A Scouting Checklist: What I Look For in a Location or Studio

A Scouting Checklist: What I Look For in a Location or Studio

Art is about storytelling. It’s about using all the tools at one’s disposal to convey and idea or an emotion. To connect an audience to a brand, or a personality, or a moment in a way the no other medium can. Along with my own technique, the ingenuity of the on-camera talent and the creative team behind it, plus the tools necessary to complete the job, the location you select for your shoot is one of the many raw materials that will have an effect on the eventual alchemy you bring forth to produce a great image.  

So, how does one go about selecting the appropriate setting for their story to unfold? Well, like most elements in photography, the appropriateness of a location is as subjective as our choice of lens. The right location will vary from photographer to photographer and from shoot to shoot. Here are just a handful of decisions I make when scouting locations for a new project.

Practical Location Versus Studio

The first thing that comes to my mind when developing a concept is whether the potential shoot will require the uniqueness of a practical setting, or the ultimate control of a studio. Often this is dictated by a client. They will likely tell you whether they want a studio look or more of a location look. They will often tell you whether they are looking for a studio (i.e., strobes) feel or a “natural light” feel (even though the term “natural” can mean a lot of things).

Like most parts of my own work, if the decision is left to me, I tend to base it on the emotional outcome I wish to achieve. Does a particular practical location suggest a certain tone? If you place a model in the middle of an abandoned building you will achieve a far different result than if you took the same model, same wardrobe, same pose, and placed them at a luxury resort. So, I have to ask myself, which mood am I trying to evoke? And does this particular location help me to evoke it?

Then again, what if I need the same emotion, but I will only have a limited amount of time and my client requires an abundance of setups. In this case, I may opt for the studio. True, I may lose the head start offered by the location. But I also don’t have to worry about losing production time traveling distances to various parts of the location. I can have a number of stages prepped, and simply go through the setups one after another with little downtime aside from the time it takes a model to change clothes.

Do You Have the Budget to Build Sets?

Or will you need to work with what’s already there? Since I have about as much skill with a hammer and nails as a wet rock, I tend to opt for locations that come with built-in art direction. Locations that offer something unique as is. But, if you have the ability, or a skilled set builder as part of your team, you may be partial to building your own environments inside of a studio. This offers the ultimate in creative control, allowing you to place and light everything just how you want it. Of course, it can also mean added costs, and additional prep time (and breakdown time). But, depending on your budget, this may be the best route of them all.

Does Size Really Matter?

How much room do you need to pull off your shoot? Is it going to be all tight close-ups so that you only really need a few square feet to place lights and separate your subject from the background? Or, does the image require depth?  

How many people will be on set? Under ten people can usually find enough room to work in a small cozy studio. But, if you have 20-plus crew members, a video village, and various staging areas, then the same small studio is going to start to feel rather cramped.

Color Palette

Color is one of the most effective tools in conveying emotion. Is the location a warm brown tone? Is it a wild fluorescent orange? How will those colors effect your final image? How will that affect how the audience ultimately feels?

Think for a moment about a movie like “Good Will Hunting.” If you haven’t seen it in a while or never seen it at all then pull it up online or dust off your DVD and give it another watch. The film tells the story of a working-class hero from Boston. He is a regular Joe with extraordinary abilities. In order to form this connection from Matt Damon’s “Everyman” character to those in the audience, notice how production designer Missy Stewart uses color to establish the character of the community. Browns, greens, assorted reds, and yellows. Earth tones that suggest that this world, and by extension these characters, are down to Earth and thus relatable to John and Jane Doe sitting in the third row.

Now, contrast that to something like “Moulin Rouge” which is meant to be less realistic and more stylistic. That film is a romantic fantasy and thus the choice of exaggerated and highly saturated color tones is wholly appropriate as they establish in the audience’s mind that those characters inhabit a lively and vivacious world where the idea of breaking into song is really not all that far-fetched. It would be completely inappropriate when trying to tell the earthy tale of a poor kid from Southie. But the bright color palette is perfect for capturing an electric Parisian nightclub.

Naturally, it is not often that you will walk into a practical location and it already has the exact color tone that you are looking for. But I always try to consider how the existing tones will support the personality I am trying to establish in my image or help to compliment the tones of the client’s product.

Windows or Walls

The very first studio I ever rented had three solid white walls and a fourth wall covered in windows which allowed in beautiful streams of natural light. 

Allow a slight pause for the author to reminisce about how much he loved shooting at in that place. Sad emoji. Okay, now back to it...

While I would often use the craftily made (by someone else far more handy than myself) blackout shades to achieve a totally dark environment, I always had the option to leave my lighting kit in its case and simply use the beautiful natural light to achieve a soft and realistic portrait.

