Trying to Make Lemons into Lemonade…

I’ve heard that the way to make God laugh is to tell Him your plans.  There is sometimes a direct corollary to that in the photo world. This past week Cynthia and I were assigned a cover shot for an Italian restaurant named a Pizza Grotto.

Pizza is, in my opinion, a tough thing to shoot since it is flat and often looks more like week-old road kill than something you’d want to put in your mouth.  But in researching for the shoot, I found an example that I really liked: it was simple, elegant, and appetizing even for me who does not like pizza.  I sent a copy to Cynthia and she too liked it so we arrived at the restaurant with a firm plan in hand.  Big mistake this time…

Because at that plan, I am sure, God laughed out loud… a big knee-slapping, teary-eyed, roll-on-the-ground guffaw and then, getting it back together but still chuckling, sent out the owner.

The good news and the bad news is that Cynthia and I have created a sort of Frankenstein over the objections of the magazine.  They simply want to see FOOD.  Period.  And we would dearly love to oblige them.  But way back when… we gave in to an owner’s wishes and shot the food against the background of his new bar that he wanted to feature.  It required doing a composite image due to the mixed lighting and impossible angles but the result looked good and though the editor was less than happy, the client loved it.  It was dramatic and atmospheric.  The bad news from a required post processing work standpoint, and from a design standpoint for the poor magazine’s graphic artist’s standpoint, suddenly many of the restaurant clients wanted to do the same thing; why, they reasoned, just show a food item when you have (you are sure) a very inviting ambiance to your place and we can show that too?

The aesthetic problem is that the cover is too small (a half sheet) for such complexity PLUS the acres of text, title, call outs ads, teasers, etc. they typically cram on the cover, but still, owners wanted it to advertise their own place.  We wanted to give them something contemporary like the new trends in light, airy food styles but the owners wanted to see the warm inviting atmosphere of the environment which they believed was more enticing to their dining customers.

This was not a cook book, after all, nor an editorial illustration, it existed solely encourage diners to go to these places and spend their money.  The atmospheric style was not, alas, all that good for a stylish modern portfolio look, but if the person needing the shot was happy then who were we to refuse to give it to them?

But it is important to note that what actually made it work was Cynthia’s styling eye and her ability to stage the table to look good even if visually pretty busy.  We generally had smaller plates and often only one or two major food “heroes” in the shot so it more or less worked most of the time. And we then committed a huge karmic mistake: we congratulated ourselves on the success which must have resonated as a challenge to the Almighty just waiting for a chance to show us some comeuppances…

So, Thursday, in we walk with our plan for the elegant modern cover that we knew the magazine editor would love and would, hopefully allow us to veer onto a more currently stylish path.  Ha.  And again I say… HA!  God was beside Himself with merriment as the owner met us just dripping with attitude.  We apparently were there, in his view, simply to cart gear and do his bidding.  HE knew what was best and HE told us how to get it. He would have done it himself and perfectly if only he had our camera.

He referenced one of our own older shots but saw no problem that it had ONE composited item and he wanted THREE plates of food including a full prime rib dinner plate and a large salad plate (same size as the dinner plate) AND, of course, a pizza.  Of course a pizza!  The perfect visual partner for a prime rib… And he wanted them cut in over a shot of his lounge area which he was convinced was unique and special in the world of lounge areas. He wanted to see the bar but he wanted to see it THROUGH the lounge area.

He selected the angle and placed the tables.  This was not an option  for us to consider and chat about, this was a directive, an order, given with the same intensity and inflexibility as a Drill Instructor telling a private to polish his brass and shine his shoes.  This IS how it would be, maggot.  Period. (He left off the “maggot” part but that was probably an oversight.)

The good news is that normally we would have done the heavy lifting of moving tables and chairs for the shot, but this time he did it.  He probably thought we would somehow screw it up if he left it up to us.  I encourage that kind of thinking…  I wish more clients felt that way.

We were in such a small space the 24mm Tilt shift would not cover what he wanted to see in the shot.  So I shot it with a 16mm and then had some world class keystoning to deal with later.  His chosen angle included the restrooms so that needed to be fixed.  It also included some bright blue streaks from sunlight coming in from the front windows that destroyed the warm atmosphere.

“You know, if we moved to …” I started to explain a solution but was cut off.  “This is where I want it shot from!” he stated as if it was clear I had not been listening to him. And he made it clear that (even though he set the appointment) we were cutting into his lunch crowd and needed to hurry along. After all, HE had done all the creative stuff, now all we had to do was trip the trigger as he directed and scurry on out of his way.  That shouldn’t take too long… should it?

We tried to tell him that what he was describing would force the bar area he was so proud of to be tiny and that the food items as he described them would be nearly impossible to arrange and compose properly given the shape and size of the space we had to work with.  We could have been talking to a pizza except most pizzas I have met are a bit more flexible. Why were we even questioning his perfect insight and vision?  And it was becoming clear that was a good question…

We tried to talk about styling but he was clear HE would create the plates of food and THAT is what we would photograph.  I asked him to not cut up the pizza but to just cut a single wedge and pull it out about an inch.  Moments later he delivered… oh surprise… a fully cut pizza.

There was no way the large plates he brought could be composed as a single image so each plate was shot separately and then, in post, individually cut out and layered over the background. What we really wanted to do was tell him what he and the horse he rode in on could do with themselves and leave.  But in the world of commercial photography one quickly learns that clients like this are not all that uncommon.  We had been incredibly lucky to not run into one this bad before but our time was up and now the only question was, how were we going to handle it? The answer is – and it ALWAYS needs to be – to handle it professionally.

We had tried our best to give him the benefit of our experience and creativity but he wanted none of it.  So we shot what he insisted we shoot.  Professional photographers are, in the end, hired to provide a creative service and when that is all the client wants, well, it is their money to spend wisely… or poorly.  Prima donas are rather quickly weeded out.  Trying to match a client being a jerk may feel satisfying at times but it is not a key to long term success.

When I uploaded the files for processing the question quickly became do I just turn over that crap to the magazine (as I really wanted to do)? After all he told us they did it anyway so all we had to do was shoot the parts.  And the answer, for me, turned out to be an inescapable “no.”  Hell NO!  I simply could not do it.  God knows I wanted to.  It was, however, our names associated with it.  If it failed, regardless of why, we would take the fall for it.  That is the way the game is played.  Consequently I would rather do all I could in post to make it work, even knowing that if it turned out he would take the credit for work that was accomplished IN SPITE of him, than to turn in something I had not tried my best to make at least acceptable to OUR client, the magazine.  No one would know about the effort but us; but that, in the final analysis, is who counts the most.

I’m telling this tale because it is important for students to know that a shoot does not always go according to plan.  There are clients out there that make your crazy old professor look pretty tame.  I wish I could tell you they are rare… but my nose would surely start to grow if I did.

We used to call these projects “snakebit” meaning it had already more or less fallen apart and now you were scrambling to get out with your hide more or less intact.  What will separate the successful photographers from the others is, whether it is a real gig or simply a school assignment, if you can and will — always — ALWAYS commit to doing everything in your power to make it as good as you can no matter what it takes.  Trust me, your competitor will.

I made several variations of arrangements with the plates for editor’s selection.  I won’t bore you with the raw individual pieces but here is the final as selected.

Filippi Grotto Composite 01 for blogWho knows, maybe next time we do a food shoot we can actually do a FOOD SHOOT!  What a concept…

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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