Shoot preparation

Lesson learned: Don't be the weakest link

Tessa Strain near the summit of Stac Pollaidh at sunset in the North-West Highlands of Scotland

Tessa Strain near the summit of Stac Pollaidh at sunset in the North-West Highlands of Scotland

A cardinal rule of outdoor sports photography is not to be the weakest link. When photographing athletes practicing their craft, this can range from being skilled enough to follow mountain bikers down rocky trails, technically proficient enough on rock to take care of yourself whilst taking shots of people scrambling, to being fit enough to keep up with runners as they cross narrow mountain ridges.

Overall, I'd say I'm fairly competent keeping up with the majority of sports I photograph and I'm used to being out for multiple 12+ hour days. Occasionally though, I teach myself a lesson. On this occasion, it was about making sure I rest and fuel myself properly both before and during a shoot.

The above image was taken at 2200 hours atop Stac Pollaidh, a small but dramatic mountain in the Inverpolly region in north-west Scotland. I was photographing Tessa Strain (née Hill), an Arc'teryx and Silva-sponsored sky runner, for a mountain running shoot.

Stac Pollaidh is a really, really easy mountain - small children climb it - so there would be no reason for you to think that I'd be ridiculously tired behind the camera, thankful for just having made it to the top. What the photo doesn't show is a somewhat broken me, 18 hours into a 20 hour work day, concerned about the 500m descent and 60min drive back to our accommodation, acutely conscious of the lack of sleep I'm going to have before we rise again for my third pre-dawn shoot in a row, on a much bigger mountain.

The cause of my poor physical and mental state was entirely due to a lack of sleep (I'd only had 4 hours sleep in the last 24 and had already missed out on a lot of sleep that week) plus my failure to eat and drink appropriately throughout the day.

Tessa and I had met for the first time the day before. Our long drive to the far north of Scotland was great for getting to know each other but it meant we'd only had a small amount of sleep when our alarms went off for the start of our shoot at 4.30am. We rose early to meet experienced mountain runner and local climbing guide, Paul Tattersall (Go Further Scotland). For our running photo shoot, Paul and I had chosen Liathach, a nearby Munro in the Torridon region, for its spectacular views and potential for great mountain running shots along the narrow path traversing beneath its rocky summit pinnacles.

As the day dawned, we had perfect weather for our photo shoot. Despite usually wrapping up shoots once the sun has risen (as the light is too bright) we reasoned that, as we were up high, we might as well stay out for the day. The temperature quickly sky-rocketed and we were soon shooting in 30+ degree C temperatures under a blazing sun.

Despite the heat, Tessa and Paul were repeatedly awesome, running 'on demand' either across the crest of the ridge or along the exposed trail as we traversed along the 1000m high, 4km long ridge. Everything was going to plan but, as the day progressed, I became so engrossed in mentally ticking images off my shot list that I failed to eat properly.

Carrying heavy camera and lighting gear up and down steep mountains is hard work, doubly so in hot weather. Although I was careful to drink lots of water (we carrried all our water for the day too), I failed to recognise that I was not adequately replacing the calories and minerals I was losing through exercise and dehydration.

By the time we'd wrapped up the first part of our shoot and descended 1000m, my legs were like jelly. My brain felt like it was fried and I was feeling decidely ropey. After agreeing to meet Paul again early the next morning, Tessa and I returned to our accommodation. As I backed up my shots for the day, something failed (I can't recall what) and I was forced to start again. By the time I finished, it was time to leave for our second shoot of the day, capturing running shots and the sunset over the west coast. I still hadn't eaten.

On our way up Stac Pollaidh, Tessa was brand new and powered up the hill. I, on the other hand, struggled massively, even though I'd pared my kit down to the minimum. After 400m ascent, I was finding it difficult to put one foot in front of the other. Eventually I came to a complete standstill (I believe the term is 'bonked') and I was really concerned that I wouldn't reach the summit at all, never mind before nightfall. On a tiny hill such as Stac Pollaidh!

So slowly was I moving that I said to Tessa to continue on her own. After a rest, I could see her near the summit (sky runners move quickly when unimpeded by photographers). This, along with a strong personal pep talk, gave me enough motivation to get my sh&t together and get up the hill. Not long after, I reached the summit and we spent the remaining light shooting as the sun went down over the western seaboard.

When I think back on the shoot, on one hand it was a good result. We got the shots we needed (which some would say is all that counts, really). But in regards to my not being the weakest link? Definitely not my finest day. 

My lesson learned was, when it comes to being professional, it's not solely about making images. You need to be good at everything involved in the photography business and, for outdoor sports photography, a pre-requisite is ensuring you stay fit and healthy. These days, I'm even fitter than I was last year but I still make sure I rest properly before a multi-day shoot and eat long before I don't want to (I noticed there comes a time during exercise when my appetite goes completely, even though I feel otherwise fit). In addition, I take regular, small mouthfuls of food to keep my energy levels topped up and add electrolyte tablets to my water help to balance my body's natural state. Putting it all together, it helps me shoot for longer and better and continue to deliver great adventure sports images for my clients.