Is it too soon to repeat the fact that I really miss that studio?

The studio I work out of now is basically four solid walls. I love the space. Don’t get me wrong. It has all the amenities necessary for 90 percent of my shoots and a special kind of “it” factor (I just feel creative the moment I step inside). But there are no windows. I can, of course, recreate window light with my strobes, but there is something decidedly nice about being able to just show up with a camera and a reflector and create something beautiful without plugging anything into the wall.

What Equipment Does the Studio Have on Hand?  

I am what could be termed a “turnkey” operation. I travel with my own equipment which I dutifully pack in at the beginning of each shoot and pack out when the day is done. Unless a specific shot requires me to rent a specific piece of equipment, I find it possible to recreate pretty much any look the client wants with the same small set of tools. Even if a studio does offer on-site equipment rental, I will generally use my own gear. I’m comfortable with it. And I don’t need any additional liability that may come with potential damage to borrowed/rented gear.

But I am also fortunate to have my own equipment. Not everyone does. Or, perhaps, you have your own gear, but it is an out-of-town job without a budget for added baggage fees to travel with multiple Pelican cases. In this case, it may make sense to look for a studio where you can pick up all the equipment you need on location.  

Many larger studios will actually have an equipment rental facility in-house. Even smaller studios often have certain gear that you can rent for an additional fee. Any studio worth its salt should have at least a few basic grip items like V Flats, C-Stands, seamless paper or a cyc. Take into account what you need, or don’t need, and let that help to inform your decision on what studio is right for you.

Time for a Walk Around the Block

Even if you are shooting in a studio, is there a potential to add value to the shoot by doing a few natural light exterior setups as well? The other perfect thing about my first studio (yes, this is the third time I’ve mentioned it) is that the area surrounding the studio was incredibly picturesque. With multiple storefronts, all competing to have their little section of wall be more interesting than the next and the friendly neighborhood graffiti artists creating a new mural/city backdrop every week, the street just outside the studio was filled with endless possibilities. Even if I’d spent the entire day shooting in a blackout studio, there was always an opportunity to take ten minutes at the end of the shoot to quickly walk the block with subject in tow, stopping every few feet to create natural light portraits against the myriad of colors the block had to offer.  

True, you could always just hop in the car and drive to such a place, but keeping time management into consideration, having a studio surrounded by interesting views and cityscapes all within walking distance can be a huge time saver and a way to offer added value to your client.

Permitting

Los Angeles didn’t become the home of the motion picture industry by accident. Our beautiful weather, cloud/smog-induced soft natural light, and endless locations make it a photographer’s goldmine.

Unfortunately, the city is well aware of this. While shooting permits are required in a number of cities around the world, I think it’s safe to say that Southern California takes the idea of permitting to a whole new level. You’re not a true photographer in this city until you and your crew have been eyeballed by a passing police officer who seems to have far more interest in you than that actual armed robbery occurring on the other side of the street.

So whether you choose to go through the proper channels to obtain the appropriate permission, or you plan to pay the exorbitant city penalty if caught by shooting without one, you do need to take into account whether your chosen location will require a shooting permit or not. Maybe you can’t afford one in your budget. Maybe you can’t afford to be caught without one.

“You There. Can You Please Get Out of My Shot?”

What is the foot traffic like at a location? One of the pure joys of shooting inside a studio is that other than those you’ve expressly invited to be there, you will likely be left alone. Shooting on location, especially a city street on the other hand…

Tourist tend to stare at photo shoots like a fish in a bowl.  Especially in my own hometown, people seem to assume anyone having their picture taken is a potential celebrity, and you tend to draw unwanted attention. Unless you’re working with a natural exhibitionist, that attention can make your model feel awkward, which will, in turn, translate on screen.  

Other times, a pedestrian paying too little attention may just walk through the shot. Or, as happened to me on a recent shoot for lululemon, they will freely stand over my shoulder, then interrupt my shoot to ask the subject, a personal trainer, on his advice on the best way to do a burpee.

Where the Sun Goes

In the early days of sound stages, they would often be built on a rotating base similar to a merry-go-round. Prior to the advent of massive lights, the creators found themselves dependent on the sun. Unfortunately, the sun moves. Building a set on a rotating base offered the supreme advantage of being able to move the entire set to ensure the best possible light throughout the day.

Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most people reading this essay don’t happen to have their own studios with rotating foundations. I would say I would build you one, but I already established earlier my own shameful inadequacy when it comes to any activity requiring the presence of a toolbox.

