Testing is a huge part of getting started in the world of photography, and is also vital to staying alive creatively along the way. When you’re more established, testing keeps you fresh and relevant to the current world of photography. I’ve talked about the ABS theory, (Always Be Shooting) in the fact of always shooting for yourself for those reasons, and to expand your default(bag of tricks) for real jobs. Shooting a test can be very simple, or very complex depending on what level and how much money you have to invest. When I first started, testing was grabbing a good looking friend, going out into a great location and practicing. Now my test consist of flying a whole crew into a great location including hair/makeup, stylist, models, assistants, etc. I thought I’d throw down a few tips, and insights for setting up a test when you’re starting out.
When you’re starting out it’s a bit fuzzy where to start or what to do. Keep in mind, you are only as good as your portfolio, and your portfolio not only helps you get jobs, but helps you get talent to work with you. By talent, I mean Hair/makeup artist, stylists, and models. If you want people to work with you, they need to see something that gives them the confidence that if they put their time in, they will get some great images for their portfolios, so that is where you can start. If people aren’t interested in working with you, then the first place you should look is the quality of your work, which is what should do the selling.
Now that said, it can feel like a catch 22 because if you don’t have the work to show for, you need to create it, but to create it you need to have good work to get people to work with you. You find that all along the way especially getting the big ad jobs where people want to see high production value work. The trick is to learn to produce at an exponential value than the production elements you have to work with. You’re style and what you are drawn to also means lighting is different for what you like. It’s a personal preference, but some lighting requires more work/assistants than other lighting. You have to decide what you want to do and get the gear to pull it off. Sometimes that cost money.
When I first got interested in shooting people, I pulled some inspiration shots I found from other photographers that I could try and mimic then just grabbed a cute friend, walked around the city and experimented with natural light. Starting out with friends gives you the flexibility to learn to direct, and practice lighting without feeling too uncomfortable. You have to know your camera and know how to create the exposures/lighting you want without it being a distraction to the model. Lighting and directing are two different elements and if you don’t know how your camera works and how to light when working with a model you don’t know can get distracting for them. A big part of working with people, is interacting and directing your subject. If you’re too busy trying to figure out how to work your camera you can lose that rapport.
Ok that said, once you’ve practiced with a few friends and feel comfortable with what you’re doing, you can take it to the next level and bring in some other elements like hair/makeup, agency models, styling etc. You can pick up a cheap template website from places like bludomain.com to package your work in order to show other people. Making connections with hair and makeup artists can be tricky, but if you ask around your network someone probably knows someone. You can find people starting out that want to build their books. Sometimes you can find them at the department store makeup counters. Once you find someone who wants to collaborate with you, then do a couple tests with friends to add to your book. Remember, styling is very keep. Keep it simple.
If you want to take it from there, you can find modeling agencies in your local city. Call them up and tell them you want work with them and test some new models. Show them your website/book. If they aren’t interested, then ask for feedback on your work. What you can improve on to get some models from them. They are going to look at your work and want to be confident that if they give you one of their models, you will produce great images for them.
That’s entry level testing. The more testing and practicing you do, the more elaborate your connecting will get. And your work will evolve.
Enter the next level…
The above process can take a couple years depending on how fast you learn, and how often you can test. Once you have an established book, the more higher production value tests you can do. The higher level of talent you can convince to work with you. It took me a few years to get to this level of production for my tests because of money and how far along my work was. Here is a schematic of the process:
If you build relationships with hair, makeup, and stylists, you can work with them and build your team and they can work with you on tests, and real jobs. The more production value concepts you do, you will have to shell out money to make them. Naturally if you can negotiate high production value elements for free, then you’re creating higher value for less hard costs. You also have to examine the concept and content of what you want to shoot to determine the production elements that you need. Higher end commercial lifestyle requires good models that you can only typically find in NY, LA, or Miami. Therefore if you want to have a great location AND great models, you probably have to fly those models in to the location from one of those cities. Same with Hair, Makeup, and wardrobe styling. I shot a test in Colorado last year with the help of my good friend Jeff Holt. We came up with a concept, and he helped me produce it. The whole test cost me $3000 and that was with everyone working in trade for portfolio images. We had hard costs such as flights to get everyone there, food, rental trucks, hotels, and a few other expenses. The images we created from this shoot, have helped me to get higher paying advertising work, so it was well worth the investment. (see the images here: http://bit.ly/Colorado_SnowAdventure) Big tests like this need a lot of planning and preproduction to make them happen. I start with a concept, figure out the elements I need then we start working on securing and scheduling those elements for the shoot dates.
I still do lower profile tests, such as the film test of Loli I just shot in Prague. I found her through A Small World, emailed her with my website and asked her if she wanted to do a test when I was in Prague. She liked my work and was happy to work with me, and even helped me line up a hair/makeup artist there which I paid a little money to(sometimes you have to if you’re in a city where you have no connections.) Since I typically shoot with natural light, assistants aren’t a necessity so I was able to do this with me, a camera, Loli, and a makeup artist. Besides the costs of getting to Prague, this test probably cost me $600(half of which was my film processing costs) Check it out here. http://bit.ly/LoliSmokes_Prague
This is a recent test I shot in Tulum, Mexico. http://bit.ly/Devon_Tulum
In the end, your concept dictates the amount of production that is needed to create the images you want. The beauty of what we do, is that the world is our oyster. We can wake up, think of something to create, and go do it. You can test for free, or you can put money into it. (naturally you have to spend money to make money, so the more you put in, the more value you will get in the end).