Hit the Road: Working With Models on Destination Shoots with Nino Batista
It’s one thing to be a portrait artist who uses modeling talent in your work regularly, but it’s very different when you take that show on the road. Shooting locally is complicated enough, but things become exponentially more complicated when you do the same thing out of state, and especially out of the country.
Each new project in each new town presents new problems. But all model photography requires a lot of the same concerns and methods. In this article, I approach these from the artist side of things, which is how I’ve been approaching travel for about half a year now exclusively. I am going to focus on planning and executing amazing projects on the road, but not how to get paid model photography work on the road (something I don’t do anymore, but that’s another article).
Location Is Everything
Long before you start approaching modeling talent on the web, on social media or from personal referrals, you need to plan some locations at your destination. This is actually quite difficult to do with any consistency, despite all the tourism info available online about every small town to major city.
It all comes down to “local intel,” as I call it. You can find tons of information about cool spots, trendy areas, tourist traps, entertainment districts, national monuments and parks online. But it’s harder to find hidden location gems no one talks much about, rules or expectations regarding certain locations (permits are a thing), areas that are “over shot” by local photographers, or even simply finding out the process involved in shooting in a really cool vintage warehouse everyone loves because you won’t know the property owner to even ask.
So how can you circumvent this? Honestly, you can’t on your own. So my recommendation is to start (or refocus) your travel projects around cities you know somebody in. With social media, it’s all but guaranteed you know someone online in another town. Reach out to online friends, and if they’re not annoying, invite them to shoot with you under the premise of collaboration. This gives you local intel right out of the gate, and it can be hugely beneficial to maximizing location scouting in a place you’ve never been.
Don’t know a single person in Tacoma? Don’t plan that city yet. Perhaps you know two or three photographers in St. Louis via social media, and you can reach out to them. Inside knowledge of St. Louis beats going into Tacoma cold.
To be clear, it is bad form to ask photographers in other cities for advice and tips but not try to include them, especially if they are acquaintances and not close friends. If you are going to take the time to reach out to St. Louis associates, I promise you they will be far more willing to help if you offer a collaborative shoot or project during your upcoming trip there. They may even be excited to meet you and show you around because you humbly asked their assistance and want to work with them, as opposed to asking for all the information you need upfront and then ignoring them when you visit.
Focus on photographers who work in your genre. Avoid asking models or anyone who doesn’t work in the industry, which can get you skewed results. Photographers know what photographers are looking for.
If you’ve worked in model photography, you are familiar with the many channels available online for finding modeling talent. Obvious choices like Model Mayhem have fallen out of favor in recent years, but on occasion that website can be a decent window into who is available at your upcoming destination. Social media is another obvious option, mostly based around Instagram and Facebook.
Cold-calling models can yield mixed results. One reason is that local models are so used to being inundated with shoot requests from all manner of photographers on a daily basis. They have heard every proposed shoot concept, promise of publication, compliment and even the occasional “Do you shoot nude?”
Your approach has to be professional and concise. A model needs to know the pertinent information upfront, in detail, but don’t overstate things in a thousand-word dissertation because it’s going to sound like a scam really quick (models get scam messages on the regular; welcome to the internet). Don’t overpromise anything to a model you are contacting for the first time—they won’t believe you because of all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. Be honest in describing your vision and expectations for the project, and don’t embellish. These are professionals like you. Treat them how you expect to be treated.
Here’s what models want to know upfront:
- Who are you? Your portfolio, résumé, web and social links, etc.
- Where do you plan on shooting? This is why location is priority before finding talent.
- What are your dates? If you’re flexible, offer at least day and time options to start the conversation.
- What is the idea or concept? Obviously.
- What is your offer to them? You can offer pay or a trade proposal, but be clear about it upfront.
And remember, when you successfully schedule your first model for an out-of-town project, it is the ideal time to try for more models (if you need more for different shoots while on the trip). You’ve made a solid connection with a model who lives there, so they’re likely to offer help. Once you’ve booked that first model, they can vouch for you to other area models, thus expediting your scheduling. In fact, if a model refers model friends, they may all feel more comfortable coming as a group to work with you, which is never a bad thing.
In a perfect world, you could also simply bring a model with you who you know to be reliable and good at what they do. My colleagues and I refer to this as “bringing a captive model” (but I would refrain from using that expression publicly). If you can afford to bring a model or two with you, then you’re already ahead of the game. I know that’s not always practical, but it’s a great idea if you can afford to do it.
If your style of shooting is totally natural light with minimal or no reflectors or modifiers, then carry on. Pack your camera case and head out, and feel free to skip this section.
But if using lighting equipment is your preferred way to shoot, then you’re going to have to contend with the inconvenient fact that lighting gear is annoying to travel with. Your worst travel enemies in your lighting kit are your modifiers. Modifiers are often larger than most luggage can handle, and certainly well beyond carry-on size. Even most 22-inch beauty dishes break all size dimension barriers for luggage, and require an oversize baggage fee if you find a case to fit it. Never mind softboxes—even the foldable ones collapse only so much.
