[by Michael Weschler]
© Michael Weschler
As with any business, preparation is crucial and while you can’t anticipate everything, you must eliminate the variables that you can. This is why in order to manage expectations best, it needs to be clarified right from the start of any project’s discussion, what those expectations might be. It’s critical to gain clarity on the number of shots, the specifics of the deliverables requested, the time frame allotted and the limited possibilities within the specific constraints and budget that are presented. Often times, understanding what your client’s needs are can be the most important part of your dialogue to best manage expectations.
As creatives, we all know that there are an infinite number of ways to interpret how to make an image, but are you prepared to create usable image assets for your client? Is your picture just for you, like with personal work and Fine Art, or are you telling a story and making something marketable for someone else, or a very wide audience, for that matter? Hopefully, there is overlap in your career, but artists often miss this important distinction, especially early in their careers.
It’s vital that we understand when we’re not making a picture just for ourselves and how that doesn’t always overlap with capturing a feeling objectively for someone else, or creating the tone of a message, when you’ve been commissioned to shoot a project. In essence, when you begin to understand how to shift gears creatively, you are able to collaborate with more people and expand your repertoire.
When I first set out on my own to become a full time photographer, I hadn’t yet grasped this ability to become an artist that clients could depend on to deliver usable content on time and within a budget. Having spent a few years assisting some well regarded photographers, it eventually became more clear that editorial and commercial work puts constraints on you, but if you handle these challenges, you increase your work’s value and marketability. It’s not always easy to see how to differentiate yourself, but if you listen to what the marketplace is looking for, you can begin to adapt and create work where there perhaps was no demand.
The approach that has worked best for me is to listen closely and ask lots of questions. When you build trust, your clients will often step back and let you simply run with the ball, so to speak, and make pretty pictures. Occasionally, though, there is some nuance that wasn’t articulated beforehand, and on set, everyone is scrambling to figure it out, which can be too late. What helps is, before the shoot, to know who is making the final call on whether you captured the shot. Who is the decision maker and what are the “must-haves” vs. the “nice-to-haves”?
For editorial work, you can sometimes be lucky enough to have a lot of creative freedom, but oftentimes there’s a limited budget, leaner crew, and perhaps no art director on set. So, the added pressure to decide when you’ve got the shot falls on the photographer. I’ve worked on cover stories where the story isn’t written yet and with a quick call with the creative director, I’m sent on an assignment to shoot the story as I interpret it.
However, with commercial work, there can be teams of people involved, especially when it comes to an advertising campaign. The complexity here, to begin with, is that the ad agency is technically your client, but their client is really THE client. So, there can be miscommunication between the ad agency and the brand, and companies can surprise everyone with unexpected people that show up on the day of the shoot. Everyone wants to be on a photo shoot, so it’s crucial to cut through the chatter and know that not everyone has good set etiquette and there will be distractions. My preference is to stick to the script and provide as many image variations as time permits. This is what is central to managing client expectations, but it has to be done before you start shooting. Once a project is underway, it’s important to remain agile and able to pivot, but a complete turnaround may not be an option.
That’s why on the larger advertising shoots, my aim is to eliminate the variables and any confusion that may be present, because you’re creating compelling imagery for a lot of people. Brands have spent months or years developing concepts with their creative agencies and magazines have spent years developing their look, so if you plan to accept an assignment, you need to put that particular hat on to capture pictures that coincide well in your client’s context.
For the large productions I work on, with sometimes fifty people on set, all eyes are on me to deliver the goods, so eliminating any confusion before the actual shoot, ensures that when the time comes to execute the project, things will go smoothly. Because there can be different producers representing different teams, sometimes communication breaks down, so it’s important to always anticipate any misunderstandings, or halfbaked ideas, and deal with them in pre-production. We often promise the sun and the moon to our clients, but it’s essential that you or someone on your team is reminding everyone that the sun will go down precisely when it’s supposed to and there are only so many hours in a day. When Donatella Versace suddenly says to you that she’s leaving for Milan in twenty minutes, you don’t panic, because you were pre-lit for her and ready for her to only have five.
Michael Weschler is a Communication Arts Photo Award recipient & ASMP National Board Director on the Communications Committee. When he’s not conveying compelling stories visually for his editorial and advertising clients, he’s on a constant search for knowledge and new challenges to exceed his own expectations. Besides moving into directing motion recently, he’s also done five triathlon races and is competing in his sixth one in a few weeks.
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