Milano Diary - Lessons Learned from a Location Shooting

Notes from a  fashion shoot on location in suburban Milan

This is the last posting about the Photography and Fashion course which I attended at Instituto Italiano Di Fotographia in Milan this summer. This two week summer course was designed to prepare the photographer for breaking into the world of fashion photography and, as well as providing a sound introduction to the processes involved in finding work in this industry. Naturally it  provided some practical photography shooting experience and the location shooting exercise, was perhaps the area where I learned the most lessons.

Selecting a location perhaps presents the biggest challenge. In the context of our short course -this experience could not have been made too elaborate for the sake of the logistics of having eight photographer participants, all needing access to equipment and support teams over the same time short period and in a variety of locations. We had to suffice with selecting a location within reasonable walking distance from the IIF studio in the suburban Corvetto area of Milan. Accepting that, there was no budget for transport or logistics and that we would work in photographer-pairs with our models, yet share the same assistants, stylists and make up artists; we would have to select a practical location very carefully.

Realising in hindsight the influence of issues and set-backs impacting on my simulated experience, I began to reflect on what would happen In a real-world scenario.

What's it all going to cost? And who pays?

Here in the stark reality of fashion as a concrete concept and not solely a creative one, it must surely be a question of establishing what the budget is going to be first of all.  Clear communication with the client first in order to establish whether they can afford to send you (and your team) to the Moroccan desert in order to realise your creative vision, is a must. The cost for us on the IIF course, had already been covered and this was not an issue.

Courtesy, knowledge and research.

Taking the time to find out the personal thoughts of your client and really listening to what they are looking for in the promotion of their product. Likewise taking the time to find out about the brand and the clothing as well as to study their prior photo shoots and locations and to look back at the history of the brand, is just as important. In creating "newness" you neither want to be disrupting the image of a brand with whacky ideas for locations nor covering old ground, far less not breaking enough new ground either with your ideas. There is no room for creative arrogance and the client's decision has to be respected.

Simulate those conditions.

Fashion is a topsy-turvy world by necessity. The world's fashion show calendars present us with autumn and winter collections from January -February and summer and spring collections from the end of June -September, in order to establish the chain of events which lead to the sales campaigns and have the clothes on the markets by the appropriate times. You will find yourself shooting spring and summer outfits during autumn and winter. This means that, unless your client's budget can fly you to the Moroccan desert, you are going to need to settle for something similarly sandy-but nearer to home. Remembering also that having your model standing in a bikini in thin drizzle with low temperatures and grey skies, isn't going to make for a happy or productive shoot either.

In my simulated exercise, I was faced with just this very challenge. Of having to somehow "upscale" the humble surroundings of our chosen railway bridge location outside of Corvetto, so that it might translate later to a more: St Tropez, Mediterranean Riviera feel. Transforming the gritty and graffiti-ied urbanity into something more high-end. Luckily, as you can see, we were blessed with that glorious Milano summer sunshine.

We photographers are creative people and it is just these sorts of dilemmas that push all the right buttons for me and make this sort of photography so rewarding.

Are we there yet? Who are all these people? And where is the toilet?

Just getting yourself - and your model(s) and your lighting assistant, your stylist and your make up artist and hairstylist  to the location  - (and did I mention the wardrobe of clothes and accessories along with the studio equipment? ), is a logistic exercise in itself. Its fundamentally important to visit the location, on several occasions if possible. it would be truly awful to arrive and discover that there is no parking available or restricted access; or- that during the afternoon the location is:  mobbed with pedestrians, becomes a temporary car park, hosts a farmer's market, offers no shelter for kilometres when it rains, or to discover that you are indeed trespassing, on your shooting day.

Then there are the inevitable questions to consider: "right here? With all these people here? ", "where do I get changed?", "where can I put this down so that it doesn't get wet / dirty / trodden-on / blown-away / forgotten / stolen?" , "where is the toilet?". "Does anyone have any water / cigarettes / something to eat?", "did anyone bring an actual rain umbrella / coat / pair of comfortable walking shoes?". "is it always this busy here?" ,"If he / she is doing that? Then who will be looking after that? / doing this?" "How do we get the clothing-rail / equipment / bags across there?", "does anyone have the mobile phone number for the model / the agency/ the stylist / the driver/ the supplier / the client?" And so on.

