Towards a Mise en Place for Photo Shoots

This started as an insta-story and I’ve decided to put it someplace a bit more permanent.

I don’t know what other photographers think about before/during shoots, but it’s the part of my work that has changed the most since I began taking pictures. 

None of the work of interacting with subjects and making photos came naturally to me and so I found myself writing little notes to myself over the years to remind myself of certain things. 

To that end, there’s a French culinary term called “mise en place”, which means “everything in its place.” It describes that practice of preparing and organizing ingredients and your workspace to ensure there’s no distractions while cooking, allowing you to focus solely on the task at hand. 

At the heart of it, you’re trying to make sure there’s nothing extraneous to think about so you can focus on doing your job. I think this is important on a practical level, but the real power comes from the mental prep work to get into the right frame of mind for taking pictures. 

The following is a first draft of a mise en place for photo shoots (mostly applicable to the quick-paced higher-profile editorial shoots that I do a lot of). If you have things to add, I’d love to hear them.

  1. Walk into the room, pause, look through it. If time, ask for a tour. Be gracious, but insistent if the space isn’t right.

  2. Consider the possibilities, both safe and absurd.

  3. Don’t be afraid to change everything. But, don’t give up on your first impressions too quickly, your instincts are worth something.

  4. Lighting setup in place, cords taped down when needed, setups on different wireless channels to prevent lights from triggering when not in use. Mints in bag, and caffeine. If settings change, it’s written down on paper, with the channel, in chronological order. Physically walk from setup to setup to make sure there’s nothing for subject to trip over. One lens with 50mm, one with 85mm or sometimes 35mm. Test Pocketwizards, and remind self to shoot vertically holding camera rotated counter-clockwise, or wireless triggering is inconsistent.

  5. Never appear to be rushing, even when time is short.

  6. Decide when to lead the shoot and when to let your subject lead. Let them take you down their path if they’re willing. Take them down your own path if they’re willing.

  7. Make eye contact when not behind the camera. Use your hands.

  8. You owe your subject your respect and your honesty, but unless they’ve hired you directly, you don’t owe them an obligation to help them look “good.”

  9. Be absolutely aware and alert. Be ready, you may be given something in return for your attention, but maybe only for a moment.

  10. On that same point, a missed photo is a hell of a regret, I’ve never forgotten any of mine.

  11. This may be the last time you and your subject are ever in a room together again. Consider what’s essential.

  12. Never finish a shoot thinking, “I’ll just solve that problem in post-production.” @thomas_boenig

  13. Post-shoot post mortem! When shoots go bad, spend a couple of minutes sketching out what went wrong (I just use my notes app). It’s cathartic to get it off your chest AND can be super helpful in noticing patterns and things to improve.

  14. [Ask] what do they need from me. What do I need from them. What do I want these pictures to feel like? @bermanphotos

  15. I think about if there’s something conceptual I’ve done previously with a subject that worked that I could repeat again to make a series out of. @terencepatrick

  16. Arrive early. If it’s a place you’ve never been, arrive even earlier. Time can be your friend and smooth over so many issues that may arise on a shoot. @rachellanemakeup

  17. Have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D. Know where those plans will take you and what they will look like. Leave a bit of room for improvisation, but be ready for any speed bumps including but not limited to time cut, wardrobe change, drastic weather, temperature change, equipment malfunction, the subject and their mood.

    Also, do your research. You never know what bridge you can build through something that is relatable. It’s a small world. @claycookphoto

  18. Most points have been logistical, but I think doing some emotional check-ins is important, too. Are you nervous? Take a couple deep breaths, rein in any nervous ticks/taps you might be putting out. What is the mood of the host/handler who has let you into location? How can you assure/comfort them? Can they give you insight to how the person going to be photographed feels? Do you have ideas on conversations to have with being photographed? Questions to ask them? Stories to tell them? @logan_mb

  19. When you think you’re done, you might not be done. Keep your camera ready even while packing up. Something may present itself after the shoot. @thomasrboyddotcom

  20. Sometimes if I have time, I scout the location the day before. @jamesrajotte

What I Loved in 2018

Voss, Norway - July 2018

Like last year, I spent a lot of time listening to podcasts this year, to the exclusion of music / radio / television. I love the flexibility of being able to make dinner, shop for groceries, etc. while listening to something interesting. In narrowing down my list, I decided to only share books/music/etc. that came out in 2018.

I read 53 books this year, leaning heavily towards fiction. I had no clear favorite, but a few that stood above the rest. The first being Florida by Laura Groff. Her Florida is a dark, complicated place that reveals itself in fits and starts. But the real draw of this book is the language—the sentences that seem to find their own path as they’re being written, to somewhere darker and more unsettling than where they started.

I just finished The Great Believers by Rebecca Makai. The book, set in 1980s Chicago and the present day tells the story of the coming of the AIDS crisis in the small LGBTQ community in Chicago. It’s a quietly devastating book that brings you into the character’s lives as this mysterious virus shadows the joyful, complicated lives of the characters. As someone who was too young to really understand the rise of HIV in the Reagan years, this book is an affecting reminder of what was lost.

Lastly, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan begins as a slave named George Washington Black serves under a cruel master on a sugar plantation in Barbados. The story then takes a fantastical turn involving a hot air balloon and begins to feel like a Jules Verne novel. Black’s story follows no traditional path and its plot twists and deeply insightful and haunted main character forms the ballast that keeps the reader connected to the story.

While not published in 2018, a few other books this year that I loved were The Power by Naomi Alderman, Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin and Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman.

My list from last year is more or less unchanged, but I also listen to Slate’s Political Gabfest, The Flop House, and 538 Politics.

I’m listening to more podcasts than music when I exercise, which means I’m not hearing as much music as I used to. But also I’ve been thinking that Peter Sagal makes a solid case for running in silence.

That said, my favorite song of 2018 was Thingamajig by the wondrous Myra Folick.

The new Phosphorescent album is so great and my kids love singing along to this one.

Lastly, Gold by Sister Sparrow is my pick-me-up song for 2018.

Worth it, sans category
This Twitter thread of “everyday cosplay” Halloween costumes is wonderfully earnest and life-affirming.

Minding the Gap (Hulu) is one of the best documentary films I’ve seen in a long while. The filmmaker Bing Liu had been filming his friends skateboarding in Illinois for years and this film starts with these young kids doing what young kids do and tracks their turbulent path into adulthood. Liu is absolutely unflinching with his camera work even as he revisits his own painful childhood with his mother.

One of my favorite artists is Jenny ODell who goes down these crazy e-commerce wormholes that take weirder and weirder turns, like A Business With No End, and There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch.

Havana, Cuba - August 2018

If you’ve made it this far, perhaps you’ll indulge me in a bit of promotion. I’m beyond thrilled to have my photo chosen for the cover of American Photography 34.

I really enjoyed talking to APA about my work.

I photographed a few potential 2020 presidential candidates like Cory Booker , Kirsten Gillibrand and Sherrod Brown. I covered Mark Zuckerberg testifying on the Hill for CNN. I loved photographing these gospel singers, this author and this inspiring woman.

I started a site called Past & Present Tense where I write about photos. You can follow it on Instagram to see when it’s updated.

In closing, I work in a business where trust and making connections with people is my stock-in-trade. I feel very fortunate to the subjects who have entrusted me to make their image as well as the wonderful photo editors who continue to support my work. Thank you.