Understanding the Photo Shoot: Behind the Scenes

28 Feb

September 2012 9 AM. It was a good sunny day in Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar, Bataan. The photo shoot set was good-to-go, the cameras were ready to roll, and the photographers were ready to shoot. All is well for my sister and her fiancé’s pre-wedding photo shoot. And it’s also about time for me to start my mini adventure in Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar.

Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar is a heritage resort that showcases Philippine history, customs and traditions in its every detail. Its rooms are named and designed after historical landmarks such as Paseo de Escolta, the strip of commercial structures in Escolta Manila during the early 1900s.

Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar, Bataan

Paseo de Escolta was my sister’s first choice for their photo shoot but unfortunately there’s another team scheduled to do theirs in the same location. My sister and her team had to transfer to Casa Lubao instead but Gab, my sister’s good friend, and I decided to stay in Paseo de Escolta. From Paseo de Escolta, Gab and I walked leisurely for a few miles when we saw the other set. It took Gab a couple of minutes to realize that it was Jason Magbanua’s team doing the shoot, Gab’s old boss.

Jason Magbanua @ Work

Gab casually said hi to Jason and he waved back in return. When we were about to leave, Jason shouted to ask Gab if he could be part of their group since they’re shorthanded. Gab agreed and even brought me in with him, thinking that I’d be willing to help also. In an instant, Gab was back to his old self and I became part of the team as a personal assistant.

Before we start kicking our ass off, Gab left me a small reminder saying, “Sarah please always stay composed”. I took this reminder lightly and didn’t pay much attention to what Gab really meant. Prior to the start, I had no fear of joining the team. I was even kind of confident, thinking that they’ll just ask me to hold lights for them, nothing really hard and demanding.

As soon as everyone started to work, the set became a big mess. The clothes were scattered everywhere, people were shouting all over the place, the director was lying on the grass, everything was just chaotic and not on their original positions. In an instant I was completely lost. Things were going too fast. I couldn’t understand what’s happening anymore, once someone asked me to hold the lights, the next time they wanted me to hold the fan and then random people were giving me instructions.

Regardless of all the mess and disorganization, there are also amazing parts of the shoot. It’s surprising that in the midst of this chaos, these people seem to know where to position themselves, what to do, and even know what to ask me to do. They make sense out of their own mess. These people can understand each other without even talking. It seemed like they have their own language, culture and world. I can still remember the instances wherein the director would snap his finger and his assistant would quickly switch the focus of the camera or turn on a new camera. Without saying anything, the assistant already knows which angle and which camera to use. And every time the director would clap his hands twice, they’re done with that particular set and costume.

Aside from these hand gestures, the director is also a man of few words. His directions were mostly just one-word accompanied by few hand gestures like for example when the director says “lights” and a twinkle hand gesture, he means more lights but when it’s paired with a shrinking hand gesture, he means control the light exposure. When the director says “change” he wants the stylists to change the outfit or the hair of the clients because they don’t work. And at the back of the cameras, the stylists would quickly just pull up the hair or curl the hair of the bride, and immediately put on more and more powder. I find it uniquely weird how the members of the team connect with each other. They don’t even have to talk to get things done perfectly.

At some point, the shoot was too much for me to handle but it’s only through the errands that I felt I belong. The group worked with me with no special treatment even though I didn’t have any background, even though I’m one ignorant child and even if I had a fair share of fails moments. I can still remember when the photographer asked me to move the lights to the left but I moved it to the right instead. There was also this time wherein I move the light board either too high or too low, because I don’t know the light direction the team was saying. I felt lost because the photographers, directors and stylists seem to have their own world and language but thanks to Gab who was my translator, interpreter and guide. Whenever I can’t do a task well Gab would come over and help me finish them, and whenever I don’t understand he would translate the instructions to me or explain the point of doing so.

