How should a photographer approach testing with a stylist?


Working with a stylist can dramatically transform a photographer from one who captures scenarios to one who creates them. In many types of photography, such as documentary, event or sports, the ability to react or frame spontaneously relies heavily on an individual. By contrast, in a commercial environment, to push the boundaries of the technical capacity and create a compelling story relies more heavily on a directed plan and a team dynamic.

Developing a plan begins with the creation of a story. This does not need to be a full-feature narrative. In fact, if the story is too complicated, it becomes visually confusing. Begin with a time period, style, or design element to tell the story. Remember, simple stories are easiest to remember.

Before contacting anyone, know the W’s of the shoot – what, where and when (who will come later). These can be general concepts but must be organized enough that others can see the vision with minimal explanation. Be prepared to present the following information to your styling team:
• Mood board – Visual presentation of general feel, include design elements, styles, inspirations and color palette
• Story board – A visual shot list. Include angles poses, compositional goals and outcomes for each shot. In addition, plotting out  physical location(s) for shoot in advance will also be invaluable to the team
• Request list – specific items you would like stylist(s) to provide and realistic expectations

The intention of the photographer’s plan is to refine the creative process. After the outline of the shoot is established, it is time to carefully select a team. Choose people who have a compatible aesthetic with the goals of the shoot. Approach these individuals with the general plan, share inspirations, and discuss how the styling team might be able to build on the desired outcomes. Professional stylists work with many shooters in a wide variety of settings, and with this experience, they can be great co-pilots and can help finalize details while offering expertise concerning visual influence in a particular area. Stylists can also be core components of a photographer’s professional arsenal, keeping them on schedule and budget at all levels of shooting.

Your team may consist of multiple stylists depending on the project. The following are guidelines in getting started on who to look for:
• Hair/MUA: Hair and makeup, often the people with the largest reach and access to other stylists
• Set: big picture thinkers build out and re-create spaces, develop nonrealistic environment
• Prop : understand the meaning behind objects and the relationship to their usage
• Wardrobe: daily clothing looks (TV/commercial)
• Fashion: artistic approach to clothing heavy focus on trends name brands (editorial)
• Off figure/Lay down: clothing not on a person or form manipulated by pinning or folding
• Food/Floral: often a specialized professionals who may work in coordination with prop person
• Soft goods: finesse in movement of fabric, bedding or drapery often paired with interior or prop
• Interior: dealing in realistic interiors and home product trends often a good source for interesting locations
• Still-life/Product: fine detailing, exacting focused movement of object relationship

Once the plan is established and team selected, a photographer is ready to assess the resources available for the shoot. When testing, shooters should be prepared to offer not only gear and time, but also funds for perishable or expendable costs of their budding team. The photographer takes financial responsibility of the project because he/she owns the image copyrights. Generally, the photographer will also be the only person on a shoot with the ability to directly profit from the use or sale of any images shot during testing. Often, photographers will provide coffee and/or meals on the day of a test, just the same as they would when shooting with a client. This ethic helps to keep the day moving along smoothly while keeping moral high.

An exception to a photographer taking on the full responsibility of a shoot would occur when a stylist or a styling team has approached the photographer with their own idea. In this case, stylist(s) may offer to offset the photographers’ costs by covering the styling expendables. In this case, a photographer should still plan to cover their own expenses. Generally, everyone involved on a test is working in trade, an exchange for the photos. Everyone’s time, skill, tools and personal resources are valuable. The photos however, are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If photos are not shared after shooting it is equal to doing a job without pay. Likewise is the use of images in publication without shared credits. Be gracious and take care of your team. These could be the people who help to catapult your work onto the next level.

When testing, team members have the opportunity to decide if they have similar temperaments or if subjects can be approached in an agreeable manner. A well-organized plan also allows time and space for spontaneous bursts of creative inspiration. Pooling of resources allows work to become greater than the sum of one individual. Once the planned process is in motion, the photographer is allowed freedom to focus on the larger picture and eventually their client’s needs. A good test is magical… it is the excitement in those magic moments which ignites a fire of creativity that inspires and defines this industry.

Let’s start a dialogue. If you’re interested in learning more about working with a stylist, or have additional questions about it, please comment below.

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