Ooh baby, it’s showtime.
(Speaking of showtime, here’s tip #1 for starting your first photo shoot right: show up on time. And on time means at least 10-15 minutes early. Guaranteed: if you don’t, your client will.)
You’ve booked your first client, gone over your personalized pre-shoot checklist, and just parked at the location you chose for your first official photo shoot. Grab the paper bag, don’t hyperventilate, and get ready for a terrifyingly exciting ride. Here’s where you get to shine – here’s where you create art that your client can’t live without buying.
Okay, assuming this really is your first rodeo, a more reasonable goal may be to just walk away an hour later with images that are in focus and salvageable in Photoshop.
Just like anyone who has ever tried their hand at “something new,” your first time isn’t going to be your best. I don’t believe so much in aiming for the stars and landing in the heavens as I believe in mindful preparation and doing your best. It’s all that can be asked.
You can knock it out of the park later on; for now, let’s just worry about getting around the bases, one at a time.
On your first shoot, you’re going to deal with a heap of emotions and self-induced pressure:
- You don’t want to come off as a clueless amateur.
- You don’t want to give a bad impression and be talked poorly of.
- You don’t want your client telling all their friends how horrible a photographer you are and ending your career before it starts.
- You don’t want to throw up on your client.
- You don’t want to pass out.
- You don’t want to forget every single thing you’ve learned about portrait photography and end up with nothing but out-of-focus photos of people’s faces, contorted in disgust and venomous rage over your session being a complete waste of their time.
It ain’t pretty, but it’s true; you will probably be struck with the fear of any one of these escalating nightmares coming true. The good news is, they are nothing but fears; reality, I can tell you from experience, is far, far kinder than your own imagination.
More good news is, the first thing to do on your shoot is slow down.
(Repeat for effect: s l o o o w d o o o w n.)
The quickest way you will screw up your entire photo shoot is if you get nervous, worry too much about impressing the client, and melt into a lightheaded rush.
When you show up (early!) for your shoot, sit in your car and relax to some good tunes. Close your eyes. Take some deep breaths. Strike up the ol’ affirmations if you want: “I see myself taking my time, smiling and enjoying shooting with my client, and making the best photos I can for them.”
Now that you’ve got your head on straight, step out of your car and don’t touch your gear. Close the car door.
Look around. Smile and thank the stars you’re here today living the dream.
Start assessing the location you’ll be shooting at. Walk through the shoot in your head. Where’s an easy place to start out? Look for a comfortable place for you and your client, quiet preferably, with easy lighting and backgrounds, to test equipment and play get-to-know-you. If you did a dry run at the location during your pre-shoot checklist, just walk through your vision for the shoot one more time as a refresher.
Once you’ve surveyed the area and have your first few spots picked out to shoot at, pull your gear out and quickly test everything. Make sure your gear is where you want it and your camera settings are where you want them to be.
Feel free to walk over to your first setup (we’ll call good shooting spots ‘setups’), snap a few shots, and evaluate for exposure and background. Get things set to where you like them in your camera so when your client arrives, you won’t be fiddling too much with gear as you lead them into their first shots.
Client arrival & encouragement
When your client arrives at the location, do all the charming things your mother taught you. Greet warmly, firm handshake, smile, chat nicely, ask questions, laugh. Have some fun. Be serious about making the best images you can, but you’re not foreclosing on someone’s childhood home, you’re taking pretty pictures; allow some levity into the atmosphere.
One of the most important things you’ll do with any client is make them feel comfortable and confident. A photo shoot is as much about the experience as the resultant images; from the start, show your client a good time and give them consistent encouragement.
“Hey, we’ve got some beautiful weather today and you look great; we’re going to have an awesome photo shoot.”
“I really like the outfit you picked out, it looks great on you and it’s going to look really good with this scenery.”
“Wow, we’re getting some great photos here; the background is great and you’re really photogenic. I am very happy with these shots.”
To quote my choir teacher from high school, it doesn’t take a mental giant to do this.
