered copies of "The Photographer's Right"... such 'professionalism' tarnishes all 'photogs' and only leaves bitterness toward all future encounters with anyone using anything resembling a strobe, umbrella, tripod, or professional looking camera.

My first rule is to go to places far out of the way. Beyond that, speed, stealth, and if all else fails, a smile and a nod. And yes, I have packed it up a time or two.

Here's hoping for more great posts like this!

December 15, 2009 1:17 AM  
Blogger Kris said...

Ah Ha, you taught us... definitely instructional now... lol. IMO light stands and a paycheck do not determine whether a photo shoot is commercial or editorial... Is this for an advertisement or a story?

Thanks so much for sharing this post. I was inspired to go download Google Earth again and check out its capabilities. I will be using this tool over and over again.

I recently discovered the usefulness of carrying a flashlight when I set out to get some sunset shots 2 miles from my car. I brought the light because I knew I would be walking back to the car in the dark.. but it made some shots possible that would have been missed without it.

Thank you most of all for sharing your thought process. I am just getting started in my photography career and I realize that it is stuff like this that separates the best from the rest. Keep up the good work.

December 15, 2009 2:44 AM  
Blogger CanEHdian_Bacon said...

Great read - informative and useful as always. Props on the "Whose Line is it, Anyway?" reference - I much prefer the UK version myself.

December 15, 2009 2:58 AM  
Blogger drjim6 said...

"assignment editor Chuck Weiss..." ? Good grief, so that's where he was all the time... I've always wondered who Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones were singing about (in "Wish I was in New Orleans" and "Chuck E.'s in love" respectively. ;-)

December 15, 2009 7:22 AM  
Blogger chris said...

Great post! Can't tell you how many of these I've gone into with the same pad of paper. Another thing I do with the assistants is prep them on Plan B if the Vagabond fails, the maintenance worker gets inquisitive, etc. Team moves as one with direction already pre-programmed, and the SB units are always ready to stand in for the Alien Bees.

On Commercial vs. Editorial, this is editorial, no way around the argument. The skinny is that parks systems are simply asking for their cut of the cash and examining intrusion levels when it's something folks are profiting from in a strictly commercial sense. You just can't ask tax-paying park goers to change their plans for a game of croquet because Burger King wants to use the space to create advertising to plump up their kids.

So, it's the photographer's or producer's job to educate the Park employees, they have plenty of other things to do aside from learn the nuances of photo terminology...whether their published rules say a tripod means "commercial" or not.

Meanwhile, it's your responsibility to your client to have names and plans of action should things go South in a hurry with an ornery maintenance guy.

December 15, 2009 10:08 AM  
Blogger JoeH said...

@CJC - what you said LOL

It's obvious that the "permit" part of this has sparked some interest and I think is relevant to shoot planning...so..

Specifically NPS says, in part: "A permit is required if the filming, video taping, sound recording or still photography involves products or service advertisement.....".

Sounds like the NPS understands "commercial".YMMV.


Great post btw!

December 15, 2009 10:51 AM  
Blogger Red State Rabble said...

Thanks for another informative post. I do have a question: you mention a Flickr "location scout" page. My search didn't turn up anything that seemed to match what you referred to. Can you provide a link? Also, can you provide more details about the assistants -- was pizza the only compensation? Thanks again.

December 15, 2009 11:25 AM  
Blogger kevsteele said...

@William: Yep, and I would a few "P's" 90% of the time is Promotion, Planning, Preparation and Post. Shooting: 10%.

And I've found an LED headlamp as opposed to a flashlight a better solution. It can always be pointed like a flashlight but the head is a great placeholder for hands free and no worries about where the light is.

December 15, 2009 11:32 AM  
Blogger Silver Image said...

Thanks for the informative and well-presented walkthrough. By the way, "gaming the system" is fair game. It's all about the image.

December 15, 2009 11:46 AM  
Blogger Brad said...

...and given the condition of the magazine biz, I have a feeling that for all this work you were paid slightly less than the average kid makes on a good day of Lemonade sales...


December 15, 2009 12:31 PM  
Blogger thomas caleb said...

@ Rob & Commercial vs Editorial
1- It is irrelevant whether or not the NPS would define this as commercial. The shoot was not in the NPS.
2- Full disclosure was made and Full approval was granted.
3- The NPS Policies and Procedures document that was intended to contradict David’s position does just the opposite. The P&P rules state:
“A permit is required if the filming, video taping, sound recording or still photography involves products or service advertisement, or the use of models, sets, or props, or when the filming, video taping, sound recording, or still photography could result in damage to park resources or significant disruption of normal visitor use.” (this is the *only* point in the whole NPS document providing definition)
4- The official NPS document *clearly* defines that a permit is needed if the photography is involves “products or service advertisement” or “result in damage to park resources or significant disruption of normal visitor use.”
5- DH’s shoot was not for “products or service advertisement”
6- DH’s shoot would not, in any way, have damaged Park resources, or disrupted normal visitor use.
7- Even if DH’s shoot was in the NPS, it would have been exempt from needing a permit. And if he was denied the exemption by an overzealous NPS officer, he would have had grounds to have the NPS regulations legally enforced. (not that it would be worth it, but the legal prerogative would exist)

It is understandable and commendable to conscientiously take the steps to respect the regulations of the location a shoot is taking place. The fact is that David Hobby did just that.
I for one am immensely appreciative for the integrity of professionals like Mr. Hobby who are willing to so generously share their wealth of knowledge and experience.

