One of the very first things I do once I have a magazine assignment, is put together a shot list based upon the research that I have done for the article. This shot list is basically the images that I think will best visually aid the story that I am working on. When you offer a magazine a story package, that is – both photographs and text – you want both parts of this package to be equally compelling and to complement each other. Not only are you telling a story with words, but you are also telling a story with photographs.
There is no limit to the specifics of how detailed a shot list can be. When the Discovery Channel sent a film crew out to capture white sharks breaching off the coast of South Africa as they attacked seals, they did not simply want their crew to capture a few breaches and come home. This would have been easy. A week’s worth of filming and the crew would have had over a hundred breaches to choose from. The film crew however, spent something like three months aboard that boat trying to capture the specific footage that they needed for the show.
If you sign up for photo needs lists, you will get an idea of this first hand. You will sometimes see requests for something as specific as “mature bull elephant facing camera with land rover facing the elephant at sunset. There needs to be a female photographer set up on top of the truck with tripod and large telephoto lens facing the elephant with an African driver. The elephant should appear to be charging towards the truck and dust is kicked up in the air behind it.” Now that is specific!
For me, the image that accompanies the blog post was one that I have on my shot list for the story. I wanted an adult pileated woodpecker perched vertically on the side of the tree at the nesting cavity, head leaning in to feed the chicks, and the tail exaggeratedly braced into the side of the tree. So after two weeks of working this nest from a blind, everything lined up just right. One problem though. 15 seconds before I tripped the shutter on this, I lost my beautiful early morning side light to a bank of clouds that rolled in.
So why would I need an image so specific? Well, there are several different reasons. First has a lot to do with the angle of the tree and background limb. With the bird leaning into the cavity, this creates a curved figure that helps to anchor the composition when juxtaposed with the very distinct angles of the tree and limb that both lead off to the left. This sort of posture helps to hold everything in place. Second, I wanted the image to be obvious that the bird is leaning in to care for its unfeathered young. Third, I wanted a big emphasis on the tail.
The reason that the tail is so important is that this thing is what sets woodpeckers apart from the rest of the avian world in their ability to forage in a vertically. Out of the roughly 10,500 different species of birds on Earth, less than 100 outside of the woodpecker family can effectively perch on a vertical object. Of all the birds that can do this, the woodpeckers are the champions at it primarily because of this highly modified tail that works to in conjunction with the feet to create a stable tripod.
Birds that are able to perch and maneuver on a vertical surface tend to keep their bodies plastered against the tree much like a rock climber does everything he or she can do to keep their bodies as tight to the rock face as possible. Woodpeckers however need to be able to lean back away from the tree to chisel into the wood or peel bark. Most other birds would tip over and fall off if they tried such a feat. For a woodpecker however, this is made possible because of its modified tail that braces against the tree.
Shot lists like this are not only useful for magazine assignments and projects that you are working on, they are also a great thing to put together before any photography trip. Do you research beforehand. Know exactly what the opportunities will be where you are going and develop a list of photographic ideas that you would like to accomplish while there. This will keep you on track and shooting towards a goal instead of aimlessly photographing an area. There is absolutely nothing wrong with impromptu shots and most of my favorite photographs have been evanescent moments that I had no way of planning for or knowing would happen. With that said though, have a solid idea of what I wanted and what I needed to do to make it happen helped me be in the right place at the right time for those evanescent moments.