How We Pull Off Great Photo Shoots on a Bootstrapped Budget

From the time we started Tortuga, Fred has said that we, as a company, have a few superpowers. Frankly, most them belong to him. However, one of our superpowers is that I — one of our co-founders — am a film and commercial director and producer by trade and training, so we can make media super cheaply and efficiently compared to our competition. I think he’s overstating that as a “superpower” by a fair bit, but it is a convenient competitive advantage.

My goal in this post is to teach you how we pull off our photo shoots so that you can effectively do it, too. The process is much the same as the way I produce content for giant brands (in my life outside of Tortuga), albeit we do it here with much less red tape and many fewer lawyers.

Hiring an agency and/or production company to produce your photo shoots (or any other media, for that matter), will certainly increase your budget by multiples. But you can probably do almost as good a job as those people — who will have no concern for the long-term health of your business — and save a ton of money in the process.

The Two Kinds of Photo Shoots

There are two kinds of photo shoots you might want to do for your company.

Lifestyle

The first is lifestyle. These are what most of our images for the new Outbreaker bags are. The photos feature people who look like your audience using your product in a real life setting.

Nike might feature a professional athlete on a basketball court; Apple might feature a DJ in a club; we feature travelers getting on trains. But let’s be honest: this isn’t real life. These are the idealized versions of your customers using a mint-condition version of your product in a beautiful setting.

Web

The second is product, sometimes called “web.” These are the classic pictures you see of a product on a white background on Amazon. Almost always shot on a photo stage of some kind, these photos are often on what’s called a “white cyc,” which is a stage with white floors and enough depth before its white walls to give the impression in photos that you’re shooting in a white void.

I highly suggest you treat your lifestyle and product shoots as separate projects. Don’t intermingle the two, especially at the beginning. You might even want different photographers for the different types of shoots.

Not all photographers can shoot both lifestyle and product photos. A big brand with tons of resources would almost never hire the same person to do both kinds of shoots. If you hire the same person to do both kinds of shoots for you, make sure you’ve seen successful examples of both kinds of photos that they’ve done.

Also note that many lifestyle photographers shoot product photos on the side, but they do their best to hide that part of their career. In the future, it’s something they probably hope to grow out of. For now, they might be happy to shoot product photos to make some extra money.

Start With a Budget

First, figure out how much you can and want to spend. For a small company producing a photo shoot for the first time, try to do everything yourself and spend less than two thousand dollars. It’s a reasonable goal to spend that much and expect good, but not great, results. Fred and I never spent more than that on a shoot — and usually much less — until we launched the Outbreaker line. It didn’t cripple Tortuga sales. As a medium sized company, it’s easy to spend ten times that much without blinking an eye or spending money on real luxury.

Keep your budget in a simple spreadsheet like Google Sheets (good for sharing with partners) or Excel. Track all your expenses in a second tab in the same spreadsheet.

You’ll want line items for (at least):

  • Photographer
  • Camera and equipment rental
  • Model(s)
  • Stage or location
  • Props and product stylist
  • Makeup artist
  • Wardrobe stylist
  • Production assistant
  • Lunch
  • Snacks

Make a line item for 10% of the budget for Miscellaneous expenses that might come up as the shoot approaches. Make another line item for 10% contingency for bad things that will inevitably go wrong.

Keep it simple at the beginning of your producing experience. Eventually there are more sophisticated, granular ways to budget and track money. But this is good enough for the time being.

Now, it’s your job to make sure that you don’t spend more than you set out to. Rarely, is it worth it to go over your budget by 25%. The results won’t be that much better. Yes, of course, you can get a better final product by spending much more money. But don’t do that on the first shoot you produce. We didn’t for many years. Spend the money you can afford to, and be disciplined with the budget you set for yourself.

How to Find a Photographer

If you live in or near one of the 50 biggest cities in the country, you’ll have no problem being able to find a good product or lifestyle photographer who will work with you at an affordable rate. You’ll likely work with someone who’s at the beginning of their career who wants to grow with you. That’s just fine for when you’re starting out.

For product photographers, start your search on Yelp and by searching on Google. Look at the work in their portfolios: You should like what you see and make sure that the products they’ve photographed are selling well. Also, ask any friends you know who own similar businesses who they work with. A good recommendation is the best way to find a photographer you’ll like working with.

For lifestyle photographers, start your search on Instagram. Or find blog posts about the best Instagram accounts from your city. Again, ask your friends if they have someone they like taking lifestyle photos for them, and also ask them if they can think of any photographers they follow on Instagram who work locally and might be a good fit for your company.

