Producing a Commercial Photo Shoot: Step by Step
By Emily Miller
/ Published by liveBooksProducer Susan Shaughnessy walks through each stage required to put together an advertising shoot on location in LA. Find out how to orchestrate a large-scale production and learn what each of the key players does in this article from liveBooks RESOLVE.
This article has been contributed by the liveBooks RESOLVE blog, a forum that brings creative professionals together to keep photography relevant, respected, and profitable. To subscribe to RESOLVE and learn about liveBooks online portfolio services for students and educators, visit the liveBooks website.
For more information about producer Emily Miller, who wrote this article, please visit her website.
Most photographers are interested in commercial work, but orchestrating big photo shoots can be daunting. Luckily producers—like Susan Shaughnessy, who runs SKS Productions
in NYC—are here to help. We asked Susan to walk us through a recent advertising shoot she produced on location in LA and explain each crew member’s responsibilities. Whether your team is sprawling or a dynamic duo, Susan lends insight into the process and organization of a complicated shoot.
Agencies: Digitas Health and Saatchi & Saatchi Healthcare Communications Group
Total people on set: 30
Who: Susan Shaughnessy, SKS Productions
What: Manage people, schedule, communicate, delegate, problem solve, have fun, take responsibility; write checks; provide deliverables/links to casting, scouting, and visuals that need approvals; take care of photographer; organize everything; insure everything; handle travel, catering, transportation; create production books; answer questions, ask questions, provide confidence; do due diligence; be flexible; stay on budget, get overages approved as needed; work closely with art buyer-producer/agency, accept praise on behalf of crew.
Where: Brooklyn is home, but I produce anywhere.
Who: Jayne Wexler, lifestyle and portrait photographer
What: I find a producer if the budget allows one. Go over the layout, all the details, and shot list. Discuss the casting with the producer. If a location is needed, we find a scout and start scouting. On shoot day my assistants and I set up lights. Then they usually get the set ready and shoot a digital-Polaroid for me to see. In the meantime, I discuss the details with the prop and wardrobe stylists and the hair and make-up artists. Once we are set up and I’m happy with my lighting and composition, we start shooting. After the shoot we edit the images and choose the best selects for the job; then we either make a website or send a disk or hard drive to the client with jpegs. Depending on the size and complexity of the retouching, the client will either retouch in-house or I will use one of my retouchers. Then there is the billing, which can take as long as the production.
Where: I live in NYC—“Nolita”—been in the same apartment for almost 23 years! My studio is on Vandam Street, west of SoHo.
Who: Kevin Schochat, photographer’s agent
What: When a request comes in, I go over the specifics of the job with the creative in charge. I then work closely with the photographer and producer to prepare a detailed photography estimate. I negotiate all fees and rights for the photographer. Once the job is awarded, I follow it closely to make sure everything is running smoothly and we are staying within budget. I also go to the shoot, if it is local, to see how it is progressing, meet the client, and deal with any last-minute questions or changes. After the shoot, the photographer and I usually review the invoice together. Then I contact all the key people involved to make sure they are happy with the results and thank them for their business.
Where: New York City
Prop Stylist and Set Designer:
Who: John Robinson, prop stylist and set designer
What: Once a concept has been approved by the client, I get the sketch or comp that the agency created for the ad. Then I create detailed sketches of what the set will look like. We also shoot images of all props options and provide images or samples of all textures, wallpapers, and fabrics that will be needed to create the image. Once prop selections are made, we purchase or rent them, then begin building the set. Once everything is collected and built, we go into the studio beforehand and assemble the sets. After the shoot we take down the set, return rentals, send purchases to the client, and salvage and store anything that could be useful in the future.
Where: Just outside of Austin, Texas, plus an apartment in Manhattan. I work as a local in LA and NY, and I’ve done shoots in Vegas, LA, San Diego, Austin, Chicago, Montreal, and NY this year.
Who: Gillean McLeod, wardrobe stylist and costumer
What: I talk to the art director and photographer, and we look at the comps, then I shop for clothing in stores and costume houses. There is usually no time for a fitting, so all is done the day of the shoot. When we’re done with the clothes we bought, I either donate it or send it to the client. The rest is returned immediately after the shoot.
Where: I live and work in Los Angeles, but try to work away as much as possible since I love traveling.
Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist:
Who: Stephanie Daniel, makeup artist and hair stylist
What: Prior to the shoot, I discuss with the photographer the desired look of the model, do the necessary research to achieve it, and get approval from the photographer/client. On the day of the shoot, I style the hair and makeup of the models to achieve the desired effect, then make sure their looks stay in place by touching them up between shots. Once the models are done, I’m done.
Where: I live in Santa Monica and work all over LA and NY.
