How Preparation Leads to Inspiration in Photography

How Preparation Leads to Inspiration in Photography

In last week’s article, I detailed my experience interning with photographic legend Art Streiber and how his extensive use of preparation has helped him to create some of the most iconic images in photographic history. In this post, I’ll attempt to take you through my own method of preparing creatively for a shoot so that I can get exactly what I want, and often a whole lot more.

I won’t wax poetic about the benefits of preparing this time around. That was last week. This week I’ll take you through some of the nuts and bolts of how I get ready for a shoot, and more importantly why I take each step.

Step One: Understand the Concept

What are you shooting and why are you shooting it? Is it an editorial image that will run alongside an article? If so, what is the article about? How many pictures are they likely to use? What’s the mood of the piece? Sunny and happy? Dramatic?

Or, if it’s an advertisement, what is the product? What does it do? What are its benefits to the end-user that need to be conveyed by the image? What is the brand all about? Is the branding about fun and freedom? Or is the brand about elegance and style?

The answers to any of these questions can take your creativity into totally different directions.

First, I start my search where most of our lives start these days, with Google. I will search for a brand or product to get every shred of information on them that I can. What is their branding? What message are they trying to send? How is that message being received? I’m looking at you Pepsi. What type of images do they generally use to send that message?

Second, speak to the client. Aha, I bet you thought that would be one, didn’t you? Personally, I like to have an idea of what’s coming before a formal creative meeting (if possible). That way, I go into the meeting prepared and armed with incredibly witty things to say. This allows for a smoother meeting, while also giving the client more confidence in knowing that I am fully engaged. Preparation for the preparation. Nice.

Once meeting with the client, I will pepper them with as many questions as possible. I need to know what they hope to get out of the shoot so that we are on the same page. This doesn’t mean I can’t let my creativity run wild. But if I can focus that effort within the exterior rails planted by the client, it greatly increases the odds that both parties will be happy with the final result.

Step Two: Brainstorm

One of my favorite old Hollywood stories is about a brief encounter between Julius and Philip Epstein, the screenwriters of “Casablanca,” and studio head Jack Warner that occurred shortly after the release of that film.

Landing in theatres in early 1943, the film was a smash hit both for its timeless romance and its sense of rebellious patriotism at a time when America’s engagement in World War II was on a knife’s edge.

Eager to follow up that success, Warner made his way down to the writer’s room to see what else Julius and Philip were cooking up. He was more than a little peeved to find the two simply sitting in their office having a laugh while their typewriters sat idly on their desks baking in the window light of the California sun. “Get to work,” he barked before continuing on his way.

A few weeks later, Warner stopped by the office again. Only this time, he found the two sound asleep at their desks. Blank pages at the ready. Barrels of ink yet to be spent. Waking them immediately, the two quickly found themselves on the receiving end of one of Warner's tirades full of colorful words which ultimately added up to “I pay you to write, not to sleep!”

Having learned their lesson, the two brothers would be sure not to repeat their mistake. For the next few weeks, when Warner would pass by he would hear nothing but the machine gun poetry of fingers banging away on elevated keys. A smile crossing his face as he saw his two little hit makers slaving away, page after page, filling the blank spaces to the brim with dialogue and action.

In a few short weeks, Warner was able to reap his reward and rushed the brothers' latest gem into production with images of dollar signs dancing in his eyes. So when the resulting film was released and met with a decidedly unenthusiastic yawn at the box office, Warner was perplexed. What had happened?

Dropping into the writer’s room for answers, he stated that he couldn’t understand. Every time he’d come by in the last few weeks they seemed to be working so hard. To this assertion, the brothers responded simply, “That was typing, not writing.”

The creative process is as much about what occurs before you pick up the pen, or in our case camera, as what you can do once you’re holding it. Take a moment to just close your eyes and see what you can imagine. It may not seem like you’re doing anything, but that’s where the magic happens.

Step Three: Reference Images

Learned from my time assisting, I always use reference images when preparing for a shoot. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to copy another image. In fact, my resulting image probably won’t look much like the reference image at all. But getting a sense of how something has been done before can help stir ideas of my own.

