We all have those moments, those days, those months where we just can’t seem to come up with a good idea.
It seems like it takes more energy to convince yourself to get started than it does to actually shoot a set. The truth is you don’t always need an earth stopping idea. A lightning bolt of inspiration. Sometimes just committing to doing it gets the ball rolling. Once you’re actually in motion you start to realize that there is a lot more to learn about than just the photo techniques themselves. Lots of business and planning skills go into it as well that will in turn make you more valuable as a photographer. Just the process of saying I’m going to do it…. led to how am I going to do it? That simple question took me on a path that taught more than anything else in my career so far. I’d like to tell you about my self produced week of high fashion photography in New York City.
So, I went to New York City.
There was a whole bunch of stuff I wish someone had warned me about or tips I could have found on the Internet before I went on an 8-day photo trip to another state by myself. A city where I didn’t know anybody! If you’re curious about my trip and/or are really thinking about taking one yourself (which I highly suggest) then I am more than happy to share what I know.
Why now? The biggest question! Simple. Because I needed to. For myself and my photography career. I realized if I was serious about my fashion photography career, I had to make a move. If you don’t think you are capable of achieving your dreams, why truly pursue them, right? There was definitely a bit of naivety that had to come with making such a big leap. Although it wasn’t a cheap trip out of pocket, as cliché as it sounds; you have to spend money to make it. If you’re not out there creating your own content on your own dime now; people aren’t going to hire you to do it later. I’ve learned that clients want to buy something they can see.
if you’re not out there creating your own content on your own dime now; people aren’t going to hire you to do it later.
Find a place that fascinates you. Find out why.
I chose NYC because I’ve always been enamored by it. My idea was simple; capture its quirk. Harness the cities energy. I obsess over the details that truly make the city a living creature. The packed chandelier shops forcing you to duck your head to navigate through, to the old candy shops much larger than you’d ever seen before. The extravagant hotels with twisted modern designs shouldered next to dive bars you’d never know existed. That is if well-dressed people weren’t stumbling out of them and into the bar next door that looks like a set out of an old James Bond movie. The busy over lit streets that seem to hide too much in Chinatown, to the quiet train stations that lay barren blessed only by the lucky leak of the sun. The unique shops that finally found their home in NYC, making sure to keep all of your senses over stimulated. Down to the high priced lofts that shelter the stories of people who live out their wildest dreams.
Although I was creating stuff regularly, I was feeling dried out and exhausted of my resources. One morning I drew up an inspiration board of this hypothetical trip. I pulled pictures of clothing, locations and people together. Stared at it half awake with one eye open and realized, “Wait, why the hell not? I’m a fashion photographer working in Boston… next to one of the four fashion capitols of the world!”
“I told myself you have one month. Find places to shoot. Models. Locations and a place to stay. One month.”
I decided then and there without consulting anyone that I was doing it. I told myself you have one month. Find places to shoot. Models. Locations and a place to stay. One month.
WHERE TO START?
First step. Talking about it. Over beers, on the phone, with my roommates. Talking about it means it’s actually going to happen.
I started implementing the trip into my conversations that same day. When people would ask how things are going and what I had coming up — NYC was my first topic.
We all have that voice in the back of our head that tells us, “Oh, you shouldn’t do that, you can’t afford that right now” or the, “That is so irresponsible, you are too old for this”. Why should you listen to those thoughts that keep your dreams at bay instead of allowing yourself to pursue them?
WHO TO TALK TO?
In short; Everybody. Talk to everybody who will listen.
I reached out to friends living in or that were familiar with NYC. Creative’s in the city that I follow on Instagram, agencies, dream locations, studios and started all this networking from my computer desk. Putting out serious feelers early and planting some roots. I started to connect with folks all day, sending out my work, my inspirations and hopes for the trip. It’s really as easy as a heartfelt genuine e-mail or a phone call. Generally, people want to be involved with something if they think it’s going to be cool!
