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October 6th, 2009

Producing a commercial photo shoot – step by step

Posted by Emily Miller

Most photographers are interested in commercial work, but orchestrating big photo shoots can be daunting. Luckily producers — like Susan Shaughnessy, who runs SKS Productions in N.Y.C. — are here to help. We asked Susan to walk us through a recent advertising shoot she produced on location in L.A. (with an extra post explaining each crew member’s responsibilities). Whether your team is sprawling or a dynamic duo, Susan lends insight into the process and organization of a complicated shoot.

The Players

Producer Susan Shaughnessy

Producer Susan Shaughnessy

Client: AstraZeneca
Digitas Health and
Saatchi & Saatchi Healthcare Communications Group
Jayne Wexler
Artist Rep:
Kevin Schochat
Susan Shaughnessy/SKS Productions
Los Angeles
Total people on set: 30

1. Making the Call

The ad agency had three photographers in mind for the shoot, and the photographer Jayne Wexler was considered a favorite. The agency called her directly, and Jayne called her rep, Kevin Schochat. Together they talked about the concept, dates, and availability. Next, Jayne and Kevin considered which producer they wanted. Usually, the photographer or the rep has a relationship with a producer. Sometimes the ad agency has a relationship with a producer, and they will recommend one. In this case, Jayne decided she wanted to work with me.

2. Crafting the Estimate

Campaign layout

"Then and Now" concept

"Then and Now" concept

There were three bids submitted for this job, and the estimating process took more than a week, including several rounds of back-and-forth with the agency. We were trying to meet the agency budget, but we were the only team estimating traveling expenses, so our costs were higher. The agency was very fair and understood our numbers, but it took time to get the estimate and photographer approved.

I typically work with my favorite program, Excel, for bids, as does the rep. I turn my document into a custom-designed PDF, so it looks like a neatly presented document with my logo and client info on it. Excel allows you to make changes quickly and frequently, which is so useful when estimating and making revisions.

3. Getting Approval

During the estimating process, I have a crew in mind. Typically they are on hold from the beginning, especially the stylists. Once the agency awards the whole job and the money, then I book. I review the costs, rates, and expectations with each person, to confirm we are all clear. Sometimes the rates, expenses, and layouts have altered during the estimating process, so it’s essential to clarify at this point.

In this case, the casting and location line items were approved first, and then days later the rest of the job was approved. We began right away with a creative call between the photographer, agency, and myself to review layouts, casting specs, and location needs. I hired Eastside Studios in L.A. to cast, and I began researching locations with my coordinators.

Then stylists, photographer, producer, and agency have creative calls. These calls solidify the wardrobe direction and the prop needs. From there I can build a firm schedule, and manage expectations and deliverables for the team. As soon as the job is approved, the rep and I submit a request for the advance, to receive the appropriate percentage of the expenses up front. This money will get the job rolling and secure locations, studios, and all immediate out-of-pocket expenses.

4. Building the Crew
Wardrobe stylist Gillean McLeod, makeup artist/hair stylist Stephanie Daniel, photographer Jayne Wexler

Wardrobe stylist Gillean McLeod, wardrobe assistant Lauren Burns, and photographer Jayne Wexler

When assembling a crew, I consider the photographer, the project and style, the budget, and the personalities that fit with the requests. It’s also important to have crew members who can work closely together to support each other. The wardrobe stylist and prop stylist know each other, work together often, and were able to help each other styling vintage clothing and props.

With Crestor, because everything was being shot in L.A., I suggested and hired the crew for Jayne. Jayne brought her first assistant, Piero Ribelli, with her, but I introduced Jayne to Mark Gordon, digital tech, along with Ubaldo Holguin and Joe Klecker, who were local photo assistants we used in L.A. Based on temperament, professionalism, and personality, I knew they would fit great with this team.

Having team members who know each other and work well together adds another layer of efficiency. Photographers often get in a groove with certain stylists, and definitely photo assistants and digital techs.

Often the crews stay the same, but sometimes we’ll add or lose somebody because of availability. Like Jayne in New York, we’ll have almost the same crew every time we work with her. For every photographer I work with, I specifically craft a crew that seems appropriate for them, based on their personalities, needs, styles, how fast paced they are, and what they expect in terms of styling.