Who: Michael McClellan, location scout and production support
What: As a location scout, it is my job to interpret the art director’s and photographer’s vision. By using sample photography or sometimes just text, I set out to find the perfect location, then negotiate with the owner once the location is approved. After the initial scout, I load everything onto a website for clients to view and make their picks. I am a production coordinator and produce many shoots myself.
Where: Based in LA
Who: Nima Ghedami, Production coordinator
What: My job basically entails doing whatever the producer and the production staff need me to do. This could include finding studio space, arranging meals, or getting coffee. Production is mainly a problem-solving endeavor, and my job is to provide support so the production can move seamlessly.
Where: West Hollywood
Who: Piero Ribelli, photo assistant
What: Before the shoot, I help the photographer decide the logistics, location, time of the day, and set-ups. The day of the shoot, I set up lights and cameras with the other assistants, help the photographer stay focused on the images that the client needs, and socialize with the clients to make them feel comfortable. After the shoot, I usually help a bit with editing and reassure the photographer that all went well.
1. Making the Call
The ad agency had three photographers in mind for the shoot, and the photographer Jayne Wexler was considered a favorite. The agency called her directly, and Jayne called her rep, Kevin Schochat. Together they talked about the concept, dates, and availability. Next, Jayne and Kevin considered which producer they wanted. Usually, the photographer or the rep has a relationship with a producer. Sometimes the ad agency has a relationship with a producer, and they will recommend one. In this case, Jayne decided she wanted to work with me.
2. Crafting the Estimate
There were three bids submitted for this job, and the estimating process took more than a week, including several rounds of back-and-forth with the agency. We were trying to meet the agency budget, but we were the only team estimating traveling expenses, so our costs were higher. The agency was very fair and understood our numbers, but it took time to get the estimate and photographer approved.
I typically work with my favorite program, Excel, for bids, as does the rep. I turn my document into a custom-designed PDF, so it looks like a neatly presented document with my logo and client info on it. Excel allows you to make changes quickly and frequently, which is so useful when estimating and making revisions.
"Then and Now" concept
3. Getting Approval
During the estimating process, I have a crew in mind. Typically they are on hold from the beginning, especially the stylists. Once the agency awards the whole job and the money, then I book. I review the costs, rates, and expectations with each person, to confirm we are all clear. Sometimes the rates, expenses, and layouts have altered during the estimating process, so it’s essential to clarify at this point.
In this case, the casting and location line items were approved first, and then days later the rest of the job was approved. We began right away with a creative call between the photographer, agency, and myself to review layouts, casting specs, and location needs. I hired Eastside Studios in LA to cast, and I began researching locations with my coordinators.
Then stylists, photographer, producer, and agency have creative calls. These calls solidify the wardrobe direction and the prop needs. From there I can build a firm schedule, and manage expectations and deliverables for the team. As soon as the job is approved, the rep and I submit a request for the advance, to receive the appropriate percentage of the expenses up front. This money will get the job rolling and secure locations, studios, and all immediate out-of-pocket expenses.
4. Building the Crew
Wardrobe stylist Gillean McLeod, wardrobe assistant Lauren Burns, and photographer Jayne Wexler
When assembling a crew, I consider the photographer, the project and style, the budget, and the personalities that fit with the requests. It’s also important to have crew members who can work closely together to support each other. The wardrobe stylist and prop stylist know each other, work together often, and were able to help each other styling vintage clothing and props.
With Crestor, because everything was being shot in LA, I suggested and hired the crew for Jayne. Jayne brought her first assistant, Piero Ribelli, with her, but I introduced Jayne to Mark Gordon, digital tech, along with Ubaldo Holguin and Joe Klecker, who were local photo assistants we used in LA. Based on temperament, professionalism, and personality, I knew they would fit great with this team.
Having team members who know each other and work well together adds another layer of efficiency. Photographers often get in a groove with certain stylists, and definitely photo assistants and digital techs.
Often the crews stay the same, but sometimes we’ll add or lose somebody because of availability. Like Jayne in New York, we’ll have almost the same crew every time we work with her. For every photographer I work with, I specifically craft a crew that seems appropriate for them, based on their personalities, needs, styles, how fast paced they are, and what they expect in terms of styling.
5. Scouting Locations
On location: The painter's studio
For Crestor, we had a big assignment in a short time frame. We needed an authentic painter’s studio, a park that looked like it might have the Eiffel Tower in the background (to be handled in post), and options on a French café and cobblestone street. All in LA.
Scouting the painter’s studio was tough. We needed a studio space that was authentic, but more of a hobbyist painter versus a professional painter. The space needed to be big enough to hold a crew of 30 people, and it could not be too messy or too high-end. We also needed daylight, so we needed windows. We ended up at a real painter’s studio, but cleaned it up, pared it back, then propped it to our taste. We commissioned real paintings that were made to feel not too professional, but pleasing to many.
Since this job required me to work from NY during pre-production, I needed solid production coordinators and scouts on the ground in LA. Nima Ghedami is one person who can make things happen faster than anyone else I know in LA. He helped by calling scouts and friends, and found painters' studios for us to review online.