Lifestyle photography is incredibly subjective. There’s no right or wrong. The work of the photographer you hire should speak to your taste and what you want your brand to be about. That’s why Instagram is a great place to find a photographer: you can see hundreds of examples of their work, most of which won’t be for brands. You’ll see a consistent style over time. Does that style match with what you want to see on your product page? Go to their personal websites, look through their portfolios, and find their contact info. Call or email them, and explain why your product is awesome. Good photographers are busy and get pitched all the time. Make sure you sell your brand.

Keep in mind, some of the photographers you find on Instagram might be making big bucks already. They won’t want to work on a $2,000 shoot. That’s just fine. If you can get in touch with them, ask them about their friends (photographers hang out with other photographers) and assistants. They’ll have great recommendations. If you find a photographer you love but notice that she’s shooting Gucci campaigns, don’t ask her to work at a discount for you. But don’t hesitate to compliment her work and ask for a recommendation.

When we were searching for a new photographer to replace me (I’m not a professional photographer nor do I pretend to be), I went through this process myself. I was aided by the fact that some of my close friends have friends who are wonderful, successful photographers. After making a shortlist of about 10 photographers who we, as a company, were excited by and meeting with at least five of them, we eventually settled on Jessie Webster. I found Jessie on — yes, of course — Instagram.

Before you hire anyone, meet with them at least once. Take them out for coffee or lunch. See if you like them; if you’d want to be friends; if you’d want to work together for years on really long, hard days. Ask them about how they work and what they need from you.

Don’t work with anyone you can’t stand. Your shoot will go poorly and the final results will show it.

Be extremely clear about your financial and logistical limitations. Make sure you’ve put that in writing. Don’t be duplicitous. Make sure you ask the photographer for a list of every single thing he or she will charge you for. Tell them that you’d prefer to work at a flat for for the job, “So we don’t need to worry about nickel and diming each other.” You’ll both be happier if the deal you make is simple, clear, and everyone knows what to expect.

Be clear about how many final photos you want from them and what the final deadline for delivery will be. Be clear about your license for the photos — which will probably be just for the web. Don’t break your word: if you tell your photographer that you’ll pay them a discounted rate and only use their pictures on your website, don’t you dare use them in a magazine or on a billboard.

Like almost everything else in life, it’s better to be honest and get the awkward conversations out of the way up front.

Make & Share a Mood Board

A mood board is somewhere to collect visual examples of “what you’re going for.” Find what you like in a visual medium, and save it as inspiration. Your examples can be from other ads, magazine spreads, movies, commercials, personal photos, paintings. Whatever. The visual inspiration should look similar or related. It should have a style. I highly recommend using past work of your photographer on your mood board (after all, this is why you’re working with her). She’ll know exactly how to execute this again.

You can use a private Pinterest board (recommended), a Dropbox folder, or a collage document of some kind. Whatever is easiest for you and your company. You can also ask your photographer to contribute, if you’d like and they’re willing.

Use a mood board for both lifestyle and product shoots. Eventually you’ll grow out of them for lifestyle shots. But have examples of what you dream your product might look like in a picture.

The key with mood boards is to use images instead of words. “Dark,” or “cute,” or “pastel” mean something different to everyone. A picture is clear and easy to understand. Get used to communicating in pictures.

At Tortuga, Garrett and I will generally work on a mood board together, eventually getting input from other members of the team.

Hire Models

Just like hiring a lifestyle photographer, hiring models — that is, picking the face of your brand — is highly subjective.

You don’t necessarily need to hire people with modeling experience as your models. It often helps, but it’s not a must. If you can’t find models, people with performance backgrounds — actors, singers, dancers — often make good choices.

Ideally, you find models who look like the epitome of your audience. If most of your audience are older women, don’t hire a guy who looks like he just stepped out of the frat house and into the gym to rock your product. Use common sense. Ask yourself, “Does this model epitomize our target audience or a specific segment of it?” Make sure the answer is yes before you hire anyone.

There’s no perfect way to say this, so I’ll be blunt: good looking people look better on camera. Even if you want your models to look “real,” they should be fairly attractive. Humans like looking at good looking humans. It’s not fair, but it’s the truth.

But don’t stop at someone who fits your audience and is good looking. Make sure that whoever you hire is pleasant and out-going. If you’re shooting with a model outside for a long day, you don’t want to deal with someone who’s unfriendly or makes lots of special requests. You also want to find someone who moves gracefully. Don’t hire someone who’s awkward and maladroit. Smoothness — often trained and honed in years of practice for performance — shows up on camera.

