This is an instructional piece but also a case study for a lifestyle photoshoot I organised for Unite Students. It was the largest lifestyle shoot they’ve done to date and the methods used paved the way for every shoot since.
What’s it for?
Usually there’s a defined business need for fresh photography. For example, when an audit is done on the website, another platform, or when we need fresh print materials.
The need usually dictates the type of photographer I recommend. For example, there’s a photographer who has worked with us for several years and has taken the majority of our property shots. He is particularly good at providing alternative shots, and splicing together images; one image may concentrate on the sky through windows more when shot indoors, and another will showcase the room itself. Splicing these together will bring out both room and sky in the image. He is also a devil for detail and makes very minor light and dressing adjustments – the position of a cushion can make all the difference and therefore a great shot. However, in this case i knew we wanted to try something different, so I looked at other great photographers nearby – some focused primarily on lifestyle imagery.
Nobody can do anything without a budget. Find out exactly how much you have to spend and do your research before contacting potential photographers. Agencies will likely charge more than one-man-bands.
Get the buy-in
Explain what you need and why to your direct reports. Explain how you’ll go about it. Keep it to a one-pager if you can. Keep it lean but inspire confidence in the excellent shoot/s you’re embarking upon!
The dreaded spreadsheets
Spreadsheets work well to list down and name your important shots e.g. “common room” and describe the type of photo you’d want to see in said common room. Perhaps you have a need for a female student in your photo, or props, or both. Perhaps you’d like to take it from afar to show off the rest of the common room. Would you like it well-lit? A shall depth of field? What’s the theme, the tone, the emotion you would like it to convey? Do you want any models in the photo? Studying? Photographers will have plenty of creative ideas for how to set up shots, but make sure you consider what you would like to see.
A list of different orientations I considered for the lifestyle shots:
- Face left (towards content)
- Face right (alt)
- Look forward
- Detail shot (e.g. book in hands, boots, features in room, personalised stuff)
- Head shot (facing left – towards content)
- Overhead shots?
- Over -the-shoulder/lap/hand shots (for devices inc. mobiles, tablets, laptops)
Priority shots and wishlist
I’m prone to colour-coding spreadsheets to decipher importance (red, amber, green). List the critical shots first. What can’t you live without? What would cause the project to fail or for your manager to shout at you if you if you didn’t get? Always a valid question!
I the unlikely event (or possibly likely – who knows how the day will go or how fast or meticulous the photographer will be) that the shots are finished early, you may want to think about an additional shots “wishlist”. Perhaps this is a list that pre-empts content you (or someone else in the company) will need for a future shoot.
- Primary focus: homepage imagery
- What are we trying to convey here? Selling the property, selling student / University life, selling security, selling facilities, selling us/staff, that we go above and beyond, selling the experience of being a student with us
- Potentially try focussing on small things/details, to show we care
- Photography for student events, e.g. a BBQ for new students, etc. staff with quotes on about us/contact us pages
A spreadsheet for shoot dates and times
These dates and times won’t be written in stone, it may even change in the eleventh hour, as ours sometimes do. It will depend on a lot of things, not least of all your chosen photographer’s availability, bad weather or an of act of god. You can firm these dates up later, but try to give yourself some wiggle room.
Other planning methods
On a large-scale property shoot I organised we needed several photography “phases”, from planning the shoots themselves, to ensuring the correct room shots went up on the website on the correct pages.
I haven’t used Trello for a shoot YET, but I’m a massive advocate, so I’ll probably weave it into my next photography project. It’s fast to learn and set up, you can label and colour-code things, add deadlines, define you own bespoke columns (e.g. “To do”, “Work in progress” and “Done”). Trello’s checklist functionality would probably work really well here, too.
Swot up on photography guidelines
Read your own company’s guidelines if you have them. If not, set some of your own. Think about theme, emotion, focus, etc. When preparing a photographer for a shoot try not to bombard them with information – focus on the important stuff.
Examples of photography you like
Show photography that you like to the photographer. As a refresher, show them on the morning of the shoot before they get started, too (if they’re worth their onions they’ll be on photography shoots all day long and won’t have had a chance to study at length before the day).
Research and user testing
Testing with users is a subject all of its own. If you’re trying something new style-wise, or refering to a previous style, you may want to test this out with your customers. Perhaps ask them the first thing that pops into their head when they see a particular image. Try not to be leading or ask them too directly which they prefer out of two images side-by-side.
