Look at any recent shoot you’ve done and ask yourself, “How could we have made it look better?”
If the lighting could’ve improved, if the interview didn’t give you the answers you needed, or if the b-roll was lacking, the solution wasn't necessarily more gear, a bigger crew or a better camera. The solution was more time.
But budgets and deadlines are tight. Generally, you already have the maximum amount of time the producer can afford.
However, as a shooter, there are lots of things you can do yourself that can shave literally a few extra hours off the shoot day. That’s time you can spend getting more b-roll, perfecting the shots you already have or getting one more take from the host to make sure their delivery is perfect.
Go over details about the shoot ahead of time and have all your gear prepared
There are a crazy number of shooters who show up at the shoot and ask, “so what are we doing?” Then they have to start setting up their camera and digging through their van for each tiny piece of gear they need.
If you’re properly prepared, you can pack exactly what you’ll need all together, and pack the things you might need just behind it.
Getting this right isn’t simple. Packing my gear for a new client for a single day generally takes at least 4 hours, and sometimes can take a full day. That’s a lot of unpaid work to put in, but it’s necessary to really make your shoots go smoothly, especially once your kit expands and you have a wider selection of specialized bits and bobs.
Test out any tricky setups
In some cases I’ve done camera tests long before the shoot day and then sent it off to the producer to get their feedback on what works best. Again, a lot of unpaid work, but worth it for how much you learn and how much better the shoot day will go. You may even discover something that’ll save the shoot from total disaster. And if you really love shooting, this is one of the most fun parts.
Have a proper cart and cases
Moving gear in and out eats up a huge chunk of the day, especially for interviews. If you can do it in one trip instead of four trips, that can save well over an hour between setup and breakdown.
After lots of experimentation, I’ve mostly moved away from Pelican cases to big plastic bins. The kind I use hold more in each one than Pelicans and they stack perfectly. They’re also the exact width so they’ll just barely fit through any commercial doorway.
The bins stack on a cart that’s precisely the right length to fit into nearly any elevator. If the whole setup was an inch or two longer or wider, it wouldn’t fit in many places. If it was any smaller, less gear would fit in and I’d have to make more trips.
Experiment and figure out what works best for your gear and location. Once you get it just right, it’s amazing the difference it makes to your setup and teardown times.
Ask for a production assistant
This isn’t, strictly speaking, something you can control as a shooter. Your client has to agree to it and pay for it.
But having a smart PA who knows your gear can halve your setup time. Considering how much time and money has gone into the shoot overall, the few hundred bucks for a great PA is totally worth it.
Sort out parking the day before
In a big city, way too often everyone will meet at the call time and one person will call in saying “I’m just looking for parking”. That’s not a valid excuse. Figure out the parking ahead of time and leave yourself plenty of time to find a space.
On a related note, don’t park at a meter. If the shoot in that location goes longer than expected, you don’t want to have to stop production so one person can go out and feed their meter.
Arrive early, early, early, early
If you’re told someone will meet you there at 9am, sometimes if you’re at the front door with your gear at 8am, there’s actually someone there to let you in. By the time the producer arrives an hour later, you can have most of your gear already set up and you’ve added a full hour to the shoot day.
And if nobody’s there to let you in until 9am? Whip out your laptop and catch up on your emails. Either way, you win.
If you’re someone who charges for overtime (I don’t usually charge for it), I’d suggest not charging for this hour. This is your contribution to making sure the shoot is as good as it can possibly be.
All these ideas are aimed at making your shooting better, not necessarily at strictly improving your freelance business.
It can take a lot of work to properly prepare for a shoot. I’ve had to turn down paid gigs because I knew I’d need that day to do unpaid testing for an upcoming shoot.
I personally almost never charge for prep days, partly because I love doing them, but mostly because on a tight budget, many production companies would turn that down, so you’d go into the shoot unprepared and risk ruining the entire thing.
So prep as much as possible for your shoots, whether you’re paid for it or not. Your shooting will look better, your producer will be happier, and you’ll feel satisfied that your work was as good as it could possibly be.