Helpful hints from a veteran stock shooter who's been everywhere and tried everything
Not that the question needs to be asked, but why would anyone shoot stock abroad? After all, unless you're taking travel shots that depend on specific locations, what difference does it make if you're shooting in California or in Calcutta?
Well, I don't know about other photographers, but for me there are several reasons to shoot in foreign countries. For starters, I can get access to some locations and other resources that I could not in the United States. More importantly, travel rejuvenates me creatively and adds to the richness of my life.
Above all, however, I can save significant amounts of money on certain kinds of produced assignments, such as planned lifestyle and business shoots. I once shot images of a single model on a beach in Brazil for $25. In Delhi, India, I shot a cobra being "charmed" in a boardroom for less than $20. (Thankfully, the cobra was defanged, because at one point I got a little too close and the little bugger managed to strike me.)
When I decided to do a series of composited images featuring elephants, I arranged a trip to Bangkok, Thailand. While an elephant near my home in San Francisco would have cost thousands of dollars to rent, an elephant in Bangkok cost me just $450 for a day of shooting.
But you can't just drop into a foreign land and expect everything to turn out right, just because it's inexpensive; it also takes a lot of preparation and teamwork. My formula for successful shoots in other countries is to plan ahead, go early (at least that's always my goal), understand the culture and stay as flexible as possible.
By following these steps and hints, you can make your next stock shoot abroad feel as if you never left home.
1. Find a great producer
For me, a professional producer is the key element of any shoot. So, how does one find such a person? Word of mouth is my first choice. I query other photographers, ask for help through online forums and do internet searches. Once I have a list of possible producers, I contact them and look for someone who gives prompt responses and realistic input, not someone who just says yes to everything. I also ask the candidates for references and client lists.
But don't think that professional producers are your only option. I have had terrific shoots with first-time producers all over the globe. In Thailand, a friend of a friend has produced three shoots for me very successfully; in India, a tour guide did an amazing job of producing. Another photographer had a great experience shooting on the Great Wall of China after hiring his bellman as producer. In any case, what is important is having someone who is self-starting and enthusiastic — someone who can think creatively and solve problems.
Once you find a producer, don't just assign tasks and relax. Check in with the producer regularly so that you can catch possible glitches quickly and help get things back on track. If at all possible, arrange to arrive early to have a casting call and a look at the locations involved. It's a good idea to meet the day before the shoot with the assistants and crew to make sure that they understand what you are trying to accomplish and that they know the importance of being on time. Many first-time crew members may not appreciate the importance of catching the right lighting conditions.
2. Familiarize yourself with the local culture
With all that can go wrong on a shoot abroad, the last thing you need to do is insult the local population by ignoring certain customs or beliefs. It's a good idea to take time out to read up on the culture you are visiting.
For example, on a recent trip to India, I photographed a festival involving a representation of Shiva, the primary Hindu god. I climbed up high to shoot the crowd at a better angle, but was quickly chastised for unwittingly placing myself above Shiva's head. While Shiva didn't seem to mind so much, his devotees made it clear that I had better come down — right away.
Another thing to remember: Often, other cultures do not have the sense of urgency about time management that most Americans have. To avoid frustration, it is important to know which cultures might see such things differently than you do, so that you can compensate for those differences ahead of time.
3. Research your equipment options
When you are traveling overseas, overweight bags do cost more — generally $25 per bag — but compared to the overall cost of a shoot, that's a small fee. Extra bags are $100, but again, it can be better to spend that C-note than to not have the right gear to do your shoot.
If you decide to rent equipment, be sure to do your homework. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, for instance, renting strobes is no problem; but try finding a battery charger for a 1Ds MKII on short notice. Not so easy, is it?
Even if you can find a decent rental, sometimes shooting with unfamiliar equipment can be as bad as not having the equipment at all. On one shoot we rented battery packs, but when we got on location, neither I nor my assistants knew how to make them work. Luckily, we at least had our own reflectors and managed to make do with those. These days, whenever I rent photo gear, I hire assistants who know how to use it. It takes extra effort to find such people when you are 5,000 miles away and don't speak the local dialect, but it is definitely worth the effort. Usually I take a portable studio setup such as a ProFoto 7b and assorted stands, umbrellas and other standard equipment. I find that with two packs and four heads, I can do just about anything I need to.
