Challenges of Shooting in Remote Locations
In December 2013, I was asked to shoot the 2015 Voda Swimwear catalogue in the British Virgin Islands. The shoot involved traveling on a catamaran for two weeks and shooting on remote islands.
What made it more challenging was that it would be a a bare bones shoot with a very small budget considering what was to be accomplished. I accepted the job because of my love for adventure and sailing. The clients are also good friends. Yulia, the designer, I have known practically since she moved to the U.S. with her husband Dustin, a former marine, from Kyrgyzstan.
Even though this job was not a big pay day for me, the experience it gave me was invaluable. We had not only had a blast shooting, relaxing and exploring in our downtime, it was also one of the most challenging shoots of my career both physically and strategically.
For several months before the shoot, I thought about what kind of lighting equipment I would use. I wasn’t sure if I would have an assistant besides Dustin, so weight was a factor. I also knew from years of shooting their catalogues before, that I could expect to have to shoot about 80 bikinis. Having been on many small craft boats, I also knew space would be confined so size and portability was also a factor. I am loathe to bring equipment I am not absolutely sure I will use.
The week before the shoot was troubling because the weather forecast was clouds and rain. It was only on the day we actually left that I finally decided I was going to take a chance and rely mainly on two photoflex reflectors. I brought my Canon 600 EX flash and 2 Quantum 400 strobe units. I left my Profoto 7B kit at home because of the weight and foreseeing it could be a problem transporting it on a dinghy, etc.
When we arrived it was stormy and wet. I was starting to wonder if I had made the right decision not to bring the Profoto to fake some sunshine.
It turned out I was awarded an assistant afterall. This was a real blessing because I can’t imagine completing this job without one.
I could not have hoped for someone better either. We met Dan, an ex U.S. Force Recon Marine, hanging out on the dock with a backpack and asked if he would be willing to come along. After a couple minutes of thinking, he gladly jumped aboard joining our adventure. Not only was he a great assistant, but one of the most authentic and unique human beings I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.
None of us had been to the British Virgin Islands before, so Dan also acted as an expert guide, deckhand, cook. . . . You name it. He even taught me how to scuba dive at “playgrounds” near Sandy Spit.
This was a working vacation for all of us. We would be gone for two weeks and decided to divide the shoot across five half days to be shot early in the morning at sunrise to avoid the scorching temperatures and also so we would have afternoons to play around in the sun and water.
The lighting conditions would have been better in the afternoon since the leeward side of most of the islands were facing West and the open sea was facing East.
The weather and lighting conditions were less than ideal. In the morning we had to wait for the sun to rise over the mountains and then we had clouds drifting in and out for most of the day. At some points we even experienced light showers while shooting. Beyond this, the wind was an average of 18-24 knots, perfect for sailing but not so great for hair.
Our first day proved difficult. Mostly because there was some disagreement about where the best places to shoot. Also Dan had not yet come onto the job yet, so it was just Dustin and me. We were at a resort on Peter Island. It was beautiful, but the wind was so strong that it was impossible to get off more than a few shots.
The morning lighting on the leeward side of the island was cool and flat, and I had to use my Canon 600 EX flash to attempt to make the colors pop. I suggested to Dustin that we find an alternate location. Dustin agreed and we left for the adjacent Salt Island. Salt proved to have better lighting and wind conditions. We only shot half as many suits as I had hoped for that day (maybe 15).
We lost a lot of time because we had to sail to a separate location. By the time we arrived at Salt Island it was blistering hot and the heat exhaustion was starting to get to us. The good news was that we realized after that experience that we would have to think more carefully about which locations we would choose. We also decided to begin as early as possible (4:30AM) to avoid the sweltering sun. The reward for starting early was that we always had time to snorkel after a hard day’s work.
Our next shooting day was at the famous “Baths” on Virgin Gorda.
This was by far our most difficult day. We had disembark a rubber dinghy in 3 feet of water and carry our equipment and wardrobe to shore through waves somehow without getting it wet. Dustin and Dan did yeoman’s work that day. After our equipment was safely on shore, Dan and Dustin still had to carefully guide the dinghy by hand through some large rocks and drag it onto shore.
At this point, I was really glad that I did not bring the Profoto 7B along. However, even with all the trouble, the exquisite scenery made our extraordinary efforts well-worth it. I only wished that we could have spent an extra day there shooting. We had to hike through some serious rocks, but we found an amazing grotto nicknamed “the cathedral” because of the dramatic way the light leaks in.
Thankfully, we arrived super early before the tourists started pouring in, and we were able to shoot 3-4 suits using a combo of reflectors and the Quantums. I was beginning to worry that we were not getting enough work done each day.
This was also the most difficult day for me because I had been experiencing extreme tendinitis in my right forearm making it difficult to hold the camera. To make matters worse, after the shoot, we all went snorkeling at Devil’s Bay and I got separated from the group, getting lost. I could not remember where we had moored and ended up swimming for more than 2 hours before I found our boat, Ty Soizic (the name ironically means “Get Sober”—exactly what we were not doing most of the time).
