Photo Shoot Planning Tips

Planning a photo shoot? Check out these tips for a successful start!

I recently project-managed my first full-service photo shoot. It was a two-day, two-location shoot, with 19 models and 10 unique sets, each with a variety of scene setups. The shoot was for Viget’s client, SmartThings, a start-up product company and pioneer in the exciting world of smart homes and home automation.

The goal of the shoot was to capture lifestyle “in the moment” photos that illustrate how the SmartThings product and app seamlessly integrate into people’s lives. The app allows i) customers to access what’s going on in their homes from near and afar and ii) enhances everyday life in general. As you can imagine, stock photos just wouldn’t "cut it".

In addition to being highly creative, energizing, fast-paced and fun, photo shoots can also be very stressful if you’re not properly prepared. As with any project, the more experience one has, the more smoothly run the next project will be. 

So, I am excited to share with you the lessons that I learned on my photo shoot to hopefully give you a leg up on yours!

First, some background... 

Our team was responsible for planning and coordinating all aspects of the shoot, including photography (obviously), lighting, equipment rental, art direction, location, models, wardrobe, props, scene setup, and post-production.

We enjoyed working closely with our client in a very focused time period. We had about three to four weeks to plan and conduct the shoot. The shoot itself provided an opportunity for a deeper level of familiarity and rapport with our client as we spent two 8-12 hour days alongside each other.

Looking ahead, here are some key points to remember for photo shoots:

  • Planning is crucial. Because photo shoots occur during a fixed window of time, and generally capture an environment or circumstance that has been staged, planning is very important to make sure you are able to leverage the time to its fullest potential. Additionally, there are a lot of details that compound on each other, so having a strong grasp on everything that needs to be accomplished will help minimize surprises and stress the day of the shoot. That said…
  • Be flexible. Plan for long days and realize that no matter how much you plan, surprises will pop up—like having to iron a king size duvet cover that was ordered from Amazon for the bedroom scene! :-)
  • Make lists. And bring printed copies to the shoot. For the SmartThings shoot, we created an Overall Shot List which included: overall scenes, moments to capture within each scene, models in the scene, wardrobe for each scene, time of day replicating in the scene, time of day needed to actually shoot, props, etc. We then made individual lists for these components to share the details more easily.  
      • Equipment List.
      • Prop List. Think through all of the props needed, down to the last detail. For example, we shot a corporate office scene in someone’s home. We needed to bring a monitor, laptop, and other desk supplies like pens.
      • Model and Wardrobe List.
  • Bring extra printed copies of your lists to the shoot. This will help your team (and you!) stay on schedule. This will also allow your crew and models to proactively plan ahead for upcoming scenes.
  • Create a detailed schedule. Include buffer time within your schedule so that if things take longer than planned it doesn’t throw off the day. Include time for scene set-up and break down. Include time for meal breaks. If needed, double book scenes within your schedule if models will be arriving/leaving throughout the day. This will help mitigate issues that could arise if a model is late or if a scene is shot more quickly or slowly than planned. Share the schedule with everyone involved.
  • Set up a cinema display on set. If it’s feasible, this is a great way for the team to review photos in real time.
  • Clean up along the way. It’s much easier to stay organized and less overwhelming at the end if you clean up along the way.
  • Define roles and responsibilities. Once your schedule and all of the accompanying lists have been defined, meet with your internal and client team to define roles and responsibilities. Assign individuals to each task and include a deadline. What’s needed to set up a shot? Who is handling what? What are the expectations?
  • Rent equipment from a reputable place. Don’t own all of the equipment you need? No problem. Rent from a reputable place, like LensRentals. This provides easy, lower-cost access to nice equipment. Plus, they will generally provide backups for things like light bulbs which could blow out.
  • Remember the model release forms. Are you photographing people? Plan time to develop and review a model release form with your legal team to make sure it covers liabilities, rights and usages. Every model needs a signed release form—even three month old babies, like Harper. This even applies if you take a picture of a picture (oh the Inception!).
  • Don’t forget to feed your crew. Plan ahead—especially for those long days. Your crew will be hungry. Or "hangry", if you don’t feed them. Have snacks and drinks on-site that can be easily munched on between scenes. To save time think ahead about breakfast, lunch and dinner breaks. Plan these breaks into your schedule and order the food in advance of the shoot so you don’t have to worry about it day of.
  • Bring extra, everyday materials to the set. There are materials we take for granted in our natural environments that you’ll surely need while on set. Eating on set? Make sure you have disposable cups, dishes, silverware, trash bags, drinks and snacks. Emulating an evening during the day? You will need strong tape and black-out curtains.
  • Remind your models of shoot expectations a day or so before the shoot. A friendly reminder will go a long way. Send them the site schedule. Remind your models about the importance of being on time, and being flexible with their time. Remind them of any props or wardrobe they are expected to wear or bring. And don’t forget to give them the address of the shoot and contact information of someone on set to get in touch with if something comes up.
  • Make the models feel comfortable. This is especially important if you did not hire professional models. Chat with the models and provide strong art direction so that they feel comfortable and understand the expectations—and most of all have fun! It will shine through in the images.
  • Thoroughly estimate and include a buffer. In addition to budgeting for the time to prepare and conduct the shoot, don't forget to budget for the expenses associated. You probably won't know all of the hard costs at the time of planning, so make your best guesstimate and add a buffer. Here are some suggestions for tasks and expenses to plan for:
      • Location Scouting
      • Model Scouting
      • Photo Shoot Planning — Don't underestimate the time this will take, especially for shoots with many scenes. Areas to consider:
        • Scene Definition
        • Shot List
        • Identifying models, wardrobe, props for each scene
        • Identifying equipment needed to set up each scene
        • Creating a schedule
        • Post-production
      • Miscellaneous project management and coordination with internal and client teams, vendors and models
      • Expenses
        • Equipment Rental
        • Props
        • Makeup
        • Travel Costs
        • Food (meals and snacks for shoot days)
        • Compensation for models / location
  • Don't forget to include a buffer for both time AND expenses. You probably won’t know the exact amount of time needed to prepare and conduct the shoot, or the hard costs at the time of planning, so add a buffer to your budget. 
  • Make sure someone on your team is experienced and can help drop knowledge. When you or your agency are running a photo or video shoot, have someone on your team that is experienced and can help forecast and provide tips for things that could come up along the way. A lot of things could have gone terribly wrong if this was planned with a team of all newbies.

So, in conclusion…

Our team worked really well together to plan and prep for the shoot which really shined through on the days of the photo shoot. We're very proud of the photo shoot—we got all of the shots we needed, with time to spare, and captured some great images. The planning process really helped us keep the stress levels down during the actual shoot—which was a nice treat.


Samantha manages digital projects from our Falls Church, VA, HQ. She specializes in client service, brand development, project management—and, of course, statement necklaces. She works with clients such as PUMA, Dick's Sporting Goods, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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