Work out the best locations (if you have more than one)
In the case of this particular lifestyle shoot we had six days plus a test shoot. It made sense to do the test shoot in Bristol, as we were based there, but the others took more consideration. Which properties, for instance, had photogenic gyms?
Pick people who communicate to be the vital contact points
It’s very important to have communicative colleagues with you on the shoots and if at all possible, already on location for the shoots, too. Ensure you speak beforehand, and give people plenty of time to get ready (and potentially clean up) beforehand.
Depending on where the shoot takes place, you’ll need to let the photographers know who to meet, and where. Also things like parking, any permits and the exchange of phone numbers are vital for a successful shoot, in case of any challenges you can and will run into.
Try to get a couple of people to come on each shoot to help you and the photographer. Anything can happen, but typical jobs that you’ll need help with are:
- Carrying props and equipment
- Opening doors. You’ll need extra hands to open doors as you move through with equipment, props and especially if there are key cards involved where the door will lock once they shut
- Phoning people (e.g. arrangements for shoots, if the place you’re going to is un-expectantly locked, or if you need to get somewhere else quickly)
- Cleaning things (I’ve cleaned ping-pong tables, picked up cigarette butts and vacuumed in preperation for the right shots)
- Getting pizza/drinks to appease tired/confused models, yourself and the photography team. Again, leave aside a bit of budget for this.
Choosing and working with photographers
Does the photographer have a good rapport with models? – check their website and see how “stocky” their photos are. You know; the cheesy shots you see a million of online (type “happy students” into Bigstock for examples). If the shots are crisp, candid, and emotive without shoving it down your throat, they may be the ones for you. On the flip side, you may want less candid photography, but it’s a decision you need to make early on. Of course you can’t tell what someone’s like to work with until you actually take the plunge, but try to use your gut and your brain to come to the decisions you need to press on.
- Their cost
- Agree on how photography can be used – this is a very important factor. How much, for example, would it cost to buy the photos outright? To use them for anything? E.g. for digital/websites, apps etc and for print, brochures, trade shows, and as posters. What would it cost to use these forever? Is that even something you’d want to do? Maybe you’ll be doing fresh shoots and replace the lot in a couple of years. Have a think
- Location – this feeds into the above and below bullets (cost and fuel). I’ve really wanted to hire photographers before who were just too far away it became impractical. There are plenty of good photographers around, so try to go for someone in your city or the next
- Is the photographer you’re looking into a one man band? Sometimes they’re great and often cheaper as there are less people on their payroll, but they may not have all the equipment and extra hands a photography agency have
- You don’t know until you know (consider a test shoot), but is the photographer easy to work with/flexible and receptive to feedback?
- Ask your friends. If someone had a particularly good wedding photographer, ask them who it was. Check out their site. They’ve probably got a good rapport with people to be doing what they’re doing
- Try new people. There’s nothing like a new set of eyes (and lenses) to ressurect a tired brand
- What are they willing to give you? – think number of photos, retouching (post-production), RAW/original files (only really relevant if you have someone with basic Photoshop skills to then go and colour-correct and tweak the file)
- Ask about their equipment and check their portfolio
Get in contact
Get Googling and get in contact with photographers you like. State who you are (job role), what your company does, and why you/the company potentially needs their help.
Define the scope and request a ballpark figure. So in one shoot I asked for a rough cost bearing the following in mind:
- Number of days per city, i.e. 2+ days per city (so at least six days total and quotes based on more days and cities as per the brief – what we choose will obviously be budget-reliant
- Price with/without stylists (dedicated people experience in dressing the space) or stylists for one day only in each city
- Any assistant costs
- All prices inclusive of VAT
- Provisional dates/intention e.g. mornings and evenings are good for photography as they have the most dramatic lighting. However, this depends on a lot of factors including model availability, exam periods (and no students are around), the university year (eg during summer the majority will be back home)
Make another dreaded spreadsheet or tab for photographers you’ve contacted, where you left it (e.g. interested/not interested, did/didn’t choose, did/didn’t get back to you, and any notes). This will come in handy the next time you want to hire a photographer – perhaps you want to try someone new from your list who has a different style or price tag? You already have some intelligence.
Try for 10 of these, as one or two probably won’t get back to you, and perhaps the same number or more just won’t be interested or won’t have capacity. Thank them and move on. If you’re not happy, review what you’ve sent and contact more photographers. Check your opening gambit is measured but not too wordy. They may only have snatches of time between shoots, so don’t get bogged down in detail at this point.
