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Shooting jobs by remote control

I’d like to ramble today about a subject that I’ve had a lot of experience of, and which can sometimes cause HUGE headaches for us photographers.  I’m talking about shooting by remote control.  By this I don’t mean some clever wireless trigger system, radio, bluetooth, or infra-red gadgetry, I mean shooting commissioned work when the person who commissioned you isn’t there to tell you what they want.

Despite shooting for quite well known national magazines, and quite large commercial clients, a surprising number of my shoots take place with just me, and the subject I’m shooting.  No-one from the magazine comes down to Art direct or supervise.  Those of you not too familiar with the professional world may think – “Well, where’s the problem in that?  I don’t want someone breathing down my neck throughout the whole shoot!”  Well, whilst it’s true that an art director or client can occasionally be a trifle overbearing, and stifle my otherwise world-beating creativity (you know, that stuff) in general, having one around is far more valuable than not.

Speedo Ben
Mr Ben Briley, doing some top art direction on a shoot, and sporting some very natty shoes.

The main reason for this is that if the person who commissioned the work is with you at the time, there’s a much higher chance they’ll get the images they want, and if circumstances are working against you on the day, and it’s looking like you won’t get what was planned, they’ll understand why, and won’t think you were just goofing off.

The biggest problems can arise when you’ve either not worked with someone before, or only a few times, and they get in touch with a commission, and use all sorts of vague buzz words like “moody”, “filmic”, “clean”, “gritty” and so on.  To them, these words might mean one thing, and to you, something else altogether.  Besides which, if you’re being sent to a place you’ve not been before (that you’ve not been able to recce to any great degree) to shoot someone you’ve not met before or don’t know much about, you may find that “moody” or “gritty” are simply not going to be possible today!  The subject may not be in the mood, or not at all confident in front of camera, the location may be totally wrong for that sort of image, and the weather might be completely inappropriate.

Now, in these circumstances, it’s generally understood that as a professional you’ll do your best with what you’ve got.  What comes back should still be a perfectly usable shot, that doesn’t stray too far from what the commissioner had in mind in the first place.  If, say, it was a portrait shoot that was supposed to portray someone as making a heroic recovery from injury, and you come back with a very dark, gloomy shot of them looking pissed off, then conditions or not, you’ve buggered that one up.  As long as you’re still along the lines of “heroic” “brave” “recovery” and “positive”, then even if it’s not the exact shot the commissioner had in mind, they’ll still be happy.  If they’re professional that is.  I did know one, back in the day, who didn’t seem to understand that real life isn’t actually a stock library photo, that not every person out there looks like a model, and the sun doesn’t shine every day.  This person was always disappointed if an image came back anything other than exactly how they’d envisaged it.  He was quite hard to work for…..

Human Race - Shooting by Remote Control
Shot by “remote control” last spring for Runner’s World. Brief was: “get heroic portrait, show they’ve been on a long journey”

The best way to minimise these sort of communication problems is firstly to encourage the commissioner to come along on as many shoots as is possible.  If that’s not possible then communication is your friend.  Lots of communication.  Get them to send you as many images up front as they can of the sort of thing they’ve got in mind, with notes if possible as to what they like about each.  As you start your own pre-production and are looking at locations, and communicating with the subject, pass on any relevant info to the commissioner, so they know if circumstances are changing – don’t give them any nasty surprises.  If the shoot permits it, it’s well worth sending some low res images straight from the shoot to the commissioner so they can get an idea of where you’re going.  This can chew your time up something rotten though, so tread carefully.

Once you’ve worked for someone several times, you’ll find that they trust you enough (assuming you’ve been professional, and not a duffer) to give you minimal guidance, and let you sort lots of things out yourself, confident that you’ll come back with the goods.  This a very good place to be in, and one I’m happy to say I occupy for several art directors.  You can build this trust up by being professional right the way through the shooting process – dig into the blog a bit to find various posts on this topic.

One vital thing to do is shoot as many options as you can – not just landscape and portrait, but wide shots, close cropped in ones, different poses/actions and so on.  You have no idea (and the commissioner may not have at this stage) of how the images will be used on the page or final product.  If they’ve actually given you a layout to work to, then make damn sure you work to it!  Whatever you do, don’t just limit the work you hand in to just one type of shot, unless you’ve been specifically told to.  There are few things more frustrating for a commissioner than needing a landscape version of a portrait shot, and being unable to crop into the only portrait stuff they’ve had supplied.

Puma - Shooting by remote control
An art director hard at work. He’s the one with his head stuck in the visi vest, not the one holding the flashgun and softbox combo.

Another thing I do as a matter of course, is not edit shoots like these too heavily.  I always remove any totally useless images (blinkers, all the shots I take with the lens cap on, and so on) but beyond that, I don’t cut very much out at all.  It’s not my place to, as I don’t know how the pages will be laid out, or what images might work best alongside what text, or in a box-out or the like.  What I have done, for a few years now, is create a “highlights” or “edited” folder alongside the main bulk of images, which contains maybe 6-10 of what I think are the best images, often retouched to a higher standard than the basic ones.  I find this often guides the commissioner towards the best stuff, but still gives them the option to run other shots if they need to.

Above all, the way to shoot successfully in situations where the commissioner isn’t present is to communicate more than usual, and just be your standard, professional self.  What could be easier?

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