The Art of Planning Your Photo Shoots

posted on 15th of june, 2009

Have you ever wondered how long it takes for a pro (team) to produce a series of stunning shots (and why)? If not, then I'm sure you've at least wondered why your shots aren't (always?) as good looking as they are in your head. The key to answering both questions is as simple as the word many artists don't really like (perhaps even hate?): planning.

First things first. Why is it important to plan your photo shoot? Mainly because it will save you time. Secondly, it will allow you to think through what you'll be doing in a quiet environment, which will lead to you actually enjoying it much more, rather than (freaking out?) being stressed about "What pose should I shoot next?" Lastly, it will allow you to deliver images with a much better technical execution but moreover - images with a clear and useful concept.

Sure, this is all good, but how do I do it? Well, for a starter - try to get a clear(er) idea of when and what you want to shoot next. Allow for a buffer of at least a day or two before the shoot (I personally find a week to be best) in which you can dream, plan and organize details for the session. Once you've done this, move on to actually planning the shoot itself. Here things will differ greatly depending on what and where you're shooting, but let me give you a sample scenario - you'll be shooting a session with a couple at their home, kind of a leisure lifestyle theme.

1. Always start with the concept. In other words, what do you want your images to communicate? Love, romance, wasting time, spending quality time together, entertainment, domestic work, cooking, on-line communication... If you force yourself to first list the concepts you want to cover, you'll be able to stay on track and use your potential to the max.
2. Make a script. That's crucial. Write down the pictures you have in your mind in a format similar to this: "Man cutting veggies on kitchen counter with woman giving him a surprise hug. Both smiling. Shallow DOF, focus on man." Writing things down will not only force you to be clearer about your ideas, but will also help you track where and what you may be missing. Make sure your list is as detailed as possible, while also preserving a natural flow of poses. Make it in sections and don't put together the kitchen shots with the ones from the garden... ;)
3. Think of the props. Yes, you do need that, and if you want good looking images, you'll have to go to the grocery store and buy some basic stuff (ie. stuff you'll be chopping in the kitchen; popcorn and drinks for the movies, etc.). If you're using stuff you already have, make sure they're in a nice condition and clean of dust, hairs and other dirt, which will be noticeable at 100% zoom of your final image. Mind the clothing in the context of your concept for the image.
© Nyul (Help)
4. Think time. Consider the setup you'll need for each of the shots and how long it will take you to move/change it around for the next. How long will it take for the models to change clothing (and makeup if needed)? Take an approximate higher value in mind as you plan the total time for the session. Allow for short breaks.
5. Be flexible and learn to follow the mood. The list/script is there to keep you within a margin, not limit you in your creativity as it emerges during the session or constrain your models in regard to what ideas they may get during the session. This is why, the better you know your script, the more freedom you'll have to work both with it and the people/environment around you.

If you want to take the task of shooting for stock seriously then you just won't be able to get far without planning at all. Spend some time reading or watching what the pros have already shared on the Internet about their procedures and you'll soon realize how much of it is playing a part in their creative activity. I've started doing this seriously as of recently and I'm finding it quite liberating. It doesn't just save you time, but also makes you much more efficient. Aside from the experience, I believe that planning is the main reason why for beginning stock photographers an hour of work translates in a mere 5-10 good shots. While an hour of shooting will result in at least three/four times, if not even more quality images, when a so-called "pro" is behind the camera.

Lastly, here's an exercise for you: As you look at images, try to analyze them in detail and think of what it must have taken the creator to achieve this (w/o counting the post-processing work). It is also true that professional stock photographers are rarely one person... it's more like a whole team of people. Yet, don't let this discourage you. One person with a plan can achieve far more than one person without a plan. :)

Comments (17)

Comment by Grobledo on January 10, 2010

Fantastic article, very helpful!!

Comment by Scottysally2 on January 08, 2010

Thank you for sharing this useful information. I am new at this game, so every tip helps.

Comment by Freedomphotos on July 09, 2009

Thanks for all your ideas. I am contemplating model photography (purely amateur at this stage) and feel it would be a good idea to 'start off as I mean to continue' I would like to become proficient in portraiture.

Comment by Thoth11 on June 29, 2009

The script I follow is picking 4 to 6 outfits w/ model from casual to dress to business to sexy and shooting w/ mostly white backdrop or whatever color seems to work best w/ look. As I've improved in my portraiture I've started hiring more expensive models, with beautiful and expensive models scheduled for july and august. I have written notes and done some light setups, and hired a cheap not as experienced model for practice. I would say scripting/planning is important and obvioius when spending $150 to $300 on model fee. I do see a time that I will want to finance a pro type shoot where planning every detail will be a must. Most of what you wrote would be figured out after a photogs first shoot and corrected for the second, one would hope.