The brief (photographer)
Offer something of a brief. I’ve put together a brief before where I’ve requested a written response in how they (the photographer/s) would approach the project. I’m not sure I’d take this approach again as it takes time for all involved. I’d probably just meet over a coffee once I’d chatted a few times via email/phone and got a feel for the person and their photography.
Think about this early-on, but refine it at this point. Discuss or share in advance of any shoots.
For example, a brief I put together detailed that the shots in question must:
- Be appealing and engaging to students as our core audience – the photography should make students want to come and live with us, be inspiring and depict our student homes in a positive light. It should also appear to parents/guardians as a safe and secure place to live where their children will be happy
- In most cases (unless otherwise specified) be candid and natural looking – this is the student’s home
Primarily landscape orientation for all shots (unless otherwise specified)
- Show models who for the most part are not looking directly at the camera
- Show models who are not pointing
- Props or interactions should be relevant and look natural, not posed
- Models should not be wearing noticeable brands (We will send communications to brief models beforehand)
- Look good cropped into a square, letterboxed, etc (for website header/thumb etc use and integrated campaigns)
- Provide examples of where photography will be used – if bespoke
Once you have chosen your photographer, work out how they want to be paid and check how your company pays. Sole-traders need to live and so may ask for a bigger percentage of their final cost sooner. If you work in a big company it can take longer to pay, especially when the photographer is not on the books yet. Work this out in advance if you can, so not to damage relationships and bank accounts. Negotiation with either party may be required.
Establish naming conventions
It is important to ensure you know which locations are which and who is in each photo, especially for the purposes of GDPR. This can be achieved with well-conceived folder structures, a DAMS and/or changing the file names of the photos themselves.
For ideas on how to record who appears in your photographs, please see the model release/publicity consent forms section.
I try, wherever possible, to use real customers in photography shoots. People (and in Unite Students’ case, students). This comes with its own caveats. Students (or any bystanders) take a while to warm up, and unless the photographer has a good rapport with them the shots can seem staged and awkward. They are also less likely to heed requests like “wear a plain t shirt, not one with a symbol/a football shirt”. Models can dress the way you ask and are used to photoshoots. They are also more likely to turn up (and the model recruiter you pay should make sure they do) and are obligated to stay the duration, but models can be a costly addition and may also look out of place. Try to over-recruit if you can, and think about incentives to help things along (see incentives section).
The brief/advertising (models)
Put together a bit of text to email and/or add to posters when you contact potential models. Ensure you do this through a proper email client (like Mailchimp) and be sure to read up a little on who and who you can’t contact and how, so you don’t do anything that’ll flout GDPR laws.
Model release/publicity consent forms
A robust model release form is something you’ll need to avoid any nasty disputes with models and make sure everything is fair and agreed. This is a legal document you’ll need all models to sign (including you and your colleagues) if you appear in any shots. You’ll want to ensure the following inputs are captured on the form:
- Name of project
- Date of capture
- Name of the person managing shoot (so that any future questions/comments/disputes find them, assuming they haven’t left the business)
- Model’s signature and printed name
- Model’s contact details
For the rest of the form, you’ll want t o explain things like:
- That the person agrees to be photographed/recorded
- How the photography may be used and may also not be used
Check the Internet for templates and also check with your legal team, if you have one. It’s an important thing to get right. Ensure you secure the form electronically or lock away/destory any physical copies once you have a digital copy.
You may want to send these forms out in advance, or have them signed on the day. You may also want to try a piece of digital signing technology like “DocuSign”, to eliminate the need for paper (you need to be careful to keep any personal information confidential).
Ensure you take a picture with the model holding a placard with their name (ensure it’s legible), so you can always link forms to models and easily check which photos have which models in case you need to pull any for whatever reason.
It’s important to offer an incentive at photoshoots. The offer of being a model as a springboard into fame and fortune isn’t much of a sell, unfortunately. People are giving you their time and the more they get, the longer they are likely to stay. On that note: it is best to define how long the person/s should stay in advance of the shoot and clearly state to them what your expectation is to fulfill the incentive.
Here are some notes and considerations I made for recruitment when thinking about the lifestyle shoot:
- Potentially ask/look for diversity
- A poster alone may not cut it, what other communications can we use to confirm models?