You might find these types of people at a local drama school, on Craigslist, or working at a restaurant or retail store while they pursue their real passion. Ask your friends for recommendations.

Our models are almost all friends of mine who are actors in Los Angeles. They like working with us for a decent paycheck. We’re all friends at this point, and we like working together over and over.

If you hire models from an agency, you’re likely to pay them thousands of dollars a day. Don’t do that when you’re starting out.

Again, just like when hiring your photographer, be clear and upfront about expectations and pay.

Most importantly, don’t be a creep to your models. Period.

Locations

If you’re shooting product photos, make sure that the photographer that you hire has access to a stage that you can shoot on. Make sure that she knows how much you can spend on that facility. Oftentimes young photographers will have a “seamless” (kind of a makeshift white stage) setup in their house or loft that will work just fine. Your product photographer should be responsible for finding the stage and equipment you’ll use for your shoot.

For lifestyle shoots, location might be the most crucial element. You want to spend most of your time and money finding the perfect location.

Lean on your lifestyle photographer to suggest locations. After looking at your mood board, does she have an idea of a local spot that has pretty light and might work perfectly? Odds are she’ll have some ideas.

Get in your car and/or pound the pavement. Find places that you want to associate with your brand. Take pictures on your iPhone. Do they look like a rough version of what you have in mind? Share them with your photographer.

Get back on Instagram. Find the cool warehouse or co-working space or coffee shop on Instagram that you love. If someone made it look great on Instagram, your photographer probably will be able to with your product and model. If you live in a middle-sized city, you’ll be shocked by how many places will let you shoot in them for a few hundred dollars. Hop on the phone, explain what you’re doing, and offer to pay a little money for access.

If you live in New York or Los Angeles, it’ll be harder to find businesses that will let you shoot in them. The good news is that there are more options to choose from.

Don’t plan to shoot in famous tourist destinations. Security will know what you’re up to and you’ll get kicked out. Even if you think you’re being sneaky, you’ll get kicked out of most museums or train stations within a few minutes. That’s poor planning and a waste of valuable time.

Permits & Parking

If you’re producing a small photo shoot with about five total people, you probably don’t need to worry about permits as long as you stick to public outdoor areas and/or inform property owners of what you’re up to.

However, be careful of getting parking tickets or getting towed. It happens all the time during shoots.

Find a parking lot near every place you plan to shoot. Tell your models and crew to park there. Pay ahead of time or reimburse them for the parking expense.

As your photo shoots get bigger and more involved, you’ll probably need to get permits from local authorities. Permits can be a pain to get and expensive to buy. However, doing things by the book can open up amazing new locations for you. As an example, we permitted Union Station in Los Angeles (which, yes, was expensive), and we had the run of the whole beautiful landmark for a full day of shooting.

Remember that the cost and hassle of a permit is oftentimes negligible compared to the cost of your entire shoot being shut down. Once you start spending significant sums of money and needing a bigger crew, get permits for locations you’re depending on.

Insurance

Production insurance, at its most basic, offers protection against liability and property damage.

Some photographers will have their own policy. In that case, you might not need to worry about getting a policy.

Production insurance is almost always necessary to rent nice stages or to receive permits to shoot in public facilities.

If you’re doing anything dangerous — or even potentially dangerous — in a lifestyle shoot, you should get insurance. Otherwise, one photograph of two people wrestling — as an example — gone wrong, might cost you your business.

You can get a very short-term production insurance policy to insure a photo shoot.

If you’re photographing a model walking down the street or sipping coffee at a café, don’t worry about insurance. Just be safe and smart.

Make a Shot List

Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be. But if you know you need certain shots, plan them out in conjunction with the photographer.

Do you need a close up of your logo under fluorescent light? Make sure that’s written down and planned for.

Your mood board will be a great reference for your shot list.

Don’t worry about being scientific with your shot list. Be clear and simple.

Here are good examples:

“Very wide shot of model with cityscape in background.”

“Close up of shirt’s fabric outdoors.”

Your photographer will help translate those words into images. If you need to, you can use references from your mood board to give examples for the framing or lighting of specific shots on your list.

Other People You Might Hire

There are four other crew members you should strongly consider hiring. These people would be in addition to your photographer’s Photo Assistant, who they might demand you hire. Treat the Photo Assistant as the photographer’s employee — you’re not the photographer’s assistant’s boss and their only job is to help their boss.