4. Get your message acrossIt may seem easy to describe a shooting scenario to your producer. Many times, however, you may show up at the location to find out that the producer's interpretation of your words was entirely different than what you were visualizing. Miscommunication and incorrect assumptions are some of the most common causes of on-location headaches. When my crew and I arrived at the wildlife sanctuary at the start of my elephant shoot near Bangkok, I asked where our elephant was. The manager pointed to a small baby elephant and said, "There she is." I tried to explain that I wanted a full-sized elephant, but she assured me that "everyone wants baby elephants!"
It took about 15 minutes of arguing before I convinced her that I was serious about wanting an adult elephant. We got the animal I wanted, but we wasted about half of our planned shooting time because we had to wait for the new elephant to be brought in.
The problem isn't limited to working with animals. Recently, I did a shoot in Buenos Aires with a producer who has worked well with me on more than a dozen occasions. I asked her to have a trampoline available at a soccer field on which I would be shooting.
"No problemo," she said. But when I got to the location, there was no trampoline — only a small springboard that was useless for what I wanted to do. It was nobody's fault, really, just another miscommunication.
To help avoid such problems, I always provide my producer with a shoot briefing that includes sample photos. Photography is a universal language, and providing your team with examples — particularly for things such as the type of wardrobe you want, props and locations — goes a long way toward making your shoot a satisfying one. This solution also works both ways: Have your producer send you photos of the locations, models, props and so forth in order to eliminate or minimize misunderstandings. I like to have my producers put up web galleries for me of model head shots and locations.
5. Hire reliable models
When working with models, I almost always book one or two extra because, many times, not all of them show up. With those who do arrive, some often look totally different than the shots they had sent us. I would rather pay a few hundred extra dollars than have a whole shoot compromised because we didn't have enough models.
Pay special attention to the model release forms as well. If a release isn't filled out properly up front, it can be pretty much impossible to rectify the situation. After the models fill out the releases, we put a large, easily visible number on each release and photograph the model holding his or her respective form. You'll thank yourself later, when you get back home and can't remember who was who.
6. Live at your location
One technique that I have used several times with great success is to find a beautiful vacation rental at a destination at which I want to shoot. I rent the house, stay there and set up shoots within the same house. I have always done this in conjunction with other photographers.
For example, I once rented a five-bedroom house in Mexico with two other photographers. The house included gardens and a swimming pool, and each room had its own bathroom and balcony. We stayed there for a week and spent no more than we would have at a good hotel, but we each shot our separate projects in the house for two days, essentially for free.
When renting a house, however, it is very important to get the property release arranged in advance. I learned my lesson once when, despite being assured by the rental company that a property release would be no problem, the owner demanded an additional $3,500 after the shoot.
I have rented and shot in nightclubs, theaters, restaurants, museums and even call centers abroad for far less money and less red tape than I could have in my own country. In the case of the nightclub, the entire facility, including three bars, lights, smoke machines and simulated drinks (nonalcoholic), came in at only $850. We populated the club with models for just $30 apiece for four hours.
7. Keep in touch with agencies and editors
When shooting stock abroad, it is also helpful to check in with your agencies to be sure you are shooting what they need. You can choose to ignore their advice, but I always find that my editors and art directors come up with at least some ideas that I haven't thought of. The more involved they are, the more predisposed they will be to accept my images. My above-mentioned nightclub shoot, for instance, came about via a suggestion by my art director back in the States. When I suggested shooting in a hospital in Buenos Aires, the art director said the agency had too many hospital images already but could really use shots from a nightclub. Believe me, the nightclub — with beautiful models, blaring music and a light show — was a lot more fun to shoot.
As this example shows, shooting stock images abroad can be enjoyable, economical and creatively stimulating, as long as you do the necessary preparation. For produced shoots, there is no such thing as too much communication. Be sure to have a detailed plan with a backup strategy, stay involved, pay attention to details and, most importanly, remain flexible.