Most of the cover photos for famous magazines and different publications are taken with very simple photographic tools. If you carefully look at the photos, you can probably tell what the light source is from the shadows that fall on the model and roughly understand what really went into making that specific production. While anyone can take a photo using the same tools, it, does not necessarily mean that you will end up with the same cover page.
What really makes a big difference in a photo are small elements, grouped together to make a big impact. Let’s count the most prominent elements which make a photo a cover photo or editor’s choice. Even if you are simply looking into creating more content for your portfolio and need to have an impact on your future clientele, you might want to read through this article to understand what goes into the production of any planned photo shoot, small or big.
1) Idea or a concept
…or a plot, even. The odds are, if you are in the creative field there are many ideas that ravage through your creative mind. If you do not write them down within 15-30 seconds (I know that it will take longer to write the whole thing down), it will all be forgotten. After all, what harm can it do to write something down, even if you never look back at it again. By luck or by your ever persistent nature what you wrote down might flourish into something beautiful. I would advice you to keep a little black book of ideas. Carry it around, and as inspiration chirps, keep recording your ideas down. Leave some space between each entry so that you can come back and add more notes to it. Sketch, draw, underline, dream about it. Burn with the idea of making it happen. Push yourself and keep reminding yourself that you can do it no matter how hard it may look. I promise, it does get easier and it does get much better. When you think that your plot is more or less ready, go to the next step.
2) Equipment, location and timing
You can use minimal equipment for the production you are planning or you can have a studio filled with crazy gadgets to light up your work area and to give you the flexibility to achieve your goal. Many commercial photographers rely on simple sunlight as the main light source and sometimes add reflectors (a detailed post on how to use reflectors is coming up from John!). No matter where you shoot, always make sure to research the area you are intending to use as a backdrop for your photos. Many of the locations around you might require a permit to use their premises. Make calls and research.
ANY location might render useful as long as it connects with your idea and your concept. You can use your garage with couple of simple lights, a cloth backdrop or paper backdrops which are not going to cost you an arm and a leg. You already got yourself a fancy camera, it won’t cost much to invest in some lighting equipment. Until you are ready to build a serious studio, you can manage with “homemade” equipment as long as you know what you are doing. In a studio environment where the ambient light is virtually non-existent, you can control and manipulate the process with some artificial lights that can be bought for cheap at your local hardware store. However, if you decide to photograph outside, you may need to know a thing or two about photographing in a natural setting. Timing and your positioning are two big factors and if you choose wisely, you can have dramatic results even during the mid day. I, however, prefer photographing either early in the morning or later in the afternoon, when the ambient light is at its softest. The idea of a planned shoot is to be able to control everything. So, if this is what you are aiming for, choose the time wisely and carry the equipment which will help you in your task.
Aside from a given idea or an assignment, if you do not have a suiting model to showcase the work, your entire project is going to fail. Just like in any big money-making industry, models mean a lot. As cliche or degrading as it might sound to many who oppose the idea of “sex sells”, it is nevertheless a fact. If your goal is to promote your work and build a solid portfolio, one of your choices is to pay for models that work in the modeling industry. It is absolutely true that the models do not come cheap. Hey, girls gotta eat, too! Plus, agencies claim their own share of the pie. If the girl/guy you found is affiliated with modeling agencies, keep in mind that they have ample restrictions for their models, including for the photos you are going to be taking. My advice for you is to research everything well before setting on a journey of hiring a model. Make calls, walk-ins, browse through the catalogs of the modeling agency. When you pay for the model through an agency, you are guaranteed to have a model for the photo shoot that you have been planning and restrictions are not so tough since you are paying for their time.
You have a couple of other options while looking for talent. One of them is establishing a good relationship with local talent/model agencies by offering them to photograph their upcoming/new models for free. This is obviously a two way street and might work out well if you and the models can use the photos in portfolios. Don’t worry, you won’t be taking away work from the photographers that the agency employs, because those photographers get paid to photograph established models for commercial gigs. Keep in mind that the above-mentioned restrictions still very much apply. This is good for models that are just starting out and do not have good portfolios to back them up, so it would be mutually beneficial.
Before you venture on using the “free portfolio” suggestion, make sure you have something to offer to the agency. For you to be considered, you have to prove to the agency that you are competent. While agencies might entertain the idea of involving you, they will make sure that you have some pictures you can showcase. That kind of beats the purpose and puts us in square one, right? Don’t sweat and put the above idea as plan B.
Your plan A, considering you have a budget of close to none, should be scouting for talent around you. With social media being such a big part of our life right now, there will always be someone who knows someone, who is married to someone and will fit the bill. Contact them and let them know what you can offer. If you can’t pay, you can offer the photos for their use. Explain your conditions and plan on signing a model release (more on this later).
The biggest downside of this route is that it is never guaranteed to work out. If your potential model does not look at this opportunity as paying work, there is a high chance they are not going to show up. There go your weeks of planning and pulling everything together! Kind of sucks, right? So, if you are planning a big production that needs to produce results, never involve a new person for it. Especially for free. Call them up for a small “get to know” shoot, as I like to call it. Understand how the person works with you and show them how you work. While paid models already know the drill and can adapt to any situation, a person you found on Facebook or other sites may not be very good in front of a camera. You will need to do quite a bit of directing all while keeping cool, calm and fun. Gradually build your relationship with potential “models” who are obviously not doing this for a living. Establish a good relationship and trust. Most important of all – treat them well. As the saying goes, respect is not given, it is earned. Earn their respect and their trust by giving the same to them. So far, I have never had any of my models/friends not show up for the work and I’d like to think it is so because I respect their time, their life and their interests as individuals.
Before any shoot that you are planning, keep in touch with your models all the while giving them their space. Keep them in the loop by explaining them what is going into the photo shoot you are planning so that they understand all the work you’ve been putting to pull one off. Without pressuring, carefully instill responsibility. Give them ample heads up before a photo shoot. Planning something out of the blue might be good for your creative self, but your models might have different plans!
Once the project is done, reward them. If you can’t pay big bucks, at least have a courtesy of inviting them for a drink, dinner or prepare a small thoughtful gift in advance. If your model is of opposite sex, invite other crew members (see below), so that it does not sound like you are asking for a date.
This is no less important while creating any work of art. The crew you choose should understand the task fully and should be able to fully cooperate on the set. If you are photographing for a big print ad, you might have a big budget. If you are doing something just for yourself (like I often do to keep myself motivated and working), you set your own budget and fish for the best your buck can buy. That being said, there will always be those who will be willing to work to get fresh photos for their portfolios. Mostly, you can find them among starter-uppers, who need more exposure.
So, who is the crew? We are taking about makeup artists, wardrobe stylists, hairstylists, set designers, etc. Your crew can be very big or it can be minimal. If you are just starting out, you can do it all by yourself or with the help of your close friends or family, who are very supportive of your passion. If you are in need of creating a costume, first consider your own arsenal of clothing, Halloween costumes, thrift stores and rental places. Scout and hoard everything that can be useful. It may take some time, but always remember that Rome was not built overnight.
Depending on the type of photography you are venturing into, find clubs, groups of people with similar passion and become a member. See what they are saying about industry creatives and look for those who are willing to work with you. If it is a paid gig you are planning, everyone will get paid and other vendors will welcome the idea of working with you. However, it is much harder to find vendors who will be willing to work with you for free. Unless it is a collaborative and creative work from which vendors will get splendid photographs for their portfolios, involving them might be very tricky and hard. If you are a hotshot photographer and everyone dreams of working with you, you are one lucky helluva son of a gun. If not, well, lots of work to do by yourself initially. Don’t get me wrong, even amazing photographers started out somewhere and most of them still work on their own sets and create amazing things. But all the help you can get from outside will make your work that much easier. Be patient and get to know your peers. Look for vendors who are starting out and want to work with photographers to highlight their work and add some juice to their portfolios. If you do a good job, they will come back for more.
I made a point to myself that the least I can do for my photo shoots, for my photographs and most of all for my models, is to hire or call a makeup artist for the day. Unless the concept of your photo shoot calls for a bare-face model, I would highly recommended involving a makeup artist. You see, we girls like to look pretty. Let’s say it gives us a little more confidence in front of the camera. If you are on a very limited budget or no budget at all, make a deal with a makeup artist and offer the photos for their portfolio in exchange for their work. Remember, makeup artists buy their products and pay real money. Make a note for yourself to reward the makeup artist whenever possible. If all else fails, do the makeup yourself :)
5) Post processing and presentation
Post processing is one of the biggest parts of a photo production. You may hate it or love it… still have to do it. Minimum or maximum involvement of post processing will depend on your idea for the final product. Post processing is also very unique to you and will give sort of a predesignated recognition to your photos. It takes time to develop a style and it might differ from one production to another. If work is being done for a commercial client, they will often let you know what they want. If the work is for yourself, you alone determine what to turn your photos into. Post production can vary from something as simple as fixing white balance, to much more complex editing in Photoshop that will take hours for a single photo. All up to you!
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me using the comments section below!