Through out the day, everyone worked non-stop, there weren’t much breaks in between. The first time I checked my watch it was only 9 AM. In a snap of an eye, it was already 7 PM. It was already a wrap for everyone. The day that I thought to be chill, and only a travel experience turned out to be one of the most physically demanding days I had. I might not have the chance to explore Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar but I earned myself a learning experience. I started off pretty confident that I can manage the work and experience but at the end I was proved wrong. It wasn’t easy, and wasn’t a no-brainer as well. In reality, the work demands focus, concentration and passion. All of these efforts are worth it because to be a part of a couple’s special event, to be part of the team that will help them reminisce all the memories in the future, is truly an experience. Many people might say a picture paints a thousand words but after this experience I must say that a picture paints a thousand words but what happened behind this picture leaves thousand of struggles, hard work, creativity and memories.

Word Count: 1088


I would just like to share the story of the couple (Mara and Elo) we shot. The couple was special not only because the groom (Elo) has dwarfism but more of because both have a touching and genuine story. For those interested in their wedding on-site video, here’s the link:

Mara & Elo

What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?

Observing the shoot and participating in the shoot are two different paradigms because observing can only satisfy ones sense of sight, one can only go as far as being a keen observant of the small details but participating allows the person to live and be in the experience. Observing the photo shoot from afar, I only saw a sense of clutter, and disorganization of people and things. I got the feeling that the output video was a story of lies and fallacy that had just undergone drastic transformation because in reality the set was really messy. But the moment I had the chance to step in and experience working in a photo shoot myself, I slowly got the point why these photographers despite all the mess and the fast-paced environment still choose this field of work and career because there’s always the sense of fulfillment and happiness.

Seeing the people carry those lights, those props seem so easy but the moment I jumped in to try, I felt that it wasn’t as easy as it looks, it’s physically demanding because you should steadily hold the light and intellectually demanding too because you should consider and go with the direction of the sun light, wind, and even find the perfect angle. And if I didn’t participate I wouldn’t realize how hard the work was. Participant observation allowed me to have a holistic experience that includes both sides of the work, the nice and ugly, and even the mini panic attacks. Experiencing it myself paved way for me to go beyond the technical know-how of the work and instead feel the genuine emotions and intensity involved.

What did having a key informant add to your understanding?

The whole experience started around 9 AM and ended pretty late around 7 PM, and throughout the whole experience I’d like to thank Gab, my key informant. He acted like my tour guide when I was completely lost, he was my interpreter when I can’t understand their language, and he patiently explained the reasons behind. The moment I stepped in the work he gave me the small reminder to be composed. Indeed this reminder speaks about the whole experience. In the piles of mess, one can easily be lost, it was hard to be composed but because of Gab I was briefed well with what’s going to happen, what to expect, what to do and not do. It was also Gab who explained to me the reason why directors and the team have to act the way they acted. He was like bridging the gap between the world I’m completely unfamiliar with, world they work on, and my world.

What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?

In this experience of participant observation I was able to gain insights on how these photographers and directors work and communicate with each other and as well as the emotions involved in making the videos. If I just had to interview someone or ask series of questions, I won’t be able to feel the emotions and leave a mark. I won’t take into account how physically demanding the job is, how much composure is needed to not panic in the shoot.

I must say that if it’s only about questionnaires or interviews, I can only ask the usual technical know-how questions but because of participant observation I was able to live the experience and find the interesting perks of the activity, those that the people involved don’t usually take note of, and even those facts that seem to be confidential. Like for example, being an outsider, I can see the gestures and work styles of the directors and photographers with a neutral perspective and they seem to be unique and interesting for me. But when I conducted the interview about how the team communicate with each other, the director’s answers didn’t mention about those unique gestures that I saw probably because he sees the uniqueness of their style as something so common. If I had to conduct an interview instead, I would have lost the chance to experience the event based on my own perspective, and gather less quantitative data. Through participant observation, I eliminated the chances of misinterpretation and exaggeration because I get the opportunity to gather first hand data, and live the experience on my own perspective and not just using the words of others as basis.

For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?

A questionnaire or interview is better than participant observation in instances wherein the person wants concrete and more objective data because interviews and questionnaire are more standardized than participant observation. Also if the study requires response from a larger pool of people, recording more data or plans to replicate the study in the future then questionnaire or interview might be a better choice than participant observation.

Sarah Jane Cua SA21 (P)

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Posted by on February 28, 2013 in Uncategorized


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