Taking responsibility on shoots – the Buck stops here

I’ve never really understood that phrase – who or what is Buck? And why is stopping him or it so important? I suspect it’s American, and as such, like baseball and American football I may never fully understand. Trans-Atlantic ignorance aside, today I’m going to talk about the importance of taking responsibility for things on shoots as a professional photographer.

Assuming responsibility takes some learning.  As I got very experienced as an assistant I got a bit full of myself, and had to be reminded once or twice that the ultimate responsibility for the images being how the client wanted them lay with the photographer. Whilst I was important and useful, my ego/needs/opinions weren’t that critical on the day!  Working as a photographer I feel that one of the foundations of behaving professionally is acting responsibly at all times.  Well, whenever anyone’s looking anyway.

Taking responsibility as an Assistant
It’s possible that towards the end of my assisting career I may have shirked a bit of responsibility. What can I say in my defence? Getting ferried to shoots in a helicopter quickly went to my head!

What matters above all on a shoot is that A) no-one dies or gets seriously injured, and B) the shoot gets done. Obviously A) has to come first, but it should only really be a concern in rare circumstances.  If you’re working in any situation where there is an increased risk of physical danger, you need to take things seriously.  I’m the last person to start ranting about health and safety – you can only imagine how many times I have to fight against H+S issues on location shoots – but I’ve seen how a simple oversight can do some very serious damage.

Take responsibility for health and safety on shoots
Creating a “winter golf” image for Golf Monthly. Lots of fun aiming leaf blowers in Neil’s face, and setting off smoke bombs, but this picture could almost be used for a Public Information campaign – “Can YOU spot the Health and Safety mistakes these clowns have made in this picture?”

Take responsibility for….

…the whole crew

Even if one of the crew has blatantly done something stupid, you probably hired them, so ultimately it was your call. If you had doubts about them, you probably should have hired someone else, and if they were brand new, then taking them on this job untested was obviously a risk. Even if you didn’t hire them, you’ve still got to deal with the situation that you face NOW, so throwing a hissy fit probably won’t help.  A good crew will be made up of professional people, all doing their discrete jobs well – helping each other out where needed, but ultimately concerned with their piece of shoot jigsaw.  As the photographer, you’re in a “management” position, and need to behave as such.

…Your own behaviour and emotions.

Act professionally when things don’t go according to plan. Behave like a grown up.  If something goes wrong, you won’t make it much better by getting worked up, pissed off, angry, throwing your toys out of the pram, or screaming like a toddler when someone brings you coffee with milk in.  Actually, strike that last one, that’s fine in my book – anyone who pollutes my coffee with milk deserves what’s coming to them.  If something goes wrong, or someone is behaving like a complete muppet, deal with it calmly there and then.  Save the ranting and shouting for the drive home where no-one can hear it.

Always admit your mistakes – be big enough to own up and say when you made a cock-up. Few things look as pathetic as someone scrabbling around trying to pass the blame onto someone else.  Acknowledge that whilst you obviously can’t control everything, there are actually quite a lot of known unknowns out there.  By this I mean things like weather – you can’t predict it 100%, but you can look at a forecast ahead of time, ensure everyone is kitted out appropriately, and that there are plans in place if the weather doesn’t do what you want.  Shrugging your shoulders when it suddenly starts bucketing down or howling a gale isn’t very professional.

Paula Radcliffe for Runner's World
Take responsibility for your equipment – be very careful around the general public. Particularly if you’re forced to move at the last minute, right into the path of the weekly Park Run!

…Your equipment.

If your plan A for how you want to light/shoot something isn’t working, obviously you need to find a solution. Looking gormless and hoping your assistant will magically find an alternative may not work. If something actually breaks, switch to plan B (or C). Get actively involved in getting something fixed, unless you’re prevented from doing so by greater burdens.  Get the shot done first, then in the next bit of down time, do what you can to fix things up, or call a rental house for a replacement!

Equipment can be the cause of some serious issues on shoots.  There are many large, heavy, and unstable objects that can accumulate on a set, and lots of people who will be moving around, under, over, or near them.  Weigh stands down with appropriate ballast, mark areas off clearly, clean up any spillages quickly, and use whatever safety equipment you need to.  Having kit break on you can be annoying and expensive, but having kit break someone can be life-threatening.

Human flag on Men's Fitness Shoot
Obviously that last thing you should do on shoots is encourage people to do calisthenics on parts of the set. That would just be stupid.


So many problems I’ve had on shoots have come about simply because people didn’t communicate clearly, usually in advance. I’ve had a few of the “moving goalpost” jobs, where the brief suddenly changes dramatically whilst the shoot is ongoing, but thankfully they’re rare. Clear communication before a shoot can save you so many headaches. Email is still the best medium for this by far, as everything is written down. This can be a godsend if the goalposts do move – a change in the brief on the day should be easy to counteract by bringing up email from before the shoot. You don’t need to be nasty about this, just politely point out to a client that you’d agreed to provide x and they’re now asking for y.

Take responsibility for understanding what the client wants ahead of time. Make an effort to get mood boards from them, and a shot list, not just a vague buzzword like “gritty”. Don’t make assumptions ahead of time that you’ve done this sort of thing lots of times before, and it will all be plain sailing.  Make sure the different areas of responsibility on the shoot are understood as you work through your pre-production cycle.

…The whole shoot.

You should ultimately take responsibility for the whole shoot. As a “manager”, don’t get caught up in minute details, but appreciate that if someone is struggling with something, then technically it is your problem, so it might be worth your while lending a hand.  Never lose sight of the bigger picture though (refer to A and B above – don’t get anyone killed, and get the job done)!

Yeah, all this sounds like a lot to do, and lot to be responsible for, but that’s why you’re charging so much money for the shoot!

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