Delmonico Steakhouse Las Vegas: A Commercial Shoot with Sal Cincotta
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This month we dive into running and producing a commercial shoot for one of our clients: Delmonico Steakhouse in Las Vegas. Photographers have more access to this type of work than you might expect. Any client walking in the door for a headshot is a commercial client. Think of headshots as the gateway drug for a more in-depth relationship and project delivery.
Make no mistake, this is tough work, not merely something we show up and shoot. Unlike headshots, it requires a ton of preparation to understand what the client’s needs are, and how the imagery, video and other assets we create will be used. I get pretty specific about a project’s goals and objectives with the client so we are all in sync. There is nothing worse than getting to the end of a job to find a client who’s unhappy with the results. This should rarely be the case, and can happen only if there is no communication between teams. Communication is the key to success.
I have worked on many commercial projects. The ones that go sideways are the ones where the key stakeholders either were not involved or had very little to say about the requirements. Be cautious here. This will bite you in the ass, I guarantee it. I know because I have had it happen multiple times. The only way to prevent it is to ensure you have all the stakeholders approve the project scope. Find out who owns final approval. And if there is someone on that list who has not been part of the planning or who has not approved the scope of the project, insist they approve it before moving forward.
Since we have adopted this strategy, we have had almost no issues with final deliverables. Everyone is in sync. They understand that when they change scope, it will cost more money. No one gets to say, “Oh, I didn’t know.” Yes, you did know. You approved and signed off on it.
Now, let’s look at the scope of this project. Our main goal was to create imagery, still and moving, to be used in social media and web assets to promote the restaurant, its team and its amazing food. Our job, as the creative team, is to make their restaurant stand out.
So, let’s get started.
Producing a Promotional Video
If you have never looked at video services for your business, you may want to start considering it. Here is why. First, there is a huge segment of the small business market not being serviced. Big production houses are focused on six-figure jobs. They are not playing in the small-budget world. Mind you, a small budget doesn’t mean cheap. It means it’s not six figures. That being said, I am ok producing a film for $5,000 to $10,000. You might want to cut your teeth by offering these kinds of services for smaller businesses in your area.
Secondly, and most importantly, video is the new world order. You have to showcase your business visually. This can be as simple as a talking head explaining your product or service to something more elaborate and scripted tied to a campaign. The bottom line is that companies need these services, and demand will only increase down the road. Video is no longer only for companies running TV commercials. In fact, more video is being consumed on social media than on TV. It’s not uncommon for major companies to create video campaigns that never see broadcast TV. The same will hold true for small and medium businesses around the world.
The goal of the video was to showcase the restaurant, and the process and quality ingredients that go into making the food. We wanted to do something a little different. Most restaurants want to show the final product and start the story there. I felt the better story was behind the scenes—everything that goes into producing the meal, from sourcing ingredients to how they are prepared and then, of course, close the scene with the final meal being dropped.
We wrote the script and set up the shot list. We worked closely with the client to ensure the language we chose and the shot list all made sense to the restaurant and the brand. The worst thing you can do is put together a script that doesn’t match the voice of the brand. This can be disastrous for any brand, but it’s more important in the small and medium business space. Larger companies have plenty of resources to put into these details, but smaller companies are trusting you. Ultimately, they don’t know what they don’t know, and that’s where we come in. They expect us to guide them through this process.
Final delivery of this video is for their website and social channels.
We had a very tight schedule to produce this. This is a working kitchen. We could not interfere with dinner service. The shot list was very strategic. Run-and-gun shooting was not going to work for a project like this. Every shot had to be perfectly measured and thought out.
Some scenes needed to be during dinner service to show the hustle of the kitchen. This was another limitation for us. For these scenes, we needed to have a very small footprint.
Lighting in some areas was also going to be a challenge for the video team, but we had to make sure we were balancing the look and feel of the kitchen rather than making it look like we were slamming artificial light in there.
There’s no doubt that gear was going to play a very important role in this shoot. Gear was a challenge because we had to fly with it and because we had to keep it small for the busy kitchen.
Westcott Flex Panels 1×1 X-Bracket Set
We shot 4K footage using vlog to get the most data possible. In addition, we recorded to the Atomos Ninja so we could shoot in an uncompressed format, giving us the most dynamic range possible for grading the final footage.
I am a Canon still shooter, so I love using their glass to get that shallow depth of field and control the look and feel of the final film. We used the Metabones adapter, which allows you to use Canon glass on your Panasonic GH5. I used my entire range of Canon Prime glass: 100mm, 85mm, 50mm, 35mm, 24mm.
The DJI Ronin is the perfect tool for the job. I have wasted money on several other stabilizers. Do yourself a favor and invest in the right tool the first time. Almost every scene with motion was filmed with this. It’s small, compact and easy to use in tight spaces.
The final results tell a great story of the restaurant. We made it stand out in Las Vegas’s crowded marketplace. When you watch this video, you will get hungry. If you do, I did my job!
Photographing Commercial Headshots
A headshot is a headshot, right? No, not at all. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for a headshot on a white background, but at a certain point, they all start looking the same and rarely stand out from anyone else’s. This presents us with all sorts of issues. What is our value proposition? Is it that our white background is better than the one you get at the mall?
