Making Not Taking Photographs

Backstage views on making photographs professionally

Why photo assignments fail…

by Rob Haggart

When I worked at a magazine, every month a couple of the shoots we
assigned would fail. Fail to meet our standards, fail to be
interesting, fail to capture what we were looking for. Immediately we
would need to either kill it and reshoot, kill the story altogether,
find pickup to replace it (I worked at a place once where they wanted
me to find pickup and make an assignment simultaneously which seemed
like a defeatist attitude so I usually just pretended to look for
stock) or just figure out a way to run it. What you do depends on how
far over budget you are, the number of kills that month, amount of
time till you go to press and wether or not you can come up with a

I worked at several magazines where we were told to reduce or
eliminate (!) the number of kills (btw, eliminating the kills always
amounted to pretending like it was going to run in a future issue and
when that future issue never came–2 years down the road–we killed
it). Kills have always been a part of making magazines and I would
argue an important part of how a magazine is different than a
newspaper or a monthly is different than a weekly. When you kill
photographs it’s because they aren’t good enough to publish and that
means you have high standards. Also, the only way to find brilliance
is to take chances. Companies have R&D budgets because doing things
the way you’ve always done them will never produce an unexpected bit
of genius. You might think the first thing to do in a time of budget
crisis is eliminate the R&D budget. This will of course eliminate your
edge over the sea of sameness.

There are several reasons why a shoot fails:

1. The editor’s fault: Many times when making an assignment we are
dealing with an incomplete picture of the story. Either it hasn’t come
in yet or it has and is going back for a massive rewrite. Usually this
leaves interpretation of the subject and selection of the photographer
with a very wide area to work in. Whether this is bad or good usually
depends on if the editor is one of those people who likes to see the
important parts of the story depicted in pictures. You can also
sometimes get caught in the trap where the editor is focused on a
particular paragraph or sentence of a story pitch that may not even be
possible to shoot. These shoots are called sandbags and always fail on
some level.

2. The Photo Editors Fault: Sometimes I will fail to understand what
it is the editor is excited about in a particular story and assign the
wrong photographer or send them off in the wrong direction. Sometimes
I would be unable to put enough effort into figuring out how to shoot
something. I should also point out here a skill that is often
overlooked in Photo Editors which is the ability to motivate and lead
photographers. Magazines do a horrible job of teaching management
skills which is sad because the reality of photo editing is that
you’re hiring and managing a ton of freelancers each month and a huge
part of managing people is leadership.

3. The Photographers Fault: I don’t think anyone really admits when
they think a shoot they just did sucks eggs, because you can never
really tell what’s going on inside the magazine and of course I’ve had
CD’s and Editors love shoots I thought missed the mark. I remember
calling a photographer who just delivered 3 different pictures for us
to tell them one was not working to see if there was anything we could
do and he remarked that he was just telling an assistant how the
picture you love is sometimes the one they hate. Anyway sometimes you
can’t make good pictures. Veteran photographers know how to make sure
they get a baseline image no matter what.

4. The Budget’s Fault: It’s no secret that magazines try to accomplish
more with less and cutting expenses can lead to a shoot’s failure.
Eliminate pre-production, producer, shoot time, assistants, wardrobe,
hair, makeup, casting, location scouting, props and you will see a
difference in the pictures. You’re simply leaving more to chance when
you don’t button up a shoot with these things in place and you have to
be willing to redo it if luck is not on your side that day. I should
also note that showing a portfolio to the editor where the pictures
took $20,000 in production value to create and then handing them
$5,000 to get it done will certainly lead to disaster.

A failed shoot is no big deal and if a photographer has done other
sucessful shoots for you in the past it’s easy to move on but if it’s
the first time shooting they’re probably not going to get a second
chance no matter who’s fault it is. Failure is a part of the creative
process and it’s a big part of making something great and unexpected.
Without it you’re just mediocre.

Used here with permission from the author.

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