Business essentials: Preparing for a photography shoot

Portrait of Scottish multi-sports athlete Joanne Thom near the summit of Meall nan Tarmachan, a Munro in the South-East Highlands of Scotland

Portrait of Scottish multi-sports athlete Joanne Thom near the summit of Meall nan Tarmachan, a Munro in the South-East Highlands of Scotland

Whilst preparing for a photo shoot with an upcoming client, I thought it would be worthwhile sharing some of the key steps I go through to prepare for a shoot, from receiving an initial request right through to delivering images to the client.

Here are some of the things I'll do to make sure things go as smoothly as possible on the day.

1. Get to know the client

The first thing I'll establish is who has contacted me. Is it a company, an agency or a magazine? Before I call anyone back, I like to find out as much as possible so I'll do my research before responding. For example, if it's a magazine, I'll browse through past issues to check out recent features and photography style. If an advertising agency has contacted me on behalf of one of their clients, I'll review both the agency's portfolio of work and the company to see what work they've recently commissioned.

2. Find out more about the request

What am I being asked to do? A question I'm commonly asked is 'what is my day rate?'. As a freelance photographer, I'm responsible for all my own costs (e.g. camera equipment, insurance, working location, pension, repairs, etc.) so I don't have a set day rate. To establish an appropriate fee for a shoot, I need to take into account a number of things, such as my cost of doing business, how complex / involved the assignment is, the number of images a client would like, how they wish to use them, etc. At this stage, I'll get on the phone and verbally go through the brief with the client (in person if I can) so I can gather as much information as possible to put together an accurate estimate.

3. Produce an estimate

When considering how much a job should cost, there's a variety of things I'll take into account, depending how complex the requirements are.

These include;

  • What do I need to do to create the images?

  • How does the client plan to use them?

  • How many days will the shoot take?

  • What resources are required?

  • What equipment will I need?

  • Is there a planned location or do I need to find one?

  • Do we need to visit the location up front? Do we need a permit?

  • How will everyone get there?

  • Etc.

I can only answer these questions if I've discussed the requirements in depth with the client so early communication is key.

4. Prepare for the day

Once I've agreed a price with the client, I'll go into full-on research mode. I like to know as much as possible in advance so I'll Google anything related to the shoot. If required, my estimate will have included one or two scouting days so we'll have a chance to physically check out the location and scope out suitable positions or landscapes we can use to meet the brief. If not, I'll use the internet to find out what the terrain's like, what's nearby, the prevailing weather conditions, etc.. Anything really that helps me anticipate what to expect and gives me a jump on making creative images. I'll also consider a plan B location (and often a plan C) should the unexpected happen and we need to react accordingly.

If there's no brief as such, e.g. for a portfolio shoot, I'll prepare my own by putting together a shot list. This makes me think creatively and helps me focus better on the day. I'll often share these ideas with a client in advance so we have an opportunity to discuss them.

The week before a shoot, I'll finalise a production sheet and model release forms that I'll have prepared previously and shared so everyone knows what is expected of them and there are no outstanding questions. I'll also start to prepare my camera and outdoor equipment, making sure e.g. all the batteries are charged, the sensors and lenses are clean and I have enough equipment to stay safe.

The actual gear I take with me on an adventure sports photography shoot depends on the requirements but there's a minimum amount of gear I'll always have with me:

My minimum gear for a photo shoot;

  • Professional camera body (x2 full frame)

  • Professional lenses (wide angle, telephoto and a fast prime)

  • Memory cards (at least x100Gb)

  • Batteries (rechargeable AA, AAA, Lithium)

  • Speedlight and light modifiers

  • Light meter

  • Light stand

  • Remote control triggers

  • Tripod

  • Sunseeker app

  • Lens cloths

  • Waterproof jacket

  • Insulated jacket

  • Gloves

  • Hat

  • Food

Other items of equipment I might take on a shoot include a tripod or a monopod, an underwater DSLR case if the shoot involves swimming and an iPad or laptop, so I can tether the camera and share shots immediately with the client (see my thoughts on the excellent iWorkcase here). In short, I'll bring anything I think I need to meet the requirements of the brief, and beyond.

5. Deliver as planned

On shoot day, my focus is on turning up early, engaging with the client, athletes or models and shooting as much as possible. With all the pre-work and preparation we've put in, things should go smoothly.

If it's appropriate, I may suggest other potential shots to the client when we're on location. Otherwise, once we've got what we need to meet the brief, the shoot is a wrap, so to speak, and it's time to celebrate. Before I'm finished, I'll make sure all the shots from the day are backed up, copying the images from my memory cards onto my laptop plus a portable hard drive so I have 3 copies, making at least one copy redundant.

Back home, I'll download all the images from the shoot to my main computer and follow my workflow process to perform an official back-up and create proof files for the client to choose from. These proof files I'll share initially as low-resolution JPEGs for the client to make a selection from. I'll then finalise these selects and deliver them in high-resolution JPEG and TIFF formats, along with copies of any documentation relating to the shoot, e.g. the brief, model/property releases, expense receipts, etc. to finish the job.

Overall, my aim is to be as prepared as I can be so our shooting days are as valuable as possible and I'm quick and efficient following the shoot so my clients get what they need, when they want it.