Also, Craigslist in NYC is wonderfully quick; I put up an ad about the trip and got a bunch of talented artists responding almost immediately!
WHAT TO PREP?
There’s always a lot of serious prep. Booking, equipment and transportation logistics are key! Prep on any photo shoot is imperative to it’s success.
“Prep on any photo shoot is imperative to it’s success.”
I always stress that you want to answer all of the questions you can now so you can focus on the art later. Having the trip be completely self-funded, I really wanted to make it monetarily accessible as well. Prep time can help you budget in the best way possible and find the most options. When you are still a little ways out you don’t have to be desperate and go with the first thing that is available to you.
I spent all day, everyday leading up to the trip preparing.
“Let me tell you about my first time, he was the hairstylist on all of the big fashion photo shoots and I almost wet myself when I saw him in my inbox.”
It didn’t feel like a chore because I was meeting and connecting with some of the coolest people in my creative industry and it was incredibly inspiring. I started by reaching out to people who helped create the shoots I love the most. Let me tell you about my first time, he was the hairstylist on all of the big fashion photo shoots and I almost wet myself when I saw him in my inbox. He did politely decline my collaboration request in that response e-mail, explaining he was booked up all year already — but I now had his blessing. That was a great start and the best no I’ve ever gotten… “He knows I exist, I thought”. I was officially a high school girl again. *pushes glasses closer to face and breaths heavy*
I imagine those feelings were similar to those of a teenage boy after sending out a fan letter to Bam Margera and receiving a signed photo in the mail the next week! Score, coolest kid on the block here!
That’s when I realized I could actually reach anybody. I had a slew of successful responses following that and made some banging tentative plans. The whole process really felt more like treasure hunting. I admit, it’s going to make you want to pull out your hair, but you’ll be SO happy and feel so professional after you do all of the dirty work and hunting.
TRANSPORTATION ON A BUDGET VS. SECURITY?
Spend time on finding the best option for you, transportation is the most important part of any trip – you’ve got to get there.
I ended up taking the train (Amtrak) into the city. Here is why:
- It was a very comfortable ride.
- There was enough legroom to place your most valuable gear below you.
- The employee’s were pretty lenient with their two-bag limit (which is something I was worried about since I had the two 12’x24’ duffle bags loaded, my camera bag, my laptop bag, two small lighting gear bags and a soft box bag). Basically, as long as you could manage it yourself without causing a scene, you should be good!
- There was lots of overhead storage as well.
- Guaranteed to arrive closest to the written time, regardless to current weather or traffic conditions.
In all, not the cheapest option but definitely the most reliable.
If you, too, are traveling on a budget, I’d recommend you be really smart and spend enough time thoroughly sorting out your transportation options.
“I ended up paying more than double what I thought in travel costs.”
Be able to answer these questions:
- What are all my options? Bus. Driving in. Train. Plane.
- What are my time restraints?
- How much gear will you be carrying around?
- Can I fit comfortably in public trans with it all?
- Where are my shooting locations going to be, and how far?
- Ask all the locations how their local cab services are? (For example, some areas in NYC ended up being cab black holes and required a lot of unplanned cushion time)
*Really, just get to know your routes before you go and price out the options realistically.
I say this because although the train was a great choice, I ended up paying more than double what I thought in travel costs around the city between Lyft and cab rides everywhere, everyday. Travel was by far my biggest expense of the trip… On the plus side, I am now a “5 star man” in Lyft’s eyes.
HOW TO SET YOUR CALENDAR
Set dates early. Prepare for cancellations. Overbook if you have to. Keep plans flexible. Keep plans organized.
Book with all the stylists, make-up artists, hair stylists, models through their respective agencies, assistants, locations and studios you want. Keep this in mind:
- If it’s a test trip (meaning no one is getting paid) anything can come up last minute. Freelancers, at the end of the day, need work and they will jump on a paying gig first. Same goes for casting agencies and models. Folks that seem excited and willing to do a passion project can and will disappear if money shows up. Have options and don’t be put off by a late cancellation. It happens all the time; it’s nothing personal — it’s just business.
