I’ve gotten into a comfortable, efficient rhythm with my architecture photography over the last year. Whether it’s a single-family home, a banquet hall, or commercial exterior, there is a predictable process by which I make my approach.
Last week, I was referred by a friend to shoot a farm for one of his close friends. I would be tagging along with his video production team as their client (friend) wanted to add architecture photography to their new media package. My buddy advised me that it would be the type of architecture shoot I've done many times before.
“No big deal,” I thought as I imagined a rustic, bucolic barn nestled amongst a backdrop of crops in a golden, sunrise haze. I couldn't wait. I was going to be able to sleepwalk my way through some portfolio worthy images albeit at a slightly discounted “friends and family” rate (more on this later).
As soon as I arrived on site, I knew I had assumed too much. This wasn’t Old MacDonald’s farm. It was an enormous, industrial operation. More factory than farm. The place was so big, I needed to be driven around in a golf cart between shots.
Furthermore, It turns out that what the client wanted was vastly different than what I was originally briefed as they were hoping to promote their individual products alongside their space. I did not come prepared for product photography.
My whole game plan would have to be recreated from scratch. I needed to find beauty in metal and machine. To make matters worse, the outdoor portions of the farm were still heavily damaged from Hurricane Irma, which limited the angles I could shoot from. My sunrise dreams of backlit flowers as far as the eye could see had to settle for little pockets of beauty surrounded by storm debris.
Although I maintained my exterior composure, I'll admit that deep down, my nerves were a bit shaky. I didn't know where to begin. It took me about an hour to gather my bearings and get in my zone, but once the initial shock wore off, I was able to adjust some mental Xs and Os and escape from my own head with some portfolio worthy results.
Below are some humbling lessons I took to heart.
Pre-Production is a must:
I plan on writing a more elaborate piece on why pre-production is essential, but this shoot is a perfect example of why you should never skip it whether you’re shooting photos or videos. I make it a point to always bill for a day of scouting, but because this client was a friend of a friend, the whole shoot was more informal than I normally operate.
That was a mistake and 100% my fault.
Even among friends, do not deviate from your process. I should have insisted on a more thorough consultation with the client, and arranged for a day of scouting. This would have allowed me to:
- Be better prepared for the type of shooting I’d need to do. For example, had I known they wanted product shots, I’d have rented a macro lens, and probably would have advised them to select the very best plants they had ahead of time to save time looking for the perfect ones the day of. I would have also been prepared to set up a cool looking scene or backdrop appropriate for the plants. Also, I would have been aware of the damage from the storm and would have prepared my shot list accordingly. I make it a habit of setting my compositions ahead of time using my NX500 on the scout day. It's light, portable, and the kit lens has a good focal range.
Set Expectations: The client would have known exactly the number photos they’d be getting and what those photos would consist of. The number of deliverables should always be established up front and in writing.
Explain the value: The client might have gotten a better understanding of the time and resources required to complete their requests, and might have been more open to expanding their budget to accommodate.
But all that aside, the best argument for pre-production is that it’s in the client’s best interest. As the shoot progressed and I built a rapport with the client, it was revealed that they weren’t really sure what they wanted. I should have picked up on this sooner. I had asked if there was a shot list, and was told there wasn't. They knew they wanted shots of the farm, and of their products, but weren’t sure of what specifically, which proved problematic because, as I said, the farm was huge, and they have an incalculable amount of plants and flowers. We spent a good chunk of the shoot day looking for things/places to shoot.
Also, they’ve been around for almost thirty years and had never previously purchased professional photography services. Why does this matter? Because it means they have no experience purchasing professional photography, so the onus is on me "the photographer," the "expert" to steer the ship and consult them appropriately. Hence the reason why I must shoulder the blame.
You, as the photographer are the expert. Your clients are looking to you to execute their best interests. Unless you’re working with an agency that routinely purchases photography, you should assume that your client isn’t well versed in the process. People have many assumptions about photography, and because the craft is more accessible and easier than ever, they might not realize the amount of planning and preparation required by a successful shoot.
I can't tell you how often I hear a variation of the following phrase from clients: "Oh wow, I had no idea how much work/planning/gear/ variables were needed for photography/ filmmaking." The truth is people don't know, and if you don't take the time to educate, you leave yourself at the mercy of assumptions.
