Simulation of a typical photo production day

Tip 26 for Better Shoots by Heidi Rondak

“Let the Photo Shoot Begin”

PART 1: Simulation of a typical photo production day

So the shooting day has arrived and you’re as good as certain excited to go about the production. If you feel any nervousness, don’t worry as you’ve probably done a good job with preparing and hiring a professional team who has your back. Even if unexpected obstacles occur they can probably be solved if everyone keeps calm and uses their expert brains. And hey, even in the worst-case life goes on. A photo shoot won’t cause your whole business to go belly-up, however, you can learn from all mistakes that might happen (now or in the past) to do it better next time. Therefore, transform any feelings of tension into motivation and cheerfulness. Your positive vibes will certainly rub off on the team and remove some of the pressure.

Say hello to everyone first thing in the morning

It sounds like a self-evidence to greet all your partners in crime, resp. to introduce yourself to those who were brought along or booked without a previous meet-up. Yet, in the hectic of the situation, it can happen that you miss shaking hands with each and every one. You might also think that only your attention towards the main operators of the team counts, e.g. the art director, or the photographer. However, this is just partly right. It’s true that these people are important. Thus, their work rests on the efforts of the rest of their team, like on the stylist, hair & make-up artist, assistants, set runners, etc. as well as on the performance of the models. All these people are very eager to satisfy you as the client but for that, they need to know who of all attendants IS the client. Believe me when I tell you that, back in the days, I’ve been assisting countless photo shoots not knowing who was who, just because everyone assumed it’s clear and obvious. The news is: if you haven’t met the person before they probably don’t know who you are. Especially if you join in later. Clearly, it can turn out to be challenging to say hello to everyone when they are dispersed around the studio or location absorbed in their work. Therefore, it’s not only your job but also the team’s executives’ to inform the rest of everyone’s role during the day. This enables you to instruct everybody directly too.

Why you should uninvite spectators

Another dubious effect can arise when outsiders join the scene to watch but can’t hold themselves back from expressing their views. I remember a photo shoot when I was working as a digital operator where a random guy from the brand’s staff gave his opinion to everything and dared to sit in front of the actual client. No one knew if he may be the big boss of the company – so we followed his (rather extreme) instructions until we learned that he didn’t have a saying in the imagery and it was necessary to ignore him eventually. Therefore, please note that intruders can confound the whole production as they might bring in new ideas that miss the point completely when they’re neither professional art directors nor familiar with the golden thread. And in case it’s not clearly indicated who they are, as incredible as it sounds, they can temporarily disturb the decision making and the whole outcome. In this sense, it’s better to keep the number of external spectators to a minimum or to completely avoid having them. Ultimately, it’s understandable that external attendees may lack the experience of being on set and they can’t know the hierarchy. If their excitement then channels in the production-equivalent of a streaker interrupting a football game or, more related to the topic, photobombing (figuratively), they are putting their unqualified influence in the photos and a bad vibe into the set environment.

Don’t be afraid of talking to the models, hair & make-up artists and stylists directly

Another paragraph is to be dedicated to the models who, in my opinion, everyone should pay more attention to on set. Not only do the models need to know who the client is but they could also receive more direct instructions by them. De facto, it’s pretty rare that models get personal feedback by clients and, frankly, I think it’s wrong. Instead of pointing out their inappropriate poses and suggesting better ones to the screen (resp. whispering this down the lane to the digital operator who then shares it with the photographer who then tells the models what to do differently), direct communication would be much more effective and on top of that a more respectful contact with a human being. 

The same applies to how the stylist and hair & make-up artist should be treated. I’m not saying that you need to walk over to them every time you wish for a change but walking away from them to tell the photographer that you don’t like the hairstyle can’t be right either. Let it happen organically and, most of all, as everything is fixable – there’s no need to ever panic. With a friendly attitude, especially when criticising, it’s more likely that you’ll get what you want because you won’t be the cause of stress. It’s scientifically proven that being stressed out blocks the brain from taking smart decisions – the result would thus get worse! Ultimately, kindness in social contact on set (and everywhere) should always be treated as the rule no. 1. After all, no one wants to be regarded as a tyrant, right?

