The After Action Report (how to get better faster)

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on June 2, 2015

in This is Business

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The power of journaling is earning its rightful place up there with vegetables and meditation in the pantheon of things that are scientifically and undeniably good for you.

Addicts and alcoholics in AA often put journaling one notch below God Himself on the list of influences that have changed their lives.

The reflection and clarity that comes with journaling is every bit as valuable in art and business as in bettering your personal life.

As a professional photographer, the two primary ways you create value are through the art and the experience you craft for your clients.

They say to become a better writer, write more.

So in photography: to become a better photographer, photograph more.

But just as I promote for reading, absorbing, and taking action on books, you can multiply your earned wisdom from every photo shoot by sitting down and breaking down the shoot in an After Action Report.

The term After Action Report comes from gaming culture, mostly wargamers, who will play out a battle or scenario and then write an After Action Report detailing what went right and wrong, and what they’d do differently next time.

As soon as you possibly can after a photo shoot, even as soon as you shake hands and send your client on their way, sit down with a pen and paper (or your preferred digital equivalent) and write out all your thoughts and emotions about the shoot. Do it while the experience is fresh in your mind and heart.

Write out what went great, what went as expected, what went bad, what went unexpectedly, what made the shoot unique or interesting or different. Really evaluate and identify everything of even minor significance, blow by blow. Be fair and honest: don’t just beat yourself up over the things you feel you did wrong or poorly. Recognize your best and worst choices during the shoot – work through both your emotional thoughts and your logical thoughts about the shoot.

Brainstorm from these thoughts: What are your biggest strengths right now as a professional photographer? What are your biggest weaknesses? What can you do to take your strengths even further? What can you practice to shore up your weaknesses, and more importantly, what can you practice to multiply on your strengths? Be specific. If it’s not an action you can schedule on your calendar to do, it’s not specific enough. Focus on baby steps.

Another list: What do you most wish you’d have done differently? What steps do you need to take to choose better next time? Remember, these can be issues of art, of lighting and posing and background and scene, of personality, of conversation, of social interaction, of body language, of encouragement, of comfort, of eliminating stress or worry, of humor, of fun, of preparation.

Another list: What’s one thing you can do differently on your next shoot to make it more fun for you? What’s one thing you can do differently next time to make the shoot more fun for your client? What’s The One Thing?

Another list: Flip through the images on your camera. What did you do right? What did you do wrong? These are more technical issues: did you miss a big, blue trashcan in the background of your best shots? Was the posing flattering? Are the expressions fun or evocative, authentic? Did you blow the focus over and over again (that’s my most common whoopsie)? Did you really draw out some great expressions, big smiles, laughter? How’d you do that?

Another list: Based on everything you’ve learned, the wisdom you’ve gained from doing this photo shoot and really mined for some best (better) practices, make a single-page list of Do’s and Don’ts for your next photo shoot. This will be the basis for a permanent, ever-evolving list that you’ll update with every single photo shoot. This is your growth list – the things you’re going to do better or differently every time you pick up your camera. Take this list with you to your next shoot; read it every day, then read it before and multiple times during your shoot. Stay engaged with your own growth.

Slow down and take the time to make your growth assured instead of incidental. When you do your AAR for this shoot, go over your Do’s and Don’ts list and see how you did. Keep adding new Do’s and Don’ts, moving those items you’ve mastered lower on the list until they drop clean off the page. If your list of active, working items is too long to fit a single page, use a smaller font!

This AAR and the resulting Do’s and Don’ts list are two tools that you will use to turn your practice into consistent performance that you’re proud of. These tools ensure you are always growing at maximum efficiency, turning experience into wisdom far faster.

These exercises will help you create and command more value with your photography.

Next Steps

  • Write an AAR right now for your last photo shoot. It won’t be as good as fresh, but it’s better than what you’ve got! Take a quick glimpse through the photos to remind yourself of the shoot, but try to focus more so or as much on the experience as on the resultant art. Give the shoot its due on paper, and produce your Do’s and Don’ts list for next time.
  • When’s your next photo shoot that you can put this list to work? If it’s not within seven days, get on the horn and get booked. If it’s at all possible, stay booked solid so that instead of doing 12 AARs a year you’re doing 52 or more. Imagine your rate of growth if you multiply both your number of shoots and the wisdom you earn from each.
  • Brainstorm session: Brainstorm 100 things you can do better on your next shoot than you did on your last. Of these, what are the 10 that are going to make the biggest difference in the value you create for your clients? Of these, what’s The One Thing you are going to study, learn, practice and completely ace on your next photo shoot? (Again, imagine where you’ll be by adding 52 amazing improvements to your photo shoots this year!)
  • My writing at exists to serve your needs as an amateur photographer making the transition to paid professional. I appreciate and welcome your readership, and invite you to subscribe to my e-mail newsletter at the top of any page of this site.
  • What’s the biggest struggle holding you back right now? E-mail me your answer (yes, right now!), and let’s make a breakthrough today.
  • If anything in this post has spoken to and inspired you, please comment below, drop me an e-mail, or call or text me at 830-688-1564 and let me know. I’d love to hear how you use these ideas to better your part time photography business!

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