Production work begins the second you get the phone call (or email) asking you to shoot the job. If such information isn’t mentioned then the first thing you need to do is ask the obvious “who, what, where, when” questions. You’d think this would be automatic when someone briefs you, but I can think of at least one of my regular clients with whom I have to play a kind of CIA style interrogation game to get information out of them. You should also be asking questions of a more esoteric nature, along the lines of “what sort of shot are you after?” “How many images are you looking to use?” as well as more practical ones such as “what usage will the images be put to?” and “what’s the budget?” It’s from these few basic questions that you’re going to have to build the whole job, so it’s very important to get as much information as possible, as soon as possible.
Thinking back over my career there have been times when this one phone call has led to a simple half hour shoot that’s 20 minutes travel away, and involves just one disk of images to one client for one usage, and times when a similar phone call leads to a week long foreign location job, thousands of shots, and about 6 months worth of content for a magazine. The fact that the repurcussions of that initial phone call can be be so broad is one reason why you need to get things as clearly defined early on. Asking the right questions up front can save you enormous trouble and embarrassment further down the line.
Unless the person/place/thing you’ve been asked to photograph is something you’ve either shot before or are very familiar with, the next thing you should do is get on the Internet and do a bit of research. There are 3 main reasons for doing this:
1. Basic politeness – if you turn up to shoot some one’s portrait with no idea of who they are you could not only embarrass yourself, but you risk pissing them off as well, and thereby jeopardising the shoot. Research can help to clarify why you’re photographing them, and might point up areas which could even cause conflict – not that you’d be stupid enough to get into an argument with them of course, but knowing, for example, which team they support can give you something to talk about (or something to avoid talking about!) At a very basic level the facts about your subject will have a major impact on what sort of image you start working towards. To pick a random example, you may reject several of your initial ideas if you found out that the subject of a portrait was only 5’2″ tall.
2. By broadening your search to include images you can find out how your subject has already been photographed, and this can be vital. In keeping with my general notions of influences by familiarising yourself with what’s gone before you may well be able to build a picture that goes way beyond what’s already been shot.
3. Following on from the image search, the flip side is that it can help you avoid repetition. There’s nothing worse than going to great lengths to organise something elaborate, only to find that you’re essentially copying something that was shot last year. As with no. 1 this might also suggest new ways to approach the subject.
After initial research I tend to then move on to my initial ideas, and will work some of them up to fairly elaborate plans wherever possible, whilst keeping some in my proverbial back pocket for emergency/contingency use. Already as I prepare these ideas, other production issues will start to spring up from them – indoors or outdoors, mains lighting or ambient, how much time will I have to set-up etc. Before you set out you should have answered as many of these questions as you are able, as you’re not really being paid to discover them on the job. Once again the internet can be a very quick and effective way of answering many of these questions, and coupled with phone calls/emails to the person who commissioned you or the people who’ll be on the shoot you should be able to get all but a definitive set of answers.
Some Important Questions To Ask.
What will the weather be like? (If on location), and following on from that, what will we do if it doesn’t do what we want it to?
What time does the sun set/rise?
Do we need permits? What are the security/safety arrangements on site?
How am I (and everyone else) getting there? How will we find the place? If necessary, how are we being transported around once on site?
What are the opening hours? Where can I park?
How many people are likely to be there? Will I be fighting through crowds, or do we have exclusive access? Who are those people likely to be? (Clients, agency people, general public, PR people etc)
Will I be allowed to use flash? If so, mains or battery powered? What is access to power points like?
How soon does the client require the images? In what format?
Is there the budget/space for an assistant?
Do we need to arrange specific premises (hire studios/apartments, swimming pools etc)?
Do we need any specialised personnel? (Make-Up Artists, Stylists, Animal handlers, models, armourers, model makers etc)
What paperwork will we need? (Tickets, visas, passports, permits, carnets etc)
This list of questions can go on almost indefinitely (feel free to add any extra ones in the comments), and the larger scale the shoot, the longer it will take. There are also a host of questions that you’ll need to ask yourself regarding equipment, and they’re briefly dealt with in another post.