So many photographers talk about testing, test shoots, and time for print (TFP), but what are these things exactly? In this article, I will explain my take on them.
Essentially, a test shoot is one where creatives such as hair, makeup, clothing stylists, models, and photographers all come together to build up their portfolios. For their time, everyone receives images from the shoot. It’s essentially an opportunity to try out ideas, concepts, and techniques without the pressure of messing up (you don’t want to make mistakes for a paying client).
A test shoot isn’t free, though. You are putting in the time, and there should be at least some assurance that you’ll get at least a good image from it. So, everyone involved should be at a similar skill level and career level. There are also paid tests, where you might pay someone who is a bit further along than you are to help you build your portfolio; depending on how far advanced they are, they might offer a discount to their usual rate of pay if they feel that you can bring at least some value to their portfolio. When you are starting out, you won’t have much of a portfolio, so you might get lots of pictures from a test shoot, but once you progress in your craft and become a better photographer, the goal becomes to create fewer and fewer images of higher and higher quality.
At first, you’ll probably only have yourself and a model. But once you start connecting with other creatives, you might start bringing in hairstylists, makeup artists, and fashion stylists. In this article, I wanted to share the process of a larger production photoshoot and show some of the things that went into building Working/Title.
Praxis and Pomodoro
Concept and Moodboard
Before you start anything else, you have to figure out for yourself what it is you want to shoot. What is your concept? What are you trying to say with your imagery?
Really, you’re just taking in the world around you and taking inventory of your worldview and reflecting on what a small part of that means. For me, this shoot was a response to being in quarantine and not being able to interact with people or have any good times. I wanted to quite literally be with better times.
In practical terms, your written text will be more to keep yourself on track, while your visual references on your mood board will help guide the other creatives you work with. Neither document will ever be complete; you have to treat each one as a living and growing thing, adding and subtracting elements from the text and visuals as you see fit.
Building Your Photoshoot
You can’t really ask people to come along and help you with a shoot unless you know what it is you want them to do. So, it’s super important you have a very clear idea of your concept. Sometimes, I’ll have an idea and do the shoot within the week. Other times, I’ll sit with an idea for a few years until things line up just right for me to do it. There really isn’t a wrong approach either way, but don’t be afraid to take your time.
Once you know what you want to do though, you can start figuring out what it is you need to do to help make it happen. In terms of praxis, this is the planning stage. This is the part where I start looking at locations if I need to hire out a location (which I did for Working/Title).
While I’m looking at locations, I’ll also reach out to hair/makeup/stylists and have one-on-one chats with them to see if they're available and keen to work on my idea. Huge shout-out to Jian and Nerida for helping me with Working/Title. While pitching my concept to the other creatives, I’ll try to talk through what my idea is and explain why I’ve included some of the reference images. You need to work with creatives you believe in and in whom you trust and ones who believe in you. So, you kind of have to believe in one another’s creative work and technical ability but also get along with one another’s personality. In creative industries, we’re lucky to be able to choose the people we work with in instances such as these, so you want to surround yourself with that love and that good energy. But in saying that, the shoot is no longer your vision; it is now a shared vision. These meetings are an opportunity to see what works, what doesn’t work, or if anything needs to be changed, dropped, or added.
After all these things are locked in, including other creatives and location, I generally have a much more concrete idea of what we’re doing. That is to say, I’ll have an idea of where we are shooting, a tentative date, as well as how many looks we can feasibly do (and by extension how many models we need). With all this logistical information finalized, I’ll write a one-to-two-sentence brief that I’ll send to model agencies, and in return, they’ll send me e-books or comp cards with various models they think they can offer for the shoot. Once all the models are optioned for the chosen date, I’ll organize a group meeting with the styling team. This is purely a logistics meeting where we collectively work out a schedule for the day, as well as bring forth any ideas or changes that may need to happen. I prefer to schedule the day in half-hour intervals as I find this is more than enough time to pivot or change track if needed. With a schedule written out, I’ll make and send out final call sheets to the model agencies that include any other relevant information as well as my contact information and phone number. I include a finalized draft of the brief (shown above).
In terms of praxis, this step is still planning, but it could also be a bit of reflection. At this stage, I have an extremely clear idea of who the models are, what they’ll look like with hair and make and outfits, and where we’re shooting. So, this is where I write down a shortlist of everything I want to try to shoot. I follow the timetable I’ve brainstormed with the other creatives (but am happy to make minor adjustments as I see fit).
I’ve had this idea and this vision of what I want to make, and I’ve put it out into the world. But with the shot list, I have an opportunity to take some of that back and make it my own again. What are the shots I want to make? How would I light and compose them? All this sort of happens well before the shoot, so that on the day of, I’m more or less working intuitively.
The Shoot and Post-Production
So, with such a big shoot, where everyone is giving up their time, energy, and resources, there is all that at stake (even if there isn’t a client involved).
That’s kind of why I prefer to plan so much. Plan and reflect. And plan and reflect. And really just figure every little logistics detail out so that the day of the shoot runs smoothly. If you’ve done all this planning and put in all this labor, then the shoot and the retouching (the "do" of praxis) are the fun, intuitive parts. This is where you can bring this creative thing you’ve dreamt up home.
I kind of feels like a bit of a broken record talking about praxis and pomodoro and stressing about writing and thinking. These really aren’t things that are stressed enough in the photographic community: so much of the conversation centers around gear. I’d argue that to be a better photographer, it really is about the creative energies you surround yourself with. As the phrase goes, it does take a village.
As always, if you put any of this into practice, I’d love to see what you make! Please share in the comments below.