To keep things (kinda) simple, here’s my own travel gear list that I’ve used as the basis for more than 100 flights over the past six years:
- 1 or 2 strobes with built-in batteries (or speedlights)
- 2 collapsible light stands
- 1 smaller beauty/silver dish, 16 or 18 inches
- Sandbags (collapsible stands tend to be lightweight and less stable)
- Medium parabolic umbrella with diffusion fabric (not ideal for outdoors, but they break down into a tube)
- Small or medium 5-in-1 reflector kit
- Medium or large diffuser or scrim (the kind that folds up into a circle)
- Wireless transmitter and receivers/transceivers for every strobe you bring (don’t count on an optical slave to work outdoors consistently)
I can make just about anything happen anywhere with the items on this list, and I often don’t even bring everything on the list. I know not everyone owns strobes, or even strobes with built-in batteries, but remember that battery packs and even speedlights solve that problem easily. While speedlights are lower power than small strobes, if your priority isn’t about overpowering a midday desert sun, you will be fine with them and some decent modifiers.
Remember the local associates I suggested you approach about location information? By including them in your plans, you may be able to borrow their gear while on set, thus solving the gear packing problem before it starts. I’d sooner borrow a single strobe, light stand and dish, working with that setup exclusively, than bring my own arsenal of lighting options that I may or may not use. You can get pretty creative with limited gear.
If you’re headed to a city to work exclusively in a photo or production studio, you’re likely going to be perfectly ok with lighting gear. That said, book studios that include decent lighting equipment as part of their rental fee, thus making your flights far less annoying and costly. It can cost more, but the savings in hassle-free travel may be worth it.
You’re An Artist
As you’re doing all the complicated planning for your destination shoot, don’t forget that you’re an artist. You can get so bogged down with travel details, gear organizing and packing, all the costs piling up, travel fatigue, sleeping in uncomfortable or strange places, communicating repeatedly with local talent, eating on a decent schedule and all the rest—that you can end up forgetting you’re an artist.
As you trudge through your first out-of-town shoot, you may get overwhelmed and find yourself unable to get into the zone to work the way you’re used to. You start to second-guess yourself, and doubt sets in because you’re so damn tired from all the nonsense involved in getting to this point, finally, where you’re on set, camera in hand, with a model in front of you.
This was something I totally overlooked when I started traveling for projects, and I learned the following lessons very quickly.
Don’t Shoot on a Travel Day
Plan an entire day, wide open, for actual travel and settling in. Land at the airport, get some dinner, find your accommodations, have a shower and go to sleep at a decent hour. You need to be rested for your shoot tomorrow. Overlook or downplay this, and your work will suffer.
Did I mention not to shoot on a travel day? This includes the day you leave. Your shoot immediately before your flight will be marred with concern about missing said flight, and make it feel rushed. Try to fly out in the morning, on a day exclusively for travel, and get home at a decent hour (unless you’re traversing major oceans, of course).
Get some rest at every opportunity. If you’re the partying type, scale back a little. You’re here to make art, not get shit-faced and shoot while nursing a hangover. Even if you’re just overly tired from lack of sleep, your next day’s shoot will suffer.
Travel can be exhausting to your body in a more profound way than you realize. This is why we often come back from vacations more obliterated than when we left. You have to work at relaxing on trips, take time to eat well, stay hydrated and rest. Even the most hardcore rock star has to sleep on the tour bus now and then.
Once reasonably rested, work to get into your creative zone, and tune out the fact that you are in a new city. Travel expands your consciousness, but while you’re not in tourist mode, you need to be in artist mode. The view may be staggering, the location more beautiful than anything you’ve ever seen, the weather perfect. But disconnect from the awe of it all and focus on creating images. This is harder than it sounds, but will get easier with time.
Bring a laptop or tablet so you can review your shots every evening. This is crucial on your first forays into traveling for model photography because you will want immediate feedback (from yourself) on how your work is looking. For the reasons I mentioned above, you need to see, clearly, if what you are doing is successful. Eventually your confidence in new locations will increase and you won’t have to rely on this as much.
Don’t overwork yourself or your models. A great location is inspiring. You may be tempted to schedule a 12-hour marathon shoot in an amazing place you may never get to see again. Resist the urge. That’s a bad idea even in your hometown, let alone on the road when you’re even less rested. Overwork leads to annoyed models.
If you get insane in the brain and try to shoot nonstop for 12 hours, all your work after around hour five won’t be your best because everyone’s fatigued and not in their best mood. Instead, try a three-hour block, then a two-hour break to review and refresh (and eat!), and then another three-hour block.
Freshly rested models and photographers do much better work in less time.
Information is your main ally. You cannot go into a city cold and ask local talent, “Can you shoot this afternoon? And do you have a location you can recommend?” You can’t invade and conquer a new territory without some inside intel. Bolster those connections for a successful destination model shoot.
And don’t forget to eat and rest.