10 steps to a successful photo shoot

Hey, welcome back. This blog is going to give you some tips on how to plan, manage, direct and get the most out of a photo shoot. And for the purposes of this blog we're going to assume that this is a shoot with a band, who have commissioned you to do the shoot.

I've planned and done hundreds of photo shoots, and none of them are ever quite the same. There have definitely been occasions when I've been able to adopt a casual 'rock up and see what happens' attitude, especially when my subjects are friends or clients I've worked with before, and there have been times when I haven't much choice other than to do that...press shoots for example where I have never spoken to the band or known before the day where I was even going to be able to take photos, but the majority of the time I've been organised, planned locations and discussed styles and general overall look/vibe my client is looking for, prior to the shoot.

Hopefully these steps will help you for those times.

1. Be clear from the start what the band can expect for their money. 
Every photographer has their own system in place for how much they charge, and what their client gets for their money. Whether this is the length of the shoot, the level and type of post production editing you will do, how many photos the client will receive, how these are delivered (digitally or in physical format), what the client can use those photos for, if there are any extra charges that might apply for additional things post shoot, whether you require a deposit or what your payment terms are - be clear about all of this from the start. 

2. Have a chat with the band and find out what they are after visually.
This is really important as it's a base from which you can properly begin your planning. I always have this discussion with bands prior to shoots and ask them to provide examples of the kind of shots they like, and say that it could be anything they like about those other photos - the grading, vibe, style, location, composition, how individuals are positioned, what they're wearing, the faces they are making, ANYTHING. Be prepared for the unexpected. I've had a few metal bands tell me they want jump shots, which stereo-typically most would associate more with pop or pop-punk, and pop artists asking for darker, moodier shots. I love the unexpected though, and massively approve of requests that are not quite what I was expecting. 

Or perhaps they already know exactly what they want - maybe there's a theme to their latest branding or CD artwork and they need a photo to fit with and complement that. Asking questions about their current branding and getting as much information prior to your shoot - colour schemes etc, is invaluable information.

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Bars and Melody - General Z album cover shoot

3. Find a location that fits 
I'm going to admit here that this is something I very often assign to the band. They know their local area, assuming you're travelling to them, and are better placed to be finding suitable locations or studios near them. That's of course assuming they have very specific ideas for backdrops and the kind of location they'd like. I have found that in the absence of specific requirements, being utterly spontaneous works too - I love shooting outdoors (weather permitting) so just rocking up and literally wandering around with the band to find cool spots to take photos can work really well. But what are the 'cool' spots?

It gets easier, after many, many years of photography and plenty of occasions of being spontaneous on shoots, to find spots that'll make great photos. Every city, every town has great locations and areas with interesting features or backgrounds, you've just got to know how to find them. Usually I suggest open spaces like parks, open air car parks, beaches etc because I like skies (especially in the evening, but we'll get to that in a mo) but use whatever the local area has to offer. Are there any abandoned buildings? Practice rooms or venues the band have access to? Industrial areas? Graffiti? Woods, lakes, country parks? Underpasses and multi-story car parks can be cool too. Sometimes even an interesting garage door, an alley way or an unusual building front has its use.

The only background I usually pull a face at is a brick wall, but sometimes they can be interesting so even that can work too...

Silent Divide

4. Make sure both you and the band are fully prepped.
Make a list of things you need to remember to take. Clear out your memory cards, charge your batteries, pack your rain coat. Google map your route and plan for traffic so you arrive on time, and the shoot location to check out things like parking and access. Make sure everyone knows where you're meeting, at what time, and what you'll be doing exactly. Talk about clothing - what are they planning to wear, and have they had a band discussion to coordinate this? Big logos can be quite distracting, so perhaps it's best to avoid those. Unless of course that's what they want! Remind them to bring a change of clothes, or multiple changes, water, hair products, coats/layers, a mirror etc. Hair is a big thing, mostly because it's really quite difficult to edit in post production, so I usually stress the importance of paying some attention to it.