December 15, 2009 2:25 PM  
Blogger David said...

FWIW, even tough the comments have kinda skewed editorial vs commercial, I am glad the point was raised.

Obviously photogs need to know the environment in which they are working. But there is also the more important ability to be like water finding downhill in terms of making a photo happen.

This is something we were taught day after day by our DOP's at The Sun, and I think it is the most valuable skill a photographer can possess.

Okay, maybe eyesight is important. But then again, my friend Balmore has a lot more of the former than the latter, and is an pretty good skateboard shooter as a result.

December 15, 2009 3:31 PM  
Blogger dh said...

RE - SUNSET -- i use a terrific iPhone app, the "pro" version of Sunrise Sunset -- for $2 it shows you the azimuth and inclination anywhere at anytime, and has a nifty slider which shows you the sun's position in the sky.


December 15, 2009 9:16 PM  
Blogger J said...

Great Read, I learned more in moments than hours of research on my own :) Nobody seems to understand the prep work involved, until the time they try to be photographers themselves.

It got me to thinking of what happens after all the prep is done, the shoot has taken its course, and then the shot is the feature cover of a Magazine.

The 'post worry' prep to deliver the photo prior to printing. How much time and effort, to select the shot, then the post production work that is involved, in hours?

December 16, 2009 8:06 AM  
Blogger Ed Wens said...

Great post. One question about the flashlight though. I haven't tried that yet, but since you are focussing on the eyes, you also have to shine your light directly into the eyes. Doesn't that mean that your subject will have his/her eyes pinched or even closed? (with an accomodating frown on the face) Even when you turn off the light just before you actually start shooting?

And if you turn the light off before shooting, does that mean you focus manually? Because otherwise with AF after the first shot of a sequence, your camera will start to trie to focus again.

December 16, 2009 8:35 AM  
Blogger Erik Markov said...


I posted this over at SS.com, but I thought you might be interested in this technique, don't remember having seen it before.

I cam across some an interesting technique on Gizmodo for shooting snow in a photo illustration.

The gallery of photos is about Lego shots set up to look like Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back, on the snowy planet. The gallery and some explanation, http://tinyurl.com/ychncyg.

He built his Lego model, placed it inside a clear plastic cd storage box, filled the box with water, and using ground plaster, he used a strainer to spread the snow over the surface of the water. The water caused the plaster to slowly fall and using a slow shutter speed it caused the snow to look like it's falling/swirling.

The photog also makes the point it needs to be plaster that has already been made, then ground up. Using gypsum powder in it's raw state is just going to cause it to be clumpy.

This idea could easily be sized up for larger illustration using a fish tank. Another idea that came to mind was a snow globe type picture. Use a round fish tank,
place it on a base that looks like the base a snow globe would be on.

His flick gallery is at http://www.flickr.com/photos/40195501@N06/

For anyone who has an illustration to shoot this winter and wants snow as part of it I think this would work well for a photo of winter drinks, gloves etc.

Anything not involving people that is. Finding a water tank large enough for a person is easy, finding enough ground plaster is easy. Finding someone willing to hold their breath for long periods during a shoot, not so easy.

December 16, 2009 12:11 PM  
Blogger jphphotography said...

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one that over-prepares ;) I have much the same planning process and it has made my shoots go quite a bit smoother. Also thanks to your amazing blog I can have all of my gear and settings dialed into about 90% almost instantly. The rest I tweak for the first few mins of the shoot, this opposed to looking like an amateur and fiddling with everything for 15min while the subject grows impatient.

Thanks for the great posts!

December 16, 2009 5:53 PM  
Blogger Bryan said...

What about properly paying assistants? You mention that "the magazine's budget was not assistant-friendly" but don't clarify if you actually paid your three assistants the prevailing wage in the same sense that you charged a rate typical for editorial work or really did just offer pizza and beer after their work.

Why would the buck(s) stop with you and not trickle down to the help too?

December 16, 2009 7:16 PM  
Blogger didymus said...

I just found Strobist a couple of weeks ago. I have read everything from the beginning. All I can say for now is 'Wow!' Thanks David, what am I gonna do now? I'm pretty sure Santa is bringing me my first strobe for Christmas, so I guess I'll go through L101 again for starters.

Great site. Keep the good work. The information, the way it is delivered, the wit that comes with it, fantastic!

Looking forward to participating/contributing.


December 16, 2009 8:37 PM  
Blogger David said...