Don’t be smitten, don’t be inappropriate with compliments, and sure as hell don’t be insincere. Look at your client with honest and thoughtful eyes and see the best about them to talk about. Maybe their glasses are stylish. Maybe their hair looks great. Maybe they look like a train wreck, so compliment their distinctive style.
Just a few words of encouragement sprinkled throughout a photo shoot can relax your client, who is almost guaranteed to be more nervous and uncomfortable than you are. Give them some confidence, their guard will go down, and you can really connect and make some images that show their best.
Chat with your client as much as you like before your shoot; let them know you’ve got some ideas for great pictures, but you want to know if they’re looking for anything specific or Artist’s Choice. Nine times out of 10, they just want you to do what you do best, but it’s good to ask. Help your client feel empowered as well as encouraged – if they don’t want the power, then make them feel they are in good hands. Some gentility and a good attitude will take you far in your art and business.
Once you’ve got a rapport going, it’s time to step up to the plate. Lead them to your first setup and get to work – showtime.
Your first shots
Your first shots – in fact, most of the shots you’ll take – will be test shots.
Get your client in place at your first setup, let them know they can relax while you do some shots to “test the lighting,” and do just that – snap a few and see what you get.
Here’s where we slow down – here’s where we guarantee the best possible images from your first photo shoot.
What you’re going to do is snap a few shots, then pause to look at them on your camera. You’re going to evaluate every set of images you make, and then make adjustments to get better and better photos.
- Look at your exposure: Too bright? Too dark? Just right? Remember, expose for your subject, not the background; don’t silhouette your subject with a perfectly-exposed sky behind them, and don’t blow out the human in the photo to get a nice exposure on the dark tree behind them. Try to shoot from an angle that gives you a background as even as possible with the light on your subject. When you can’t, don’t sweat: just remember, expose for the subject, not the background.
- Look at your settings: How’s your shutter speed? F-stop? If your shutter is too slow, you’re going to get blurry photos from camera shake or subject movement. If your F-stop is too low / wide, you’ll only have inches of depth-of-field to work with and you’ll likely end up with the best part of your subject, their eyes, out of focus. Raise your ISO if you need to give yourself a boost on either of these other settings.
- Look at your background: What’s going on behind your subject? Is it a clean, complimentary background? Are there people, cars, signposts, trash cans, or other distractions? Are there any trees, flagpoles, or telephone poles growing out of their heads? Adjust your angle up, down, or sideways to clean up your background.
- Look at your subject: Books have been written on how best to photograph the human face. For your first shoot, we’ll take aim at just a few biggies: shadows, expression, pose. This is where you’ll work your magic with a client to capture their best in your photos. Let’s give this one it’s own subhead…
Look at your subject
Here’s where so many photographers new to portraiture get discouraged and lose confidence. What you observe and adjust about your client’s face to get the best possible image will separate you from the wannabe’s.
Shadows: Unless you’re going for an artsy look, you want nice, soft, even lighting across your subject’s face. You want both eyes to catch some light and have life in them. You want light to come from roughly 45 degrees above and behind you, off to either side up to 45 degrees if you like.
This is why midday portraits are so challenging: your subject is lit from directly above, hiding the eyes and casting unflattering shadows.
Adjust your client’s body and face left, right, up, down, spin them around if you have to, to get pleasant light on their face. Remember that the camera will magnify the depth of shadows, so as with every setup you do, take some test shots and evaluate.
Harsh lighting is the most common challenge you’ll face shooting outdoors. If your client faces the sun, they’ll squint and tear up; if they turn sideways to the sun, half their face disappears; if they turn 180 degrees to the sun, their hair will blow out; if you put them fully in the shade, your background will probably be overexposed.
This is something you’ll have to learn to overcome with experience and practice. Be mindful of it as you shoot, keeping an eye on your subject’s face and the background behind them.
Above all else, no matter what other factors involve themselves, you want to properly expose your subject’s face and capture the best expression you can. In the sales session, your client will care far more about your getting a great photo of them than a perfect exposure on the background behind them.
Expression: Here’s where it pays off when you encourage your client and instill in them some confidence in front of your camera.
