Monday, June 18, 2012
On Location: J2 Shoots for Cowgirl Tuff Jeans
- LiteDisc Holder
- LiteDisc 32 inch Soft Gold/White
- LiteDisc 42 inch Soft Gold/White
- LiteDisc 52 inch Soft Gold/White
- LiteStand: large
Shooting catalogs on location has its rewards, as well as its challenges. Over the years, seasoned commercial photographer John Beckett has shot ads, magazine editorials and catalogs under some pretty extreme conditions.
In this comprehensive lesson, John expounds on problem-solving in the field and gives us valuable insight that he has gained over a career's worth of image-making.
(Click on any thumbnail image below for an enlarged view.)
- The Location Search
- The Day of the Shoot
- Picking The Right Spot
- Lighting on Location
- Finding the Right Pose
- Keeping it Light
- Stepping into the Model’s Shoes
- Changing Direction
- Commercial Composition
- Going the Extra Mile
- A Team Effort
- Nikon D-300
- 80-210mm Nikkor lens
- 50mm Nikkor lens
How you deal with the logistics of a shoot depends on prep time, the budget and your experience. The first step of the process is to figure out which locations will give the best backgrounds to convey the look and feel your client wants in their ads or catalog.
The Cowgirl Tuff Theme
For our shoot, we wanted to create a sort of visual transformation of a cowgirl from the simple ranch life of riding horses and running around in old pickup trucks to becoming a little more of a tough woman on her motorcycle. We felt this would give the client's product a broader appeal to both real working cowgirls and urban women who see themselves as independent and strong. The name "Cowgirl Tuff" says it all.
Once we all understood the storyline, it was approached much like a movie production. We shot out of sequence due to light and location, but the ads were planned to run in an order to build the brand image through the storyline. Julie and I worked up the concept as soon as we got the call asking us to find an Arizona location. We presented our idea to the client and they loved it. Most of our clients now look to us for ideas as well as photography. We consider coming up with a concept part of our billable service.
The Location Search
If you have the budget, it’s a good idea to hire a professional location scout, as they specialize in finding places that provide many of the things you'll need. Additionally, they will take care of securing permission, arranging permits and providing all sorts of information about the best places to eat, changing facilities and other creature comforts a crew needs. Many of them even can give you information about sunrise and sunset times in a specific area, in addition to light and shadow direction.
Location scouts will often go out in advance to provide photo files for your consideration. Their fees and expertise can vary depending upon the demands an area has for film and still shoots. If the budget doesn't have room to hire a location scout, it’s probably going to fall in your lap to get it done. At times, I've called other photographers in an area to ask their advice on places they've found. Most photographers are happy to help with information about places they know in their home state. If we have to do it ourselves, we build a day of scouting the area into our budget.
The Day of the Shoot
The day of the shoot began with a 6:00am call time at the hotel for the first model to start makeup. Julie handles our schedule for model call times and works closely with me to determine when I want the first model on set. The second model arrived as hair was being finished with the first model, who started clothes fittings as the second model started makeup. [figure 1]
Our client organized the clothes while makeup and hair was in process. As for me, I always get all my gear ready days in advance so I can drink coffee and watch! [figure 2]
On this shoot finishing touches and final adjustments were done out of our vehicles at the location. Since we all drive pickups, SUVs or Jeeps, it made more sense to use our own vehicles in case we needed to head into rough desert areas where a motor home would never make it. Turns out we never left the parking lot this day, but we were prepared! [figure 3]
Here's our model Brooke Carol relaxing before we started shooting. [figure 4]
What makes this shoot kind of special is that we discovered Brooke on a ranch we were staying at on assignment for Arizona Highways Magazine, and used her on the cover for a story about ranching getaways. She was a real working cowhand on the ranch. [figure 5]
Picking The Right Spot
For this project we needed to use three to four locations In order to tell our story for the ad campaign, as well as shoot the Cowgirl Tuff buyers catalog.
Our first location would be a local tourist attraction that had once been an old western mining town. [figure 6]
The second location was in The Lost Dutchman State Park that can be seen a few miles in the distance from our mining town location. [figure 7]
The park is part of the Superstition Mountains that are famous for their legends of hidden Spanish treasure. People still hunt the Superstitions for the legendary gold. In fact, a year ago I was asked to photograph secret clues to the mine that two brothers had found. But that's another story.
In looking for good locations, some factors to consider are:
1. How to maximize an area to get the greatest number of shots before you have to move?
2. What will the lighting be like during the time at the location?
3. How much privacy will you have and will people (guests or tourists) be passing through your shooting areas?
4. How safe will your gear be while you are working?
5. How many shots can you complete before they begin to look too similar?
6. How far will you be from vehicles if you've left anything behind?
7. Will there be a building you can stage out of or will you need a motor home?
The mining town manager advised us that the place fills with tourists after 10:00am. And he was right! By 10:30am most of the spots we'd selected ended up being unusable because of all the people that were present. Subsequently, we were limited to a few areas off the beaten path. Fortunately we had a Plan B. One area had no tourist interest and that's where we set up.