5. Props, extras and MUAs
Do you need any of these things? Employing a make up artist (MUA) is a totally personal choice. Some artists prefer to have one, some aren't worried so much. I tend to photo shop out skin blemishes as standard anyway, so don't worry about it too much, but...there is something to be said for the benefits of some light makeup and how much it can help with cutting down on time spent editing any skin issues.

Props can be pretty awesome tools to use on photo shoots as well. You can either ask the band to supply these, if they're required, or offer to get them and add them to your invoice. But sometimes the band has ideas and spends lots of time on setting up their own location and props...   

We Start Partys

6. Lighting
As mentioned already I'm a lover of natural evening light. The majority of the photo shoots I've done have been outdoors and so I'm always thinking about natural lighting levels, and whether to just use this or to add in some artificial lighting too. But yeah, what is the best kind of lighting to use?

When shooting outdoors it really does depend on the vibe you're going for - sunny, colourful, bright, moody, dark, dynamic, dramatic, fun, weird - and of course the weather! Sunshine generally makes everything look more colourful and vibrant, and natural lighting adds a dynamic you can't easily replicate with artificial lighting. If you're outside on a sunny day, not using additional lighting, face your subjects slightly towards the sun, keeping an eye on where the shadows lie on faces etc. During the middle of the day, when the sun is high, you could use a reflector placed low down, facing up towards your subject to help diffuse the shadows created by eyebrow ridges etc. Facing subjects towards bright sunlight, especially in the morning or evening, does tend to make people squint, squirm and generally look uncomfortable though. What I usually do is to face subjects with the sun directly behind them, using the sun as rim lighting, and introduce artificial lighting to light them from the front. I have some flash guns on stands that I trigger wirelessly, and this works really well whatever the weather. It can enhance sunny day photos, or bring out the clouds on dark weather days, or even more importantly for me because I love it so much, make low suns or sunsets late in the evening look amazing, and I highly recommend getting an off camera flash set up. I tend to use this more on dull or cloudy days too, but the results tend to be very different than when shooting on a sunny day.  It can be a bit of trial and error to figure out where to put these to begin with, and what settings to use. I'm going to write a blog about this soon so keep your eye out for that one.

The absence of natural lighting outside changes everything. Because now you have no choice but to find an alternative lighting source or to introduce your own. My absolute favourite alternative lighting source is fluorescent tubing. It's great for skin tones and usually has a good spread of light. This makes practice studios, underpasses and sometimes car parks quite good locations for shoots at night time. Off camera flash set ups are cool too in the dark. Just remember that you need some kind of lighting source to start with for your camera to be able to focus in the first place.  Find a lamp post or a shop front, or a car headlight, or a light of any kind to help you when shooting outside at night time. Oh the amount of times I've stood in the pitch black outside somewhere with a band and my off camera flash set up, using my phone's flashlight pointed at someone's face just so my camera can focus so I can take a photo. It's not the greatest situation to find yourself in.

Dan Baker, 2018

7. Direct your subjects
Ok so you've had the chats, discovered what vibes your client is after, sorted a location, you pretty much know what you're doing and you now have a band in front of your camera ready to go. I cannot stress here enough how important it is that you direct your subjects from this point onwards. I know this is easier said than done, especially if you're a shy person, but dig out that inner confidence and be the person in charge if you can. Your subjects cannot see what you can through your view finder so you need to be the director. You may need to be the person checking that buttons aren't undone, that hoodie hoods aren't wonky and that hair isn't blown into weird shapes on tops of heads.  If you need someone to change position or move even slightly, don't be afraid to ask them to do so. I find that using precise phrases like 'can you please move 2 millimetres to your left?' is really helpful. Aha I know, right...? Sounds bonkers but the tiniest alterations can make a huge amount of difference to the shot on screen. And that brings us onto...

8. Thinking about composition, positioning and eliminating things you don't want in your shots
There's nothing worse than getting home from a wonderful shoot day, putting all your photos into your editing software and realising that there's a telegraph pole or a tree sticking out of the top of someone's head, or that one person is a floating head somewhere at the back of the shot, or that someone or something appears somehow the wrong size, or that the framing is all wrong! Yep, basic problems, but trust me, it's easily done and happens all too often. There is so much to think about at a shoot already that often it's easy to forget about composition and positioning.