I am just not a fan of this style of headshot. My style is more lifestyle and environmental. And for this project, the goal was to showcase staff in their own environments. We had the chef staff, we had the sommeliers and we had the front of house. I wanted to light and showcase each of these groups in their own unique way. Now do you understand why I am not a fan of a plain white background? This ensures I get the client a unique set of images that will be used in marketing—things like social media, marketing brochures and magazine ads.
The final shots needed to showcase the personalities of the staff in their environments. Other than that, we didn’t have a bunch of technical requirements. This is where the client is trusting you to do your thing. Understanding how they will be used is important. I don’t want to waste time and resources shooting for the sake of shooting. I want a clear shot list, a list of who is being shot, where we’re doing it, how the images are being used—this helps you shoot efficiently.
We delivered a final fully edited image of each employee and group.
The main challenge was timing. Remember, this was a working and active restaurant. Coordinating call times with staff and having a production schedule that you stick to is key. We had three locations: the kitchen, the wine wall and the front of house. We had to be set up and dialed in with lighting before anyone arrived to each scene. This allowed us to get people in and out and then get them back to their work. Don’t forget, these people have real work to do.
Camera: For the portraits, we used the Canon 5DM4, alternating between the 35mm 1.4 and the 85mm 1.2.
Lighting: We used the Profoto B1 and B2 in combination. For lighting modifiers, we used their gel kits for colored lighting and their portable beauty dish for the keylight.
When it was all said and done, we got the team a plethora of shots for their use. The client was extremely happy with the results. The boring white background headshots have a place in our offerings, but I don’t think this is it. I love the environmental nature of these shots and the use of gels to give them a unique look and feel.
Getting Product Shots for Commercial Use
In this case, the product is the food. We need hero shots of the food. Now, I will confess, I am not a food photographer by trade—there are incredibly talented people who can make food look like art. My job was to make real plates look appetizing. Again, understanding the requirements on a project like this is paramount. The images would be used in both ad space and (most importantly) social media posts, blog posts and ads on Facebook and Instagram.
I left out the negative space so I could add copy as needed. You will see the progression of some of the shots as I was working. Initially, I left some of the food on the plate, but as I was shooting and seeing the results, I adjusted and started laying the food on the cutting board underneath. I felt this would give the company more space to work with.
Prior to the shoot, we worked with the team at Delmonico to determine what exactly we needed to photograph. We were not going to photograph the entire menu. Again, getting in sync with your client is so important. Everyone understood the primary shot list, and we then created a nice-to-have list. If we had time, we would shoot the remaining items. This took a lot of pressure off the production team because we had clear marching orders. In addition, I had someone on my team managing the kitchen and the next plates. She would check off each plate as we shot it to keep us on track.
The task at hand was to photograph some of their signature plates for social media and other marketing efforts. We wanted to light the product well and make it look appetizing. The final image should make you want to eat at the restaurant. It’s a far cry from food photos on Chinese takeout menus.
It sounds easy enough, but the challenges were not so easy to deal with.
First, we had a location issue. The room they had set aside for us was covered with white linens. The tabletops underneath were ugly. So, where were we going to set up to shoot? Remember, I have to make this look appetizing, and it’s not like I am in my studio and have access to props.
We found a large cutting board, but it was in the kitchen during dinner service. Not only that, but the area we had was right next to a 400-degree oven.
I shot for an hour and a half to two hours, which kicked my ass. I was dripping and physically exhausted from the pace we were working at in that heat. Every time they opened that oven, it felt like a piece of my body was melting.
Lighting also presented some challenges. We were in a part of the kitchen where the lighting was not very useful for what we were trying to accomplish, so we had to bring in a small light source that would give us a consistent look and feel.
The final challenge was not gaining 20 pounds during that part of the night. The food did not go to waste. We put dish after dish in the backroom for us to eat once we were done, and eat we did!
Camera: Canon 5DM4 with my Canon 100mm, 50mm, and 35mm lenses.
Lighting: Westcott Flex Panels 1×1 X-Bracket Set.
We used two of these, one as the main light clamped above and one for directional light from the side. I cannot say enough great things about these lights. They’re light and powerful, and the quality of light is stellar. They allowed us to shoot quickly and control the look and feel in real time. Depending on the dish and the shadows being cast, I was moving the light in real time to get the desired look and feel. This would have taken 10x longer using flash, and it would have been disruptive in the kitchen.
I love the shots we got. They were professionally lit, with great quality and shallow depth of field by design. They gave the client what they needed to market and advertise on social media and get people excited about coming into the restaurant.
Wrapping It All Up
This was an incredibly fun project. We had to push ourselves during all facets of the creative process. We had to be extremely organized and deliberate in our actions. And most importantly, we had to deliver a final product we could be proud of.
We had allowed for three days to complete this entire project, but because we managed to stay ahead of schedule, we wrapped it up in two. It was perfect. It gave the client confidence that working with me and my team was professional and well worth the investment.
You never want your clients to feel you have no idea what you are doing. That will not help you or your business grow.
Again, there is an incredible amount of opportunity out there to service the small and medium business markets. It’s not going to be handed to you. You need to get out there and grab it.