Getting an honest, personal, individual, telling expression out of a client is an art in itself; certainly worth of its own article in the future. There is so much nuance and psychology and personality involved in drawing out the best expression from a client.
Putting your client in the wildly unnatural position of being photographed, recorded, vulnerable in front of the camera, and then getting perfectly natural photos of them in that situation, is an area you will learn to master as you grow as a professional photographer.
Use your charm and social judgment to get natural expressions from your client. Get them to laugh. Get them to make goofy faces at you. Get them to look angry. Then happy. Then super-happy. Then angry again. This role playing will almost always draw a laugh or smirk out of them. Help them loosen up and be themselves and you’ll capture the best of them.
Pose: Posing is another factor in getting the best images of your client. This is also a subject about which many books have been published. In fact, go buy one or two right now. The illustrations and advice will give you far more knowledge and confidence than I can instill with mere words here.
In brief, you want to pose your client in a natural way that best compliments their unique body characteristics. In many ways, you want your posing to reduce or eliminate so-called “flaws.”
Double chins, big foreheads, big ears, big noses, lazy eyes, flabby arms, muffin-tops… You’ve got your work cut out for you, my friend.
But fear not! Honestly, most clients are reasonable human beings and know exactly what they look like, “flaws” and all. Play up their best features and reduce what they don’t like so much. As in all things, do your best; you’ll do fine.
Seriously though, invest some money in a good posing book or some time on a good web site that teaches posing. Even if you throw out all the canned “tried and true traditional” poses, what you learn about using poses and lighting to best compliment different faces and body types will pay dividends in every portrait you shoot.
Everyone is beautiful in their unique way, about this I have no question. It is a joy to me as a photographer to get to know and understand a client, to connect with them, and to best capture what makes them a beautiful person in this world. Sometimes it’s a laugh, a smile, a raised eyebrow, a stoic presence, a spiritual vibe, a loving aura…beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Step up – here’s where you earn your supper.
Pacing the shoot
Remember, you’re in control of your shoot. But for random acts of God, you’re given the reigns when it comes to pacing your shoot.
And I’ll say again: slow down.
You’re in a photo shoot. There’s no rush, there’s nowhere to be, there’s no finish line to cross. You’ll probably be shooting for around an hour or so, which is plenty of time to get a wide variety of great images with your client in a variety of setups.
Be methodical: set up, pose, shoot a few testers, evaluate, adjust, test, evaluate, adjust, test, shoot for real and work on capturing the best expressions and moments you can.
Getting the best possible shots during a shoot is a lot like solving a puzzle. Pace yourself and enjoy the experience just like you would while doing a good crossword puzzle, playing Jenga, or getting in a game of The Sims.
The very fact that you’re reading this article right now means you are miles ahead of most people, in artistic investment and business acumen. Take pride: even if you haven’t shot your first client yet, the education you are providing yourself through this blog and other sites and sources is putting you head and shoulders above most people to have ever touched a camera. You care. You’re trying. And that’s worth a lot.
As you proceed from setup to setup, work over your subject from different angles and distances at each spot. If you’re shooting them at a park bench, get a nice close headshot, then a layback shot on the bench, then some wide shots of them sitting on the bench, then doing a handstand on the bench – or whatever you want.
Nail your must-have shots, your bread-and-butter images that you know will sell well after the shoot, then experiment. Play around with ideas and just let your creativity flow. Once you feel you’ve worked over a setup for all the shots it has to give, move on to the next setup.
Repeat until your time is up.
Don’t be afraid to shoot the same shot at different times and setups throughout your shoot. Give yourself plenty of variety to choose from during post-processing. Keep shooting, testing, evaluating, adjusting, and shooting some more. Trust me; the headshot you get of your client toward the end of your shoot will probably be far more natural and pleasant than the first of the day.
Calling it a day
When time is up on your shoot, again turn on that charm your mother taught you and send your client off with more encouragement.
“This was a really great photo shoot, thank you so much for the opportunity. I really enjoyed it and I think we made some great photos today.”