I try not to crop any of my photos, but sometimes I have to, and then curse at the fact I've not got it perfect in camera. I make the job a bit more difficult for myself because I rarely use a tripod at shoots, choosing instead to freehand it so I can move about quicker, and quite often I shoot without looking through the view finder at all, because I've put my camera on the floor to shoot or am shooting down onto my subjects, or shooting at arms length to get closer to my subject rather than stepping closer to them (LAZY :P). All recipes for potential disaster I guess, but I like those shots and have had lots of practice, so it usually works out okay in the end, but honestly, if you find that you have to crop a little bit here and there, or compensate by adjusting your horizon in the editing stage, it's FINE. 

But how to decrease the possibility of things you don't want being in your shot from appearing in your shot?

Try to position your subjects somewhere with a solid background or if out in the open, scope around for the spot where things in the background won't be such a problem - a gap in the trees for example. Take a test shot and review it before taking more shots. Re-position yourself slightly or ask someone to move if it means it'll hide something you don't want appearing in the background. You could change the angle slightly - moving yourself lower and shooting slightly upwards towards your subjects might be enough to eliminate lampposts, trees, buildings etc out of your shot. Holding your camera slightly higher and shooting down onto your subjects will help eliminate something above them that you don't want in the shot. Or you could just edit the offending object out afterwards.

Neverise, 2016

And how do I know what positioning of my subjects is the best?

Lots of that is personal preference. There's not really any right or wrong here. I usually just think about equal positioning and whether the shot looks aesthetically pleasing or not, and I tend to overlap my subjects when shooting a group of people. Sometimes I like all my subjects to appear to be roughly the same height, which can be particularly challenging if there's an obvious difference in the heights of various members of the band. But with some tiny little adjustments this can be achieved. It's down to perspective really. If you move someone slightly shorter or taller forward or back literally an inch that will come across in the shot as a noticeable difference. There are occasions too when I might ask someone to stand on tip toes or spread their legs wide to physically make themselves taller or shorter. That's not to say that it doesn't work to have perspective in your shots though - bring someone forward if you want them to be the main focus.

I love 'power shots' - making my subjects look formidable, and you do this by shooting from a low down position, maybe getting your subjects to 'stand tall', chins slightly up, legs apart. I also love casual sitting shots, although for me the preference is to not have everyone sitting in the exact same position, with their arms and legs doing the same things. And as we're on the subject of arms and legs, apply this same thinking to other shots too. 4 or 5 sets of just hanging straight down arms can be less interesting.  

I also tend to prefer that vocalists stand in a prominent position in the group too. This doesn't always have to be slap bang in the middle, but somewhere either in the middle or nearest to the camera is good. But again, personal preference. Your subjects might not want this, or you might want to try difference things. 

Most of all, keep changing it up. Swap people around, overlap and angle bodies slightly, spread everyone apart, put them close together, ask your subjects to do different things with their hands and arms, tilt heads in different directions. And keep showing your subjects the photos as you go along as there's no better way for them to see how they can improve how they're standing or looking.

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9. Be prepared for when things don't quite go to plan
No matter how much planning you do or how well organised you are things do sometimes go wrong. You've organised a 2 hour shoot out on location and you don't find out til the day that it's going to rain. Or the venue/studio you've booked has been double booked. Or you arrive at a location to find out that it's actually unsuitable for your plans. Or one band member turns up with only one t-shirt and it's radically different to what everyone else is wearing. Oops. These have all happened to me on multiple occasions. Having more options for locations or a plan B can be really useful, especially for potential bad weather. Discuss with the band prior to the shoot what plan B could be, and hope it doesn't happen. But be prepared that it might.

10. Be yourself and enjoy it!
If you're relaxed and friendly and smiling and enjoying yourself, so will the band. Don't be in a hurry or put pressure on yourself to get through a schedule. The most important thing here is that your client is happy with the visual content outcome. A brilliant afternoon spent with new friends (and potential future clients), and a dozen cracking photos that the band loves and can use is a success.

Vanna, Plymouth

Blog header image: The Devil Wears Prada, 2008