When S*** Gets Hairy | Emily McGonigle Photography

[WARNING: This post rated PG-13 for mild language, but I will return to my regularly scheduled Rated G posts next post! I won't blame you if you choose to skip this one. :) ]

We've all been there. And if you haven't, you will be.

What am I talking about? I'm talking about those shoots that you have, where you *thought* everything was perfectly planned and was going to run smoothly, but you know what? They FOR SURE did not!

So what do you do in these situations? We're going to have a little chat about just that.


1. DO NOT let your client know you're panicking on the inside

This is seriously important. Your clients hire you because they trust you. They trust you to produce the level of work that they've seen in your portfolio, they trust you to be a professional, and whether or not they realize it, they trust you to be able to deal with unexpected crisis situations.

When something goes awry, but your client is unaware... don't tell them. Just don't. There's no reason for them to know anything is going wrong. If they're already aware that something has gone wrong, remain calm, continue to exude confidence, smile, reassure them that everything is fine and that a solution will be found. And then...


2. Regroup

If you're like me, and something wildly unexpected happens, you may need to take a second to get your thoughts together. Excuse yourself to the bathroom, step away around the corner, go grab a cup of coffee... do what you need to do, but by all means, DO collect yourself. Take a moment to gather your thoughts and then begin formulating a plan of action.

Source: Rick and Morty | Season 2 - Episode 7 "Big Trouble In Little Sanchez"

Source: Rick and Morty | Season 2 - Episode 7 "Big Trouble In Little Sanchez"

The most recent time I had to do this was on Taylor's Senior Portrait session. I hadn't looked at the forecast the morning of her shoot, because the night before it looked clear. It wasn't until we were halfway through her makeover that we heard the torrential downpour on the roof of the studio, and I knew we had a problem. Our shoot location was supposed to be in Nashville, and the radar wasn't looking good. So I stepped away from the makeup room, went to the lobby, made a phone call to my assistant who was still in Nashville to see what the weather was like up there, and it wasn't any better. I wasn't 100% sure what we were going to do, but I knew I had to start figuring it out. I took a few minutes to myself to clear my mind and then I launched into shoot recovery mode.


3. Improvise

Sometimes when you're on a shoot and something goes wrong, you just have to make it up as you go along. On that same shoot with Taylor, the radar in Nashville was showing the weather wasn't going to let up, but where the studio was in Franklin, the radar showed clearer weather on the way. It was too late to reschedule the session, so we collectively decided to stay in Franklin to do Taylor's session. I had nothing planned for a shoot in Franklin, and I hadn't been to the location we did her session at in months, and a lot had changed. But we pushed forward and my team and I remained confident. As we all walked and talked, I scanned the area for potential spots to shoot. We had a great time and rocked that session.

A lot of things could come up during a shoot that would cause you to have to improvise. I've had to deal with last minute rain on another session, I've had to deal with "closed" locations twice, I've gotten *kicked out* of locations during a session. I have forgotten props for shoots, that I've had to send an assistant to retrieve, there has been forgotten equipment, broken equipment, malfunctioning equpiment, etc.

There are a several ways to deal with issues on set. If a piece of equipment isn't working as expected, change up the way you're shooting. Move to something else with your client and have an assistant work on a fix for you, while you keep shooting. If you don't have an assistant or someone else on set to help, then figure out a creative way to work around the issue until you have time to address it later during a break. Keep moving, and keep working. Even if what you initially try doesn’t work, try something else. Make it all seem like it’s a natural part of the creative process. “Fake it till you make it”, as they say.


4. If you have a team... Work together

If you're in a situation where you simply cannot move on without fixing the issue first, and you have a team on set, work together to delay and "distract" the client. Have a hair and makeup artist? Suggest a hair or makeup change. While your client is off with your HMUA, you can concentrate on solving the problem. Have a wardrobe stylist? Have them go work on a new look with the client. Don't have either of those, but you have an assistant? Put your assistant to the task of addressing the issue while you take your client to do natural light portraits, or simply have your assistant jump in to entertain and converse with your client, while you deal with the problem.

I forgot essential wardrobe/prop pieces for a shoot once. At the same time, we were dealing with an issue with getting the lighting just right. I only had time to deal with one issue, but not both, so while I ran back home to get the props I forgot, my assistant worked on solving the lighting issue. By the time I got back, my model was just finishing up with the HMUA, and my assistant had gotten the lighting set close enough to where we needed it, so we only had to do minor tweaks with the model in place.

Another time, when working with a very young model about 9 years old, I was having some trouble getting her to warm up. It was Desi's first photo shoot ever, and while excited, she was a bit shy about the whole thing. My HMUA, who had logged a good bit of bonding time with Desi while doing her hair and makeup, jumped in on set and took some silly pictures with her to show her how much fun being in front of the camera was, and to help her to get more comfortable. The shoot went super smoothly after that and Desi had a great time.

My makeup & hair artist,   Chelsea Blair  , helped me out on set to make little Desi more comfortable by taking a few silly photos with her, to help her warm up to being in front of the camera.

My makeup & hair artist, Chelsea Blair, helped me out on set to make little Desi more comfortable by taking a few silly photos with her, to help her warm up to being in front of the camera.


On another shoot, the client opted to have her hair done by an HMUA, but wanted to do her own makeup. After we got through shooting the first look, she wasn't feeling her makeup. She was so upset by it that she had gone to the makeup room and took it all off. She had intended to attempt to re-do it, but at this point my HMUA, who had only been hired and paid to do hair, offered to run home to get her makeup kit and do the client's makeup anyway. She knew that the only way to get through the rest of the shoot with a happy client was to offer her professional makeup services so the client didn't have to worry about it anymore. My client was thrilled with the results of the HMUA's makeup application, and in the end paid for both services provided by my HMUA.

These are all very different situations, but whatever the situation calls for, work together as a team to make things as least stressful or obvious as possible for the client, until you've come to a good solution. This is where having a really strong team comes into play.


5. Expect the unexpected

It's gonna happen. I promise. Something has gone wrong in every shooting situation I've ever been in, whether it was my shoot or someone else's, and the truly professional photographers are the ones that made it through unscathed.

I've told you a few of my personal stories, but I've also been on set assisting, where the same things have happened to other photographers: Broken lenses, computers that won't tether, data transfer issues, wardrobe issues, and just this past weekend, I was second shooting a wedding where a severe thunderstorm rolled in and the POWER to the venue went out. Now THERE is something you seriously never expect to happen on the day of a wedding. You expect rain sometimes, but you definitely don't sit around asking yourself, "What happens if the power goes out?"

I'll tell you what happens: You say "screw the museum rules" and you go into a room with a ton of natural light, that they had closed the doors to, and you shoot all the portraits in there, haha.

You make it work, because that's your job. And you do it with a smile, and you do it confidently, even if you're screaming and having a meltdown internally.

Besides, there's always Ben and Jerry's and wine after you're done shooting. ;)

I know a lot of this seems like common sense information, however, I'm quickly discovering that a lot of newer photographers, who haven't yet experienced these traumas, can be suddenly caught in a "deer in headlights" moment when it finally does happen to them. I'm just hoping that this might help those of you who are newer and still growing to think a little bit outside your normal scope of preparation, when it comes to planning your shoots.

So, what about you guys? What stories do you have about things that have gone wrong on your sets, and how did you rectify them? Tell me in the comments below!


Emily McGonigle Photography is a Franklin and Nashville Portrait Photographer, and can be contacted for booking inquiries here.