So, let me just start by saying that wow, it’s been a tough few weeks. But even with all of life’s unknowns, it’s been so inspiring to see the outpouring of support you all have shared with me—thank you! So, in light of the growing complexity in our lives and the uncertainty that comes with it all, I thought we should step back and talk about something light and completely different than what you’re used to hearing right now. And since most of us are spending our time indoors I thought that now might be the perfect time to talk about the immeasurable importance of location scouting before going on a shoot. And to do so, I’m going to start out by sharing a particularly humbling experience I had while location scouting at an island chain in Indonesia. Yes, it was gorgeous; yes, it was terrifying; and yes, we thought we might die in the middle of the Flores Sea (twice).
Every location that you consider shooting in will come with its own set of challenges, whether big or small. Which is why it’s always super important to take a day or an afternoon at the very least to evaluate your location’s surroundings for any unexpected obstacles or visitors. This is just what we did when preparing for a swimwear shoot off the coast of Labuan Bajo, Indonesia, where a tiny grouping of islands offers some of the most gorgeous scenes imaginable alongside some particularly terrifying environmental factors.
In preparation for the shoot, we decided to stay at a hotel on the tiny (and when I say tiny I mean you can see both sides of the island from the top of the hill outside the hotel) u-shaped island of Seraya Kecil and use this as our home base.
Our scouting adventure started at 4:00 am when our alarm went off, telling us it was time to get ready for a very full day of location scouting at the nearby islands. Dustin and I woke up covered in sweat since the eco-lodge we were staying at turned off the power in the middle of the night to conserve electricity…meaning that neither the lights nor the AC would work for a few hours. We quickly showered outside (in the dark) and used flashlights to pack up all the camera gear we would need for the day and then headed down to the boat docks to meet the rest of our crew by 5:00 am. The sun had barely even begun to illuminate the horizon line by the time we were pushing off the dock and into the dark waters of the Flores Sea for a three-hour boat ride to our first scouting spot.
Our boat was a beautiful Kalimantan cargo boat about 72-feet long and 12.5-feet wide and looked like it was taken straight out of a pirate movie. It was owned by the hotel for tourist snorkeling trips around the nearby Komodo Island chain, but they had agreed to let us borrow it for the day for our scouting. In hindsight, we should have realized that this boat wasn’t exactly ideal for what we were doing—it was giant and moved very slowly, meaning that trips between the islands took at least five times as long as they would have by speed boat. And if you happen to get motion sickness like I do, the less boating time on the open ocean the better.
source: the seraya
After 3 or so hours, we arrived at our first location, Komodo Island, aptly named such as it’s one of the only places in the world where you can see Komodo dragons (you know, those giant, 10-foot long, 300 pound lizards that have a poisonous bite and giant claws) in their natural habitat, should you want to. Of course, we couldn’t pass up the chance to give ourselves a mini-panic attack and pay a visit to these potentially man-eating lizards.
With a guide by our side, we hiked across the island and got up close and VERY personal with a few Komodo dragons, and then made our way off the island, having quickly realized that there was absolutely no way we would be able to shoot on this island, with or without our Komodo dragon guide at our side.
Our next stop was a sandbar called Taka Makassar, the main attraction on our location-scouting tour. This place is nothing if not majestic. It’s a tiny curve of sand just above the water level made up of white sand speckled with red coral that makes it dance and shimmer a vibrant pastel pink under certain angles of sunlight.
This combination of pink and white sand and translucent teal water is truly what dreams are made of, and we were so excited to be able to be there, with our toes in the sand, planning out the next day’s shoot—this was without a doubt the spot we were looking for. Or so we thought.
After having enjoyed a quick lunch on the boat, we took some time to lounge on the sand and wade in the water, contemplating how we could make the shoot work with literally nothing on the island (there’s not a single bush or tree to be seen).
Suddenly, we hear one of the women on our team yell over to one of the crew who is wading in the water, “Hey, look! There’s a snake swimming right under you!”
He glances down into the waters below him and immediately rushes out of the water screaming. I’ve honestly never seen someone run so fast, much less in water—and pretty soon I knew why.
As soon as we were all safely out of the water, we glanced back to see that there were a few snakes in the water. Now, I’m not sure what type of snakes they were, but the locals told us that apparently they’re poisonous snakes whose bite can kill you within ten seconds if they bite you in the right spot. Oh, and that they were native to this area. What! Considering the fact that no one had shared this bit of information with us up until this moment, to our disappointment we quickly began to rethink shooting here.
After talking it over with the crew, though, the owner of the swimwear line determined that if we stayed super vigilant, we could move forward with the shoot (luckily, they’re sea snakes, so we didn’t have to worry about encountering them on land.)
It was already well into the middle of the afternoon at this point, so we decided to load up our giant pirate boat and begin the trek back to the hotel to prepare for the next day’s shoot.
About half-way back to the island, just as the sun was setting, we suddenly noticed that the boat’s engine had cut off. Confused, we assumed that they had stopped to look at the sunset, or maybe show us some marine life nearby—we were wrong.
The boat’s engine had actually failed, and they were having trouble getting it to start back up again. We then thought that they would just use the boat’s radio to call the coast guard for help, only to discover that the boat had no radio! And considering the fact that we were literally adrift in the middle of the Flores Sea, there wasn’t a single bar of cell phone reception to be found. We were floating in the absolute darkness in the middle of the ocean without any way to contact anyone for help. Not only that, but the Flores Sea is well known for having some of the most dangerous, fast moving currents in the world.
After drifting for nearly an hour, our guide had managed to secure a single spotty bar of cell phone reception to call for help. He told the person on the other end of the line what happened but before he could tell them exactly where we were the connection dropped and that was it. We had no idea whether they were going to send help, much less whether they’d even be able to find us if they did.
Finally, we noticed a few lights moving in the distance that appeared to be coming our way. Our hearts literally jumped with hope, thankful that we were (hopefully) about to be rescued. A guy then showed up in a tiny put-put boat that we each had to leap into one at a time while avoiding falling into the darkness of the waters below as the two boats rocked back and forth against one another. Terrified while also laughing hysterically through the experience we all made it, cheering on the boat captain who saved us.
By the time we finally made it back to our hotel it was around midnight, we greeted the rest of the crew who had arrived earlier that day and we quickly made arrangements to rent a speed boat for the shoot the next morning.
Needless to say, that whole day was an absolute adventure and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. But most importantly it drives home one super important lesson: always, always scout your locations before shoot day!
It’s so important to understand each and every element you’ll be up against when going into any shoot you are hired for…and sometimes this might mean fending off snakes and Komodo dragons. And even if your shoots aren’t always quite this intense, you learn a lot about what you’ll need to prioritize and bring for the actual shoot day when you take the extra time to survey the landscape, lighting and logistics around you. There are so many things to consider when planning a shoot, so making sure that you take at least a little bit of the surprise out of the shoot day by planning ahead. You’ll be better able to adapt to any curve balls the universe throws at you… and sometimes there are a lot of them.
After all, it’s always better to be over-prepared than risk running into potential problems like Komodo dragons, deadly sea snakes, or boats breaking down in the middle of the ocean.