Travel and production tips from the trenches with Tim Tadder

By Anne Telford

Tim Tadder travels the world to capture seemingly impossible images of athletes and other interesting personages. Sometimes getting the perfect shot is the challenge, other times it’s getting to and surviving an exotic location. Tim offered trenchant advice for fellow photographers planning remote shoots, and some laugh out loud anecdotes from his somewhat lofty perspective in a recent conversation.

We’d been trying to catch up for a couple of weeks due to his peripatetic schedule.   His voice booms out of the phone’s speaker, “I haven’t been able to pull images from 14 shoots to update my website since I did it last. That gives me perspective on how busy we’ve been!” He’s recently spent fifteen days in New York, seven days in China, three trips to Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles multiple times…but he’s not complaining.

“We’re super blessed to do this,” he asserts. “We go into every assignment with complete and utter preparation.” That said, “Being creative is not something you can turn a switch on. For me it requires a lot of anxiety and questioning and probing, decision making, trusting, all these emotional things. You’re making these creative choices that determine the outcome of that production,” he adds.

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For the image of the weight lifter I had to physically lift the bar repeatedly to show the athlete the kind of effort I wanted in the images. The original effort was very bland and half-assed, it took me lifting the weight and explaining the points of the peak action I wanted to illustrate.

Tadder’s first assignment in China four years ago proved a difficult experience. This year he had the opportunity to go back to shoot another Olympic campaign. The two experiences were night and day. “I learned a lot from the first trip about how to be clearer about our needs, [our] requirements to be successful,” he claims. “The next shoot was a completely different story, it made me think how much perception we have from one experience then another experience can completely change your mind and your approach. It’s a long way and it’s difficult to shoot there because of the language barriers. We shot in the exact same location and studios: everything was the same but a different experience. That’s worth sharing in a way that people can digest.”

In China the advertising agency hires a production company, and the production company hires the photographer. They base the fee in part on the photographer’s travel expenses. What Tadder discovered is that the production company might have very different ideas about what constitutes acceptable lodging. He was an hour away from the photography studio that first trip. “My legs extended off the bed two feet. I didn’t get any sleep. I hit my head four times every day getting out of the hotel, smacking my head on the exit sign. It was a hotel built for the Chinese who aren’t six-seven,” he remembers with a chuckle. “When we bid this job, they offered a hotel, and I said, ‘I don’t feel comfortable in a hotel like that, I want one that caters to Western clientele.’ If I’m there to do a job I want to be as comfortable as possible. I can direct some of these production things. My flights were total travel time, 20 hours on Air China, with layovers. So I scheduled my flight this time. If you are traveling halfway across the world and you’re wounding yourself on the way to work, you are not going to enjoy the experience and you’re not going to be successful visually.

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Doing science with the language barrier would have much easier for me to produce here. It’s difficult to shoot explosions of powder. That was a 16-hour day. It was a brutal day trying to get it right. Yeah, it was for sure dangerous; you’d never be able to get away with [that] in the States. I kept my eye on the exit!

“All the catering was super street food; it made me physically ill. The second time around I requested foods that would help me survive a week of shooting. I could see a lot of people overlook those things in a production. We were able to make the production a little easier,” Tadder explains.

“That’s what you learn through experience. When I vowed to never go back, I guess I meant that I was going to make it on my terms.” This trip he took a more active role in the presentation. “The last time we immediately went on a four-hour tech scout, in a little van. After 20 hours of flight, we were sitting in traffic for hours,” he relates.

This time Tadder rested and recovered from the journey, knowing the studio layout. “Another experience I learned from is the first time I had a Chinese digital tech. He had a Chinese computer, so we had to get back and deal with files in Chinese,” Tadder says. “I need an English-speaking tech. It made it so much easier. There was communication that was open and honest. He was part of the team.”

Doing science with the language barrier would have much easier for me to produce here. It’s difficult to shoot explosions of powder. That was a 16-hour day. It was a brutal day trying to get it right. Yeah, it was for sure dangerous; you’d never be able to get away with [that] in the States. I kept my eye on the exit!

Doing science with the language barrier would have much easier for me to produce here. It’s difficult to shoot explosions of powder. That was a 16-hour day. It was a brutal day trying to get it right. Yeah, it was for sure dangerous; you’d never be able to get away with [that] in the States. I kept my eye on the exit!

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The gymnastic images are my favorite. I think going to the national gymnastic center was inspiring; we had just shot Simone Biles at her state-of-the-art gym in Houston, and a few weeks later we found ourselves in Beijing, at a completely contrasting space. Their facilities are very Cold War era, completely basic and functional but very much as bland and simple as it comes. It reminded me how far from home I actually was.

Tadder sums up the essentials for a successful outcome: “Good production. That can happen in the States too. Travel or dietary needs aren’t efficient and aren’t good for successful outcomes. Nutrition, sleep, comfort, all those add to the success of the creative mind. You take care of the basic needs, then you can have the right / left brain creative balance; making an uncomfortable journey comfortable. A lot of people can relate to that.

“Seasons, climate, pollution, affect the process as well. If you are able to communicate and negotiate you can make it comfortable, with a much better result. It was something that was fresh in my mind when I came back, what a difference it was from four years ago. The last time I had pneumonia from all the pollution. I came back two days early, with a 103-degree fever. I was so broken down physically from the food, lack of sleep, long days, and pollution, my body shut down.

“This time I came home, went to bed, and the next day drove 13 hours to another shoot!”

While bad travel experiences can make for great anecdotes given time and distance, setting the stage for creativity and assuring the comfort of all involved, can only add to the greatness of the outcome.

The Americans are filled with passion and excitement; the Chinese are very disciplined and methodical. Part of my mentality was to show that. They are like that, but to capture the essence of that was important to me. I hope that comes across in the images.

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