ever had a photo shoot gone bad?

Not every photo shoot is created equal. Even when you’re a professional shooting for a familiar client you may be greeted with unexpected twists and turns. This is one of those stories. So, the next time you’re having a rough day at work and think “there has to be something better than this”, well, I just want you to know that I can relate.

My studio has a wonderful client that imports printing presses and we’ve worked together many times on various projects. Last year we flew to another Midwestern city to do a large advertising project for them at a brand new facility, a brightly lit shop with state of the art equipment. After two days we came away with beautiful photographs that everyone was proud of…a job well done.

Shortly after that, the art director called and said they had another facility that needed photographed. This job would be different, though, the photos were for editorial use and he asked that I fly solo to Chicago to photograph a particular press for half a day. The photos were “hot” and would have to be sent to a waiting magazine the following day.

“No problem”, I said, and asked for the details.

“It’s just a couple of shots”, he replied, “of a brand new machine in a brand new facility, we’ll email you a few sample shots so you can see what we’re after”.

To date I’d done these shoots with at least one photo assistant, a full lighting setup and shooting tethered to the computer for approvals. Since this was editorial in nature and both the facility and machine were new it would be more of a “run and gun” thing. I envisioned the new, brightly lit facility we’d just worked in and felt my camera bag, tripod, a couple of battery powered strobes and light stands would do the job. The plan was to use available light and pop just a little bit of fill light in with the two small flash units. Just in case, I asked for scouting photos from the facility, to figure a few angles in advance.

The emails started coming in with shot ideas. Very creative ideas, I might add: shooting above the machine looking into the brightly colored inks and dramatic angles shot from the floor. The shot list began to grow in length and complexity. I had to remind everyone that this was an editorial shoot with a simple setup and now we’re getting into much more complex shots. They understood but, as sometimes happens, they hoped that conditions would be perfect and there would be extra time on my hands. I’d do my best but could only promise to cover the original bases. And where were the scouting shots?

The scouting shots of the facility never arrived but the shop owner assured that the new building and press would be in order. No problem, sometimes you just have to roll with it and time was flying by. Before I knew it I was on a plane and in a rent-a-car, ready to spend all of half a day in Chicago before flying back home.

My map to the shop led me to an older industrial area. Where was the new shop? Was this the wrong road? An older building had the correct address but surely this wasn’t the place. I went inside and asked for the owner.

This was indeed the place and the owner greeted me with a smile and a handshake. And then he asked me, in all seriousness, “hey, can you come back and shoot this next week?”.

Uh-oh, I sensed a communication breakdown. I assured him that the photos were needed the following day by the magazine and had to be shot asap. He cautioned that there might be a little problem with that.

We walked back toward the dimly lit press room. The building was far from new, at least fifty years of printing had been done there. Two small light bulbs hung over the press. It turns out this wasn’t a new facility, but it was new to this particular owner. Communication breakdown #1.

As we turned the corner I recognized the machine I’d traveled all of this way to shoot. Imagine my surprise to see that it was in a hundred pieces, scattered all about. At least five workers were around the press, working feverishly. Communication breakdown #2.

But wait, it gets better. Were they putting the machine together? Fixing it? Neither, they were visibly modifying it with new features so that it no longer appeared stock, the way the client expected it to be photographed. They had been working around the clock to get the modifications done in time for a big upcoming print job. Communication breakdown #3.

Now I was faced with a dimly lit older facility, a machine in pieces and, even if it were put back together, it wouldn’t appear exactly as it should. And under my arm was a folder full of beautiful advertising photos and angles the client was hoping to achieve with this quick editorial shoot.

Those kinds of days don’t happen often. Communication is key and somehow, somewhere, it broke completely down. But I still had photos to shoot.

I began negotiations with the owner and the crew in order to salvage something from the trip. They agreed to stop their work and reassemble the machine to look as close to stock as possible. This would take them about two hours and then they’d give me one hour for photography but, at that point, they needed to tear it back down to resume their modifications. They were on a completely different deadline than I was.

I had two choices: either roll with things this way or have the client intervene, complicating things but buying more time for photography. Sometimes I’d choose the latter but in this case, it didn’t seem worth it. More time wouldn’t fix the age of the facility or the dimly lit room. I made phone calls, made everyone aware of what greeted me but resigned myself to making it work in a short amount of time.

All told, I ended up with about 45 minutes for photography before heading to the airport. A series of the machine was shot with the two small flash units and a series with a press operator was taken. Needless to say, there wasn’t time for the “if you have extra time” shots.

No, the photos from that day won’t make the portfolio but the client was very happy in the end, especially given the conditions. The bottom line is that, on any given assignment, a professional photographer has to at least cover the bases, even when everything goes against them.

Like the times we’ve had to shoot in the rain and the client wants a “sunny” look…but that’s a whole ‘nother story. ;-)