I sometimes open shoots up to people who may want to help in exchange for the experience (and pizza, if the timing is right).

And I sometimes use paid assistants, depending on what is expected and the skill/knowledge level required. Generally, the latter is no cakewalk, either.

Participation in the former is completely voluntary, and I usually have more people volunteering than is practical to take along on a shoot. Some people have come to several shoots, actually.

Essentially, it is light work with no skills required in a learning environment. But if you are one of those people who think it is absolutely necessary for every exchange of value to involve money, then I guess I shall have to charge you for reading this post...



December 16, 2009 9:54 PM  
Blogger Spencer said...

FWIW, I would volunteer to assist (read: without pay) every chance I got for a good pro who also knew how to teach. That kind of opportunity looks like a mini-workshop to me. Except for the fact that I'm not shelling out cash for the acquired knowledge and confidence boost that comes along with seeing how something like this kind of thing is done.

So, David, if on your world tour you end up within a 150 mile radius of Kingsport, TN: I'm there!

December 17, 2009 12:21 AM  
Blogger J said...

@Bryan: You got no idea man!

@DH: If you ever come to Sydney, I will be assistant for the whole trip. I will take leave from work to see how you work. You are the light king!

December 17, 2009 6:29 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Photographers bitch, moan, and complain how our prices are being driven down by newbies in the biz who don't understand how to charge.

But paying assistants in pizza is okay?

It's the same thing - taking advantage of folks who may not know they are being taken advantage of. I assisted for several years out of school for an amazing photographer. I learned a ton, and I got paid for it. Some days it was grunt work, some days it was tech work... it changed. But it was still a paying job. Could the dude have found someone willing to do it for free? Sure, but he was a proponent of market worth.

Lots of companies use images people send them in their advertising after these people, who may have gotten a lucky shot, sign their life away without having any idea of the worth of the image. Same thing - taking advantage of the little guy. Does it happen? Hell yes. Is it right? That's your call.

December 17, 2009 11:38 AM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Thanks for this very informative post. Usually, I am always a little stressed pre-shoot day. I learned some great tips from this article. Thanks again!!!

December 17, 2009 6:32 PM  
Blogger David said...

FWIW, I have had a few unmoderated comments about the "assistant" thing, and I want to avoid this turning into a thread jack.

To those who continue to complain about the fact that I offer ride-along opportunities to local readers in which they may serve as a VAL as they watch and learn from a shoot, I am going to restrict the comments to people who have ACTUALLY BEEN on one of the shoots.

I would submit that if you have not been on one, you really do not have enough context to judge it. And as such, I do not feel as if I am obligated to give you the platform to do so.

FWIW, I have been on both sides of the learning/assisting equation more times than I can count. Exchanges do not always have to be about money to be valid and of value.

As I said above, it is totally voluntary and I have had many repeat offers of help. And I might point out that you are, ironically, complaining about the idea on a free website.


December 19, 2009 2:47 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

Turns out I live very close to you. Perhaps I'll follow that twitter for the next time you use some people to help on a shoot.

December 19, 2009 11:11 PM  
Blogger Michael Zelbel said...

Awesome post! For me this type of planning is really essential. It's sooooo liberating - nowaday I would never skip it.

I even wrote an eBook "Beijing Blueprint" that goes deeply into the details of this planning and provides a fill-in-the-blanks template for my fellow photographers to do the planning of their shoots:
http://www.zelbel.com/bbp. Go check it out.

David, I'd be curious what checklists you are using when preparing such a shoot.

Good light!
-- Michael

January 01, 2010 5:12 PM  
Blogger Callum said...

Hi David.
Thanks for the open honest post - good to know even seasoned pro's worry :)

Where you were brainstorming the shoot/location/, would you consider doing a test shot at (or simulating) the location so you know what gear works better, or is this something where your experience plays a strong part in knowing the setups you'll use?

I suppose the subject's energy on the day may also determine the way you steer the lighting/style too?

<a href="http://b.callumw.com>CallumW</a>

January 11, 2010 5:00 AM  
Blogger Les Doerfler said...

David, I'm not sure how I missed this on the first go around but clearly this was the highlight of the post..."But Twitter backstopped it nicely and we had three sherpas assistants (Les, Mark and Linh) for shooting and some decent pizza after."

A great day indeed. I will gladly trade Sherpa labor for a location shoot lesson and pizza any day of the week.

Thanks again.

January 12, 2010 6:13 PM  
Blogger jordan ewert said...

This was really good, in fact, after discovering your blog today I find that I am enjoying myself more and more.

I too am doing a shoot for a magazine, and a lot of the things you said about planning ahead ring true. So much planning, so much preparation, people don't know how much work is actually involved for these "staged" photo-shoot events.

January 20, 2010 3:04 PM  
Blogger Paul Stewart said...

I've been reading this blog for 2 years or so and this is one of the best posts yet. Lot of good advice and tips. Thanks

February 10, 2010 5:14 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home