Edina homeowner Stephanie Schneider is hosting a party of sorts on a recent Thursday morning, but she doesn’t have to lift a finger. Among the guests are a photographer, a stylist, a producer and an art director who move around the main floor of her farmhouse-style home with cameras, lights, rolling carts and several laptops.
The kitchen island offers a spread of quiche, fruit and small bowls of snacks — sustenance for the crew who will be there all day. Everyone is doing something — arranging lighting, placing props, reviewing shots. And despite all the activity, it’s remarkably quiet. It’s just another day in the life of a house model because this party is a photo shoot.
Schneider’s home, which she shares with her husband and three kids, is the backdrop for photos that will be used on product packaging for a Twin Cities area retailer.
Her own furniture has been pushed to one side of the family room to make way for today’s “models”: a dining table and chairs, a small cabinet, a lamp, table linens and glassware. The stylist has added a sheer white curtain to one window and a big green houseplant in the corner to create a chic yet quiet backdrop against which the products can shine. Schneider is in and out, chatting with the crew and checking out the action. She’s been hosting professional shoots for the past six years, ever since location scout Anne Healy approached her soon after they moved into their newly built house near the Edina Community Center.
“I said yes immediately,” Schneider recalled. “I would be stupid not to do it because there’s really no downside. I enjoy creative people and I get to see them re-imagine my space with new arrangements and decor. Sometimes I end up buying the products when they’re on the market because they looked so good in my house.”
The decision is made easy largely because location scouts pay well — upward of $1,500 a day for the use of a home for interior or exterior photo shoots. Commercials or film shoots pay double or triple that. And the money is tax-free for the homeowner for up to 15 shoots per year.
‘Best housing stock’
Healy and her husband, Tobias Shapiro, own Minneapolis-based Healy Locations. They’ve been scouting for photo shoots, commercials and movies in the Twin Cities area for the past 28 years. She got her start when she was asked to find ice rinks for “The Mighty Ducks,” the film shot locally and released in 1992.
“They wanted a month of indoor ice in March,” she recalled, “which was nearly impossible given all the youth hockey leagues we have here. But I found it and got hooked.”
Today, the couple’s bread and butter is photo shoots at area homes, a healthy niche because of the large number of advertising agencies and Fortune 500 companies based in the Twin Cities area, as well as the wide range and high quality of housing.
“We have the best housing stock in the country,” Healy said.
A variety of architectural styles, neighborhoods and proximity (she can find a perfect midcentury modern and a traditional farmhouse within 20 minutes of each other) make this area attractive to agencies, production companies and retailers looking to find the perfect fit for their brands.
In addition, the local talent pool of freelance photographers, producers, stylists, sound people, models and actors (she cites the Children’s Theatre as a great resource for child actors/models) makes it easy for clients from outside the area to work here.
Kitchens, great rooms and living rooms are most in demand, particularly those that are light, bright and modern in style. The trend toward open-concept floor plans has been a boon for location shooting as it gives crews plenty of room to set up, move around and take photos from different angles. And thanks to a stable of high-end builders and architects, the Twin Cities area also has a good supply of contemporary farmhouse style and ultracool modern spaces that photograph well and make even inexpensive products look like a million bucks.
“You can put an inexpensive piece in a gorgeous house, and it will fly off the shelves,” Healy said. Not only does a cool house sell product, but it also can drive trends in home design, as consumers see the look in catalogs, print ads, social media, packaging and commercials.
Better than a set
Agencies and clients prefer shooting in actual homes because it’s more authentic and less expensive than building studio sets. It’s also more versatile — they can photograph different products in different rooms on the same day. They work with the location scout to find homes that complement the look and feel of their brand — traditional, contemporary, bohemian, etc. Often they’ll come back to the same house over and over because it’s such a good fit.
Healy generally finds her houses via old-school methods — she drives around looking for likely candidates and drops a postcard in the mailbox. About 70 percent of the cards she leaves get a response.
“These are expensive properties, and most homeowners are doing it for fun money or to shore up the kids’ college fund,” she said. “We usually only shoot on the first floor, and for one day’s work, the homeowner walks away with a check that makes it worth their while.”
Healy is careful to protect the privacy of homeowners by not publishing addresses or wide exterior shots. She’s also vigilant about protecting the house from damage by traffic and equipment, and prides herself on leaving the home in as good or better condition than they found it — a skill she’s learned the hard way.
“On one job years ago, we had a very pregnant agency executive on the shoot, and she was wearing these spiky high heels,” Healy said. “At the end of the day, I saw all these dings in the wood floor, and knew just where they came from.”
The floors had to be refinished, which, though paid for by the client (with insurance for such contingencies), was an inconvenience for the homeowner. “Now everyone takes off their shoes,” she said. “Live and learn.”
Homeowners are notified a few weeks in advance of a photo shoot and about a month before a commercial or video shoot. In-demand homes with great lighting or trending styles can be booked several times a month or even weekly during busy times, such as spring and summer when fall and holiday-themed shoots usually take place.
Healy makes sure to give the neighbors a heads-up so they know why the street has more traffic than usual, and whom to contact if there are issues.
A crew of anywhere from five to 12 people shows up in the morning and takes over part or all of the main floor, rearranging furniture and setting up equipment, lighting and products. Crew members might move the homeowner’s things off to the side, remove a drape or take the kids’ artwork off the fridge, but they put everything back in place when they’re finished.
Usually homeowners leave for the day, especially those who have worked with Healy for a while. Pets often stay — and sometimes make it into a shot.
“We’re all pet people, and it’s nice to have them around,” she said. Everyone on site also signs a nondisclosure form to keep the designs and details of the client’s product from finding their way into social media before it hits the market.
At the end of the day, usually around 4:30 p.m., the crew packs up, moves equipment out, cleans and restores the homeowner’s things to their original places. The goal is to leave no evidence the home has been the site of a busy photo set.
One exception is when they have to make snow during the summer for exterior holiday shoots. “It can take 15 hours to melt,” Healy said, “but it’s kind of fun. On one location last year, a neighbor family came over in their holiday sweaters and took their Christmas card photo.”
Laurie Junker is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.