Shooting instruction and illustration features

I’ve shot hundreds, probably thousands, of instruction and illustration shoots over the years. Mostly these have been in the areas of fitness and golf, but I’ve sometimes found myself shooting things like recipes, and even once “The Puppy Bible”. That’s not a bible aimed at puppies – puppies can’t read – but a guide to care and training for new puppy owners. It boiled down to 2 very long days with some very cute, and mostly well behaved dogs, but I digress.

Instruction shoots
A tiny proportion of the supplements, features, magbooks and the like which I’ve shot over the years.

From a photographic point of view, instruction and illustration is usually not too challenging to shoot. They’re not really the sort of shoots where you’ll be showing off your skills, more demonstrating your ability to work swiftly and efficiently. The aim of the shoot is to impart information in a way that the viewer can understand, and by extension, help them to learn something new. It’s often not the most exciting work, but there’s quite a big market for it, and it’s a pretty straightforward way to earn decent money.

My advice covers 3 main areas – organisation, technical, and creativity.

Organisation

This is probably the most important aspect of a smooth running instruction shoot – and in this respect it’s not really any different to any other shoot. Perhaps the biggest difference between an instruction or illustration shoot and something more conceptual, is that you may need to shoot quite a lot in a short time, and generate a lot of content.

First up, communicate with whoever is putting the shoot together. This might be a journalist, a coach of some sort, or even the client themselves. Find out above all, how much you’ve got to shoot (how many moves, steps of instructions, recipes, whatever) as well as what sort of things they are. Right away you need to make decisions about how much time to allow – you can usually make a fairly good estimation of how long each move/stage/lesson will take – and from here gauge how long the whole shoot will take.

Next, think carefully about the location. If you absolutely positively need to be in a specific location, then obviously use it, but you may find you’ll get more done if you hire a studio. I shot hundreds of fitness instruction shoots for Men’s Fitness over the years (Get a beach body in 10 minutes, get bigger arms, your journey to a flat stomach – you get the idea) In the early days, we always shot them in a gym – all the equipment was there, and it seemed to make sense. Before long though, we graduated to shooting as many of them as we could in a photographic studio. Generally speaking, everything we needed for the shoot, apart from a cable machine, could be transported to the studio. In a studio we never had to deal with other gym users, mirrors, background clutter, mindless shite music, or moving our lighting every 15 minutes and take a big break in the middle of the day when the gym gets rammed. On average we could shoot twice as much in a studio as we could in a gym. To a lesser extent we could do the same in the “fitness studio” space in a gym, but a dedicated photo studio was even better.

Fitness instruction shoots
Shooting in a studio means you can get a lot more done, but you will need to bring quite a bit of kit with you, and may even need to build some of it…..

On the subject of locations, you’ll lose lots of time changing locations, and setting up lights/shots. Aim to minimise these as much as possible. Group things into locations so you can shoot everything in as few places as possible. In a workout feature the order may go something like – dumbbell move, barbell move, cable move, barbell move, cable, dumbbell…. When you’re shooting, throw that out of the window, and shoot all the dumbbell stuff together, barbell stuff together and so on. Then just re-order them afterwards. The same goes for something like golf – there may be bits that have to be shot in specific locations, such as on a tee or round a green, so get them all done in one go, rather than covering lots of extra miles. Two words of warning – watch out for any clothing changes, and make sure you’re really thorough with your list. There’s nothing more annoying than finishing a shoot, reviewing everything on the laptop, and realising that you missed one move from the barbell set 4 hours ago, or that the model had two different T-shirts on within shots that will end up in the same feature!

Instruction - shooting golf
Wherever possible, try and create what I call an outdoor “studio” if you’re shooting on location. Somewhere with a neutral background that doesn’t distract from the subject, but at least hints at where you are/what they’re doing. Set your lights/reflectors up, and then just get shooting. You’ll get so much more done than if you have to move locations every 5 minutes!

Break things down into the fewest shots you can. You need to illustrate things clearly, and it’s safer to shoot more and cut it out later, but you probably don’t need to shoot 20 stages of something simple like a bicep curl – just the top and the bottom. Bear in mind there may not be loads of space to play with at the end of the day, either on the page or on screen. Of course, this ties in with communicating with the coach/instructor/whoever to ensure you get the right information across.

Being organised like this can allow you to really chew through the content. I’ve personally shot 300+ exercises in 2 days, entire books in a day, and magazine features in less than an hour. The factors I’m about to describe play a part in this, but organisation is the biggie.

