I was recently on-location at a Boston restaurant, photographing some food to accompany a magazine piece, when the manager struck up conversation. He reminded me that, when scheduling the shoot, I had mentioned only needing about twenty or thirty minutes to photograph. He then said he was ‘curious' to see what I would produce in such a short time.
The word curious appears in quotes because the tone in his voice led me to believe he actually meant ‘skeptical'. After talking with him more, it turned out most photographers the restaurant had worked with previously did produce great images, but either took a really long time doing so or used so much lighting equipment and modifiers that it became a serious disruption to the restaurant's customers and staff.
This conversation made me realize that there must be something to the adages ‘keep it simple' and ‘less is more' – even when applied to photography. So how can one keep it quick and simple on shoots?
My 20-30 minute estimate was based on the fact that we would only be shooting one or two dishes and that I was going to shoot predominantly with available light (adding just an off-camera speedlite if necessary). Since I knew the dishes would need to be prepped, cooked and plated, I also knew I could use that time to check out the location, look for a few good angles to use as backgrounds, and start setting my camera and flash accordingly. I was confident that a half hour would be more than enough time to get plenty of options for the magazine.
Minimize Lighting Gear and Utilize Available Light Instead
There are instances where shooting with ambient light rather than relying heavily on additional equipment is okay. Sure it's fun to see what sort of stylized images you can create with a four-light or more setup, but that might be something better suited for personal work instead of a client shoot in a public space. Just because you've grown an arsenal of lighting and modifiers doesn't mean there's anything wrong with leaving them home and going back to basics now and then. Less equipment also means less to go wrong, allowing you to focus more on making great photos!
Know How to Control The Available Light
Using ambient light as a main light source isn't enough if you aren't sure how to make it work for you. Pay attention to the quality, color and direction of the light on location and use it to your advantage. For example: using your aperture to control how warm or cool a space lit with tungsten appears on camera, or angling subjects so windows behind them or to the side provide a nice rim-light to separate them from the background.
Many photographers are far too critical of themselves. While this mentality might have its advantages while editing down a portfolio, for example, it usually doesn't help while on a shoot. Part of the reason a client hires a professional photographer is for their eye. They trust you have the confidence to portray their subject effectively, and so should you.
Know When You've Got The Shot and Move On
Gut feelings play a part in other aspects of professional photography – from what clients we choose to work with, to negotiating creative fees – so there's no reason to ignore them on a shoot. If it feels like you've got the shot, you probably do. It's easy to feel the pressure to over deliver and keep photographing a subject from every possible angle to ensure the client has many options. Most clients, however, prefer choosing between a few really strong images to narrowing down hundreds of minor variations.
While I hadn't even considered my minimal gear and fast-paced process on similar shoots before this conversation, the simple and quick nature of the session was not lost on the manager. In fact, as soon as I finished he asked about my availability and interest in coming back to photograph for the restaurant.
None of this is to say you should always rush through your shoots. Nor should you leave your strobe kit packed away long enough to gather dust. But knowing when and how to work quickly and simply to bring out a location's most flattering light, as well as having the confidence to know when you've got the shot and wrap things up, are definitely attributes that some clients will notice and appreciate.