The Biggest Shoot Of Your Life

Rachel Whaley

There are many differences between the way a professional photographer works and the way an amateur works, but the biggest of them can be callously summed up by money because quality costs money. Professional talent costs money, location scouting costs money, crew and stylists cost money. It takes a considerable sum to finance a professional shoot, but Rachel Whaley recently pulled off a large-scale fashion shoot without spending much and without cutting corners on quality. Here’s how she did it.

Whaley had long dreamed about shooting fashion in the desert. At 21, just a year out of school, she had been good about giving herself assignments to build her portfolio and garner interest. In April 2011, she decided to make the leap and attempt the large-scale desert shoot she had been dreaming of.

“It’s definitely always my intention to go above and beyond what I did on my last shoot,” says Whaley. “What was special about this shoot was I had to get a whole crew of people up to the Salton Sea, which is three hours away. I had to work with a fashion designer—he was on the TV show Project Runway—and I was also working with a stylist. It was really exciting because I’ve always wanted to do a photo shoot in the desert, but I wanted to wait until it was something that I was really passionate about.”

Passion is a big part of Whaley’s work. In fact, it may be her biggest asset. It was a passion for photography that led her to study at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and a passion to get out and start her career that led her to leave early. Once she felt she had enough training to perform like a pro, she couldn’t wait to begin. So she didn’t wait.

“Even when I was at Art Center,” Whaley says, “I was already in the mind state that I was a professional. I feel like they trained me to think and work like a professional. Even though I’m so young and people might view me as a student, I’m still a professional and I know what I’m doing. I’m never doing my work as a student. In school, most people are trying to figure out what they’re doing and not as secure about their vision and about their personal style. I’m very lucky in the sense that I went into school and decided that fashion was the route that I was going to take. So I just took it, and I’m going—I’m running.”

Knowing what you want to do is a crucial first step. It provides direction, a goal—whether you’re building a single shoot or a career. With the goal set, it’s all about determining the best path to get you there.

For Whaley’s career, that path started at Art Center and accelerated when she left to become a professional freelancer. She began giving herself assignments to build her portfolio, and when it came time for the ambitious desert shoot, it was just another of these personal projects on a larger scale.

“The majority of my favorite work is my personal work,” she says, “just because I’m really able to express my creativity and my vision. I definitely am always working on personal projects because I always have ideas that I feel I need to photograph.”

The vision for the shoot in place, Whaley was ready to begin preproduction. Any given shoot can be broken down into three parts: preproduction (the planning and preparation), production (the actual photo shoot) and postproduction (the editing and processing of the finished image files). In these pages, we tend to focus primarily on production and postproduction, but perhaps the biggest separator between professional and amateur is the preproduction. Pros don’t just wing it. Magic doesn’t just happen. Planning is critical.

For Whaley’s desert shoot, she would have to determine not only where to shoot, but also when, who, what they would wear and with whose help. That’s a lot of problems to solve, but it’s the nature of preproduction.

Building your book takes time, but you need a complete portfolio if you want to get business. Clients need to see what you're capable of doing, you need a website that shows a range of work, and every image needs to be perfect and completely professional. Although she's only 23 and just out of school, Rachel Whaley embarked upon an ambitious shoot at the Salton Sea in California to get portfolio-quality images—and hopefully some sales. The shoot was complex because Whaley knew she needed to have makeup, wardrobe and modeling professionals involved. Planning your shoot in detail and making the best possible use of everyone's time were critical to the success of the project.
Building your book takes time, but you need a complete portfolio if you want to get business. Clients need to see what you’re capable of doing, you need a website that shows a range of work, and every image needs to be perfect and completely professional. Although she’s only 23 and just out of school, Rachel Whaley embarked upon an ambitious shoot at the Salton Sea in California to get portfolio-quality images—and hopefully some sales. The shoot was complex because Whaley knew she needed to have makeup, wardrobe and modeling professionals involved. Planning your shoot in detail and making the best possible use of everyone’s time were critical to the success of the project.

Whaley decided the ideal location would be the Salton Sea, a desert area south of Palm Springs. This meant that not only would her shoot be ambitious, but also that she wouldn’t have the luxury of working close to home. She made scouting trips to determine the ideal locations in which to work, and with those in mind, she was ready to recruit the necessary assistance.

