When I worked at a magazine, every month a couple of the shoots we assigned would fail. Fail to meet our standards, fail to be interesting, fail to capture what we were looking for. Immediately we would need to either kill it and reshoot, kill the story altogether, find pickup to replace it (I worked at a place once where they wanted me to find pickup and make an assignment simultaneously which seemed like a defeatist attitude so I usually just pretended to look for stock) or just figure out a way to run it. What you do depends on how far over budget you are, the number of kills that month, amount of time till you go to press and wether or not you can come up with a solution.
I worked at several magazines where we were told to reduce or eliminate (!) the number of kills (btw, eliminating the kills always amounted to pretending like it was going to run in a future issue and when that future issue never came–2 years down the road–we killed it). Kills have always been a part of making magazines and I would argue an important part of how a magazine is different than a newspaper or a monthly is different than a weekly. When you kill photographs it’s because they aren’t good enough to publish and that means you have high standards. Also, the only way to find brilliance is to take chances. Companies have R&D budgets because doing things the way you’ve always done them will never produce an unexpected bit of genius. You might think the first thing to do in a time of budget crisis is eliminate the R&D budget. This will of course eliminate your edge over the sea of sameness.
There are several reasons why a shoot fails:
1. The editor’s fault: Many times when making an assignment we are dealing with an incomplete picture of the story. Either it hasn’t come in yet or it has and is going back for a massive rewrite. Usually this leaves interpretation of the subject and selection of the photographer with a very wide area to work in. Whether this is bad or good usually depends on if the editor is one of those people who likes to see the important parts of the story depicted in pictures. You can also sometimes get caught in the trap where the editor is focused on a particular paragraph or sentence of a story pitch that may not even be possible to shoot. These shoots are called sandbags and always fail on some level.
2. The Photo Editors Fault: Sometimes I will fail to understand what it is the editor is excited about in a particular story and assign the wrong photographer or send them off in the wrong direction. Sometimes I would be unable to put enough effort into figuring out how to shoot something. I should also point out here a skill that is often overlooked in Photo Editors which is the ability to motivate and lead photographers. Magazines do a horrible job of teaching management skills which is sad because the reality of photo editing is that you’re hiring and managing a ton of freelancers each month and a huge part of managing people is leadership.
3. The Photographers Fault: I don’t think anyone really admits when they think a shoot they just did sucks eggs, because you can never really tell what’s going on inside the magazine and of course I’ve had CD’s and Editors love shoots I thought missed the mark. I remember calling a photographer who just delivered 3 different pictures for us to tell them one was not working to see if there was anything we could do and he remarked that he was just telling an assistant how the picture you love is sometimes the one they hate. Anyway sometimes you can’t make good pictures. Veteran photographers know how to make sure they get a baseline image no matter what.
4. The Budget’s Fault: It’s no secret that magazines try to accomplish more with less and cutting expenses can lead to a shoot’s failure. Eliminate pre-production, producer, shoot time, assistants, wardrobe, hair, makeup, casting, location scouting, props and you will see a difference in the pictures. You’re simply leaving more to chance when you don’t button up a shoot with these things in place and you have to be willing to redo it if luck is not on your side that day. I should also note that showing a portfolio to the editor where the pictures took $20,000 in production value to create and then handing them $5,000 to get it done will certainly lead to disaster.
A failed shoot is no big deal and if a photographer has done other sucessful shoots for you in the past it’s easy to move on but if it’s the first time shooting they’re probably not going to get a second chance no matter who’s fault it is. Failure is a part of the creative process and it’s a big part of making something great and unexpected. Without it you’re just mediocre.