We often talk about the importance of self-assigned projects. Photographers need to constantly stretch their creative muscles by shooting what they love– whether or not it’s something they are currently being hired to shoot. Personally-driven work also helps show clients what kind of work a photographer produces without a script, and how well they might collaborate with a creative director of an art department in the future.
One facet of self-assigned work is the art of the test shoot. For photographers who shoot reportage, travel, or similar types of work, self-assigned work requires a camera, two legs, and a lot of research. But for photographers who normally shoot in a studio, or work on sets that require a large crew, test shoots can be a vital part of maintaining relationships with food stylists, makeup artists, and even other photographers.
If everyone is on board and willing to collaborate, test shoots can be fun, creative spaces that lead you to unexpected places. Just ask Stephen DeVries and Nathan Carrabba. Even though they live on other sides of the country, Birmingham-based photographer Stephen and Portland-based food stylist Nathan work together every chance they get.
Nathan and Stephen are no strangers to test shoots, and so they find they work well in tandem whether on set for a client or working for themselves.
It’s fun to get a chance to work closely with another professional who has a great vision and does great work to bring together an idea and see it come to life. We always have a blast working together but it’s a little extra fun when we just get to play and create purely for ourselves!
Sometimes, if you want to work with a certain stylist or model, you’ll need to hire them the same way you would for a client-based project. But other times, like in Nathan and Stephen’s case, test shoots are mutually beneficial, and everyone will donate their time to end up with a final project each of you can add to your portfolio.
Test shoots have led directly to a lot of the editorial and commercial success I’ve had and I try to step back and be intentional with my shooting to create new and fresh work that can help me steer the ship.
There are different levels to test shoots, from a full studio filled with assistants, stylists, and models to a quiet kitchen with a few strategically placed lights and a close friend or two looking to collaborate.
Our shoots are always pretty laid back. We have good music playing, sometimes a studio dog running around and always good company.
After a recent shoot for Publix Supermarkets in Alabama, Nathan and Stephen decided to take advantage of being in the same time zone and blocked out an extra day to experiment with some new recipes and textures.
I had an idea to shoot various pies with rustic fillings- apple, strawberry. And something colorful- peach tart. The chocolate creme brûlée was something I decided to make the day of. Our prop stylist from the day prior pulled a few props, but we mostly chose our props to complement the food after we saw what they looked like after cooking.
While Nathan prepped the food, Stephen prepared the set. With just the two of them, they were able to make small changes as they went. The shoot itself was a last minute decision, so they started with nearly no plan and imagined everything as they went.
It’s always a lot of fun but a little strange going from a commercial shoot to a test shoot. Suddenly there’s no product to sell, no parameters, and no art director to please – you are free to create. The flip side is it can be so open that you have to give yourself some direction or you can be aimless.
Inspired by some of the props Lindsey Lower, their stylist from the Publix job, suggested, they decided to focus on texture and stick with a monotone palette. With a direction to head, the shoot unfolded naturally, and the success of the final results speak for themselves.
Both Nathan and Stephen have the work featured on their websites, and the shoot serves as a great conversation starter with new clients. One shot left them hungry for more, and another test is already in the works, so keep an eye out for more delicious dishes!