Assistance is another area in which professional shoots differ from amateur ones. For a student shoot, a photographer might recruit an attractive friend to model. She might suggest a look through the closet to choose the best wardrobe and likely would require the model to handle her
own hair and makeup. For a helping hand, the student would no doubt recruit friends and classmates. All of this would be fine, of course, assuming nobody flakes out on the shoot day. And, in the end, the results will look like student work.

With a professional shoot, though, all of these roles would be filled by professionals. Not only are they typically more reliable with money on the line, but they also have a personal stake in doing great work—and the experience to actually do it. Whaley was able to work with professionals and maintain high quality, but she also kept her costs down. She spent just $350 on food and gas for what she estimates as a $5,000 project. She was able to do this because of her passion.

“A lot of people agreed to collaborate with me,” Whaley says, “which was extremely beneficial. These people are willing to give their services to me just because I have the passion to do it myself. After they view my work, I feel like they understand how committed I am and that they want to be a part of it. They want to be a part of a legend! It has a lot to do with my energy and my personal view on my career. I’m looking out for everyone else just as I’m looking out for myself. I feel like, the people who are helping me now, later on down the road I’m going to have a big job and I’m going to hire them because I know they’re personally invested in their careers as well as mine. I feel like what separates me from the majority is they don’t understand how to communicate what their vision is and get people to jump on-board and be just as excited as you are.”

Whaley recruited a wardrobe stylist, two hairstylists, two makeup artists, five female models, three male models, an assistant, two behind-the-scenes shooters, a videographer and a fashion designer who brought his own crew. The difference between a crew of 20 professionals and a collection of friends with nothing better to do is obvious. It’s the biggest lesson Whaley has learned at her young age, and it’s something pros of all ages would be well served by. Have a vision, have passion and work with other talents to produce top-quality images. And do this whether it’s for your portfolio or a paying customer.

When the shoot day arrived, Whaley and her mostly L.A.-based crew agreed to get up at 5 a.m. to meet at designer Michael Costello’s home in Palm Springs. (They knew this, of course, because the photographer took the time to create call sheets containing all the pertinent crew, location and scheduling information.) All but one volunteer was right on time, and Whaley didn’t let that hiccup slow her down.

“If someone doesn’t show up,” she says, “then they don’t show up. But it won’t affect me personally. It won’t affect the photo shoot. I just move on, just push forward. Of course, anything can go wrong at a photo shoot, anything at any particular moment. It’s just how you recover from the issues and the errors, that you’re able to move forward and be a professional, and say, ‘There are all these things going wrong, but I’m still going to capture what I came here for.'”

After a few hours of wardrobe selection, hair and makeup, the cast and crew drove to the first location at the Salton Sea. Whaley’s professionalism and calm under fire was again tested before she ever took her camera out of the bag.

“We get to the location,” she says, “and there’s a lot of dead fish. The Salton Sea is known to be pretty stinky, but we get out of the car and everyone starts gagging because it was just so horrible. The first location we had to leave; you couldn’t even step out of the car without vomiting. I said, ‘Okay, let’s get back in the car and find the next location.’ Some people might break down—’Oh, no, this is the location I wanted to shoot at, and it’s not working!’ I never get upset at a photo shoot. I always think of what’s next, what can I do to solve this problem. So we went to the next location, and it was great.

“We had my [Toyota] Sequoia and the table with all the clothes and shoes and accessories,” Whaley continues, “and a chair on the side for touchups. We set up our own little booth on the location, which was really helpful. We got there around 2 p.m., which was a little bit later than I had anticipated, but like I said, I made do with what I had. So I didn’t take one break. I literally just shot straight through for six hours until the sun went down. I could have shot for another five hours.”

The shoot in the can, Whaley and crew retreated to the designer’s home to make sure everyone left with their own possessions. Then she began the long drive home in the dark. After midnight in L.A., rather than heading straight to bed, the photographer began her download. After two weeks of preproduction and a long shoot day, it would all come down to a few hours of importing and editing followed by a week of post-production to make the images match her vision. (Whaley is passionate about capturing her images in-camera. She doesn’t do much digital imaging beyond color correction, skin retouching, contrast and sharpness control.)

In the end, Whaley added a half dozen iconic images to her portfolio and was able to widen her production comfort zone—which she has maintained in subsequent shoots. It’s how professionals improve their game.

“I try to always up what I’ve done on my last photo shoot,” she says, “and I always feel like I’m learning from each new shoot. By getting a bigger crew and well-known fashion designers and stylists and professionals, this photo shoot definitely captured that.”

Rachel Whaley has worked with Playboy, 944 and Nylon magazines. 

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