Twenty Questions

Some people have all of the answers. Today, none of those -- just questions.

What follows are some of the things I run down in my mind when I am deciding what to shoot, why to shoot it, how to shoot it, etc.

This is the more general version of the very specific post on pre-planning earlier. If that was a specific game plan, this is more of a general playbook.

Not saying that these are the same questions you would ask. But maybe there is something in this list that you might not be considering.

Big Picture

What do I want to accomplish with this shoot?

More and more, this is my first question. In fact, it is the overriding question for all of my photography as it points me to more interesting and meaningful work.

What kind of photograph will help me accomplish that goal?

Portrait? Still life? Landscape? Conceptual? Again, overall goal drives the stream of choices in the actual photo, too.

Zeroing In

What should subject be?

Consider the obvious, but brainstorm other potential subjects. Take mental side roads.

How can I gain access to that person and/or other subject?

This is a skill that differentiates "lucky" photographers from unlucky ones. You cannot shoot someone if you cannot get them in front of your camera.

What environment/location would make the work best?

I keep a camera with me, and use it to generate scouting pics of locations and/or backgrounds for possible later use.

How can I best gain access to that environment?

See above, re: accessing people.

Are there permissions involved?

Sometimes, by going in via the right person, you can avoid location fees/permits/red tape altogether.

Is there another use for the photo that would allow me to combine resources and leverage the results?

Once you have picked up a scent -- but before the shoot -- think laterally. Who else could use this photo? Could they help you with better access? Maybe more time? Perhaps even funding?

Prepping for the Shoot

What add'l content, and/or secondary elements would help the photo?

This is where a good location selection will really help. Look for multiple options in one location.

What style?

Again, goal drives photo, which drives decisions further down the line. That lends a logic to choices that could otherwise be random. Would B&W be better? Even though you shoot color files for it, you'll approach it differently.

What about things like plastic lenses? Different formats? Or shooting to do some special post work afterwards? Let the photo drive the style, not the reverse.

Lit or ambient?

Just because you know how to light does not mean that you automatically have to.

If lighting, how?

Sooo many choices -- aped natural light, motivated light, stylized light. Again, the top-down examination helps to drive logical choices.

What kind of lighting gear needed?

The style drives the gear -- not the other way around. Sunset light can be aped with a SB-800, and AB-800 or the headlamp to an 800cc motorcycle.

How can I source the gear?

If you do not own it, look to borrow first. (Co-pooling with other photogs is a great idea for many reasons.) Otherwise rent, or maybe even DIY.

What can I research about my subject to better the odds of a good session?

When you show up and know the subject (or subject matter) you can almost hear the big sigh of relief. Do your research. Everything you can find out. Google, Wikipedia, quiz the secretary, anything.

During the Shoot

What common ground can I find between subject and myself that I can use to create a moment/connection?

After all of the pre-thinking, leave yourself free to give your subject full attention. Have a conversation. Talk. Listen. Learn.

Look for intersections. They are key to both building rapport and extending shooting time. "Is that your boy? How old? Mine is 9, too ..."

Before you Wrap Up

Is there anything I can remove from this photo to improve it?

Easy to forget after all that work on a setting and context. But frequently the best photos are ones that are stripped to their essence.

While I have access, is there another photo I should be trying to make at the same time?

Always get a high-quality head shot, for instance. And details, too -- graphical elements that can stretch a package out, visually.

After the Shoot

Are there secondary uses for the photos?

Goes hand-in-hand with covering your bases while on the assignment or shoot. Make full use of your access during, and after the fact.

Can the photos/relationships that I just created help gain me access to another opportunity?

Can't tell you how many opportunities I squandered before I started doing this religiously. Usually in the form of a follow-up email, which sometimes contains a low-res pic.

Serendipity on a project is great. But I will take introduction to one or more colleagues who may turn out to be my next subject over that any day. And it is flattering both for your subject to have the power to suggest/intro, as well as for the new subject to be suggested/intro'd.

What do you do different?

Please share your tips/tricks with us in the comments.

Indexed under Rants/Essays/Ideas


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Blogger Phat Baby Photographer said...

What can I do to make the subject laugh and/or have a good time?

January 11, 2010 12:52 AM  
Blogger TeeWebb said...

I feel like this can be equally applied outside of the conventional, professional 'shoot' to more personal, less structured work. The idea of keeping a 'top down' approach to the image and going out into the world with not only your camera but an informed and thought out idea/photographic goal has a lot of merit. I feel like I don't do enough of the thinking through the photo before pressing the shutter, which results in images with unrealized potential even and espcially in the pictures I take strolling around (not just shoots for clients). Like you said, serendipity is great but I'll take consistancy anyday.