5. Scouting Locations
On location: the painter's studio

On location: The painter's studio

For Crestor, we had a big assignment in a short time frame. We needed an authentic painter’s studio, a park that looked like it might have the Eiffel Tower in the background (to be handled in post), and options on a French café and cobblestone street. All in L.A.

Scouting the painter’s studio was tough. We needed a studio space that was authentic, but more of a hobbyist painter versus a professional painter. The space needed to be big enough to hold a crew of 30 people, and it could not be too messy or too high-end. We also needed daylight, so we needed windows. We ended up at a real painter’s studio, but cleaned it up, pared it back, then propped it to our taste. We commissioned real paintings that were made to feel not too professional, but pleasing to many.

Since this job required me to work from N.Y. during pre-production, I needed solid production coordinators and scouts on the ground in L.A. Nima Ghedami is one person who can make things happen faster than anyone else I know in L.A. He helped by calling scouts and friends, and found painter’s studios for us to review online.

Michael McClellan scouted and permitted Griffith Park for us, handling the paperwork and fees. He also scouted various other parks and painter’s studios. We also needed to find options for a French café. Michael and Nima scouted the café for us, but the idea was finally killed, and we stuck with two days on location and one day in the studio, shooting on white at Pier 59 Studios.

I do a lot of the research for location scouting, but ultimately I send someone like Michael to take pictures and upload to a website that allows the photographer, agency, and me to simultaneously review the locations.

Logistically, shooting on location in L.A. can be very easy, but sometimes you need a site rep, you need appropriate insurance, you need money up front, and the contracts can be very detailed. On Crestor, the paperwork was fairly straight forward; we negotiated directly with the painter’s studio, and Michael handled the park permit. With the painter studio’s, I made sure that the building was aware of the shoot by passing out flyers ahead of time, making sure our electrical needs were in line with the studio requirements, and ensuring we had parking nearby. We also made sure all the equipment, catering, and props could fit in the elevator

6. Casting Talent

For this project, which was based on a previous T.V. shoot, we had to capture the concept of “Then and Now” — meaning we had to hire the talent for the primary roles, then find teens to represent those people 30 years ago.

We cast during two days with casting director Doug Mangskau at Eastside Studios. He provided links to the talent each morning for the agency, photographer, and me to review. Each day we made our selects and commented on what we felt was missing. We also added a link of comp cards for the agency to review, which added to the in-person casting days. Eventually, we made selects for the painter, the younger version of the painter, and the younger version of the couple at the park with the Eiffel Tower in the background.

7. Styling and Props
Wardrobe selection

Wardrobe selection

Prop options

Prop options

Because the concept involved a “Then and Now” theme, we needed to prop and style talent and locations that looked contemporary, and another with a vintage look. There was a lot involved to coordinate themes, colors, and believability. The props that conveyed “then” included vintage bags, cameras, and maps. The hair and makeup stylist brought in a mustache and wigs. The wardrobe was all rented from from vintage stores. It was very believable. The props for the painter’s studio included: custom paintings, easels, paints, paint brushes, boxes, and used clothing from actual painters.

8. Transport and Amenities

Good maps, planned parking, and orchestrated transport are essential for a smooth shoot. In the production book (details include: the call sheet – client/agency/crew/vendors names and phone numbers; hour-by-hour pre-pro and shoot schedule, locations/maps/directions, talent and wardrobe specs, weather, sunrise and sunset times, nearby conveniences – Starbucks, Target, FedEx, and favorite restaurants), I try to provide as much info as possible. The coordinators also help by handing out maps, setting up signage, and emailing maps and directions ahead of time.

L.A. can be tricky in terms of traffic. Scheduling early drives against traffic can work to a producer’s benefit. Being able to get online from wherever you are seems to be required these days — the agency essentially wants access to all of their work back at the office, and often we need to email samples of the photos to people who couldn’t make it to set. Also, having a digital tech who can take the photo and place it in a layout for agency preview is a real need.

The importance of good food and coffee also cannot be underestimated. Neither can: a clean bathroom, helpful assistants, efficient cleanup of garbage, flexibility, understanding, dinner reservations for the agency, and on-time car service.