Michael McClellan scouted and permitted Griffith Park for us, handling the paperwork and fees. He also scouted various other parks and painters' studios. We also needed to find options for a French café. Michael and Nima scouted the café for us, but the idea was finally killed, and we stuck with two days on location and one day in the studio, shooting on white at Pier 59 Studios.
I do a lot of the research for location scouting, but ultimately I send someone like Michael to take pictures and upload to a website that allows the photographer, agency, and me to simultaneously review the locations.
Logistically, shooting on location in LA can be very easy, but sometimes you need a site rep, you need appropriate insurance, you need money up front, and the contracts can be very detailed. On Crestor, the paperwork was fairly straight forward; we negotiated directly with the painter’s studio, and Michael handled the park permit. With the painter's studio, I made sure that the building was aware of the shoot by passing out flyers ahead of time, making sure our electrical needs were in line with the studio requirements, and ensuring we had parking nearby. We also made sure all the equipment, catering, and props could fit in the elevator
6. Casting Talent
For this project, which was based on a previous TV shoot, we had to capture the concept of “Then and Now”—meaning we had to hire the talent for the primary roles, then find teens to represent those people 30 years ago.
We cast during two days with casting director Doug Mangskau at Eastside Studios. He provided links to the talent each morning for the agency, photographer, and me to review. Each day we made our selects and commented on what we felt was missing. We also added a link of comp cards for the agency to review, which added to the in-person casting days. Eventually, we made selects for the painter, the younger version of the painter, and the younger version of the couple at the park with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
7. Styling and Props
Because the concept involved a “Then and Now” theme, we needed to prop and style talent and locations that looked contemporary, and another with a vintage look. There was a lot involved to coordinate themes, colors, and believability. The props that conveyed “then” included vintage bags, cameras, and maps. The hair and makeup stylist brought in a mustache and wigs. The wardrobe was all rented from from vintage stores. It was very believable. The props for the painter’s studio included: custom paintings, easels, paints, paint brushes, boxes, and used clothing from actual painters.
8. Transport and Amenities
Good maps, planned parking, and orchestrated transport are essential for a smooth shoot. In the production book (details include: the call sheet—client/agency/crew/vendor names and phone numbers; hour-by-hour pre-pro and shoot schedule, locations/maps/directions, talent and wardrobe specs, weather, sunrise and sunset times, nearby conveniences—Starbucks, Target, FedEx, and favorite restaurants), I try to provide as much info as possible. The coordinators also help by handing out maps, setting up signage, and emailing maps and directions ahead of time.
LA can be tricky in terms of traffic. Scheduling early drives against traffic can work to a producer’s benefit. Being able to get online from wherever you are seems to be required these days—the agency essentially wants access to all of their work back at the office, and often we need to email samples of the photos to people who couldn’t make it to set. Also, having a digital tech who can take the photo and place it in a layout for agency preview is a real need.
The importance of good food and coffee also cannot be underestimated. Neither can: a clean bathroom, helpful assistants, efficient cleanup of garbage, flexibility, understanding, dinner reservations for the agency, and on-time car service.
9. Shoot Day
Mark Gordon's G10 capture digital tech cart
Arrive 8 a.m., set up lights, breakfast, wardrobe, and props. Model arrives at 8:30 and gets wardrobe approved, then goes into hair and makeup. The agency works with Jayne on lighting and angle, modifies props and crop, and gets camera and digital all working in sync. Mark Gordon, the digital tech, comes with his own DJ set-up, so there’s always good music happening.
The model stands in for Polaroids, frame gets signed off on, wardrobe approved. Final touches, then shoot. The shoot day continues for hours, changing wardrobe, altering props, changing hair.
Once the model nails the emotion, and we get multiple shots, they are edited and approved by the agency, and a select is emailed to the director, who can’t make the shoot. Once everything is approved, we let the model go and shoot the set elements alone (the props, the backgrounds), which will be manipulated in post.
Lunch inserts itself around 12:30-1 p.m. Usually we all stop and eat, at least for half an hour. Then back to work. We wrap by 5 p.m., using an hour to edit images and back up all digital files. At the same time, the crew cleans, empties garbage, packs props and wardrobe, and loads everything into vans.
Wardrobe ready, talent on set
Before I leave, I walk through the space with the owner/site rep and ensure nothing is damaged, broken, or out of place. Anything moved gets put back in place—we often note its place ahead of time by taking pictures when we arrive. I’m the last to leave.
The check is written if anything additional needs to be paid for. Maps or directions for the next day are reviewed and dinner reservations are confirmed. Call a rain day if needed. For the Crestor shoot, we bought weather insurance instead of calling a weather day, but the day ended up perfect. You just never know!
Featured photographer: Jayne WexlerBack to list