- Consent forms should be sent over prior to a photoshoot
- Staff should be made aware they have to complete a form. Take along forms on the day and get them to sign
- Deciding on models and ensuring they are suitable for the brief
- Ensure all the common rooms, reception areas are clean and ready to be photographed
- Number of students/models we’re aiming for? One suggestion was 30 for 2 days, but I doubt we’ll be able to get this volume. Want a good selection, not too many of the same for adjacent website sections. We’ll need to mix these up a bit.
- Communicating shoot details to them
- Providing an incentive to ensure models arrive at the shoot on time
- Providing a back-up should models not participate through illness
- Using non-models can be a challenge so we suggest, where possible, using real friendship groups who will have natural chemistry and warmth. Avoid as much as possible staging interactions and capture natural moments. If people know each other well and feel comfortable in each other’s company it will show in the authenticity of the image
Do anything you can to get models involved. As stated, I designed posters, sent emails and organised incentives to ensure at least some people turned up to the shoot!
The Test shoot
Nothing is certain – you can’t know a photographer until you work with them and they all operate differently. I suggest half a day’s test shoot, where they still get paid but it’s low risk for tyou both. You may not see eye-to-eye at all, or you could get on like a house on fire. Perhaps most importantly, the photography may just not be right for the project. You may want to quote for this seperately before you go ahead with the other shoot dates. It is also a good way to test the photographer’s process works for you (e.g. delivery of assets and post-production methods) and to iron out any problems you may have
The test shoot is a good place to test out any props you may have. Get yourself to somewhere like IKEA or Wilkos. Maybe use click-and-collect of if you’re working with a photography agency you may be able to give them a list to source the items for you (this will likely incur additional time and fuel costs).
Be mindful that props get old fast (-oh, another image with that same cushion!), and you can usually tell what’s a prop and what’s not. A good rule of thumb is also to bring some of your own stuff/stuff you think may look interesting in shots and works with the location and models. Also ask models to bring things along, but there’s no guarantee that this will happen.
During the shoot
Relax and try to enjoy yourself. Be pragmatic and critique photos as you go. Take breaks between sections. Be helpful and engage your models early on. Ask them questions and put them at ease. If you’re working with a professional you should be able to count on decent images, but think about where you’d want to use them in-situ, too.
Some great photographers I’ve worked with have offered to show me photos at each step. So say if we have a model working at a desk, the photographer will take ahota from different angles and then show me on the camera screen. This is a mutually beneficial feedback session between shots, and if it isn’t happening, you should insist that it does.
Obviously you don’t want to run out of time, but try to ensure particular shots have a number of different angles and treatments. The more photos the photographer can take the better.
After the shoot
So you’ve completed the test shoot. You should at some point soon get a “contact sheet” or zipped assets of all (or a selection) of images from the shoot with some sort of reference number/file name (as agreed prior to the shoot). You’ll be able to look through these images and choose ones you like. As agreed earlier, you’ll select a number of images you’d like to see doctored through to post-prod (colour-corrected, Photoshopping e.g. old signage out, electrical wires and blemishes, etc).
This is a good time to take stock and thing about anything you’re happy (and/or not so happy) with, before you proceed with the major shoots. Perhaps you prefer a certain format, or you need a different crop. Perhaps you aren’t crazy about the artistic flair that crept into the latter part of the shoot. Let the photographer know in a diplomatic way.
As for pre-production/RAW photography, I asked for everything, but that’s just me. These files are typically masisve in size (before being run through post-prod and colour, corrected, etc), but it meant I had tons of slightly different images I oculd pick out and doctor myself in Photoshop, giving me more options for angles.
Isn’t instantaneous. Determine a timescale for the photographer to deliver these finished files. You may find it takes a little longer if it’s a one-man-band, depending on whether they work late. An agency may have a dedicated Photoshop person to doctor anything required.
Define photography sizes for delivery, if you need to. You can’t expect them to crop everything for you, but if you need things in a particularly high resolution, let them know. You can always scale down, but if you need a photo twice the size of the one that’s been delivered, you’re in trouble. Note that the price you pay may also reflect the equipment and therefore the fidelity of the photos you receive at the end of the shoot.
Everything received, it’s a great idea to hold a retrospective meeting for your and colleagues benefits, once you’ve collected your award for a project well done.
In big companies this step is typically missed, but it’s an important one. Think about how things went. Did you get all the shots you wanted? Did you complete on time? Did you remain in budget? What went well? What went badly? It also shows a level of thoughtfulness, caring and humility. Record it all here, and then get some sleep.