9. Shoot Day
Mark Gordon's G10capture digital tech cart

Mark Gordon's G10capture digital tech cart

Arrive 8 a.m., set up lights, breakfast, wardrobe, and props. Model arrives at 8:30 and gets wardrobe approved, then goes into hair and makeup. The agency works with Jayne on lighting and angle, modifies props and crop, and gets camera and digital all working in sync. Mark Gordon, the digital tech, comes with his own DJ set-up, so there’s always good music happening.

The model stands in for Polaroids, frame gets signed off on, wardrobe approved. Final touches, then shoot. The shoot day continues for hours, changing wardrobe, altering props, changing hair.

Once the model nails the emotion, and we get multiple shots, they are edited and approved by the agency, and a select is emailed to the director, who can’t make the shoot. Once everything is approved, we let the model go and shoot the set elements alone, (the props, the backgrounds), which will be manipulated in post.

Lunch inserts itself around 12:30-1 p.m. Usually we all stop and eat, at least for half an hour. Then back to work. We wrap by

Wardrobe ready, talent on set

5 p.m., using an hour to edit images and back up all digital files. At the same time, the crew cleans, empties garbage, packs props and wardrobe, and loads everything into vans.

Before I leave, I walk through the space with the owner/site rep and ensure nothing is damaged, broken, or out of place. Anything moved gets put back in place — we often note its place ahead of time by taking pictures when we arrive. I’m the last to leave.

The check is written if anything additional needs to be paid for. Maps or directions for the next day are reviewed and dinner reservations are confirmed. Call a rain day if needed. For the Crestor shoot, we bought weather insurance instead of calling a weather day, but the day ended up perfect. You just never know!


  1. October 7th, 2009 at 12:42 am

    Ben Mathis

    Thank you so much for this writeup, this back end look is invaluable.

  2. October 7th, 2009 at 4:28 am

    Chris Peus

    Many thanks for this detail story. Always interesting even for photographers themselves!!
    A french photog’s

  3. October 7th, 2009 at 4:33 am

    How to produce a commercial photo shoot – step by step | RESOLVE …

    […] Here is the original post:  How to produce a commercial photo shoot – step by step | RESOLVE … […]

  4. October 7th, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Lynn Renee

    Since so many people ask me what I do, this is the perfect step by step into my role on set.

  5. October 8th, 2009 at 12:56 am

    Daniel Mihai Condurachi - photographer from Iasi Romania

    Thank you for sharing with us and helping me to get the big idea behind a commercial photo shoot. I am an event photographer. So I had almost no idea what involves a big commercial photo shoot. I bookmarked this handy article. Thanks’!

  6. October 8th, 2009 at 5:32 pm


    Id like to learn more about Mark Gordon’s G10capture digital tech cart setup

  7. October 10th, 2009 at 11:39 pm



    We are happy to address your capture cart inquiry…feel free to call.

    Mark Gordon

  8. October 20th, 2009 at 11:40 pm


    Hi people this is so valuable. I am used to producing features and shorts and this gives a good insight into doing a commercial especially since there is so much simultaneous stuff going on with digital tech and uploads to agency..
    Thanks for the post and must say special thanks to the producer Susan for being so clear in explaining in simple language what is otherwise very complicated.

  9. December 15th, 2009 at 11:09 pm

    Jax Harrison

    A very interesting and thorough outline of roles and the process. It always astounds me when I am found to be in an educational role to the process and this will be a great – here read this link! Cheers
    Jax Harrison

  10. January 23rd, 2010 at 4:29 pm


    shut estimate didn action home turn

  11. January 23rd, 2010 at 4:30 pm


  12. March 27th, 2010 at 10:33 pm


    Thanks for the great post!!

  13. August 26th, 2012 at 2:39 pm


    I loved the video, wonderful ideas. Got here from a link in toyads email.I was thinking that if the graphic for the hand on the scale was longer, it would pivot around the pin and would not need to be repositioned after rotating.

  14. February 9th, 2013 at 10:41 pm


    wow and here i thought the photog had to think this all up. great to know someone orchestrates all this so the photog and concentrate on shooting and lights

  15. April 12th, 2013 at 6:54 pm


    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

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