A step-by-step photo shoot simulation

Step 1 – Everyone arrives in time

If it’s about a small production, usually, the call time is the same for everyone. For bigger productions with more participants, people can have a different call time to stick to as for example one hair & make-up artist alone can’t work on several models at once, and anyway, their gear needs to get unpacked in the first place – which can take about half an hour. The same is true about the stylist’s work. Carrying everything in, unpacking, sorting, and steaming the pieces can last for about one or two hours in the morning, and if the work is foreseeably more extensive it could be clever to start with that the day before the production. If the light setup or construction of a photo set is probable to take more than two hours it could be advisable to have it prepared a day earlier too. Especially when there’s just small manpower for these tasks you can’t expect to have the first photo taken earlier than two hours after the call time. For the sake of completeness, I’d like to also mention how important it is to have reliable professionals on board who won’t be delayed or putting their artist egos before the production goals. Commercial photo shoots are not a place for creatives to express themselves and make it about their art but rather a business collaboration using their creative resources to tailor your campaign according to your brand’s guidelines. 

Step 2 – A quick and personal briefing in the morning

Taking your time in the morning to have a coffee with everyone eases possible tensions and mostly a quick briefing comes naturally. This helps to find out whether the starting situation is according to the plan or if spontaneous adjustments should be considered before going about the day. Especially when it comes to the hair and make-up a quick conversation in view of the model’s current status, e.g. regarding the fingernails, haircut, and skin condition can help to find out whether the hair & make-up moods in your concept are realisable or a plan B should be considered. If that’s the case, please relax and under no circumstances criticise the model’s looks openly in front of her or him as it wouldn’t just be upsetting but also have a negative impact on their performance.

Step 3 – Starting with the first hairstyle and make-up look while building the photo set

For a first female make-up and long-hairstyling, you should calculate about two hours of time that the MUA will need until the model is ready to dress in the first outfit. When the hair is short or it’s about a male model look things can go quicker. On the other hand, a very complex hair look, e.g. a head full of tiny curls added to initially sleek hair can take up to four or five hours and should be started early enough, namely before the arrival of the whole team. Usually, if there are changes planned throughout the production it’s shrewdest to start with the cleaner make-up and the dryer hairstyle to draw on them by quickly applying more products later on. Otherwise, the time needed to remove and then rebuild a fresh hair & make-up style would once more take a couple of hours and this wouldn’t be effective time management for the rest of the team.

If you shoot in a studio, meanwhile the hair and make-up get done the photo team builds up the set with all its lights, backgrounds, and possibly placing props there too. The digital operator prepares the programmes and the folder structure for the data and the photographer does a couple of test shots on his assistants who stand-in for the models. This way they can tweak the light and the photos’ look to be ready when the model comes in. Depending on the complexity of the setup this can take about 30 – 60 minutes or a good deal more. A modification of background or light during the day can then require another certain amount of time which is why it needs strategic planning in the first place.

Step 4 – Starting photography and keeping the pace

When the band begins to play the first shots in every new setup will always take a little longer. This is perfectly normal and due to figuring out all adjustments to design the photos overall according to your taste. After the team has routinised how they are to shoot every subject it’s a matter of flow while, of course, some looks can be more challenging than others and therefore demanding more attention, resp. a bit more time. However, as much as it’s necessary to make every scene look desirable keeping an eye on the time passing is essential too. This helps to work at high speed, set the right priorities, and compromise whenever there’s no way around it. If that sounds disappointing, please have in mind the truth in the words “better done than perfect”. In the end, your customers won’t know if you initially imagined one of the photos way cooler while, on the other hand, missing some material after running out time (because other photos took too long) will cause deficits and missed marketing opportunities.

That being said, it’s up to you and the art director and/or the photographer to be determined and bold when it comes to pushing on with the work. This includes using every minute cleverly and for example, shoot with several models in alternation so that while one is performing the other one gets dressed and made-up for the next photo. It also speaks in favour of teamwork when everyone is aware of finding the right moment to use the bathroom, smoke, or eat something – namely when they are not needed on set. This way nobody will force the whole team to pause and wait while they’re enjoying a free minute. 

