Location, Location, Location: Tips for Shooting Outside the “Box”

True dancer-model confession: I hate shooting in studios. As if you couldn’t tell from perusing my promotional zzsa2portfolio!

While I love the clean, understated beauty of 3/4 glamour lighting, a crisp black (or gray, or white) backdrop, and a dancer perfectly posed or lightly in motion, shooting in a photographer’s studio has always felt a little bit sterile from my own personal artistic standpoint. This is why I prefer to take to the streets – or the beaches, the waterfalls, the gardens, or wherever else my imagination takes me!

Lately, I’ve been getting tons of e-mails about my own portfolio from dancers around the world. When it comes to shooting on-location, a lot of dancers want to try it, but either don’t know where to start, or have certain apprehensions about how they’ll pull it off. Shooting on-location is rewarding, exhilirating, and quite possibly even addictive – but it’s also unpredictable, labor-intensive and not without its caveats. Hopefully I can help you demystify the process and send you on the road to photo shoot success!

Find the Right Photographer:

THIS. Right here. Muy important. Anybody can have you stand next to a tree and then press a button. It takes another level of talent to produce quality work at the not always gentle hands of Mother Nature and the urban jungle. The best way to lock in a successful on-location shoot is to book a photographer who is experienced in this area – bringing your usual studio photog to the beach might not cut it if he works in controlled indoor environment 9 out of 10 times. A photographer who regularly shoots out of doors will know how to make the most of natural light and unpredictable weather conditions, and will frame every shot to get the right “stuff” in the background. FYI: the most flattering natural light occurs either in the early, early morning or about 2 hours before sunset through sundown – but you shouldn’t have to inform your photographer about these logistics.

It’s All About the Location:

I firmly believe a lot of dancers are loathe to try on-location shoot because they’ve only seen amateurish pictures of dancers posing in their backyards. News flash! There’s more to shooting outside of a studio than beaches and trees. Go out and explore! In Connecticut alone, I’ve shot at castles, waterfalls, Grecian pillars, reflecting pools, multi-million dollar mansions, elaborate gardens, highway overpasses as well as the usual oceanic and wooded settings. Surely, there’s unique architectural and natural beauty to be found in every corner of the world! Your best bet is to check out literature from your state’s tourism department, scope out the state parks, and ask people you know. My family loves landscape photography and has tipped me off to hidden locations I never would have known about. Once you’ve found your dream location, take a visit if it makes you feel more comfortable to see what you’re working with. (Being an old pro, I personally like the creative challenge and excitement of shooting sight-unseen!)

Plan Your Costume, Hair & Makeup:

Nothing is more gorgeous to me than a dancer who appears to be one with the elements in her location shots. When it comes to styling a shot in a studio, pretty much anything goes. (After all, what doesn’t look good with a black background? Other than a black costume, of course). It takes a little extra wardobe, hair and makeup work, on the other hand, to take a location concept from good to great.

DSC_0120Think about looks, textures, colors and themes that will complement your surroundings. Perhaps, you want to wear an edgy, super-modern Sahar with funky shoes at your urban shoot. On the other hand, earthy-sexy tribaret with chunky artesinal jewelry and bare feet will make you look dynamite in a wooded setting (as you can see on the left). Often, when I see what I think is an unsuccessful outdoor image, I’ll notice upon further examination that the costume choices weren’t thematically optimal. For instance, does an over-the-top black velvet-and-lace costume with long gauntlets make sense in a breezy, summery beach scene? Would bad-ass tribal make sense in a dainty English garden? A subpar costuming choice can make an otherwise stellar image appear incongruous and confusing, while the perfect match will produce a magazine-caliber, high-fashion, striking look.

Eat Your Wheaties!

Rule of thumb: the best locations are NEVER close to your parking spot. That would only be too easy. Always make sure to wear comfy footwear and clothing on your way to the location. You can always change when you get there.

As with any photo shoot, it’s imperative to get a good night’s sleep the night before your location shoot. And please don’t starve yourself with the lettuce-and-water diet. Real models eat on the day of a shoot. Your body will need lots of lean protein and healthy carbs to keep your stamina up while you pose, dance and schlep your stuff around. (And any photog who’s worth his salt will pose you and light you to make your bod look rockin’ sans crash dieting). Make sure to drink plenty of water and bring some healthy snacks such as protein bars, almonds and fruit to keep your energy up.

As location shoots often involve a great deal of climbing, posing against uncomfortable objects such as rocks, and the usual movin’ and shakin’, I like to do a couple of simple stretches in the parking lot before the shoot, and in between costume changes. This will help prevent next-day soreness and keep you lithe and limber during your shoot – so when your ‘tog says “Jump!” you can say, “Please, sir, may I have another!”

Look for Props in Unexpected Places:

Anyone can go stand and look pretty in front of a tree. But a Top Dancer-Model knows how to work her surroundings. DSC_0282Scout out rocks, driftwood, railings, lampposts, pillars and any other interesting structures. Lean up against them, recline on them, sit pretty – don’t just stand there, get creative! As you can see on the right, my photographer Steve puts me on a pedestal in the most literal sense!


Here are a couple of the biggest caveats to shooting on-location, and their quick fixes:

  • Those Wandering Eyes – Yes, people will look at you. And there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it. So let them look. Out of every 10 passersby, typically 5 are delighted or amused, 4 don’t care, and 1 may or may not give you a dirty look. Ignore all eye contact, do your thing, remember that they’re simply observing (not judging), and take comfort in the fact that most folks resume their daily activities and forget about you after 2 seconds. If somebody’s really being creepy or rude, simply take a breather for a moment and wait for them to go away.
  • There’s No Powder Room in the Great Outdoors – So consider investing in a Portable Changing Room, if your photographer doesn’t already have one. It’s great for Renn Faires and other outdoor gigs in less-than-luscious accomodations. You’ll use it again, trust me!
  • The Wind The wind can be your biggest obstacle when working near the ocean. Try to think of it as an asset, rather than an adversary. In other words, breezy, silky, chiffon-y skirts and drapes can create a beautiful look of movement. As for your hair, beach shoots are a great time to go loose and carefree, and ditch the complicated, overdone ‘dos. If you’re really worried about your coiff, wear a headband or experiment with slicking the top or sides back and pinning in place with a pretty clip. Also, utilize veils and wings to catch the breeze and fly behind you – but don’t even try to re-create that perfect, precise veilwork drama you get in a wind-free studio setting.
  • Don’t “Bug” Me! Mosquitos, sand fleas, gnats – icky! Bring a little bug repellent if you need it, and avoid wearing sweet-scented perfumes that might attract the nasty bloodsuckers. Nothing is more distracting and unsexy than finding yourself covered in itchy bug bites while shooting.
  • Here Comes the Rain: Knock on wood, I’ve never experienced a sudden downpour. But if you do, remember that there’s a reason why rain is one of the numero uno music video cliches of all time: it’s sexy, wild and beautiful. So before you take cover, make sure to get a few hot shots of you relishing the spontaneous storm!

I really hope these tips helped! With a little hard work, some great ideas, and a talented photographer, shooting on-location is a great way to diversify your promotional portfolio with a touch of the unexpected. What are your favorite tips for shooting outside of the studio?

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