So, assuming you are doing your photography either in a studio with window light or out on the city street, you’re going to want to take into account where the sun will be in the sky at the time you are planning to shoot. Even if you overpower the sun with your strobes, knowing where Earth’s original key light will be and when can save you a great deal of time and effort when it comes time to focus your lens.

Will Sound Be an Issue?

This is not an issue if your assignment doesn’t include motion and/or dialogue. But as anyone who has ever secured a location for a week to shoot a film only to discover on the first day of shooting that the building next door has been scheduled for demolition that very same week can tell you, ambient sound matters.

Parking

Is there a parking lot? Is the lot big enough to accommodate your crew? Is it free? If not, how will that add to the budget? Is there street parking? How close is it to the studio itself? Keep in mind that you, or your assistant, will likely be making multiple trips to the truck to lug in heavy equipment. Expensive equipment. So, if your location is in a dodgy area with lots of foot traffic, do you feel comfortable walking through it carrying tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear? Or leaving some of it in the car while you make the first trip?

Freight Elevators

Speaking of transporting gear. Did I mention it’s heavy? That’s not really a problem when it can be wheeled onto a freight elevator then wheeled off into the location. But in five-floor walkup with narrow hallways and steep stairs? I’ve done it. I’ll likely have to do it again. But, if I can avoid it…

The Distance Between Us

My city is filled with great locations. It’s is also very spread out geographically. So while there is no shortage of places to shoot, some of those places will require a twenty-minute drive while others are more like two hours one way. While I personally don’t mind the drive for the right location, the model might. Or, if it’s a new model you’ve never worked with before and it’s a somewhat smaller shoot, they may balk at the idea of traveling three hours out into the desert to meet a perfect stranger they’ve just met online. Just saying. It sounds like a reasonable concern.

Or, they are totally up for the trip but will charge you a full day rate instead of a half day, because even though your shoot will only take 3-4 hours, including the driving time, the shoot will, in effect, take up their entire workday. This negotiation will vary wildly depending on the scale of your production, but it is something to keep in mind.

Amenities  

There are times when it really pays to have a coffee shop nearby. What about Wi-Fi? Do your clients need to send files back and forth to headquarters? And while I have had makeup artists set up in almost every conceivable nook and cranny, it is far more pleasant to have a comfortable area for your team to call home. You may not spend much time there, but the talent does. And that little bit of space can lead to a happier and more engaged subject once they arrive on set.

It’s All About the Benjamins

How much does it cost? This is an obvious one, but if I didn’t list it, I think that would qualify as a massive omission. What is the location offering you in return for your investment? Can you get the same setup for less? Even if the client is footing the bill, I still take it as my responsibility to spend their money wisely.

Who’s House?

A pleasant and professional host can make all the difference between a smooth shoot and a chaotic one. A wild and quirky location can be a good thing. A wild and quirky owner may not. Every time you produce a shoot, you put something on the line, whether it be a massive production budget, or simply your reputation.  

Trust me, showing up at a beautiful location that you can’t access because the cracked out owner is sleeping one off on his neighbor’s couch, while your entire production team is meant to arrive in the next five minutes is not a pleasant experience. On the flip side, having a host who is punctual, professional, and knows when to offer assistance and when to fade into the background can be invaluable.

The Intangibles  

I mentioned earlier that despite its lack of windows, the studio I shoot at most often these days has the “it” factor. It just feels right. It provides me with a creative spark but also delivers the clients a pleasant and professional experience.  

More subjective than some of the other measurements, the overall feel of the place can make a huge difference. Remember that, as the photographer, you are in charge of this shoot and it is a reflection on your organization as well as an advertisement for these people to work with you again. Making that interaction as pleasant as possible can go a long way towards establishing your professionalism in the eyes of the client and crew. The better time they have at the party, the more likely they are going to want a second dance.

These are just a few of the things I take into consideration when picking out the right environment for a photoshoot. These considerations are, of course, driven by my own specific needs and the type of jobs I get hired to perform. You may find yourself in a completely different situation. Different clients have different expectations, so you need to take all of that into consideration. But keep in mind that where you shoot can have a big potential benefit to what you shoot.

Select wisely and create something beautiful.

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6 Comments

Cathleen Shea's picture

Not only did I learn a lot... I was entertained along the way. Great writing. Thank you. :)

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thanks Cathleen

Elan Govan's picture

No...no plans in the pipe line to shoot anything in LA....interesting read just the same.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thanks Elan. LA definitely has it's own unique challenges.

Slevin Mors's picture

Having just opened a new studio in the LA / Orange County area this was a great read to see how other photographers evaluate if we are a good fit for them.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thanks Slevin