Thursday, July 27, 2006

Smooth (Photo) Shooting

Last weekend I was in Dallas with the incomparable photographer Charles Hilton on the first of several photo shoots for Dr. Warson's Rider's Back Book .

Since I ranted a few weeks ago about my lack of luck with photographers in recent projects, I felt it only fair to rave about what happens when the planets align and all goes well.

Charles is a consummate professional. The fact that his truck dropped its transmission on the Dallas freeway as he was headed home after the first afternoon of shooting -- which meant that he only got about 4 hours of sleep that night, and had to find someone to tow him 90 miles back home the next day -- didn't affect his work behind the lens.

We got most of the pictures we had planned for the first day, which left plenty of time for "clean up" of the few remaining on the second day, before I had to come home.

Some thoughts about what's needed for a Smooth Shoot:

1.) Have a List I've learned this the hard way. I once thought that it should be up to the writer to write the text, and the photographer to decide how best to illustrate it. I thought the photographer would become offended if I suggested what images he should or should not shoot. This is not the case.

A shot list taken directly from the pages of the manuscript text is the single greatest asset you can have on a photo shoot. The list I provided Charles is already numbered according to the suggested sequence of photos within the chapters. It includes a description of the "ideal" image, and proposed text to accompany the image in print.

Charles, Dr. Warson, and I have had a Master Photo List for some time. For the Dallas shoot, I culled the master list to narrow it down to only the shots we could get at our Texas location (Cornerstone Training Center, a Western training facility).

2.) Streamline Your Time We had some shots we needed of groundwork, and others that required riding. So we grouped all of our ground / untacked horse shots together. Some of our shots needed only people in them. We grouped all of them together and did them first -- before anyone had acquired the inevitable dirt associated with barns.

This sounds like the most basic of "duh!" advice. But I have discovered that many, many photographers don't follow it. Instead, they proceed through a shoot, setting up and taking each shot in order on the shot list -- regardless of how much extra time and work result.

3.) Look for the Point The reason I write out descriptions of both suggested images and proposed captions for them is because I want the photographer to understand the point of what the photo is to convey.

For instance, I wanted something to illustrate how a rider's back can make many compensatory movements when on a horse. I suggested a shot of a rider going up or down a steep incline. We took those. But we also took some shots of a rider leaning out from the saddle to open a gate. The "point" was captured in several images that can be used to great effect in the book.

4.) Take It and Run With It Sometimes unforeseen things will present themselves at a shoot. If you know your material, and know the purpose of the photos you are taking, you will know when to add shots that might be missing from the Master List.

For example, a section of the Rider's Back Book talks about saddle fit, and how the laws of motion and physics apply to riding. Western saddles with very forward rigged cinches can be quite ill-fitting on a horse. Even if the tree fits correctly on the horse's back, the excess, untethered weight in the seat of the saddle can yaw, or slew sideways, causing any number of balance problems and discomfort for both horse and rider.

While we were looking for a suitable double-rigged Western saddle to illustrate the concept, it became obvious that Wendy and Steve know a thing or two about saddles. Two of their saddles had dropped rigging -- my personal favorite because of how the rigging spreads the weight of the rider and saddle more evenly and more securely over the horse's back.

Not everyone has drop-down rigging on their saddle. It's nearly impossible to find on cheap saddles. But I jumped at the chance to have Charles photograph it. It really illustrates the problem caused by front-rigged saddles much better than just adding a flank cinch to strap the pommel of the saddle down on the horse.

(If you find the previous three paragraphs gibberish and jargon-filled, take heart. The point is not how to correctly fit a saddle to a horse. The point is to be open during a photo shoot to serendipitous opportunities that present themselves...)

5.) File Folders Rule Charles shoots digitally, as do most profesional photographers these days. Nothing is more daunting for the photo editor (moi) to receive 4000 files with names like "_NF6908J5."

As soon as a portion of the shoot was finished, Charles immediately transferred his images to appropriate file folders, which he named topically. The pics of riders going up and down hills went in "Hill Riding." The pics of opening and closing the gate went into "Gates."

This is SO much better than if he had placed the pictures in folders named to coincide with the current manuscript photo numbers. What is Photo 1.3 A now might be Photo 5.7 B when the final edit is done.

With the file folders named topically, I was able to do a preliminary edit of over 900 photos in less than a day, and narrow down 80 to 100 or so for further study.

So there you have them -- the keys to a great photo shoot: advance planning, time awareness, knowing your subject, and topical files. Not exactly rocket science, is it? In a few weeks, Charles and I will be in Hawaii with Dr. Warson for the second phase of the shoot. Here's hoping that it goes as smoothly as the Dallas day!