Be Prepared For A Successful Photo Shoot

When preparing for a photo shoot, one can’t expect to just show up unprepared and have everything fall into place. Whether it’s a wedding, portrait or landscape session, we all find more success—and make better photos—when we go into it with a plan. There’s the Aristotelian concept of “five Ws and an H” that form the perfect way to prepare for a photo shoot. Here’s how to think about the “who, what, when, where, why and how” in order to develop an appropriate game plan and ensure your next shoot is a rousing success.

Who Is The Photo Shoot For?

The “who” of your photo shoot are the people involved. That could just be you, but it could also include the talent for your photos—models or friends who will be participating—as well as clients, crew, assistants and anyone necessary to pull off the shoot. If it’s a shoot you’re doing for yourself, entirely for fun, the “who” could help you consider your inspiration and reasoning for the shoot. Likewise, if that “who” involves a client with an agenda, this is the opportunity to consider their direction as well. Mostly, though, the “who” are the people who need to be at the right location at the right time. For that to happen, someone’s going to have to make a plan for them. As the photographer, it’s ultimately your responsibility—or yours to delegate—in order to ensure the people involved are all on the same page. 

What Is the Photo Shoot For?

The “what” of your photo shoot will include all of the necessary things involved in the shoot—from equipment to subjects, props and more. I find that making a checklist of cameras, lenses, lighting equipment and accessories, as well as all the incidentals I might need from ladders to lunches to sunscreen, is the perfect way to ensure I’ve got my bases covered when it’s go time. The more out of the ordinary my shoot might be, or the more unique and specialized the equipment involved, the more likely I am to rely on such a checklist to ensure I’ve got my “what” well covered.

When And Where Is The Photo Shoot?

The “when” for the photo shoot is pretty straightforward: on what day and at what time are we doing this? But I like to think that this goes hand in hand with the “where” as well, because together “when” and “where” encompass everything from travel requirements to location needs and even planning for weather contingencies. I also use this opportunity to wield a technological advantage—using Google Maps to plot out my travel route to the location or the most efficient path from scene to scene.

Software, such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris (found online at, takes this part of planning to a whole new level, allowing for the planning of vantage points and predicting the path of the sun and moon. This way, a photographer can ensure the light and composition elements will be where she wants them when she wants them. Best of all, simply scouting out the location in advance is an ideal way to determine time of day, angle of view and all of the other things that may be necessary to make the “where” work perfectly.

This is also the opportunity to determine how the location may need to be prepared or simply what time of day will produce the ideal light to achieve the best results. All this holds true whether you’re a nature photographer or an advertising shooter, whether you’re shooting for fun or for profit. The location scout can end up informing all of the other Ws (and that H) as well. Lastly, don’t forget to keep an eye on the weather. Are things looking bad for tomorrow’s shoot? Do you need to cancel ahead of time or risk wasting time and money for yourself, your clients, your family or your team? Without a contingency plan in place, weather can throw a potentially disastrous wrench into any outdoor photo shoot if the photographer has failed to prepare.

Why Are You Doing This Shoot?

When thinking about the “why” of a photo shoot, one could be snarky and say “because I was hired for it” or “because I want to photograph Arches National Park.” But in this context of planning, the “why” really provides an opportunity to think about the images you’re trying to make and put in specific context the goal you’re trying to achieve. It’s the pre-visualization part of planning, and it’s how you determine many of these other factors of who, what, when, where and how. The “why” might be as simple as “to make a photograph of Delicate Arch at sunset,” which allows you to consider the other steps needed to reach that goal—when to be there, what equipment to bring, how to position your camera and so on. Without an end result in mind, how can you determine the best way to achieve it?

The old saying is that bad artists copy while great artists steal. So many photographers keep a collection of tearsheets and images from photographers they admire. These are ideal for inspiration as well as providing great jumping-off points in advance of any shoot. If you see a beautiful red-on-red fashion portrait, for instance, working backward from the tearsheet you can determine what’s necessary for everything from the background, props, clothing and talent to make it work. Those things don’t typically just happen spontaneously; they’re well planned out in advance. With the work of other master photographers as a guide, it can be easier to plan for greatness with a visual representation of the goal in hand.

How Will You Execute The Shoot?

The “how” of the photography plan could be thought of as the creative agenda, the technique or simply the process that will be implemented. This might be the creative points at which you’ll start and end (“First we’ll do the in-studio close-ups, and the last shot of the day we’ll trash the dress”) as well as any key points you need to hit along the way. I like to outline the priorities as “must-haves” and “nice to haves” and ensure I cover the “must-haves” first and foremost. I also make sure to build in time, usually at the end of the shoot, to go off-book and experimental.

For a studio photographer, this could be as simple as leaving time at the end of the day to get creative, take the camera off the tripod and explore with the camera in hand in order to change the way you see and interact with the subject. This same kind of freehand exploration works for landscape photographers, architectural shooters and really any kind of session in which a specific end result is visualized ahead of time with the understanding that sometimes the best photographs are the ones that happen spontaneously. After all, luck favors the prepared.

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