Instruction - magbooks
Not even every shot from a 2 day magbook/gym shoot a few years ago. We shot an entire book in less than 2 days – 300+ exercises, plus feature shots, and still finished in time to watch the 6 nations!

Technical

These shoots are generally not the place to go mad on technical stuff. Keep the setups simple, your lighting, framing and basic camera handling shouldn’t distract from what the subject is doing.

Indoors, somewhere like a gym, I tend to use a 3 light setup. A key light on the subject, usually a softbox or beauty dish – possibly with a grid, then 2 lights with either strip softboxes or reflectors on. Sometimes both of these lights will be “backlighting” the subject, and sometimes I’ll use one on the subject, and the other to wash some light across the rest of the room. Obviously, I want to concentrate on the subject, and make sure they’re clear against the background, which can quickly get confusing in a crowded gym. However, I often want to show just a little of the space, so the shots have some context. As long as the background doesn’t dominate what the subject is doing, you’re winning.

Outside, the same principles apply, although I find I tend to add less light. The main thing I need light for is reduce contrast in the shot, and make sure the subject isn’t in shadow. The simplest approach is to use a reflector on the subject, although you’ll either need a decent, heavy stand to support it, or a dedicated crew member. I often use flash as “fill” light on the subject, and once in a while, employ more than one light, but only if I’m deliberately trying to create a special effect. In the same way as shooting somewhere like a gym, the context is important, but shouldn’t take over. I try and use a shallow enough depth of field to make my subject stand out against the environment, but from time to time it’s important to show the context, as it’s vital to the instruction.

Instruction - lighting
Keep things simple on location, it’s rare I’d add the second light you see here, but we were shooting covers as well as instruction stuff.

Have a few technical tricks up your sleeve for when time permits. Yes, 95% of what you’ll be asked to shoot needs to be just illustration, but there may still be a need for covers, feature shots etc. Look for close-ups, “hero” moves, or ways you can make things look more visually interesting.

Instruction hero shots
It doesn’t take long to switch from a very broad lighting setup, suitable for illustrating lots of moves, to a more focused, sculpted lighting setup for a “hero” shot, particularly if you already have a decent idea of how you want something to look.

Creative

The last few suggestions broadly fit under the heading of being creative.

Spend some time finding the right angle for what you’re shooting. Some things will look right shot from straight on, some from side on, etc. It’s often the case that there’s no one angle that shows everything, in which case, shoot more than one. If this isn’t an option, shoot the best compromise you can. Also, be aware that in some cases an angle that looks great for the subject won’t work for the information you’re trying to impart. For an example, pressups (push-ups if you’re in the States) should always be done with your head and neck in line with your spine, but this means you’ll only see the top of your subject’s head, rather than their face. Getting them to lift their head up as they do them may be more flattering to them, but it’s not imparting the right information!

Instruction shoots - deadlift
The deadlift is essentially a very simple move – lift a big weight off the floor up to waist height – but doing it well requires a host of coaching points. Getting all of these across in a couple of images is tricky, but your choice of angle can help. Shooting from slightly side on allows things like hand position to be seen, as well as showing some of the angle the back needs to be at. No one view will give you everything, and you won’t usually have space to shoot something from dozens of angles, so think carefully about how best to communicate the essential information.

Speaking of subjects, this may not be an issue, as by default you may be shooting the person who knows what they’re talking about, but if you’re illustrating anything technical, physical, or otherwise challenging, make sure whoever is in front of the camera can actually do what you’re going to ask them to do. I’m far too professional to name any names, but on several occasions I’ve worked with models who were booked for an instruction shoot, and couldn’t do a decent portion of the moves. This doesn’t make them very useful – you’re faced with a choice of either dropping the move from the feature, putting them at risk by getting them to do it when they’re not comfortable, or a very lengthy bit of photoshopping! Good communication ahead of time should hopefully remove most of these risks.

Accept that some things just won’t work as a still image. Some types of movement – particularly fluid or explosive ones – just won’t come across all that well as a still (obviously) You’ll be able to freeze peak action, or similar, but perhaps not show some of the transition stages. Other shots may be a concept/thought rather than a physical thing. Be prepared to use your imagination, or work with a graphic designer to add graphics on later.

Shooting instruction
Sometimes when trying to illustrate an abstract concept, your safest bet is just to shoot a decent shot that shows the basics, and then speak to whoever is designing the final pages, and get them to add a graphic!

That should be more than enough to get you started shooting instruction and illustration features. As already mentioned, shoots like these are unlikely to rock your world, but they’re a very popular thing to be asked to shoot, and usually a very pleasant way to earn a living.

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