Taking the Stress Out of High-Pressure Shoots

Taking the Stress Out of High-Pressure Shoots

March Madness is almost here! For the players, that means a lot of press and hype both on and off the court. For photographers tasked with showing them off, it means doing our best to make it all run smoothly.

Having lived in Wichita, Kansas, all my life, the past few years have been something special. From watching our Shockers make a Final Four run in 2013 to hosting the NCAA first round this year, college basketball is bigger than the NBA in our Midwestern metropolis. So, when the editor of VIP Wichita Magazine (a publication I shoot for monthly) told me he wanted the Wichita State men's basketball team on the cover for our March issue, he may as well have said we were getting the '92 Dream Team.

I've been a professional photographer for a decade, and I still get a little nervous before every shoot I do, so I wanted to share a few tips for making important shoots less stressful.

Know Your Limitations

Before creativity, before lighting diagrams, before dreaming up an epic shoot, you need to know what you're up against. With the Shockers, I knew I'd have a maximum of fifteen minutes to get the cover shot I wanted, and I didn't know where we'd get to set up. So, right off the bat, I knew that whatever I decided to do has to work in any scenario (middle of the Koch Arena floor or in a dimly lit hallway) and has to be executed as quickly as possible. We were approaching the end of February due to scheduling issues, and we were just trying to find a gap in the players' schedules to get what we needed.

With that in mind, I opted for a clean, white background that I knew I could make work no matter what.

Plan for the Worst

Murphy's Law applies to photographers in abundance, and the only way to get around it is to prepare for it. The day of our shoot was the only day of the school year that the weather forced Wichita State University to shut down. Parking lots were covered in ice, half the city took a snow day, and the Shockers were hitting the road the next day and wouldn't be back until after our print deadline. This shoot had to happen that day or it wouldn't happen at all.

It may go without saying, but for shoots like this, don't schedule anything else around it. You need flexibility and focus. While some things are out of your control, others just require a slight change of plans. Fortunately for us, the team was still practicing and available for a quick photo op.

Besides planning for weather, I knew that all the players may not be available at the same time, so I couldn't plan a group shot per se. Instead, I opted to photograph each player individually in a series of poses and then create the final image as a composite. This would give me the most flexibility and let me respond to individual players' schedules.

Behind-the-scenes with Markis McDuffie (photo by Scott Elpers)

Show Up Early

If you're slated to photograph someone or something important at 2:00, show up at noon so you can do a dry run (or three) before show time. By this time, I already knew I'd be shooting individual players with the intent to composite, I knew I needed a white seamless, and I knew I wanted a hard, clean light to give the players some depth and accentuate their features. I had my gear (and backup gear) packed for that. What I still didn't know is where I'd be shooting.

We arrived at the venue plenty early and found out we'd be in the arena's underbelly catching the players as they finish up weight training. Good thing I didn't plan on using the arena itself as a backdrop. We found ourselves with nine-foot ceilings and near-seven-foot players - not ideal, but just enough to make it work.

Because we were early, I could take my time to set up and make sure everything was how I wanted it. I even brought a step ladder for my editor to stand on for some test shots since neither of us are close to Rauno Nurger's 6'10" height.

Be Cautious

This is another thing that should go without saying, but gaffer tape your cords to the ground. These guys are about to start their tournament run, and if one of them trips and twists an ankle because you have a mess of cables, villagers with torches and pitchforks will come after you. Have brightly colored sandbags on your boom arms so nobody smacks their head. Mark your tripod spot with pieces of tape in case you need to move it out of the way for any reason. You showed up early, so you've got time to think of as many potential issues as possible - take care of them before they become a problem.

"Play Angry" is always a good look, but the editor agreed that "Watch Us" was more engaging.

Leave Room to Play

On a shoot like this, you know what you're after, but sometimes it doesn't work out. Maybe the subject can't pull off the expression or mood you're going after, or maybe something about them is better than you could have hoped for. Even if you only have a couple of minutes with someone, giving them time to cut loose a little will make the experience better for everyone.

For these guys, I knew the safe bet would be the arms-crossed look, staring down the camera. That's an easy enough way to shoot each player from three different angles and pick the best option later. It's safe, but a little predictable, since the Shockers are known for their "Play Angry" mentality. My favorite Shocker slogan, though, is "Watch Us." There's an air about it that's confident and a little cheeky. These guys embody both, and I wanted the safety net of "Play Angry," even though "Watch Us" was more the mood I wanted.

I started with the sure thing, but with Shaquille Morris (#24) being my first subject, I let him cut loose quickly. He's got a larger-than-life personality and gave me the best range of expressions I could have asked for. It energized the other players to do the same, and within seconds, I knew I'd get the cover I wanted.

In print and on the shelves in time for the NCAA crowd to descend on Wichita.

Finish Ahead of Schedule

Nothing tells the players, the coaches, the media team, and everyone else involved that you appreciate and respect their time like wrapping your shoot early. We were given fifteen minutes and finished in eight. It was rapid fire the whole time, but eight minutes is more than enough to establish a good rapport with your subjects and let them play around a little. Know when you've got the shot and move on, don't waste time shooting fifteen shots of the same look. You took test shots, you know your lighting is where you want it to be, so there's no need to chimp your camera after each photo.

Call it out as soon as you've got what you want, shake hands (or high five) all around, and let them go on with their day. That extra seven minutes of breathing room can go a long way.

When you approach a shoot this way, you're mostly done before you even arrive on location. There's no stress, just working in the moment. Every problem you encounter just means shifting direction to something you're already prepared for, not scrambling to fix something on the fly.

Your client and your blood pressure will thank you for it.

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6 Comments

Todd Boyer's picture

Good advice, and it spans all niches that involve others.

Sean Gibson's picture

Off topic.... "Shockers" worst team name ever. I mean EVER!

Aaron Patton's picture

Allow me to introduce you to the Scottsdale Community College Fighting Artichokes ;)

Sean Gibson's picture

Ha! That's a pretty good one too. I saw a High School this year that's the Acorns. The name is only outdone by their clipart looking logo of an Acorn. Still, this is a major College, and a Shocker isn't really a thing, so I'm still giving it the win. Would love to hear more from other people around the country though. Sure we can get a good list going.

Aaron Patton's picture

Wichita State does have one of the most terrifying mascots, too 😂 WuShock is not something you’d want to meet in a dark alley. Also, Wichita’s minor league baseball team is the Wingnuts. We’re not known for our naming skills.

Sean Gibson's picture

Ha! Wingnuts is a great name...... if you play for a rival and get to refer to someone as a wingnut during a game.