Of course, this demands more labor on your part, so you need to bill appropriately or else you risk being resentful. Hence why friends and family discounts can be a challenge. Had the location been closer to me, I might have scouted at no extra cost, but because it was over an hour away from my house, I opted not to, confident (arrogant) that I could handle what I thought would be a simple architecture shoot. It’ll be up to you to determine your own rates among friends. There is no easy answer except to handle it on a case by case basis.
By default, I don’t usually give such discounts. People don't tend to value what they don't pay for. If you charge your full rate, not only will you guarantee that you'll be adequately compensated for your time, but you'll also earn your client's full time and cooperation because they'll be invested as well. The higher your rate, the less "winging it" you'll have to endure. Simply put, if you're paying 5,000 dollars versus 1,000 dollars for a photoshoot, you're going to make damn sure everything is perfect and everyone is on the same page well before the shoot day.
But of course, I really wanted the shots for my portfolio. So I went against my better judgment. Even though the shoot turned out fine, it was a reminder of why it serves nobody to dilute your value as a professional. Going forward, I will insist on my full day rate so that I can guarantee a seamless, professional process.
I admit that the first hour of photos I took that day were probably hot-garbage. But no matter what type of photography I am doing, I’ve learned that when I am stuck, shooting through it leads to a breakthrough.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not mindlessly firing the shutter. I am still critically analyzing the light, composition, color etc, but perfection is not fueling me at this point. Instead, I rely on “the ritual” to clear my head. It allows me to enter a hyper-focused, zen-like trance that makes it easier for me to think. The process is also used to keep the client active and engaged because, well let's face it, It would not be a good look if I turned around and said: “sorry, I am fresh out of ideas at the moment, give me an hour to figure this shit out.”
And I can't emphasize enough that again, none of this would be necessary had I taken my own advice from the previous section. But it's great to know that you have multiple tricks up your sleeves when things don't go as planned.
My favorite shot of the day was the enormous warehouse where they sort all of their products. It's the image at the top of the article. Capturing it required a tactical staging session. This is where the photographer has to put his foot down and let his expertise call the shots. We didn’t have much time, and I had no idea such a structure was even on the itinerary until we drove into it. The golf cart looked like an X-wing docking in the Deathstar. The sheer size was so intimidating that I had no idea where to begin. But like before, I just started moving things around, and once things were in motion, I was able to draw up a quick blueprint for the shot.
The answer was obvious. They had wheeled dollies full of flowers all over the place. With some coordination, we managed to get them aligned in neat rows. As a final touch, I asked one of the workers to move the small tractor to the left of the frame as a final contextual prop for the scene.
As usual, the set-up was the longest part. Once the scene was ready, I proceeded to light-paint all of the elements and then bracketed some ambient exposures. To add a sense of scale, and a human touch, I asked one of the workers to stand naturally by the flowers. Luckily he actually had a legitimate inventory task to accomplish, so it added a layer of authenticity to the scene to have him interact with the products.
My second favorite shot took less than 5 minutes to capture. I saw this machine called a "Transplanter" literally injecting dozens of pots of soil at a time with little seedlings. The individual needles moved faster than I could see. The whole process was just beautiful in its cold, calculated force and accuracy.
I knew I had to get up close so that I could give a larger than life personality to these tiny little moments. I also wanted to show the force and speed with which the needles moved.
To achieve this, I set my camera to "rear curtain sync" and set my shutter speed to a 1-second exposure. The flash allowed me to "freeze" the action and capture the sharp detail of the subject, while the long exposure allowed me to capture some motion blur after the fact. The best of both worlds.
The hardest part was nailing focus. The Sigma 135mm 1.8 I was using is an adapted lens on my Sony A7riii, so the AF isn't as reliable as it would be with native glass. But the optical quality of the lens makes it worth dealing with this minor annoyance. After a few close misses, I just opted to focus manually and fire away until I got tack-sharp focus at the right moment.
This is how I get out of my own way. Something eventually clicks. The “vision” of what I want to achieve becomes clear as day, and from there I can focus exclusively on the execution, which is the easiest part once I know where I am going.
I spent a large chunk of this article writing about how I manage to get back on course when the shit hits the fan. But I stand by my argument that the best thing you could do to set yourself up for success on a shoot is to establish the cleanest line of communication with all parties involved. Eradicate all assumptions. create a clear, concise gameplan with your client, and make sure it is in writing. It will save your sanity. And trust me, if you're going to make photography a career, you'll need as much of it as you can keep in the long run.