Here are three of the usable location spots we found on the scouting trip. I took these snapshots during our scout with a compact digital camera I always carry. [figure 8, 9 & 10]
These are examples of three catalog shots taken using those locations. We set up our gear and clothing so that we worked in a 180 degree arc. With the gear out of the way, we didn't have to pack up and move until we'd exhausted all the possibilities. Every move eats up time. [figures 11, 12 & 13]
Our next location was The Lost Dutchman State Park a mile down the road from the old western mining town. Permits had been secured several days in advance by contacting the park ranger station by phone and handling the permit process via e-mail.
On State and Federal land, your cameras can be confiscated if you attempt to film or photograph without permits. Depending on the governing agency, a permit can usually be obtained in a few days, but it can take as long as a month getting the proper approval. You will also need proof of insurance with State and Federal parks, as well as with most private locations.
Lighting on Location
When on location, I like to use shaded areas whenever possible. I use buildings, trees or other large objects as light scrims and I reflect light onto the subject using Photoflex LiteDiscs or LitePanels.
At the Lost Dutchman location, finding shade would not be possible since we where going to be shooting in open desert. Any shade or scrims we would need to bring with us.
The Photoflex LitePanels make excellent scrims with the translucent fabric stretched over the frames, or used as reflectors with various reflective fabrics. I carry them on every assignment, but due to the strong winds this day, I had to use an alternate method.
Here, you can see a large silk umbrella that is designed specifically for photography to create a quick setup light scrim. Usually I have an assistant hold it over the model or I attach it to a light stand anchored by sand bags. But because the winds were so strong this day, it had to be anchored to the fence with ropes. I’ve had this old thing for a long time. The fabric was torn from years of abuse on sandy beaches and dense island jungles. It's held together mostly with duck tape and good wishes. [figure 14]
A large Silver/White LiteDisc was placed on a stand to the model's right to kick light into her outfit, and Julie used a medium Silver and White LiteDisc to open up any shadows on her face. [figures 15 & 16]
I make it a point to show the model the images we shoot so that she's aware of everything from my frame crop to how she's moving. It's a team effort and the model is one of the keys to success. [figure 17]
Since we were shooting catalog shots at this time, the goal was to keep the background simple. Using a Nikon D-300 with an 80-210mm Nikkor zoom lens at f/5.6, ISO 200, I let the background fall out of focus to force attention on the model. The umbrella scrim can cut the exposure by as much as two stops. [figure 18]
As we began shooting the ad series, the sun was already very high. The scrim umbrella had to be used again to cut the harsh sun. The wind had picked up and I used bungie cords to secure the umbrella to the bed of the truck. The large 32" LiteDisc became the main reflector and the second Medium LiteDisc held by a crewmember kicked light into the model's face. [figures 19, 20 & 21]
Finding the Right Pose
I begin with a pose that fits the needs of the merchandise to show necessary details. Once that's on film (Oops -- I mean on the media card), I let the model play. In this way she’s already aware of the features we need to photograph and moves more spontaneously to show those features.
Here's the winning shot. This image was shot while the rest of the crew was away from the set talking about the next outfit. I happened to look over at the model, who was still sitting in the truck, and quietly I said, "I like that! Play with it!". She had such a natural look at that moment and began working it. It was one of those magic moments between photographer and model. Always be ready in case something unplanned happens. [figure 22]
We wanted to shoot another outfit in this spot, but the wind was starting to pick up even more and the sun had moved quite a bit. We either had to move the truck or quickly improvise more shade. So I rigged extra fabric to the umbrella since it would be faster than finding our driver with the keys. Plus it would act as a windbreaker, keeping the model's hair from blowing all over.
Using ropes, sandbags and strong spring clips, I got it all held together long enough to get the shot. [figure 23]
Keeping it Light
An unofficial rule I have is to keep things as light as possible on the set. So, I threw this shot in of Julie and me in a mock standoff. She'd been teasing me about being stubborn with my scrim idea instead of just moving the truck. [figure 24]
Good-natured teasing is how we take the pressure off each other during long workdays, because as partners we're very aware of how important it is to keep spirits up on a shoot. One person's bad mood can impact the entire crew.
We keep each other informed if either of us picks up a "bad vibe" from someone on the crew and try to compensate with humor to keep the vibe from spreading. That goes for our own moods as well.
Stepping into the Model’s Shoes
I make it a point to personally strike poses I want my model to strike in order to work out any problems. As a team, Julie and I talk about changes in hair that might be necessary due to camera angle or wind direction, clothing features the pose may not show very well, or even things about a model we know could cause a problem—how her stomach might look too large if she's sitting, etc.