Thanks for the push in the right direction.

January 11, 2010 1:21 AM  
Blogger Slimeface said...

You cover a lot of good tips! When I shoot portraits, typically they are all strangers and from all walks of life from across the country. As a pilot for almost 30 years I believe in checklists religiously, but when I am trucking around the countryside and see a person I want to shoot, my best tool is to befriend them quickly, speaking with them in a friendly way. Most of my subjects are of fellow truckers, waitresses, the homeless, bikers, and other travelers including the weekend warriors, all taking rest breaks at truck stops and rest areas along side of the interstates.

I've met and shot many folks through the years and have always been able to make the stranger feel comfortable, more like a friend by casual conversation, always with camera in hand and in full view before suggesting any shooting.

After I take several shots I show them, through my view finder their images and tell them how great they look. This works well most the time and I've only had a few people ask me not to take their picture.

On many occasions, I have had the subjects volunteering, asking and suggesting how they might pose, rather to smile or not to smile, backgrounds, hair, etc...

All your points are interesting and I have bookmarked this list for further reading. I have very little time for pre-planning as I drive 600-700 miles a day, however there's always something new to consider! And thanks for that!

January 11, 2010 1:57 AM  
Blogger sitbonzo said...

This is great advice when shooting for yourself. I'm Reading on my phone so may have missed parts. If you are shooting for a 'client' newspaper, commercial or even a favor for a friend it is pretty much imperitive that you discuss ideas with them to find out what They want/need from the pics. Many others are not particularly visual so it can be dificult but no point in making great images if they don't fit the brief. I have done it many times. They are dissapointed and so are you.

January 11, 2010 4:36 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

How can I keep the person(s) I'm shooting interested in what is going on i.e. keep them focused on the shoot and not looking up at the sky (unless of course that is where you want them looking ;) ) but this is bassicaly a sub-question to one already asked but important to me when I am on longer shoots that take place in multiple places.

January 11, 2010 8:05 AM  
Blogger mhakola said...

Under planning:
What can go wrong?
Is there a back-up location?
What if the subject is late and the light has changed?

January 11, 2010 8:58 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Great questions. As part of the big picture, I like to think in terms what story am I trying to tell with the photo? Further, what are the important relationships between and among the elements in the photograph? How can I use my tools, whether lens, point of view, or lighting, to best communicate those relationships (or isolate the main subject to simplify)?

January 11, 2010 9:43 AM  
Blogger Ranger 9 said...

I try to make sure my final checkpoint is this: "Am I letting myself off the hook too easily?"

If I've made my plan simply by running through my little formula and plugging in the obvious answers, my results are likely to be exactly that: Obvious.

Sure, you need to get the basics covered, but you also need to build in mechanisms to push yourself outside your own preconceptions. I try to keep in mind the successful advertising exec who said that you haven't really done your job creatively unless you generate at least one treatment that you're a little nervous about showing to the client.

January 11, 2010 9:49 AM  
Blogger admin said...

Making pictures of people is the best, and worst, part of my photographic career. In response to the first comment "What can I do to make the subject laugh and/or have a good time?"

This is where the research before the shoot comes in handy. KNOW your subject! I would have to say that 75-80% of the shoot is just making that person feel comfortable, safe and know that you're going to make the best picture that you can of them. Being a photographer means being a good people person, at least one that does his homework.

There is a stereotype that photographer tell corny jokes to get smiles, along with all kinds of other things just to get laughs. Well, call me weird, but I have never used a corny joke to get a smile. In fact, many of my sessions are so relaxed, and comfortable my subject if offering up new ideas that help me make a picture of them that I know they are going to like.

I would say that the better-half of the first 15-20 minutes of the sessions are just getting to know one another and feeling each other out. (I can take that time, because my session are an hour or longer at a time) Some don't have that luxury, and are forced to speed it up. (I tend to work better under pressure as well). Once your subject is comfortable, then the real captures start to be made.

I like to find a common interest between the two of us and go with it, as soon as it runs dry, I'll find another. I also tend to think about it like this: If I were going to have a picture made of me, what kind of person would I want to make it? And act according to the situation.

Good photographers are good people, people. They do their research on their subject. Lets say that you know this person is a die-hard Cubs fan because you found their blog post about how let down they were because they didn't get to the Series, and without asking too many questions to your subject, you express that you too were let down with the performance of the Cubs this year. Right there you have a connection.

Photographing people is all about the CONNECTION that you as a photographer have your subject(s).

January 11, 2010 10:20 AM  
Blogger Jason Anderson said...