- Call sheets. Use them. It shows that you are professional. They are a must on any shoot and agencies will definitely require those before they can even book you with a model. Make them in advance and bring a template sheet that you can edit on the road.
- Gather all contact info for locations, models, etc. and have it easily accessible to make any last minute changes. They will be a pain to collect and create every night for the next day after you’ve just finished a long shoot.
“Working with model agencies is tedious and usually you aren’t allowed to interact with the models directly at any point before you shoot them.”
Speaking of model agencies, reach out to them early. Call them directly and they will most likely give you an e-mail you wouldn’t be able to find on their website otherwise. Send over your idea and wait for them to see if they have any girls that might be a good fit or just need to build their portfolio. Then, if you’re in a good place, they’ll send you a little package of ladies/men you can request from and start planning dates around their availability. Working with model agencies is tedious and usually you aren’t allowed to interact with the models directly at any point before you shoot them, which can make quick planning and any last minute changes difficult. But I was hoping it would be worth it on this trip!
Bring enough, and don’t bring too much. You’re mobile, don’t be held down by stuff you don’t really need. Over packing is NOT the answer on a trip like this.
I needed enough light to create my highly sculpted, stylized scenes so I made sure to test-shoot everything before the trip to help condense to exactly what was needed.
As for lighting, I brought along a pair of Alien Bees B800’s and a pair of LumoPro LP180’s along with two LumoPro strip boxes. The strip boxes were key for my soft fashion portraiture lighting and were wonderfully light and compact for traveling purposes. I prefer my LumoPro’s on a shoot because those little guys are extremely durable and a precise powerful light source for really sculpting the shots. Accompanied with the other technical gear necessities (stands, extension cords, etc.).
Basically, don’t be like me – on the subway passing through a bad neighborhood late at night with too much gear. Befriending the least creepy of the big creepy men around me because I couldn’t find a cab to help haul my gear through the snow. I ended up giving said man one my business cards to ease all of his incessant, “let’s hang out” inquiries. That was the only time that week I was excited my phone number was printed out incorrectly on the new batch of cards I ordered for the trip. Don’t judge me.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU GET THERE
Network and settle in.
Day one is so exciting! You did it; you’re there now and there’s no turning back! I find traveling to be so draining, first find a place you can curl up into a ball afterwards and reflect… or just decompress. I arranged to stay with an old friend in Williamsburg and allowed my self to take the time to settle in.
“What you do with your week creatively is what will set you apart from other photographers and creatives.”
I spent the second half of my first day rummaging through Chinatown shooting candid photos and finishing the night off by networking with local clothing shops.
What you do with your week creatively is what will set you apart from other photographers and creatives. Find out what you like. And if you don’t know why you like it – go find out! Be fearless; take what you want from your trip!
Over the week, I shot in a variety of really cool locations, two beautiful studio spaces Sun West Studios and Studio225BK (I HIGHLY suggest both), what feels like all of the side streets and alleyways of Chinatown including tenements (with unlocked entrances), an amazing apartment accented with hairless cats, a hidden taxidermy disco bar and a loft.
Gear And Photo Handling Advice.
Definitely make sure you are coming with everything you need to run a mini photography studio on the road, some things that saved my butt:
- A computer to make last minute changes, reaching out to people and finding new inspiration.
- Back-up hard drives to put all the photos after/during each shoot. Don’t you dare only store them on memory cards, if anything happens to those memory card in transportation, you don’t want to be screwed. Nothing worse than coming home with corrupt files and nothing to show!
- Transfer the photos right away and then leave them alone until you get back from the trip – keep them fresh! Why gruel over shots you can’t edit yet? Let yourself get really excited about them all over again.
Learning from a shoot that went wrong.
If something goes wrong on your trip, don’t let it affect you any longer than it has to. Murphy’s Law that shit and move on. I think more people have to talk about how they fail, failing is so important to success.
I FAILED! I had one shoot in specific during my NY trip that was awful.