In this case, there were two factors that caused us to change the idea. First, her legs weren't long enough. Second, it wouldn't show the jean pocket details as well. [figure 25]
I tried a second pose idea and we all agreed it would show the details the client wanted. [figure 26]
This is the final result. [figure 27]
For one of our final shots at The Lost Dutchman location, I wanted to get the spectacular essence of the craggy mountains at sunset. This would be a key shot in the ad series depicting our cowgirl's journey, as she becomes the strong independent biker woman heading off on an adventure.
Once again, I felt it was necessary for me to get a feeling for the model's possible poses in order to better direct her. I don't feel it's enough for a photographer to simply tell a model to, "Go stand over there." Give her a reason for standing in a certain spot. Give them a storyline, or as a good director does with an actor, give her motivation, a starting point, and let them build from there. [figure 28]
We positioned the motorcycle that was supplied by custom bike builder, Ralph Randolph (www.ralphrandolph.com), on a trail leading to the base of the mountain. I needed a very low angle to compose the girl, bike and mountains correctly. [figures 29 & 30]
You'll notice here I wasn’t using a tripod anymore for the ad shots. With the shorter lens, it's not necessary. Plus, I prefer to be able to move faster and compose the shot handheld. Here, I was shooting with the Nikon D-300 with a 50mm Nikkor lens, f/9, ISO 200. [figure 31]
As much as everything looked pretty good at first, I was bothered by the composition of the mountains in back of her head. It's an okay shot, but there's a conflict that forms behind her and the color of her hair blends in too much with the rock colors. [figure 32]
Even with a change of outfit, I still wasn’t thrilled with the result. [figure 33]
There's a point where you just have to let an idea go and take a different approach. Part of being a pro is knowing when to you've reached the point where it's time to change direction, and know how you're going to do it as quickly as possible. We already had some good things in the can, now it was time to "play" creatively and see where we could take the shot.
We changed to a different top, added the bandana, and I used a longer lens (80-210mm Nikkor zoom) to come in tighter. [figure 34]
Although this image may appear a little more "sexist" because of the angle taken on her posterior, it’s important to point out that the selling feature on these jeans is the pocket detail. For my tastes, there's something stronger and "rougher" with the bandana added and coming in tighter on our model. Here, we lost the rugged mountains, but at least the client would now have options.
When composing an image, I think about logo and copy placement as I'm shooting. It's also important to recognize a full bleed (photo "bleeding" past the edge of the page) magazine format makes it necessary to crop a shot straight out of the camera.
Some of the finished ads will look like this. [figures 35-38]
Going the Extra Mile
Earlier in this lesson, I talked about being ready in case something you hadn't planned on happens. On our third day of shooting at another location, we were chasing the light and the sun was quickly dropping behind the mountains. By the time we'd gotten to the last location there was little more than an afterglow hitting the spot we had planned to shoot.
Racing like crazy, I asked my model to balance on an old cattle-loading shoot, first trying it myself for safety. By the time she climbed into place, the light was fading fast. In the days of film I might have said, "We've lost it," and started to pack up. But with digital, I was confident we would get something special in that glow. Here, I shot with the Nikon D-300 with a 50mm Nikkor lens, at f/2.2, ISO 200.
We got it! This is a great example of the results you can achieve when everyone on the team is willing to push a little farther to get the shot. [figure 39]
We now had the perfect shot for Cowgirl Tuff's signature ad using their most popular selling jeans. [figure 40]
A Team Effort
As photographers, we tend to receive much of the credit when everything goes well on a shoot, but in reality it's a team effort. It's the crew, with everyone knowing their jobs and doing them well. As the photographer, it's my responsibility to get the shot and look out for my crew. Take care of them, and they'll take care of you.
I think it’s important here to give a special thanks to my business partner and crewmate, Julie Koeth. She made sure this shoot went smoothly with location permits, makeup/hair and coordination with our clients and model talent. [figure 41]
Pre-planning is always a key to success on location. Aside from actually scouting the location yourself, most prep steps can be handled by phone or e-mail.
A few points to consider:
1. Either find the location yourself, use a professional scout, or talk with other photographers.
2. Be aware of sunrise and sunset times in the region, especially in mountainous areas.
3. Think about any events that may be taking place in the area that could impact air travel, hotel availability, car rentals or an excess of people near the shoot sites.
4. If you're in a rural area, are there fair-sized cities or towns nearby to deal with meals, accommodations, and emergency services?
5. Will you need security?
6. Is there any wildlife danger to be aware of out in the country? In a big city, is there a high crime rate in your location areas?
7. Get all permits for the location far enough in advance.
8. Look at the weather forecast predicted for your shoot time window.
9. Think about early morning temperatures, and after sunset temperatures as well, so that the crew knows how to dress.
10. Get maps and directions to everyone involved.
11. Will you need walkie-talkies? Cell phones may not work in rural locations.
12. If you have to caravan by car to the location, make sure the last vehicle knows the way in case they have to pick up stragglers who missed a turn, or got caught at the stop light.
13. What is there to do at the end of the day? Are there good places to eat or have some fun?
14. And most important: always have a Plan B!
I hope some of these points help make your next location shoot a great success. Good luck, and good shooting!