Have you ever had one of those days that even the best sitcom writers would struggle to come up with?
I did. On the day of Yala’s first ever photoshoot, no less. If it were an episode of Friends it would be called ‘The one where the model passed out, the car engine almost exploded, and all of us — photographers included — ended up knee-deep, in a river, as the sun set into darkness’.
What series of events could possibly have led us there?
Firstly, I (half-jokingly) blame my accountant.
I’d asked her to ring-fence enough money for a fully-inclusive photoshoot to officially launch the Yala brand (yay!). I wasn’t asking for much, just a multi-location shoot with models who represented a mix of ages, genders, body types, the LGBTQIA+ and disabled communities. But the bank balance wouldn’t stretch to accommodate my vision. I had £5,000: enough for three models and one convenient but beautiful location (I was due to travel to Kenya anyway, and the landscapes alone would be the ideal backdrop, with no need for studio space).
Continuing in our theme of ‘savvy’ planning, I asked the photographer to find a suitable location that wouldn’t require a permit. He chose a place called Magadi — a two and half hour drive from Nairobi, which we’d travel together en masse — models, stylists, and MUA all together — with packed lunches, snack bags and a cool box, provided by my mum.
So far, so good. We set off at the crack of dawn to capture the light that’s “just perfect” after sunrise. You may think that early morning is chilly in dry environments. But it’s dusty in Magadi, and oppressively hot. Nevertheless, we arrived, we set up, we were raring to go.
Fast forward an hour and it’s time to matte up the model’s face, but a strange phenomenon occurs: the MUA reaches out to dab the model’s face with her brush, but finds herself having to reach a little further each time.
Then the realisation hits: our model is fainting. Not falling backward or sinking into the sand, but genuinely losing consciousness. Did anyone pack a first aid kit? Rehydration salts? Anything we could use?
Next thing we know, she’s on the ground — out cold. Health and Safety would no doubt have something to say about how we handled the incident: a fan of the face, a few sips of OJ, a couple of croissants, and within 90 minutes she was back on her feet, ready to slay.
And slay she did, for a couple more hours before we had a break for lunch. Lunch was bliss; we rolled out picnic blankets, relaxed in the shade of a tree and admired the views. If you’re anything like me, though, then you’ll know how a period of relaxation during the working day is usually more than enough. Knowing we still had a 2.5-hour drive ahead of us, I assumed we’d jump back into action immediately after eating, and yet none of the photography team moved.
Apparently, we would be graced with another spell of “perfect” lighting at 5.30pm — three and a half hours from now. These days, I have a profound appreciation for briefs, shot lists, call sheets and studio managers, but back then I was ready to take professional direction from the team, so we waited, passing the time discussing our favourite memes while waiting for Mother Nature to do her thing.
Eventually, when the time was right, we piled back into our vehicles and took to the road for our final location. As our convoy traced the empty roads, across vast Kenyan vistas, with my shoot crew by my side, I allowed myself the luxury of a “pinch me” moment… only to be jerked back to reality when our car slammed on the brakes. We’d stopped just behind the lead vehicle, which was suddenly spewing smoke. The radiator, which at daybreak was innocently drip, drip, dripping, was close to blowing up.
Did anyone have the eight litres of water required to fix the issue? Of course not. We’d already had to use orange juice to coax our model back to life! The nearest petrol station? Not for miles.
Using every last drop of water we had between us — plus the half-melted ice from the now-empty cool box — we willed the engine to comply. And it did! But there was no way to save the 30 minutes we’d lost to this escapade, so we had to push on quickly.
The final location was epic, no doubt. A dramatic ravine with craggy, multicoloured rocks and a shallow river running through it. “Bet this would have looked amazing in the daylight” I thought to myself, as the models slipped and slid down to the river bed.
At least, that’s where I think they were standing. Because the sun sets very quickly on the equator; light fades to dark within 20 minutes and before long we were squinting to see each other’s faces.
Eager to get photos where the light was brightest — in the middle of the river — the models waded out, while the stylist screamed “Don’t get the clothes wet! The designer didn’t agree to that!”.
The photographer did what he could, but we knew it was futile. The sun had vanished below the horizon and when one of the models, still knee-deep in the river said nervously “Something in the water is nibbling my feet”, we knew it was time to pack up and go home.
Our pictures from that last location never saw the light of day (ha!) but for what this shoot lacked in light, structure, and — let’s face it — adequate water supplies for both us and the vehicles, it was rich in life lessons.
It’s difficult to see the funny side when you’re faced with disaster. But what I learnt from that photoshoot, I apply to every shoot I’ve done since. Here are my top ten photoshoot tips:
Write a brief! The more information the better.
Discuss said brief with the photography team ahead of time, so that they fully understand your vision.
Make a shot list. If you don’t specify exactly what photos need to be taken, of which products and at what angles, you are unlikely to get all the photos you want.
Make sure your budget matches your vision — and get an accountant if you don’t have one already.
Be clear about how much time you have and what you can realistically achieve on the day. Make sure a call sheet is sent to the whole team at least 24 hours before the shoot.
It should be obvious, but make sure there is plenty of food and drinks for everyone.
When you arrive on set, brief the whole team again, so that everyone knows what the goal is for the shoot. I didn’t do this — I took the attitude that the photography team were the experts so I stood aside, munched croissants and kept quiet. Never again!
Have a backup plan in case something goes wrong, because something almost definitely will.
Take emergency items with you (especially on a location shoot). Safety pins, wet wipes, hair ties, band-aids, and so on.
Lastly, remember that if nobody died and if nobody was seriously hurt... it was just a bad day. Sure, it seems like the end of the world when things go wrong, but setbacks are inevitable and you always learn something for next time.
If you’ve read this far, then you deserve a reward.
Here’s a picture from the river, #nofilter. Feel free to have a giggle at my expense (but you may have to squint to see anything!).