To make matters worse, as is usual on a boat we experienced some technical problems with our engine and our wifi, so we had to head back to Roadtown to have the boat serviced.
We headed to Trellis Bay to experience local artist, Aragon’s, fullmoon party.
Dan is originally from San Francisco, but had come to BVI on vacation with his family and found a way to stay by working/ living as a WOOFER on Aragon’s organic farm up in the hills overlooking Trunk Bay towards Guana Island.
Here we discovered Arundel Rum from the Callwood Distillery, which is one of the best rums I have ever tasted.
After long discussion, we decided that Anegada, while the furthest island, would offer the best shooting possibilities. We even considered shooting two days there. We liked that Anegada has miles of stretching white sand beaches and turquoise water.
This is exactly the look the client was craving. The fact that the island is fairly flat also made morning lighting better because we did not have to wait as long for the sun to rise over mountains. Anegada was our most productive and easy shooting day.
We were able to use two reflectors for the whole day, allowing us to move quickly and shoot several suits (30) in a short amount of time. The lighting, besides clouds drifting in and out, was pretty consistent.
The stars at night in Anegada were incredible. We all were sad to leave this beautiful haven. But we decided our scenery options on the island had been maximized, and we only had two more days left of shooting. So we decided to make our way back to Tortolla to Soper’s Hole to celebrate Matt’s birthday.
Dan cooked up some crepes with Nutella and bananas for brunch, and we popped a bottle of champagne.
At this point we were more than halfway finished, and feeling entitled to a few days of relaxation. We went to a local dive bar and enjoyed to some live acoustic music, danced and mingled with the locals.
With one week left, our days were running short. So after much determination, we decided we wanted to split our time between Jost van Dyke and the Bitter End on Virgin Gorda, which had a couple of very nice yacht clubs to hang out during our free time.
Our last two shoot days would be Sandy Spit, a small uninhabited island just off the coast of Jost Van Dyke and Prickly Pear Island, which was just off the coast of the Bitter End.
After spending a couple of days at Jost van Dyke scuba diving, swimming and visiting the local watering holes for Rum therapy—Foxy’s, Ivan’s and the Soggy Dollar, we anchored at Sandy Spit at about 4:30 AM. The day went without a hitch. Second to Anegada, this was our best shooting day.
On our last shot an older gentleman was lingering back and forth in our shot, when we finally realized this same older gentleman had been dancing the night away with our model Yulia at the Bitter End, just a few nights earlier. Had he been following us? We greeted each other and shot some group photos.
It turns out he was on 40 foot mono hull sailboat with seven other guys on their annual bachelor’s vacation from their wives. Who would have thought on a deserted island, we would run into these guys drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon at 10AM?
At this point, Dustin, Yulia, Matt, Dan and I were all really starting to get to know each other very well.
At night we played games and cooked gourmet meals, laughing and trying our best not to be eaten alive by mosquitos. But we all had our duties on the boat, cleaning the deck, washing dishes, cooking, mixing Painkillers (famous BVI drink made of Rum, crème de coconut, pineapple and orange juice).
After spending ten days at sea, rarely having a formal dock or any of the modern conveniences of a yachtclub—i.e. we had to bath by jumping in the sea, soaping ourselves then rinsing off with the shower on the pool step—everyone agreed to spend our last few days at the Bitter End yacht club on Virgin Gorda.
We could reprovision, take showers, and relax at the club. We had only ten more bikinis to shoot and wanted to finish it up quickly in a couple of hours at the nearby Prickly Pear Island.
The island offered some interesting possibilities, with the abandoned bar, some pebble beaches and palm tree coverage. We didn’t have the pressure of 80 suits looming over us at this point. We had a good working relationship with one another. Also I felt like I had gotten used to the wind, the clouds, possible showers, and other obstacles to shooting. We were able to mostly get away with using two reflectors again except for the first two or three shots in the early morning when the sun had not yet come fully around to our location from behind the mountain of Virgin Gorda.
We banged off our martini shot well before 10 AM, and somehow ended up at the fanciest yacht club I have ever seen called Costa Smeralda.
They even had a valet come fetch us and take us there. We were practically the only guests and had the place to ourselves.
The day could not have been more perfect, except that as I was relaxing by the pool, I learned that my most beloved doggie Charlie, had just passed away.
Our last day was spent at Norman Island where we snorkeled at Indians and the Caves, saw sharks, and just fully enjoyed the last moments of our trip.
The following morning, 4:30 AM, sadly and in the rain, we sailed back to Roadtown to return the boat and make our final departure back to Los Angeles.
I did not expect to like the British Virgin Islands as much as I did. I can think of no other place more perfect for a sailing/photoshoot trip—so many islands to visit, countless spectacular landscapes, pristine beaches, crystal clear water, amazing snorkeling and scuba diving, and best of all, lovely, fun and interesting people.