You know the work of the iconic photographer Richard Avedon, but you might not know that before his shoots, he often asked his models what food and music they preferred on set. When he first photographed Twiggy, he famously played music from the popular English rock band The Kinks. In the end, his thoughtful approach helped create a natural, relaxed atmosphere in his studio, leading to more expressive and dynamic images.
What you do before a photoshoot is often just as important as what you do when you’re on the clock. Pre-production and planning set the stage for a successful project, help a session run seamlessly, and cut down on time spent in post-production. While the process looks different for everyone, many photographers rely on a few basic steps to ensure every shoot goes off without a hitch. Here are our tips for planning your next session.
Make a mood board
Building a mood board, even if it’s just a Pinterest board, serves two purposes: first, it helps you refine your ideas, and second, it helps you communicate those ideas with others, including your models and clients. A mood board is a simple collection of pictures that represent the aesthetic, color palette, atmosphere, or overall direction of your photoshoot.
You can pull images from 500px, magazines, or anywhere else you want. Of course, you won’t copy these images, but you can use them as inspiration before adding your own twist and interpretation. A mood board can be a good starting point before you cast models, rent props, source wardrobe options, or scout possible locations. Share it with your models and makeup artists to get them started with ideas for posing and styling.
Scope your spot
Location scouting can make or break a photoshoot, so if you can, spend some time exploring and taking test shots before the day of the shoot. During this part of the process, you might notice obstacles or challenges in lighting or styling, and you’ll have time to rent the gear or props you need to make it work. Also, pay attention to the weather forecast and time of day, as conditions in your location might vary based on your schedule.
Have a meeting
If you’re working with a team (or a client!), get together before the shoot to set expectations and get acquainted. A casual lunch or cup of coffee will work, as will a Zoom chat. The important thing is getting comfortable with one another before the cameras start rolling. After the meeting, touch base with everyone in the days leading up to the shoot; stay accessible, and be quick to answer any questions they might have.
Set a schedule
Speaking of schedules, always set clear expectations with your team, crew, and models. Photoshoots can be unpredictable, so give yourself more time than you think you need, and arrive as early as possible to set up. Depending on the session, you might also break the day up into smaller time blocks, with a fixed amount of time allocated to each location or wardrobe change, to help you stay on track. If you’re working with a team, consider sending a call sheet to everyone with exact timing, location, and contact information.
Iron out the details
This one goes without saying, but you’ll need to clarify any fees or costs before the shoot. This includes your day rate and usage fees if you’re working for a client, and it also includes any rates you might be paying your models or crew. Your collaborators might be happy to trade time for prints rather than accepting a fee, but either way, make sure you’re on the same page about payment.
Another detail to consider would be model or property release forms; you’ll need to get these signed if you plan to license your photos or use them in a commercial context. Finally, discuss deliverables. Let your clients or collaborators know when they can expect to see the images and how and where everyone can use them once they’re ready. For example, can they share them on social media? If so, for how long are they allowed to use the images?
Learn from your mistakes
Think back to your last couple of photoshoots, and make some notes of what you’d change. Are there any lenses or lighting accessories you wish you’d brought with you the last time? Did you run into any trouble with your location? Did you get any feedback from your team about what you could do to make their jobs easier? These are all factors to take into consideration as you improve from shoot-to-shoot.
Get a good night’s rest
Sleep is an obvious but often overlooked factor in your productivity, so make it a point to turn in early the night before your shoot. You can pack everything up before you go to bed so you can spend the morning enjoying breakfast and a cup of coffee, going over last-minute details, and mentally gearing up for your day.
A simple checklist is a photographer’s best friend, and there are two to create before any shoot: first, you’ll make a list of all the gear you need and test it out the day or night before to ensure everything is clean and in working order.
If you need to rent any lenses, accessories, or other gear, give yourself plenty of time to become familiar with the tools you plan to use (you don’t want to be fiddling with your equipment on set). Finally, include any documents you’ll need, like model releases, contracts, or mood boards. Remember to give your list one final pass before heading out the door.
Second, you’ll also create a list of all the shots you want, from your main images to the smaller details. Shot lists are especially important when working with a client because they’ll often come in with expectations of the photos they want. Touch base before the session to make sure you’re on the same page. Even if you’re shooting a personal project or building your portfolio, a shot list will come in handy. You can read our tips for making one here.
Go the extra mile
Okay, we borrowed this one from Richard Avedon. Create a playlist to help you and your team get “in the zone” once you’re on set, and bring snacks for everyone. Music and food will help keep the energy up and create an engaging, collaborative atmosphere. Finally, don’t forget to have fun yourself; your team will take their cues from you, so if you enjoy the session, chances are they will too.
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