First Photo Shoot Tips for Photographers: Everything You Need to Know in 5 Steps

First Photo Shoot Tips for Photographers: Everything You Need to Know in 5 Steps

There's nothing more nerve-wracking than your very first photo shoot.

What if everything goes terribly wrong? What if it turns out you don't know what you're doing? What if you walk away with no usable images? When people are counting on you to nail a shoot, the pressure can be unbearable.

These anxieties are universal, so don't worry. Every professional photographer worked through their nerves – and eventually developed a system to help organize and execute their creative vision. 

This article is going to cover everything you need to pull off your first photo shoot like a seasoned pro, so read closely.

Alisa on the rooftop for a glamor shoot. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 50mm f/1.2.

Alisa on the rooftop for a glamor shoot. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 50mm f/1.2.

Photo Shoot Tip #1: Pre-shoot Homework

Ask yourself: what are the bare minimum, must-nail shots on this photo shoot? It can be anywhere from 3 to 7 images (or more, depending on your client). Now, close your eyes and imagine in detail what those images might look like in their final form.

This is a process called 'previsualization', and the most deliberate and consistent photographers are masters at it. The previsualization process will inform the equipment you'll need to bring with you: camera bodies, lenses, lighting equipment, stands and rigs, coats and blankets, and more. This exercise will give you a 'check list' and keep you on task during the entire shoot.

Next, assemble a mood board. Pinterest is great for quickly cobbling together images, but if you're presenting to a client, you may consider tools like gomoodboard for a more polished feel. The purpose of a mood board is to share the generalities and aesthetic concepts you're going to bring to the table. As the photographer, your collaborators or clients look to you to be the creative authority, so be sure that your visual references are refinedcohesive, and fitting for the assignment. 

Finally, be sure to share your mood board and concept with your client (if paid) or your model (if trade-for-print (TFP)). It's essential that all the stakeholders have signed off on your creative vision before the photoshoot, rather than after!

Photo Shoot Tip #2: Triple-check inventory

This goes without saying, but you can't be too careful when it comes to the night before.

Charge all of your batteries. Empty all of your SD/CF cards. Clean your lenses. Trigger your external flashes. Take test shots with every camera body you plan on using (because you do have a back-up body, right?) and every SD/CF card to test for corruption.

There's nothing worse than the sinking feeling of being on location and having your gear missing or malfunction. Thankfully, proper preparation can mitigate that risk.

Some photographers do well with a check list to ensure they've covered all of their bases, while others wing it. Either way, this step is essential to the process.

Looking for some second shooter bodies to cover your bases? Check out our Fuji X-Pro 2 review – or, for the adventurous type, the Yashica T2 film camera review.

Katie featured in a baking editorial. Canon 5D Mark II, 50mm f/1.2.

Katie featured in a baking editorial. Canon 5D Mark II, 50mm f/1.2.

Photo Shoot Tip #3: Logistics of Location and Timing

This aspect of your photo shoot can be soul-sucking and stressful for the photographer. Luckily, there's a whole system mapped out to ensure things run smoothly.

In the creative industry, we use something called 'call sheets' to ensure that our collaborators – models, stylists, make up artists (MUA), and grips – know where and when they're expected at all times. On bigger jobs, you're likely to have a producer who will help manage all these moving parts. On your first shoot, it's going to be up to you. You can use this site as a reference to base the structure of your call sheet.

If your photoshoot is outdoor using natural light, you'll need to be consider the quality of sunlight at the time of shooting. Plan everyone else's movements around your ideal hours for sunlight – for most jobs, that'll be low and soft, like early morning or late afternoon.

A prepared photographer has a contingency plan for everything. Check the forecast, but be ready for any weather condition. Did your MUA's car break down on the way? Have beauty essentials in your camera bag. Your grip flaked? Be sure to pack your gaffer tape!

Photo Shoot Tip #4: Create the Atmosphere

Bad news for most of us: professional photography is as much about charm and charisma as it is about composition and technical exposures.

When working with models on your photo shoot, you have to be constantly mindful of how they're feeling. The slightest shift in mood or comfort can send a shoot spiraling off course as the model tenses up.

Coaxing your model into their A-game is more of an art than a science, but there are some best practices you can keep in your back pocket. For example – background music is essential. Be sure to keep refreshments on stand-by. When – and only when – you really nail a frame, show your model to boost their excitement and confidence.

It's important to note that a good model will be totally attuned to the subtleties of the photographer. They're sure to notice a change in shutter frequency or their photographer's quiet 'hmm' sound and understand that their pose isn't working. 

Managing this relationship is all about communication, so sprinkle positive reinforcements every 3-or-so frames, and consistently voice gentle and encouraging pose suggestions. If you're not comfortable directing a model, come prepared with screenshots of poses you like from fashion and editorial photographs and reference them on your shoot. 

Many of the lessons in our 10 do's and don'ts of portrait photography can apply here. Perhaps you'll want to read that before your shoot?

Photo Shoot Tip #5: Get Weird

Remember the previsualization exercise where you decided on a set of images to execute? Once you've checked off every one of the mandatory shots on your check list, it's time to throw that out the window and experiment.

A model on a test shoot. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 50mm f/1.2.

A model on a test shoot. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 50mm f/1.2.

So often, the shots we don't intend to take are the winners of the day. Near the end of the shoot, don't be afraid to relocate, restyle, or re-light your model. Jump in a river or climb a tree – it's ok if things get a bit scuffed or dirty, because these last shots in your contact sheet – the photographs that are guided solely by your creative impulse as a photographer – will either end up harmless throw-aways... or career-defining, client-delighting masterpieces

Did we miss anything? If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself before your very first shoot?

Sound off below, and we'll include the best responses in an updated version of this article.

Digital strategist, writer, and image maker based in Manhattan working with clients in the tech and entertainment industry.