Maybe, because of my experience in international secondary school teaching (where I grew used to being responsible for the creation and management of school residential trips at home and abroad), these sorts of preoccupations have an eerily familiar but no less irksome feel about them?  My take-away point is; that you will need to think of everything that can possibly go wrong and back it up from there; making a contingency plan for each and every sort of mishap you can imagine as you do. In education it is referred to as risk-assessment, but I think it applies just as well here. Give yourself adequate time to do this and to really break down each and all of yours and other's movements to-from, in and around your selected location. Establish the individual needs of each and every member of your team and consult with them first. Situations such as discovering that your model cannot swim (when you expect her to get into the pool) during the shoot, or even that your stylist has a special diet  or that your driver needs to return the vehicle by a certain time, cannot be rectified on site or on that day, for example. You may think that you are simply "the photographer", but to everybody else you are the person who people will turn to immediately when there are set-backs or things go wrong. You are the "trip leader" - the supervisor, the director and the decision maker.

Contingency. Time and light wait for no one.

More often than not; exactly what you see in your head -rarely becomes an exact reality. If the above mentioned issues do not represent enough restrictions to your creative vision; then the issue of time and almost certainly fading light or continuously changing light conditions will. These issues are to some extent, beyond your complete control but both light and time can be at least managed by you.

Leading up to my shoot, following the scouting day for the chosen location, I was having that feeling of being in Europe after many years away and was reminded of being back in my home city, Edinburgh again because of the similar daylight conditions.  We Edinburghers, are used to an ever changing sky and a rolling program of dramatically different light conditions within a short space of time. So I made the decision to bring a portable strobe and a battery pack, along with my collection of reflectors and diffusers; not wishing to trust that the sun would remain gloriously bright  for duration of our shoot. I knew I would have the option to work with off-camera flash and play with overpowering the sunlight if I needed to work shooting against the sun (thereby removing some of the less desirable background from the shots), or if I just needed to create artificial lighting effects to supplement the sunlight on site. (Remember in the scaled-down context of our exercise there was a limit to how much equipment we could factor-in. In a real world situation, there may of course be no limits to the amount of equipment and lighting you are prepared to bring if the situation merits it).

From scouting the location, I discovered that it was a great idea to take some initial shots which would jog my memory later, assist me in further developing my mood board (see an earlier article on this), and prompt the generation of a shooting workflow. Basically I wanted to tell myself:

  • How many shots that I would like to have for the proposed editorial? How many does the client need?
  • What variety of shots and poses I would like to end up with? (Full figure close -up, walking, seated etc )
  • How was I going to achieve them within the chosen location and in what sequence should  they be shot in (accounting for changes of outfit, hair and make up, light and time and other variables)?

By writing this down and presenting it as a sort of storyboard, I was able to not only clarify what I was after but also to keep that work -flow moving along without any faffing and delays on the shooting day. Remember the people that you are working with are looking to you for direction always; and the more that you can generate purposeful progress during the shoot  - the more willing and actively on-task they will be too. Just as in a theatre productions, everyone on "set" -needs to know their ques.

That is not to be saying  that, not "if "but "when", shooting fails to follow this work-flow as smoothly as you had predicted in your head, that you shouldn't be prepared to be flexible yet always remain working with what you have got. It's better to keep things moving along - make adjustments for things that you simply cannot change and have something in your camera, rather than to waste too much time over-thinking and making big sweeping dramatic changes to your planned shoot.