As my previous article made reference to Streiber's cabinets full of printed images, my own house is already far too cluttered with DVDs, sneakers, and random things I’m far too sentimental to throw away. Instead, I prefer to keep digital reference archives. Most of those archives start with a Pinterest board. The images included can be anything from a specific pose I want to use as a jumping off point, to a color palette, to a lighting style that I think would help to tell the story. I’ll create a new board for each upcoming project which gives me the benefit of having all the reference images in one place.

It is also incredibly helpful in sharing with my creative team. I send the link to my makeup artists, models, stylists, and anyone else involved ahead of time so that everyone knows the general direction I’m headed.

Step Four: Preshoot

This is the most elaborate document involved in my preparation. Kind of a hybrid mood board and shot list. Once I’m done researching the client, brainstorming ideas, and pulling reference images, this is the part of the process where I start to previsualize the shoot itself. That previsualization includes both the images themselves as well as the logistics of the production.

My preshoot is essentially a very long and detailed PDF. It lays out the shots I hope to obtain and the order in which I hope to obtain them. For each desired setup, I paste into the document a specific reference image or two in order to key the idea into my memory. Or, if I can’t find a reference image to match what’s in my head, I will write a short paragraph detailing the specifics of the image.

Along with the image, I will also write in details that should set it apart. The model should be wearing this color. Or this shot is intended as a diptych with image number six. Any relevant information is helpful.

I then go into detail on how I plan to light the image and what the expected adjustments would be in Capture One. If extensive color adjustments are predicted, I'll even build my Capture One preset beforehand rather that dally about on the set. I want to know exactly what I’m looking for before I pick up the camera. And while I do retouch images, for me photography is about getting it right in camera. I want the client looking over my shoulder on set to see something as close to the final product as possible with postproduction limited mostly to fixing minor blemishes or details too time consuming to be handled on the clock.

Behind the scenes shot by Armin of the 1908 Loft in Los Angeles. Apologies for my pants falling off. This is what happens when I'm in the groove.

By the time this preshoot is completed, it can run anywhere from 10 pages to 100 pages depending on the project. Mostly visual, mind you. I don’t write a short novel for every shoot. But by the time I get to set, I essentially have a preconfigured handbook for how to proceed with this shoot with built in variables for last second changes and likely obstacles.

If all this seems incredibly meticulous, that’s because it is. But as soon as I started preparing this way, my work immediately jumped a few notches for a number of reasons.

First, it helps to expect the unexpected. My preshoot involves variability. If situation A arises, go to option B. If person two is unavailable, go to person four. It doesn’t preclude the possibility that things will go completely haywire once on set, but it does give me enough options and confidence that I know there is no reason to panic.

Second, let’s face it, some days you just ain’t got it. You’re still the trained, experienced, and innovative photographer you always were, but for some reason you woke up this morning with cotton between your ears. No matter how hard you try or how much coffee you drink, the ideas just aren’t coming. Having a detailed plan again gives you something to fall back on.

It's also important to mention that having a plan doesn't mean you have to be a slave to it. Honestly, as much time as I spend preparing it, I rarely even look at my preshoot when I’m on set. Instead I prefer to let my preparation-based inspiration take over and go with my creative gut in the moment. But on those days when that creative mojo just isn’t there, having a detailed plan to fall back on can create something of a baseline of achievement. You know that even if you’re having an off day, you can get to at least a minimum level of awesomeness simply by following your own preset instructions. This may not be enough for you to end the day happy with yourself, but it can be the difference in the keeping the client happy with their final product.

Third, lest you think that preparation is only there to prevent a fall, building a ladder beforehand can also help you to achieve dramatic heights.

If you show up on set and just wing it, you are more than likely to either: a) spend half your time trying to think up what you want to do, or b) automatically resort to doing things the same way you’ve always done them to save time. Or, you may do both.

But when I walk onto a set already knowing the basic layout of what I want to achieve and how I plan to achieve it, I have now just bought myself significant room to play. The time saved in figuring things out can now be spent on trying a different pose, spending a few extra moments directing a subject to get a memorable expression, or, if need be, completely blowing up your original idea for something better. Planning doesn’t inhibit you, it frees you to go beyond its bounds.

The more you prepare, the better the results. The better the results, the happier the client. The happier the client, the happier the photographer. So put in the work beforehand, and after the shoot, be prepared to smile.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Thank you for this Christopher.

Absolutely. Thanks Jim.

Well said.

Christopher, this is a great article and very good advice. Something I will adopt in my workflow as well.