Comment by Titania1980 on June 28, 2009

thank you! It can be useful. I'm not a pro, I just take the camera with me and shoot a lot. Maybe I can try to do a plan :)

Comment by Rebeccaosborn on June 27, 2009

great tips, thanks so much!

Comment by Alerizzo78 on June 26, 2009

Great post and great tips! Thanks for sharing!

Comment by Vaskoni on June 25, 2009

Good blog post. Thanks! :)

Comment by Frackowiak1 on June 23, 2009

Thanks for sharing :)

Comment by Petarneychev on June 21, 2009

Mark, it is true that microstock does not offer the speedy return in terms of royalties, but if I didn't believe it was possible to break even I wouldn't have invested anything myself. :) We'll probably remain on different opinions on this, but I just wanted to bring some balance to the whole picture. I'm not a full time pro, but what I am mainly trying to state with my article is that investing time and resources in preparing one's microstock shoots will inevitably result in higher quality, and if done wisely - quantity as well. And the combination of these two is much of what's necessary for a successful microstock portfolio.
I would disagree that microstock substitutes quality over quantity. What microstock does, though, is requiring quantity in addition to quality. There is many successful portfolios which testify of this. That combination is fairly natural, given that you're no longer aiming at a limited and/or local audience of clients, but a world-wide intercultural one.

Comment by Onime on June 19, 2009

thank you for your tips. it's open up my mind. great blog.

Comment by Msphotographic on June 19, 2009

One of the problems with microstock is it really doesn't pay enough to justify the prep time a good shoot requires. While a well planned shoot certainly results in more downloads, it does not result in ENOUGH more downloads to justify the time and costs.

On my professional shoots many days go into prep work.... storyboarding the shoot, going over it with the art director, working out wardrobe, makeup, props, location scouting, getting permission to use the location (yes, we really do get permission), selecting models, doing a casting call with models to ensure they really look like their pictures and finally doing the shoot. Guess that is why so many of us consider our work worth more than a buck.

The microstock model substitutes quantity over quality. They try to compensate with image inspectors to reject what doesn't meet the bar, but effective photos take some work. On a recent designer shoot I did in NYC, the expectation of the shoot is that I would produce 10 to 12 photos for a days shooting.... studio work, not location. The pay ran about $500 per image plus all expenses including studio rental, travel, hotel, and rental of all equipment (more cost effective than trying to transport it in NYC). In this case the art director of the agency did all the leg work.

If you are going to put that kind of work into a shoot, GET WHAT IT IS WORTH. Set your sight higher. You will never break even putting professional time into a shoot while licensing the work for fees that are LESS than the credit card companies charge for the transaction! Take some time to research the market and find out what the pros are actually making and why they make it. It will blow you away. And their work is worth every penny. Don't sell it short, don't sell yourself short. Go ahead and shoot microstock, but for the professional work, CHARGE PROFESSIONAL PRICES. To do otherwise is a crime.
Mark Stout

Comment by Diomedes66 on June 18, 2009

Great post Petar, one of the things I find really useful about having a written plan is that when you do follow the models, or other persons suggestion, is that when you are finished with their idea, you have a plan to go back to and continue. Without a written plan the new idea is distracting and the shoot frequently loses momentum.

Comment by Justmeyo on June 18, 2009

Yes,it is very useful this article and i personally i do few things from all what u typed,i always have a plan or a concept and it is true u need a little team ..i have only one person who help me,Gabriel

Comment by Reeddaigle on June 18, 2009

Great blog post. Thanks.
For photography, aside from some assignments I've done in the past, I like just going out with the camera and shooting things as I discover them. However, since getting into microstock, I'm trying to improve my planning even for walk around shoots. Even when just discovering a new place, if I have an idea in mind or a feeling I'm looking for, my eyes will be more attuned to those things. When I go out without much of an idea, I sometimes find great things, but I also often come back with little more than a nice stroll.

Comment by Littlemacproductions on June 16, 2009

Thanks for mapping out these valuable suggestions. Another important tip if shooting outdoors (or indoors) walk the area/location and plan some perspectives and angles. If you have an idea in mind test the look in the viewfinder to ensure it fits what your plan is. Nothing like having a wonderful thought but no way to get the garbage can out of the way!

Comment by Wildmac on June 16, 2009

Very useful, thanks for sharing :0)

Comments (17)

This article has been read 10775 times. 22 readers have found this article useful.
Photo credits: , Ron Chapple, Konstantin Sutyagin, Nyul.

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