Location Session: The Ins and Outs of Shooting on Location
There are several factors that play a part in creating a great image. Location is often one of the most important. Location sessions have become very popular. Being able to travel to tropical locations to photograph weddings sounds like a dream job. While it can be both fun and rewarding, it can bring a ton of liabilities that most photographers overlook. Locations have helped keep my interest in my portrait business. If you shoot in the same camera room day after day, you are sure to become bored at some point. But there is more to finding a location than just riding around and hopping out and shooting.
I prefer to do my location scouting during a time I have marked off on the calendar. I have found that having plenty of time to drive around allows me to be very selective and focus on color harmonies and the sun’s position throughout the day. Have you ever photographed somewhere without permission? We all have, but we should not. We should do our homework and find the landowner. Set up a time to meet with the owner. There is nothing more embarrassing than getting kicked off a property with your client. Not everyone is going to be open to granting permission for you to use their location. For every one person who gives you permission, there are generally eight others who will tell you to get lost. The way you approach the owner is key. You often have just one chance to plead your case. I bring an iPad with tons of examples of my work to show. Validation that you are not a fly-by-night photographer may gain you some respect. If you feel like they are going to say no, offer your services so they may better understand what you will be doing. Offer to photograph their family, children or neighbor. You never know until you ask, so put on some charm and get out there. They are either going to be willing or not. There is nothing worse than never asking and not knowing what could have been.
Liability is something that we are all exposed to by owning a business and working with the public, and an umbrella policy is a cost you cannot afford to operate without. Insurance seems like such a rip-off until you actually need it. In most cases, the insurance you have at your studio may not cover you while on location. We have an umbrella policy that gives us over a million dollars of coverage while working away from the studio. Most of the time, we are so focused on getting the image that we overlook the hidden dangers. One of the things my insurance agent advised me against was to never let clients ride with me to locations. Have them follow you in their own car. That is something I never thought about until it was brought to my attention. I also always personally examine places where I want clients to pose so that I (not my client) can discover any potential dangers. It’s easy to forget about the liabilities we face around each and every corner. You don’t have to live in constant fear of all the things that can go wrong, but do live in caution.
Traveling to a remote location only to find that you forgot to pack an important piece of gear can quickly deflate your motivation. Several years ago, I traveled to a location for a senior session and forgot to bring a media card. That was the first and last time I have forgotten something. When I was finally done with the session, I sat down and wrote down everything I needed. This became my checklist for any location session. I have a separate checklist for destination weddings. I also make sure I have a backup camera. We rarely think about what we would do if our camera suddenly stopped working. If you are traveling to locations, you really need to make sure you have all of the extra effort and time built into your pricing. Make sure it is worth it to you. If you have certain locations that do not produce good sales, take them off your list. When I use multiple locations for senior sessions, I have my locations mapped out in a way that creates a circle. This eliminates a lot of unnecessary travel.
Outfit changes can sometimes make things uncomfortable on location. I always require that a parent accompany seniors on their session, and I bring along a changing tent that collapses like a sunshade for your car. This pop-up tent is basically a room in a bag. I have also seen people modify a hula-hoop with a bedsheet. You lower the hoop, the client steps inside the hoop and you raise the hoop to neck level. The sheet provides them cover while they change. Seniors often prefer to change in their car. When they do, I walk away a good distance to give them privacy.
Weddings are hard enough when they are in town. When a client asks you to fly with all your equipment, it adds another level of stress. I use an abundance of off-camera lighting, so I do not travel light. The airlines have done a great job reducing our confidence in their baggage handling skills. There is nothing like landing in Jamaica and hoping that your gear made it along with you. I have two backpack-style camera bags that my lenses and cameras go into. These go on the plane with me. The bags should be small enough that if the overhead bins are full, you can stuff them under your seats. I bring two sets of lights in two separate checked bags. The chances of at least one of the bags making it are pretty good. I know it adds extra cost, but it is built into my travel fee. Batteries make TSA nervous. Pack only sealed lead-acid batteries. Call your airline for guidelines prior to flying. If you are flying out of the country, consult with your insurance agent to ensure proper coverage of your equipment. When I pack equipment that will be checked luggage, I put it in a hard case and then put the case in an unassuming duffel bag. This makes it a little less tempting for someone to tamper with.
Once you reach your destination, scout the facility. I like to consult with a manager if possible. I always take a few minutes to ask if there are any rules that might affect me, behaviors they might frown upon. I don’t want them to see us as a nuisance. They will appreciate your willingness to ask for rules. This also puts you in a favorable position should you have any special requests, or find yourself in need of something. Making friends with the staff makes everyone’s time much more enjoyable. You always get farther with people showing up with honey instead of lemons.
For every game-changing variable you think of, there are 10 more that may never cross your mind. When pricing yourself for locations, analyze and factor in all of your costs. Anytime the wheels are turning, it is certainly costing you money. You want to have a couple of backup plans in place in case things don’t go as planned. Sit your clients down prior to setting out for a destination and make them aware of Mother Nature’s power. Remind them that you have no control of what she may dish out. That takes a little stress off me if something does happen that is out of my hands. You are not the only one taking a risk in the deal.
Get out there, scout some new locations and let the sky be the limit.