Back when I was taking pictures just for the fun of it, I never once thought to optimize my preparation. There was no preparation — no shot list, no scouting, no mood board. That all changed when making pictures became my job and my livelihood.
Now there are stakes, and it’s more important than ever to set myself up for success and lay the foundation necessary to create work I’m proud of. In fact, let me dispel the myth of the scatter-brained creative who picks up their camera when inspiration strikes; I would argue that the quality of my preparation before a shoot is the single biggest indicator of how my final images turn out.
Before I go any further, let me take a moment to define what I mean by “professional photo shoot.” This includes any photo shoot that is conducted for commercial purposes: in other words, to make money. I would like to broaden that definition to include any shoot that is conducted for the purpose of fulfilling a commercial assignment, whether or not it is commissioned by a client. Oftentimes when you first start out, there are no real clients to speak of, and the onus is on you to produce self-assigned work that builds your portfolio in a way that potential clients see what you can do. Regardless, there are real stakes involved and a target audience you are trying to reach. Yes, this requires your own time and money, but do it right and you will be well on your way to your first commission.
To begin, ask yourself these two questions:
1. What are your constraints?
Whether they are provided in a client brief or they are self-imposed, the following constraints will always apply in some manner:
- Target audience
If these constraints are left undefined, that means someone isn’t communicating properly; you are always working within some kind of box, no matter how big or small. Either ask the client or be honest with yourself, because I can guarantee that even Jeff Bezos himself isn’t flying you to the moon for that perfect shot.
2. What are your goals for the production?
Does the client have a specific hero shot in mind for the campaign? Are they trying to bring more female representation to a historically male niche? Maybe your portfolio errs on the darker side of the color palette and you want something more bright and light-hearted. Whatever your ambition, make sure you have a clear idea of what you want going into this endeavor. Without direction, things can go off the rails quickly.
Once you have an answer to these questions, you can begin gathering your thoughts in a structured way. I’ve broken it down into a simple five-step process:
Step 1: Ideation
Not everyone simply sits down, has a lightbulb go off, and amazing ideas start flowing. Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he writes about the benefit of setting aside time to dive deep into the task at hand and work without distraction for a set increment. As I write this article, I am alone in my office with headphones in and Pop Goes Classical playing on Spotify. I texted my girlfriend to tell her I would be unavailable for a while, set my phone to Do Not Disturb and got to writing. I don’t always follow this process to a T, but when I do, I know that I will be at my best.
Once you have set aside time to think, feed your brain with outside content — work from other photographers you want to emulate, Pinterest boards with the look and feel you’re seeking, etc. This is your time to go down those rabbit holes and look outward for inspiration. Take note of your ideas as they come; some prefer mind mapping, others make lists, but find what works for you. When the ideas run dry, filter them through the constraints you identified earlier. This will help you narrow your options to something attainable and realistic. You can archive those that don’t make the cut for future consideration. In my case, I do this publicly in the form of Dreamscapes, a collection of creative concepts I have put into words for future inspiration.
Step 2: Mood board
Once your selected idea is clear in your mind, it’s time to find visual content that matches your intended style and document it. Pinterest is great for mood boarding, but using one social platform can be limiting. I prefer to look across the internet — on Google Images, stock websites, Pinterest, Instagram, you name it — and curate my findings in Evernote. This allows me to keep all my pre-production materials centrally located and searchable.
If you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, then aren’t you just copying someone else’s work?”
Here is the thing: There is very little that hasn’t been done before. If I were scrolling through a single shoot on Alex Strohl’s website copying only his images, then you might have a point; but when you cast a wide net and gather reference images from 20 different photographers, you aren’t copying anyone. You’re simply finding your lane.
Step 3: Casting
Once you have identified your target audience, you have to find the talent that best matches that audience. As I discussed in a previous post on how to tell an effective brand story, the character you choose must match the story. Depending on my budget, I may use a professional modeling directory like JoinAgent.com. On a self-assigned project, I would instead seek out a friend or search Instagram for local talent to offer a time for print (TFP) arrangement where it’s known that both parties are unpaid and looking to build their portfolios.
Step 4: Location Scouting
Steps three and four are interchangeable depending on the kind of images you are shooting. For a project that leans more heavily on the adventure side of things, location is often the more important variable and thus should be decided first. I often find interiors using Airbnb, while I find outdoor locations using a variety of platforms: AllTrails, Instagram, Pinterest — take your pick.
Step 5: Shot List
This is where the rubber meets the road. All the ideas you have floating around in your head must now be documented as concrete, defined shots. In the early stages of pre-production, I take note of my ideas in list form on Evernote. Then, using StudioBinder’s shot list widget I cross-reference that list with my mood board to sequence shots in the order they will be taken. Every shot includes detailed notes on who the subject is, what action is taking place, the kind of lens I plan to use, from what angle I want to shoot, and the kind of lighting I expect to have. It may seem tedious, but consider this a time to visualize the end result and ground your thoughts in one succinct document.
Now Bring It Home!
With all the necessary pieces now in place, it’s time to execute on your vision. In the event you are working with professional talent or you are working within a specific timeframe, I recommend drafting a call sheet for the entire crew and including your mood board and shot list as attachments. I often find it useful to print all of these documents to include in a hardcopy production binder on the day of the shoot. It keeps you organized and provides a fail-safe in the event your devices run out battery or lose connection.
Now that you’ve done the legwork, you can rest assured that when shoot day rolls around you will have done everything possible to prepare for success. Get out there and make some beautiful images.
About the author: Brad Vassallo is a commercial and outdoor lifestyle photographer based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A creator since his earliest days, he once had the dream of being a National Geographic photographer. In spite of those aspirations, he spent the better part of his life chasing other people’s dreams of what he was supposed to do and who he was supposed to be. At a certain point though, the voice inside got to be too loud, too persistent and told him that the path he was on was not his own. He began to listen to that voice, affirming his own creative aspirations and returning to his creative roots. You can see more of his work on his website and Instagram.
This story was also published here.