December 2009
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Month December 2009

Latinos playing ping pong

My parents are semi-retired in Florida. Every year, during the holidays, my siblings, their kids and I tend to congregate there. Playing ping pong has become a way to pass the time and keep our collective sanity.

Anatomy of a holiday photo shoot. Part II: Babies don’t like Afros.

This is part two of a three part series. You can read part one here.

Is this crazy? That’s the question that swam in my head the days before the scheduled shoot. Not only did the photo call for a very specific expression and gesture by the baby, but I also had to get a dove to perform, and not fly away, on set. Adding to the stress of the shoot, I would only have the baby talent for a two hour window. This shoot would reinforce what I already knew: babies and birds don’t take direction well.

Crew notes

For low budget shoots, you often have to get by with small crews. Everyone pitches in and does work beyond their usual responsibilities. There were some critical roles where we needed pros however. As part of this production, we had: a hairstylist, a costume designer, a baby wrangler, a first assistant, and a production assistant. I also called up a few folks I had worked with in the past and got some feedback from: a producer, a prop stylist, and a location scout.

Shoot schedule

The shoot day schedule was super tight. We had talent for two hours, and I had crew for about four hours. This is what the day looked like:

  • 11AM: Boulder crew departs
  • 12PM – 1:30PM: Photography crew call time and setup
  • 1PM: Call time wardrobe, wrangler, and hairstylist
  • 1:30PM: Talent call time
  • 2PM-3:30PM: Shoot
  • 4PM: Wrap

Lighting diagram

Here’s a rough sketch of how I wanted to light the shot. I find it a helpful exercise to think through visual and stylistic options this way. Sometimes I’ll change my mind once I get on set, but it’s nice to have a starting point. Anticipating having to composite pieces, I also made a few notes on “plates” or pieces I wanted to cover thoroughly.

Rough sketch of lighting for shoot

Rough sketch of lighting for shoot

That’s a rap

We had little choice but to stick to the shoot schedule. I only had talent for two hours and I had asked the crew for reduced fees in exchange for a shorter shoot day. The first part of the schedule went smoothly. We setup and measured our lighting ratios, I explored camera angles, the hairstylist fluffed and hair sprayed the wig, and talent arrived.

When I initially talked to the talent agency about the baby, they told me that the he was just starting to sit up on his own. On set, two things happened. One, the baby did not like the wig on his head and two, the baby could sit up on his own for about 15 seconds before falling over. He wasn’t too happy. Having photographed over 150 babies for a Volkswagen shoot once, I wasn’t surprised. We had to work as quickly as possible and I ended up having about 20 minutes of talent time on set. We shot the dove on its own too because the baby wanted to put the bird in his mouth.

After we decided that the baby had no more to give, I reviewed the shots we had captured and wrapped the shoot. Being the obsessive that I often am, I was a bit worried that we didn’t have enough good plates or pieces to finish the final shot with. Things turned out fine though.


What follows is an assortment of prop and location details. During the initial planning phase I mostly used the phone and email to assess the availability of props and locations. The next step required some travel to actually look at the things that I wanted to use on set.

Baby. This is the digital casting photo I was sent of talent. Generally, if you have budget, doing a live casting is ideal. (Photo: Courtesy Marbles Kids Talent Management.)

Furniture store. My initial idea called for some mid-century modern furniture. While I shot some furniture on set, I finally decided it was a bit too distracting for the concept. Here is an iPhone reference photo of the carpet I ended up using that was rented from a store in Denver called Popular Culture.

Bird shop. I initially called a few wedding dove release businesses but ended up finding a pretty cool bird shop in Denver. My assistant was the official bird handler.

Location. It’s pretty critical to visit locations before you show up for a shoot I think. Sometimes you can’t, but I always find it helps to start thinking about where you will position crew, talent, and how you will get gear to a location. This is a quick shot of the location from my scouting trip.

Part III, the final post in this series will focus on editing and post-production.

Anatomy of a holiday photo shoot. Part I: I need an afro.

I often get asked about how larger more complicated photo shoots come together. When dealing with client-based projects, it’s always tricky to know how much should remain confidential and how much to share. Recently, however,  I decided to produce my own photo shoot for a holiday promo card and figured it was the perfect project to discuss and share openly.

The idea

In college I spent a lot of time visiting churches and documenting religious iconography. For a student in a creative photography program, religious art is pretty perfectly (and easily?) loaded with symbolism and complexity. I shot this image back in 1996 outside a store window in Madrid, Spain:

Store window in Madrid.

Store window in Madrid. © David Mejias

For my holiday card I wanted to revisit some sort of traditional religious imagery. What came to mind was re-imagining the Christ child. More specifically, I decided to photograph a bi-racial baby in a 1960s living environment. Why exactly? Well, the idea evolved along a thread that included Obama, a certain peace prize, and weighty expectations. I didn’t question the idea too much. It seemed doable and interesting.

The next step was research. I googled terms like “christ child” and “the baby jesus” to get some creative reference points. I then pulled a great art survey book that sits on my bookshelf: History of Italian Renaissance Art, 4th edition. The goal was to make something new that felt 60s/70s retro as well as classic. I also wanted to make an image that was subtly curious and humorous.

I found this photograph on ebay that I thought helped situate the mid-century time period some:

Mid-century photograph for sale on Ebay

Mid-century photograph for sale on Ebay

The planning

One of the pages from my sketch/notes book:

Photo shoot notes

Photo shoot notes

After the concept and research phase, I then spent some time (roughly!) sketching the image and making a list of production needs. With a job of this scope it would have been nice to have a producer. But I didn’t want to spend a ton of money. The plan was to keep the entire production under a few hundred bucks. I put on my producer hat and off I went. The following had to be sourced:

  1. Location. Consistent with the 60s look I wanted, I had to find some authentic wood paneling. I posted queries on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. The hope was that a friend could help me find a location that would work. A few dead ends later, a Denver-based location scout did me a favor and pulled some location shots from her database. I called a few places, negotiated pricing for one location on the phone, and then scouted for the perfect area of wood paneling.
  2. Talent. Finding the right baby for this shoot was tougher than I expected. I needed a mixed-race baby, he had to be between 3-6 months of age, and he had to sit up on his own. After calling a few talent agencies, and doing all my screening over email, I found a 5 month old who I thought could pull off the shot. With babies, however, you are never sure what you will get. Talent and usage fees were negotiated as well.
  3. Afro. I decided that the baby needed a nice full Afro. While a hairstylist would normally take care of this piece of a shoot, I got online and researched some high end wigs. I made some calls to wig stores and found the right shade and volume of Afro that I thought would work.
  4. Loin cloth. When I initially planned the shoot I didn’t put a lot of thought into what the baby would be wearing. I figured it would be simple enough to wrap some fabric around his diaper in a creative way. I then talked a bit about the shoot with Mondo, a local fashion designer. Mondo ended up constructing a custom piece that fit over the baby’s diaper.
  5. Props. In order to place the Christ child in a mid-century modern environment I called a local prop stylist for some leads. She pointed me to a few vintage furniture stores on Broadway in Denver. Some phone calls later, I found a shag carpet as well as some furniture pieces that ended up not making it into the final edited shot.
  6. Bird. When doing my research on  representations of the Christ child, I came across quite a few examples of the baby holding a bird. So I needed to find a bird. I called a few local wedding dove businesses, as well as a taxidermy prop shop in Los Angeles. The problem was solved when I visited the African Grey Bird Shop in Denver and worked with the owner on renting a dove for the shoot.

In the next few days I’ll post Part II and Part III of this photo shoot project, focusing on the shoot day and on post-production.