Last week I had a shoot at the Vanderbilt mansion formal gardens in Hyde Park, NY. It was only a one day shoot but preparation took a few weeks. As some of you know, I’m working on building a client list in a new town now that I’ve stopped teaching to do commercial photography full time. In my new location, I had zero contacts. To build the client list I first need to build a contact list and that means doing projects without a client first. It isn’t cheap to do shoots that way but it seemed like the best way to work on both ends of the problem at the same time. If only I was doing product photography! No location fees, insurance, models, makeup, etc. I like photographing people, so that means a budget is required.
My focus is on sports and fitness-related products. This means athletes, sports action, and fitness. Where to start? I didn’t want to deal with models or a crew until I had a solid location in mind, so I started scouting. At first, my idea was to shoot college athletics at either Vassar College, Marist College, or the State University of New York at New Paltz. Vassar gave a flat “no”, Marist at first said “maybe”, but with a “no” shortly thereafter. In both cases it was because the non-commercial shoot wasn’t being done for the school. New Paltz said “sure, no problem” over the phone but never confirmed in writing, so I counted that as a no also.
A neighbor suggested a few places, one of which was the Vanderbilt mansion in Hyde Park. At the time, the leaves were changing color and everything was buried in gorgeous orange, red, violet, and yellow leaves. I went to the Vanderbilt and loved the place. A ranger there who handled permits for photography assured me there wouldn’t be an issue getting a permit for the location as long as I paid the fees ($150) and was willing to wait a few weeks for the permit to be approved. I didn’t like the idea of waiting that long because it would push the shoot from fall into winter, but it was the best and most solid location I had found so far, in the sense that I could get approval for a ten person crew to be there all day, something that might not be so easy somewhere else.
A view of the Vanderbilt formal gardens at the time I first scouted the location
After filing for the permit, models and a crew had to be found. I wanted two models, a fitness trainer, two assistants, videographer, stylist, and a makeup artist. Where to start? The local Gold’s Gym recommended Charles Smith jr, a terrific trainer (and also a children’s book author). An agency in Albany suggested a makeup artist from Kingston. I contacted her, Laura Shoemaker, a former model for the Ford and Wilhelmina agencies in Manhattan. She could do the makeup, but just as important had started branching out into working as a producer. She became the producer and makeup artist on the shoot. Laura managed to find me a stylist (Nidhi Huba), hair stylist (Lari Manz), and two assistants, in addition to liaising with Wilhelmina Models (who I had separately contacted) for the two models I wanted. After that, I just needed a videographer, who I found by looking up listings in the Albany region.
As the crew was being assembled, we got our first snow of the season, almost ten inches. That was going to change the look of the location substantially but the theme was “winter fitness” so it still worked. The models just might need warmer clothes. To get an idea what it looked like in snow, I took another trip out to the location.
There were dry spots we could shoot but others, like the granite steps, would be too slippery too use. The gravel walks were covered with slush, which meant running shoes wouldn’t work. The snow was a problem. I considered calling off the shoot but a check of the weather forecast predicted enough warmer weather that the snow should have melted off by the day of the shoot. I hoped it was true. In case it wasn’t, I added a provision for canceling or moving the shoot day if the weather wasn’t good.
When I went looking for models, Wilhelmina was the first agency I went to. I don’t know why but it was probably the first agency to pop up in the search results for “Fitness model agency New York”. What I discovered quickly was that they seemed to be the only agency that had a division specializing in fitness models. All the others had a few models here and there that could probably do that kind of modeling but not in the quantities found at Wilhelmina. This is why I contacted them originally and why I was pleased to discover that Laura had contacts there. They sent me a package of six models, out of which I selected two. I wanted models who could look athletic even if they were buried in clothing. That is, no bare midriffs to show off six-pack abs. The way they moved would have to tell viewers they were fit and athletic. The two models we went with, Ally Short and Virginia Preston, were a boxer and a ballet dancer, respectively. Ally had a powerful build and moved well. Virginia was more slender but also moved well. Both were credible athletes and would remain so even under heavy coats.
The day before the shoot day, I received notice that the permit was approved. It went straight to my trash folder, so I didn’t see it until early afternoon. All I had to do was sign it and submit proof of insurance. I didn’t have insurance. How was I going to get it in the couple of hours left in the day? I worried that the shoot would be canceled but I would still have to pay kill fees to everyone involved. I called the agency that insured my home. They knew exactly what I needed and arranged for my certificate of insurance (C.O.I.) before end of day. I got a policy for the year instead of just the day to avoid getting surprised like that again.
One of the primary goals of the shoot was to obtain enough video to create a clean ‘behind the scenes’ video. On the shoot day, our videographer, Geoff Arbuckle, was the first to arrive. We went straight out and started getting footage of the location. Although he used a Ronin stabilizer for most of the day, the first shots were captured on a tripod. His mandate was to catch all the unpacking of gear, makeup and hair styling, and the shoot itself. We would all try to behave as if the camera wasn’t there, and Geoff would stay out of our way (which he did.)
The plan for the day was to get six looks for the models by moving our set around the formal gardens between 4-6 times, depending on the cloud cover. This was because two spots wouldn’t work from some angles if the sun was strong, but could be shot easily if there was some cloud cover. As it turned out, it was a cloudy day, so we only had to move the lights four times. This was good because it was a lot of equipment, and one item was particularly tricky to move. I had just bought a Broncolor Para 133 reflector, a large reflector that required a lot of ballast to hold it steady on location. Every time we moved it, six sandbags had to be taken off, the Broncolor Siros L monohead had to be removed, and then all these things moved separately to the new location and reassembled.
Due to a train delay for some crew members, we lost an hour in the morning. Our permit was good only until sunset, so we couldn’t get the hour back by shooting later. That hour was gone. This meant we ate in between takes whenever the opportunity presented itself. We managed to make up about a half hour that way, but still missed the last corner of the garden I wanted to shoot. To make up for it, we moved the lights a shorter distance to a different spot. It turned out to be a good choice because we got some of the best shots there.
Below are a few of my favorite images from the shoot. I made two behind the scenes videos, one shorter than the other, both of which can be viewed in the video section of my website (www.paqphoto.com).