“I’m really happy with how everything went today. The weather was right and you were really working the camera. We’re going to have some great photos to look at.”
“I think we got some photos today that you guys will really like. This is a great place for a photo shoot and we caught some great evening light.”
Lead your client back to your car and explain to them the remainder of the photo buying process:
- Show them your standard model release, explain what it means and what it’s for (“This just gives me your permission to use your photos in my portfolio or in an ad for my [senior, bridal, family, baby, whatever] photography business.”), and have them fill it out, including contact information and e-mail address.
- Ask if they enjoyed the photo shoot. Then ask if you may add their e-mail address to your newsletter list. If you offer a coupon for new subscribers, let them know what they’ll get and how they can use it during the coming proofing and sales session.
- Let them know you shot a ton of photos, but you’ll cull them down to the best from each pose and setup, looking for the best expressions and moments. If you recall a specific shot from the shoot that you know is good, mention it as an example. (“I loved the shot of you laying back on the park bench, the light was just right on your face; that will definitely be in there.”)
- Set a date, time, and location for your client to get with you to view the proofs and buy their prints and files. If they want the images in a private online album, collect your retainer for this service and let them know when they can expect an e-mail from you with a link to the images.
- Ask if they have any other questions, thank them for a great shoot, and then release them back into the sea.
Congratulations – you’ve survived your first photo shoot! Hopefully with grace and aplomb, but if not, no worries. So long as you were courteous, encouraging, had some fun, and made some solid images, you’ve had a pretty fantastic first shoot.
If you threw up on the client and all your shots were out of focus…well, everybody has to start somewhere!
Taking notes on what to improve
Do you want to multiply the rate at which you improve as a photographer? Whip out a pad and pencil (or digital equivalent) as soon as your client leaves and get ready to jot some notes.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and flow of a shoot, then the euphoria of its end, without ever really slowing down to take stock of what went right and what went wrong.
The secret is to be conscious of your work.
Just like slowing down to evaluate each set of images you make during the shoot, you want to take a moment after to take note of your thoughts on how to improve for next time.
Pencil, stylus, keyboard, or touchscreen in hand, answer these questions:
- What was your favorite part of the shoot? Go into detail. Was it nailing a certain shot? Joking with the client? Getting to know the client and making better images for it? You tell me.
- What was the worst part of the shoot? Nerves before? Mind-melt during? Did the client have no sense of humor? Did you have no sense of humor? Details.
- What do you think your client’s favorite and worst parts of the shoot were? Do these differ from yours? Try to step into their shoes as self-conscious and inexperienced subjects and explore what you feel they most and least enjoyed.
- This knowledge in hand, what can you do differently or better next time to improve your client’s experience?
- Briefly looking at your images on camera, what do you like and dislike from the shoot? Best? Worst? Why? Where did you ace it, and where did you miss? How can you do better next time? Be specific; give yourself something real to grab onto and improve.
Head home, plug your card into your computer, back up your images, then back’em up again to a second or external hard drive.
In the coming final articles of this series, I’ll go over culling+post-processing, the proofing+sales session, and how to follow-up like a rock star.
- Take another pass through the Flickr archives to see what kinds of portraits other photographers are making in the great outdoors.
- Like a good actress or actor, grab a mirror, and talk out some of your photographer-client shpeel. Have a mock conversation with a client, from introductions on location to posing and joking around to fond farewells. Have fun. Be silly. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Life is good.
- Brainstorm session: What’s the worst thing that could happen on your photo shoot? What’s the most realistic worst thing that could happen? How can you prepare for it? File this in your Brainstorms folder.
- What was your first photo shoot like? What were the biggest lessons you learned? Leave a comment below, e-mail me, or call or text me at 830-688-1564.
- Top 10 money-making outdoor photos of people – Your First Customer Series, Part 2
- Culling and post-processing your first photo shoot – Your First Customer Series, Part 8
- Your pre-photo-shoot checklist in four easy steps – Your First Customer Series, Part 6
- It’s digital: go crazy! How to make great photos by accident
- Sharp photos – how to get them, in camera and in post