How Following Three Basic Photography Principles led to a Successful Assignment

As a working professional who has taught a few workshops with plans to teach more, I try to do is make sure that I practice what I preach. Some of the things I try to emphasize in a workshop aren’t just things that sound profound but are fundamentals that are used regularly, work well and lead to good photography. So I thought I’d write about an assignment I received last spring that put some basic principles I’ve taught in workshops to the test.

The assignment was from a good client who wanted me to produce to a catalog cover with a Christmas holiday theme. The shot was essentially a landscape that involved a human element. The theme would be a cozy cabin decorated with holiday lights in a gorgeous mountain setting with a fresh snow look. The ideal lighting would be dawn or dusk where the lights of the cabin would balance with the ambient light. This was not that unusual except it was the middle of March, winter was waning, Christmas decorations were in the attic, and the client needed it soon with a limited budget. Without a big travel budget the client was fortunate that I could do this in my home region. Knowing the local area reduced location-scouting fees since I could do that myself and not outsource it. The Southern Rockies would be clad in snow for a few more months but getting that fresh winter wonderland look would be a longshot and getting any decorations we didn’t have especially at stores in a rural area would be challenging.

Rustic cabin with Christmas holiday lights nestled in ponderosa pines beneath the Sneffels Range, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Cabin with holiday lights nestled in ponderosa pines beneath the Sneffels Range, San Juan Mountains, Colorado. Shot on assignment for a catalog.

As I hung up the phone, a mild panic set in thinking about how I was going to pull this off in the next week. Time to step back and think about why they hired me. I believe they trusted me to deliver their visual message regardless of what challenges I would face. Location shoots call for problem solving – a critical skill for photographic success especially when many environmental elements would be beyond my control. My production plan was based on among other things three basic tried and true principles that I’ve emphasized in my workshops.

The first principle is recognizing that 80% of the success of the shot occurs before you take the camera out of the bag. In fact I think it is closer to 90% in many cases. Our problem solving would begin here as the biggest challenge was finding a suitable cabin that lined up with great San Juan Mountain scenery. Since this was a commercial shoot that involved decorating and lighting and securing permission and a property release, this meant simply driving around and shooting something pretty we found from the road was not feasible. Many hours were spent that week doing Internet searches, contacting lodges, b &b’s, real estate agents and a production company to locate a suitable location that would be affordable. Fortunately, Lauri’s diligent research paid off. Time to make a mad dash to the chosen location.

The second principle involved taking advantage of what was already in place. This principle is demonstrating you can make compelling imagery close to home before traveling to places far away. Become an expert in photographing your “backyard.” Learn the geography, seasons, lighting patterns, and keep notes on interesting locations. (There is an excellent article about shooting close to home in the February, 2011 issue of Digital Photo by Mark Edward Harris.) I admit it is hard sometimes but I always try not to become jaded at my familiar surroundings. The “I’ve seen this a thousand times” and “been there, done that” attitudes do not serve your creative vision well at all. The client was paying in part for my local area expertise and I was not about to let them down.

The third principle was knowing how to use artificial lighting. Lighting skills aren’t just for portraits and interior photography. Learning to creatively mix natural and artificial light sources is applicable even to landscape subjects. In a less than ideal sunset or sunrise, creative lighting skills can save the day. In this instance, the cabin had rather dark wood and was somewhat nestled in a tall stand of ponderosa pines. The light from the decorations and interior lights simply wasn’t enough to make the cabin “pop” from its surroundings. Fortunately a little used mono-light that packed more power than a hot shoe flash with a portable battery pack saved the day. We used RadioPopper slaves that gave me the freedom to place lights in hidden places and fire them from a fairly long distance. For this shoot the lights were hidden behind the front porch and fired wirelessly over a hundred feet away in winter conditions.

Woman building and decorating a snowman

Lauri DeYoung building a snowman during some assignment downtime to be photographed at dusk. San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Snowman bearing presents in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado at dusk

Snowman bearing gift shot as stock after a catalog assignment shoot at the same location.

The total time committed for this shoot roughly broke down to: countless hours on the internet and communicating by email and phone, 10 hours travel time, 4 hours scavenger hunting, 3 hours setting up (including Lauri building a great snowman) and one hour taking things down and packing the truck. Shoot time for the client was about an hour. Our host let us stay and shoot other things which we did the next morning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *