Up until this year, most of my shoots have been very roughly planned.
Pick out some outfits (usually from the model’s own wardrobe), drive somewhere unspecific, walk around and find the light.
Often, that was enough for me to get a few shots I really liked.
But after spending more time this year around my successful creative friends, both on film and photography sets, I realized just how much I was vastly undervaluing pre-production.
Pre-production is where you lay out the logistics like casting models, scouting locations, planning hair, makeup, and wardrobe, figure out lighting, etc.
In other words: It’s a ton of work.
But planning these things out ahead of time increases the chances that you’ll nail bringing the vision in your head to life.
For a while, I had been wanting to do a darker and moodier shoot. When I initially brought the idea up to Hannah (our model for the shoot) and the rest of my creative team, I noticed that I kept saying “Stranger Things” when describing the theme I had in my head, so we planned out details with that in mind.
Securing the location
One of the most important things I had to secure first was a proper location. This wasn’t a shoot that I could just wing it somewhere random outdoors. I needed a set with lots of character. I contacted my friend Kristi who put me in touch with someone who lives in a beautiful house in downtown Wilmington.
I went to scout the location and it was EXACTLY what I needed. Colorful walls, wooden interior, huge antique bathtub. And the people who lived there were cool with me using the space. Score!
While I didn’t have an exact era in mind, I knew that the wardrobe needed to have a vintage style. So I contacted my friend Kelsey who owns The Wonder Shop. She and Rachel worked together to find some amazing outfits. When styling for shoots, I tend to gravitate towards solid colors and simple prints since I don’t want the wardrobe to take attention away from the subject and story.
We decided while scouting the location the day before that the first look was going to be shot in the bathroom. Shooting in this room earlier in the day gave us the advantage of having lots of available light come through the window.
While the window light was plentiful, it only properly lit Hannah. The rest of the room fell quickly into shadows, so I had to incorporate a strobe light to expose more of the setting.
Here are a couple of final images with this look:
Using continuous light
For the next look, we wanted to stay in the bathroom but dial up the creepiness factor. We used an orange gel on an Arri 1k continuous light (pictured below), a blue gel on my strobe, and a fog machine to achieve maximum creepiness.
Some final images from this setup:
Telling a story
Our next look was going to be a little more challenging. I wanted to show the story of a girl being lured to a compelling light source, only to discover that it was an unimaginable horror.
For this sequence of shots, Ben positioned his 1k light outside the door at the bottom of the stairwell and shined it through the window. The orange gel on it casted the perfect eerie glow I was looking for.
Mixing natural with artificial
The next scene in the kitchen was shot with mostly natural light, with the occasional use of a speedlight for fill. There wasn’t much room to maneuver, so we weren’t able to get much equipment in there, but thankfully there was a large window we could use to our advantage.
The storyline here is Hannah’s character depicting drastically different personas after having been exposed to the light from the previous scene.
Incorporating a scrim
The last room we shot in had the least amount of available light of all the rooms. It had a really cool blue seat that looked like it might have belonged to a bus in the past, which we decided to use as a prop.
Because the window light didn’t quite reach Hannah, I bounced a speedlight off the wall behind me and we placed a large 6’x6’ scrim above Hannah for some subtle fill light on her face. This helped minimize creating harsh and obvious reflections off the shiny material from the seat she was lying on.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any behind-the-scenes photos of this setup, probably because we were on a major time crunch towards the end and needed to quickly wrap things up.
The more effort you into planning, the greater the results. We spent a few hours brainstorming ideas and styling before the day of the shoot, along with six hours on set on the day of the shoot. A lot of time and energy went into everything, but it was well worth it.
Collaborating with other creatives will help you transform your vision into a reality. It’s no coincidence why this was one of my absolute favorite shoots I’ve done to date.
Special thanks to Hannah Morgan, our outstanding model, who completely blew us away with her array of unique poses and sheer emotion in every shot.
Also huge thanks to my creative team: Carah Cotterman, Kelsey Gibbs, Stephen Patel, Ben Pellington, Hannah Leyva, Kristi Ray, and last but certainly not least, my wife Rachel for helping me bring this shoot idea to life.