Production Assistant

The Production Assistant, often called a “P.A.” — is an extra set of hands. He or she is there to help the production, do the dirty work, perform manual labor, and run errands. A good P.A. can pick up lunch, setup a place to eat, and run across town to find a special kind of battery without breaking a sweat. All that’s needed to be a good P.A. is common sense, a good attitude, and a strong back. Hire someone to help you out. Don’t be the only person doing everything.

Product Stylist

You might also want someone to help make your product look its best and find props. This person might have a variety of titles — product stylist, prop master, set decorator —but they all do basically the same thing on the kind of small shoot you’re planning. Give them your product a few days in advance so they can make it look its best and learn how to clean it. Also give them a list of any props they might need to find or buy, and give them some cash to buy it with.

Having a great product stylist is really important for our shoots. Our products need thoroughly prepped for a shoot, we need lots of props as contents of a bag, and our products constantly need “touched up.” Dust and lint look really bad on a black backpack.

If you can afford it, hire a product stylist. You’re paying money to photograph your product. Make sure it looks good.

Makeup Artist

A makeup artist helps your models look their best and appropriate for your shoot. A good makeup artist is invaluable; a bad one can ruin a shoot.

Always have them under-do the makeup at first.

If your models are all male, you’re more likely to be able to get away without one. Your female models will likely tell you if they feel comfortable doing their own makeup.

If you choose to have your models do their own makeup, ask them to come to set with their makeup already done. Also ask them to bring their own powder for when they get sweaty.

If you hire an inexperienced makeup artist, make sure you ask your models if they feel good before you start shooting with them. If they don’t feel good, have the makeup artist fix what’s wrong.

Wardrobe Stylist

A wardrobe stylist will bring the right clothes for the look you’re going for and make sure they fit your models. A wardrobe stylist is probably overkill for your first shoot, unless you know you’re really bad with fashion. You can ask your models to send you pictures of the clothes they plan to bring to the shoot in advance. If you trust their taste (and you can think about their taste in clothes as you hire them!), you can probably get away without a wardrobe stylist.

Note: make sure your models don’t wear clothes with branding from other companies. It’s not worth it.

Before the Shoot

Make sure the photographer knows your plan and the expectations. Be so clear it’s painful. Do you need to shoot 45 angles of your product on a white background? Do you need to shoot at three locations all over town? Your job is to be sure everyone is on the same page.

Discuss with the models what they’ll be wearing and what their makeup will look like.

If you need the models to provide their own wardrobes, be very clear about that. Most won’t have a problem with that, and many actors will be used to it. But, if you have a specific vision for what they’ll wear and still expect them to bring their own clothes, share a mood board with them. Likewise, if they’ll need to do their own makeup, let them know in advance.

Send a very clear email the day before the shoot with all the details. Make a nice introduction and let everyone know you’re excited to work with them. Ask if anyone has any dietary restrictions (this is important).

Tell each person what time they’re expected to arrive, where to park, where to meet, and what time you think they’ll be done.

Make sure you buy adequate drinks and snacks for the shoot. Bottled water, Gatorade, and Diet Coke are always good choices for drinks. Don’t cheap out with snacks. Buy some nice stuff you’d want to eat. An extra twenty dollars on food can keep five people very happy.  Put the drinks and cold snacks in a cooler with ice.

Find a restaurant or delivery place to get lunch from. Be mindful of dietary restrictions. Make sure the spot won’t be too busy when you arrive. It’s your duty to pay for lunch on a production. That’s just the way it goes.

The Golden Rule

Your photographs will look like whatever you put in front of the camera.

Repeat that rule to yourself over and over.

No camera, photographer, or desperate Photoshopping will change that.

Be thoughtful about how your product is presented, the models you hire, the clothes they wear, and the locations you use. Collaborate with your photographer, because they know the quality of their work is almost wholly dependent on these choices.

If you don’t like how something looks before you photograph it on set, it won’t look better in a finished picture. Have the model change shirts, or go across the street to the prettier view.

TL;DR

With good pre-planning you can probably do almost as good a job as an agency on a shoestring budget.

  • There are two basic types of photo shoot, lifestyle and web, treat them differently
  • Choose your photographer carefully, probably not the same person for both types of shoot
  • Plan your budget carefully
  • Look for product photographers on Yelp and Google
  • Look for lifestyle photographers on Instagram
  • Make and share a mood board
  • Hire models that reflect your customers and your brand
  • Plan your locations carefully
  • For bigger shoots, permitting often pays off
  • Get insurance if you need it
  • Make a shot list
  • Consider hiring supplemental staff
  • Prepare very carefully in the days before the shoot

Remember the Golden Rule: Your photographs will look like whatever you put in front of the camera.

 

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