On a recent photo walk with some fellow photogs, the serendipity bug bit and we found ourselves inside the local theater house (very recently remodeled), and by the end of the day, had the gals email and phone to send her a few shots, as well as an open door to shoot the next event in the locale - like you said, the follow-up email is HUGE in opening doors (or stages in this case)

January 11, 2010 12:24 PM  
Blogger Halladay Photography said...

Thanks for all the wonderful tips!

I have to agree with you especially on one of your last statements. Follow-up e-mail are so important to developing a future relationship or continuing a relationship with a client. I have a development company and I do website development, so photography for me is a fun hobby, but I've gained several clients for my development business by following up with my photog clients. Thanks for all the great posts! I love reading all the helpful tips.

January 11, 2010 12:46 PM  
Blogger Gary said...

Having shot annual reports for 25 years, this should be required reading for clients as well as photographers.

Sometimes clients simply pick up the phone, call the photographer, and put him/her to work after a brief description of the project. Other times they ask some of these questions and every time they ask themselves those questions the results are guaranteed that much better.

Whether it's a newspaper Picture Editor or VP Public Relations for a Fortune 500 company, these are great questions for both photographer and client to ask.

January 11, 2010 1:28 PM  
Blogger Myron said...

Great planning tips comming from the number one how to guy in photography. Very "Left Brain" excellennt. Doug Beasley teaches Zen in the Art of Photography a wonderful course on Seeing with the eye of Zen. Best part is that Zen is about Begginers mind so beginners start at the top. There are millions of images right here, spontaneously present. Start with aimless wandering aware of spontaneously present images, capture the beauty. Doesn't that sound sweet?

Of course, you need the left brain to pull that off too. Start with concepts then let go of concepts.

January 11, 2010 2:32 PM  
Blogger nathanoj said...

I paid a scouting visit to a building site from where the developer wanted view shots from the half-finished structure. That visit was invaluable in that I met the foreman who gave me the combination to the gate so that I could visit at any hour, and I got to take some POV shots from various vantage points which I then sent to the developer. That contact and subsequent feedback took any guess work out of the final shoot while also giving the client confidence that I could fulfill their brief.

January 11, 2010 5:13 PM  
Blogger Paulo Rodrigues said...

Hehe, that takes me back. I used a Harley Davidson as a hairlight once when my flash failed

January 11, 2010 5:56 PM  
Blogger Dave McLane said...

IMO, the list is great when you, the photographer, decide what is to be accomplished before the shoot. There's also another style where you, the photographer are there to document the essence of what's happening at a certain moment of time. In both cases, "goal drives photo, which drives decisions further down the line" but the overriding question is who/what sets the goal." In the second case you can't can't really know exactly what you need as the goal reveals itself more or less serendipitously.

January 11, 2010 7:10 PM  
Blogger Weston and Becky said...

7 "p's" - Proper Previous Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance!

January 12, 2010 9:45 AM  
Blogger Dave McLane said...

@Myon What you said is kind of what I was talking about, "Start with aimless wandering aware of spontaneously present images." This is definitely a right-brain activity while you need the left brain to twiddle the knobs and press the buttons to get the image onto the film/card.

However, through a long learning process that won't fit here, I've found a way to not quite wander aimlesslyby reversing engineering Ansel Adams' saying that "I can look at a fine art photograph and sometimes I can hear music." What works for me is imaging a 5th harmony (as in the opening lines of the 1968 movie "2001: A Space Odyssey") and let the spontaneously present images call out to me.

I guess it doesn't really matter which brain you start with; both are needed: some people start with the right and then include the left, and vice versa.

January 12, 2010 9:51 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

good tips! what i like to tell people who ask me about preparing for a shoot... over think about everything you need to get the shoot done, how you want it to look, who is going to be involved, and what you'll need to get it done... and then when the time comes... forget everything and roll off of instinct and improve!

January 12, 2010 3:11 PM  
Blogger Jamie said...

Great list of questions there, David. You always seem to have a knack for bringing these things up right as I need them. I've got a pretty big shoot tomorrow and I'll be asking myself these questions over the next day...

January 12, 2010 5:33 PM  
Blogger Peter F. Castro said...

Second mhakola. Backup location/plan B. Recently I was kicked out of an area I was shooting. Thought I would be relatively safe on a Sunday afternoon. Also, it's not good to show up to a shoot and find out you can't shoot there last minute and have no clue where else you can go. I even made an entry about it on my blog about the places we can and can't shoot :)

January 14, 2010 2:17 AM  
Blogger Mrs. Clutter said...

I was in the middle of a engagement shoot with a co-worker and her fiance. Things were going okay, but they could have been better. I had the idea to give them control of my camera remote. Wow! What a difference it made. Some of the best shots from the day, in fact, came from that portion of the setting. They had fun, and (I think) they liked being "in control" of the situation.

January 16, 2010 11:22 AM  

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