It happened on day 7 of non-stop shooting in the city; I was tired but excited to work with this amazing hair/make-up artist. She assured me while planning the trip that she would take care of the models and location – “WHAT?! YES!” I thought. Thanks to Craigslist I had found a really cool stylist to come along and so far I’d had a really successful week, so I started the day feeling really confident. Little did I know what was waiting for me… Things started to pile up against me as soon as I stepped foot in the door.
Right off the bat I wasn’t able to make any sort of connection with the models. They didn’t seem interested in my presence. They reminded me of Amy Winehouse and her then boyfriend/husband/ex Blake. Filled with that deep romantic rock love thing where they lived in their own tragic bubble that “you just wouldn’t understand”. They weren’t signed by an agency, which was something I try to stay away from unless the subject really inspires me. And as it turned out the location was their home. So I was out of my leagues with this one, clearly! The location was plain and uninspiring. I should have scouted it first or asked for photos.
Then to add to the confusion, half of my gear decided to stop working.
“I had to go back in there and take the control back. Make due with a bad situation and show my true colors. I was the captain of this ship and I wasn’t going to let it crash and burn.”
Everyone was quiet from the get-go and the stylist was clearly unhappy. I just couldn’t create the fun atmosphere on this one. I faked a couple of mediocre set-ups and shots to ease the crowd but the emotions began to well up in me pretty quickly. As much as I was trying to fool myself, this shoot was a disaster and I hated it.
I told the group I was going to scout the hallways outside, when really — I just needed to get far away from the situation and re-adjust. Maybe cry a little… Maybe… but you’ll never know! I ended up calling a fellow photographer to talk it out; he gave me some sound advice and calmed me down. I had to go back in there and take the control back. Make due with a bad situation and show my true colors. I was the captain of this ship and I wasn’t going to let it crash and burn.
I was determined to get a few shots out of this. I went bare minimum. I noticed the two models huddled by a window leaking with beautiful natural light. I ditched my lighting set-up and told them to stand there, just like that. I had the make-up artist hold a reflector and shot a photo just using window light. It felt truly inspired. I loved the shot!
This was the spark this shoot needed! I got this.
As I started to prep the next shot I was made aware that the models were now locked in their room. From then on the only way I could get in touch with them was through the make-up artist. I’m serious. I called for the girl and she reluctantly emerged with a pout. As I began to shoot her, all the long emails and phone calls and having to deal with paperwork and contracts for models from casting agencies ran through my head. And yes, as it turns out, all of that work was and will always be well worth never having to be in the position I was now in, ever again. While previewing a few decent shots I took, the model whispered, “you need to include my boyfriend in more shots – he’s feeling left out”.
The ship was going down, I stood defiantly on its bow and the waves started pulling it all down into the deep. I called upon his majesty and began shooting them both… in silence; they began to complain quietly together.
It was the most surreal experience but I am so glad I went through it. I’m proud I made it through that shoot, held up and left with a final product. It reminded me how important it is to keep it together because you are the one in control. If I could get through a shoot like that – I felt like I could concur anything! Even though I’ve learned on several occasions that to be that hands off with your own shoot is never a good idea. Next shoot I’m staying in the know, for the good of mankind.
Learning from a shoot that went surprisingly well
After finishing a full 12+ hour studio shoot in the middle of the week I remembered the second shoot planned that night in Chinatown. My stylist and I had a running Blade Runner-esk inspiration we had gotten pretty pumped up about, she would be the model. We worked our butts off that day and I was simply exhausted. All I wanted to do after the first shoot was go and eat red velvet waffles and watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race, but I decided to keep on schedule, because honestly. That Kween can wait.
“All I wanted to do was go and eat red velvet waffles and watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race, but I decided to keep on schedule, because honestly. That Kween can wait.”