Step 5 – Let there be breakfast and lunch

First of all, sure, lunch takes time off the day and it does so, especially, when it’s getting postponed, antedated, or skipped. At some point, people will need to eat something and it’s better to make it part of the plan. When I shoot editorials I usually make it a buffet and tell everyone to help themselves. However, this is just possible with very little workload, and still, quickly bolting a snack while the rest is working can result in stress – and it’s not healthy. The more elegant version is a collective break where everyone can unwind for a couple of minutes and regain energy. In the fashion of athletes altering practice and resting everyone will have a better momentum when recommencing work. Without any breaks or time to eat the risk is higher that individuals get tired (if not “hangry”) and perform slower and slower in the afternoon. On balance, this means you’re losing more time when skipping a 30–60-minute lunch break.

When it comes to breakfast that doesn’t have to be a bound up with a proper break as some people aren’t breakfast eaters and others again will have eaten already. Apart from this, the possibility to have breakfast comes along with step 2 assumed that there is something to eat provided. The secret benefit of having a little breakfast buffet available is that the leftovers turn into very welcome snacks in the afternoon. 

Step 6 – Overcome the afternoon low-point

The medical term is postprandial somnolence and we all know it. Approximately an hour after lunch we get tired and long for a siesta. The good news is: energy is coming back after about another hour as opposed to a low-point caused by not having lunch at all. That doesn’t mean that everyone should actually take a nap after lunch but you must not be too worried if work is getting done a little bit more slowly. Followed by fiercer dynamics the delay will be set off easily. Generally, there are always little ups and downs during productions as low-points can be caused by other circumstances too. Any unexpected event can affect the tempo, e.g. when the styling requires a lot of fitting or the composition is just not yet satisfying (this happens on locations or in designed sets rather than with plain studio backgrounds). But as long as nobody panics they can treat these situations as what they are: challenges that are solvable.

Step 7 – Final sprint and wrap

In the last one or two hours, prodigies can be accomplished. The shot list is almost completely checked and the leftover to-dos become overseeable. Psychologically, this is a great stimulus to fulfill the rest of the tasks at the highest speed. Also, with the body of work that’s already done the look and feel is overall clear to everyone so the last motifs won’t require as much consideration or adjustments in the details. In other words, the flow is perfect when you and your team are on the last lap. It’s the same effect when, during the day, it becomes obvious that the work is getting done earlier than expected assumed that you’re trusted to not add more work thinking that you pay for the time and not the valuable outcome (if you’ve read my tip no. 24 you’ve probably understood why it’s a misbelief to be paying for time). Unless there’s another very packed production day ahead and preparations can be preponed in order to ease the next day an earlier wrap has it’s advantages too. Oftentimes, when there’s no real timeframe for it in the plan, the removal and packing of all gear and items are done very hasty, and from the outside, it would look like a swarming anthill. At the same time, for the digital operator, there still is work to be done. Namely, checking and backing up the data is an essential part of a photo shoot guaranteeing that the whole day wasn’t in vain. The wrap, therefore, requires an average of 30 – 60 minutes when rushing. However, take it from me, having a little bit more time at disposal can be beneficial. It provides the facility to look around and help the ones whose wrapping is more effortful, securing the models’ departure (you should take care of this especially when we’re talking about young girls but it’s nice to help any model get a taxi or some such), taking care of the remaining food, saying goodbye and thanks to everyone and leaving the place neatly.

As you can see a photo shoot is not rocket science and can be managed mainly by having discipline, showing initiative, and using your social skills. The next article will go a little bit deeper into your role as the client on set. It will list the key points that you should constantly pay attention to. This should help you be aware of the impact that you have on the photos when you’re present to their creation and prevent any negative epiphanies at the point of no return. Your efforts will pay off in the form of an easy post-production process with fewer correction loops saving you time and money.


If you enjoyed reading this article, or you found it helpful in one way or the other, I would love to know (reach out)! You are also welcome to support my work and writing by donating whichever amount this is worth to you. I will thank you with lots of telepathic love and more interesting journal entries. Cheers!


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