What It’s Like on an Advertising Shoot

On a Saturday afternoon at the end of April, I posted a photo to my Instagram of me sipping champagne in business class, on my way to an advertising photo shoot in Vancouver. Obnoxious? Yes. Strategically selected? Absolutely. In fact, if you follow me on Instagram, you’d have seen a smattering of photos posted over the course of two weeks that looked simply incredible.

Ah, the joys of social media curation.

In fact, I posted it as a sort of internal pick-me-up. I knew the following two weeks were going to be intense at best, punishing at worst. But, I figured, if it looks like you’re having fun, you might just have fun. Fake it til you make it, right?

Don’t get me wrong, there were moments that were absolutely incredible. There are huge pluses to going on shoots—it’s great professional experience, you get to meet all kinds of people, and oftentimes, you get closed access to really cool places. But while people assume shoots are a glamorous, company-paid vacation, it’s not all sitting around set eating cookies.

So, what’s an advertising shoot like then?

You are the “client” for a change.

In advertising, we’re so used to bending ourselves into all kinds of shapes to fit whatever the client needs. But on a shoot, the dynamic shifts. We are now the people to please, and the photographer and videographer and crew are the ones who are showing us things to review and making sure we’re happy. Just remember: with great power comes great responsibility.

The days are long.

The best times to shoot are at sunrise and sunset, which can entail being on set from pre-dawn to post-down. For a short shoot, you usually have enough adrenaline and excitement to pump through—the exhaustion hits later. But for a long shoot (the one we just finished stretched two weeks), it can, at times, feel like an uphill slog. And of course, just because you’re on a shoot doesn’t mean that the “real work” is paused—often you’re still checking emails, doing reviews, and keeping things on track back at home. So, if the Director of Photography asks for a stand-in model while the talent is changing, volunteer first to jump in the hammock.

The pace can be punishing.

Oftentimes, you’re trying to capture a lot of assets in very limited time. If you are shooting outdoors, you may have extra obstacles (weather, wind, clouds, street permits) that restrict you. We once did a shoot in the desert where we were racing the stormclouds to get all of the shots we needed. Another time, the proper permits fell through and we had to try to shoot our model before someone called the police. You need to be quick, nimble, and also diligent that everything is being captured the way you need it to. There’s no coming back.

You pick up a motley range of (non-work related) skills and experiences.

For the agency, shoots can involve a lot of downtime, as the crew and talent reset and prep. As you’re making new friends (see below), you also wind up learning new tricks. I learned a bunch of random stuff from random people on different shoots—a recipe for guacamole from the sous-chef of San Francisco’s Nopa restaurant, tricks for building fires with wet wood, how to fly a kite, tips for buffing the paint on a car. I’ve ridden on snowmobiles and in sportscars around racetracks. Not to mention collecting local knowledge from local crewmembers: what types of trees grow around us, the names of wildlife, regional history/folklore, (and most importantly, the best place to get tacos). For me, this is the part that makes all the rest worth it.

You get to meet cool people.

Shoots can feel a little bit like summer camp for grown-ups. We’re all in these incredible locations, working together to a common goal, sharing meals, van trips, Spotify playlists and bottles of Airborne-tableted water. Everyone is excited to work towards the end result—and in my experience at least, everyone loves what they do. Put it all together, and you get real chemistry.

That said, there’s also a lot of politics.

You have to be on all the time, building relationships with the client, the crew, the talent, the photographer and/or director, and keeping everything running smoothly. There’s no real off period—so while it may look glamorous, there can be a lot of internal fire-fighting and feather-smoothing. A good producer will be your gift from the gods, so choose them wisely!

But! You get to see awesome places.

I was chatting with our photographer one afternoon, and we were wondering if we’d get any free time to further explore the city. It didn’t look likely. “But,” he pointed out. “We get to see all the best places now anyway.” Not just a lake in Sweden, but one of the most beautiful lakes. Not just any snow-covered mountain, but one of the most-famous ski locations in the world. And typically, you get closed access to this space (at least for a little time)—which, when it comes to nature, can transform the visiting experience entirely.

And so you get to the end of the shoot—exhausted yet exhilarated. You’ve worked hard, you’ve played hard. You are equal parts ready to sleep forever, and raring to get into the content review and see your creative vision brought to life. Look for it August 2018!