So we went out, she was in this glorious fishnet one piece with latex coverings and sky-high heels, her only real source of warmth on that freezing cold night being a sassy little mink coat. She is this gorgeous little harlequin doll wondering down these filthy little alleyways. I decided to let the streets light the photos, making each location a little more authentic and challenging. We started scouring the streets when I realized this NY native was more fearless than I was. She tried all the doors of places we shouldn’t be in. We shot in a creepy little arcade because the people in it were too confused to kick us out. We found a tiny tenement and climbed 10 thin creaky floors to its roof. We found a building with pipes so hot the rooms lined with them must have been 80+ degrees (they were open air).
After countless hours of badass shots and freezing cold toes we stopped in a 24 hour dumpling house. That’s when I really got a good look at how awesome this was. She was sitting there across from me, black smeared across her eyes, stuffing her face with dumplings. I ended up with the most shots from the trip on that shoot and that was the EXACT experience I had dreamed of! Only in NYC.
“I personally have an alarm that goes off every morning that reminds me to always get model releases on set now.”
This one is simple. Make sure you get EVERY model in front of your camera to sign a model release. It’s imperative if you want to do anything with the photos you take in the future; this really goes for ANYTIME you shoot ANYBODY. To be safe, always get a release signed so you don’t run into any legal problems somewhere down the line with agencies and such who might prevent you from using the photos to their full potential. I forgot to get some of the models to sign a release that week. So after I finished my 26-photo set, I had them held in legal captivity for over a month while I pleaded with the agencies to get them over to the models. I couldn’t submit to magazines or do anything safely until they were signed. I personally have an alarm that goes off every morning that reminds me to always get model releases on set now.
Taking a break.
Take at least one day off.
I didn’t and I was loosing some serious steam by the end of the trip. I spent the last night in a hotel room tossing, turning and moaning until I passed out – not in the magical NYC sense. Next time I’m taking a day off in the middle of the trip.
Don’t get me wrong, taking a day off of shooting doesn’t have to mean you’re wasting it, absolutely everybody needs to rejuvenate after getting into the swing of an intense week. A day off can be a solid day to reflect & better plan the rest of your trip.
“Spending your own money can pressure you not to waste time but if you’re too tired to function properly on set; that’s worse!”
Spending your own money can pressure you not to waste time but if you’re too tired to function properly on set; that’s worse! Just don’t forget that spending time talking to people who will possibly bring you future work is also super important – because in the end us creative’s all need work to keep doing what we love.
Spend your “day off” location scouting and connecting with local designers and shops. Spend it meeting up with someone you reached out to online, someone you’d love to shoot with — see if you can set up a casual hang out to discuss a future collaboration.
Long sentence time: Shooting in places I’ve never been or seen before with people I’ve never worked with or met before under strict time constraints in a foreign city ultimately rejuvenated my creativity and love for what I do!
A trip this intense can really teach you about working on the fly and give you great endurance. It’s a great test of just how much you’ve learned in your field. You’ll be in a place where you are shooting everyday, you’ll be forced to switch it up with each shoot with no real time to prepare the shots beforehand! Remember not to let the stress take over the fun of it all! It made me excited again about all the little things, adventures and opportunities available to you as an artist if you just go out and grab them.
We get to live lifestyles other people couldn’t fathom. All for the sake of creating something beautiful, weird, scary; something emotional. Sometimes you need to leave your comfort zone to find new levels of creativity when you’re in a rut, there’s something about experiencing a bunch of new things can spark new life into your art. Go out and do it so we can talk about it!
I am now in the planning stages of a big release for the photos so I can’t publicly share them, just yet. BUT I’ll totally share the one photo from the week I couldn’t get a model release for, since I can’t do anything else fun with it! SEE… Always get that release!
About The Author
Gina Manning is a high-concept fashion photographer that brings a cinematic quality to every shoot she designs; from creating locations that set a surreal tone to selecting subjects with character to tell the perfect story. For her, it’s about the collaboration of gorgeous clothes and gorgeous ideas to create the images that capture the eye and mind with light, color and texture. You can find more of her work on her site, read more writings on her blog. This article was also published here and shared with permission.