Below are two shots which illustrate two different styles emerging during my shoot which developed from deciding to use flash later.  Being aware of this helped me have variety and choice, but somewhat doubled my workload later. if I were going to have to produce a single editorial telling a "story" in  a consistent style as an end result,  I would have to shoot as many shots in both styles, so as to be able to make a selection from one or the other and  reach my quota of images for the client. it was a decision based not on necessity but on creative options. Sometimes these decisions are necessary due to poor light. The point here is, that it is important to keep in mind  the bigger goal of how a collection of your images are going to look consistent when viewed together later.

Two lighting styles. On the left with natural light and the right with flash.

Two lighting styles. On the left with natural light and the right with flash.

Undoubtedly, it is a good idea to have several further plans (which don't stray too far from the original intent and thereby render the location as being irrelevant), for lighting  your shots as a back-up. If you have the luxury of time and a single location, you may find that you can create parallel sets of images.

The sequence of your shoot will become the driving force of it. If you can spend time on close -ups first, while you wait for onlookers or pedestrians to leave the scene -then do it. Some things might need to be waited for - such as waiting for the man walking his dog across the bridge and into the frame of your shot. But other things - such as waiting for the wind to pick up  or the sun to be lower in the sky are not necessary to wait for., when you can find ways to manage your way around them.


Perks and benefits of  shooting at my chosen location were the lovely breezes blowing across the bridge, which distributed the models hair and clothing nicely, as well as the strong graphic shadows created by the bridges structure. The bridge, at times could be reminiscent of a boat or a harbour setting. Making these things work within the shoot to enhance the images became important.

You want me to do that? In these heels?

Taking care of your model and your team as we have discussed is important. When, where and how you are posing your model is all directed by you and you only. People working with you are not going to know what you want them to do, unless you make directions specifically clear and understood. Weirdly for me, all my thoughts and ideas for poses and what might look good, are seemingly, instantly, blown away from my head with the first breeze of the day. More often than not, the Mr. Bean of fashion photography once again tries to take residence in my head. It's an experience akin to an actor forgetting his lines. If you too suffer from "shooting-stage-fright" like this - I recommend sketching some ideas on paper and having a little note / sketch book on you in addition to your previous mood and story board work to help you as a prompt.

Another take-away point from this experience was this: include your model and your team in the reviewing process frequently. Show them the camera viewfinder frequently (or the laptop screen in between segments of the shoot). More often than not, they will also spot glaringly obvious things like: camera tilting, cropping of the body and cut-offs, bad shadows, awkward poses, unecessary background elements, poor framing, horrible creases in clothes, lint, shiny areas on skin, fly away hair, unflattering poses and gestures. and so on. Include more eyes in the process, as theirs are dispassionate eyes and, more crucially, specifically specialist eyes which are directed almost autistically toward  particular things, such as the quality of the model's skin or way the model's skirts sit They are therefore immensely helpful in the short-term decision making and trouble-shooting..

Never stop communicating with your model. (if something is uncomfortable such as descending a steep metal stairway in high heels then don't expect  your model to be as relaxed as she could be in your proposed walking shots, for example. Introduce a plan for her to pause and pose along the way). We noticed how much Rannah perked up with the simple addition of music outdoors and how much more focused she became when everyone's attention was completely upon her. By this I mean each and every team member was actively engaged in playing their part- holding a diffuser, angling the strobe, flapping a board to create wind, standing by with a brush.

As you can imagine there were so many rookie mistakes and lots of truly awful gaffs amidst moments of great inspiration throughout this glorious sunny day. I had the pleasure of working with Rannah from Brazil (represented by the Boom Agency in Milan). For me and my hard working team, she was as patient, professional and as good humored and calm as we could have asked for.  I am grateful for her role and that of the stylist Marco Di Ciuccio, the make-up and hair expert Giovanni Esdra Maurelli and Vinicius Amaral de Silva the lighting assistant, as well as my co-participants Gabor Herczegflavi and Caroline Porter in helping me to create my images and to help me meet the vision of what was in my head.

Of course thanks to the course leaders: Piero Visconti and  Sara El Beshbichi, Maria Christi Lani and Lucja Hrvat for their fantastic input.

We all had a lot of fun and it was a reward in itself to share in that positive working atmosphere on the day.