Campaign photography is meant to tell the candidate’s story. To do that, you need to create images that highlight their human side. Think photos of their high school, their childhood home, or outside their first job. While this might sound simple enough, executing shoots at multiple locations on a tight schedule can be challenging.
I’ve been shooting photographs for campaigns from alderman to Senate for the last 15 years. In that time, I’ve seen great photoshoots and a few bad ones. Here are seven lessons I’ve learned over the last decade and a half that can help campaigns capture powerful images:
1. You need volunteers.
If a campaign can’t get a dozen or so people to show up for a photoshoot, I rarely see them run a successful campaign. Get your volunteer ground game strong as soon as you can, treat them well and they will get you a win. A great photoshoot cannot happen without great volunteers being willing to be in the photos with your candidate.
Have twice as many volunteers ready to go as you think you’ll need, inevitably some people won’t show up so it’s important to have backups. Get a diverse group that includes individuals of different ages, races, and genders, et cetera. Even if your constituency is mostly homogenous, it’s important to have a diverse group represented in your photos so that every voter can see themselves in the images.
2. Have multiple staging locations ready to go.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on shoots where we are knocking on doors of random shops or cafes asking if we can use their locations to photograph a candidate. This is a huge waste of time. I know stuff changes, but have a few locations — including businesses, cafes, homes, or factories — locked down, and couple backups, too. And remember, the style of the photos should be clean, but not slick. Think of them as well-lit documentary images.
3. Don’t rely too much on your photographer or mail firm to get everything together for you.
Sure, we’ve done a million of these before. But you know your area and you know the candidate better than we do. We can give you tips based on issues, like focusing on healthcare or manufacturing or senior issues. Still, there’s no substitute for local knowledge of what locations will be friendly to our photoshoot. I’ve been on plenty of shoots where the campaign team looks at me and says, “Where to next?” We can help with what’s a good spot in the set-up location to shoot in, or what’s a good time to shoot based on light or clothing, but you know the area and your candidate.
4. Having a varied wardrobe is essential.
In a one-day shoot, we want to get as many locations in as possible. But to make it look like it wasn’t all shot on the same day, bring lots of options for clothing. Especially tops and jackets. You can never have too much clothing with you. Avoid blacks, whites, busy patterns, or obvious brand names. Also, make sure your volunteers don’t wear anything that drops in subliminal messages to voters.
5. Your photographer can work alongside your video production crew.
When shooting alongside a film crew producing a TV commercial or digital spot, you benefit from their budget for lighting, hair, and make-up so every shot looks really fantastic. Now, film crews slow stuff down and limit the number of locations, but they also add a great look to what’s being shot since they bring truckloads of lights and professional equipment. When shooting this way, let your candidate know that the photographer will be pulling them aside here and there during the day for extra shots.
6. Don’t think you can do it yourself.
As someone who’s done more of these than I can remember, I know it’s worth it to hire someone to do your shoot and not just have an intern do it. A professional will know good times of day for light. A professional will bring lights to make things look fantastic. A professional will know good angles and bad ones. A professional will be good at making your candidate comfortable with the camera. Especially with COVID restrictions, a professional can be a big help.
7. Your photographer can shoot video.
Lots of still photographers can shoot small video projects these days. If you want to do small, affordable video projects for your candidates, talk to your stills person. On a final note, please let your photographer see what the final results are. In my experience, I rarely get to see what comes from these videos. But I’d love to see the results so don’t hang on too closely to the image rights unless you want your photographer to charge a lot more.
Doug McGoldrick is a Chicago-based commercial photographer and artist. The bulk of his commercial work revolves around photographing political clients for campaign material. Over the last election cycle, he’s had the pleasure of working on over 35 campaigns. Some of his favorites recently have been working with Lori Lightfoot in her historic campaign for mayor of Chicago, and being able to photograph the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.