Your pre-photo-shoot checklist in four easy steps – Your First Customer Series, Part 6

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on January 19, 2010

in This is Business

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(Click here to visit the summary post for the Your First Customer Series!)

Booked your first shoot? Pat yourself on the back; the hardest part is done.

Truly, there’s a reason why most successful photogs will tell you professional photography is 95% business and 5% photography. Getting clients in the door is the great challenge of any new business, artistic and service-based or otherwise.

So congratulations – with your first shoot on the books, it’s time to go down your pre-shoot checklist and make sure you’ve got all your waterfowl properly aligned. Nothing will make your first and forthcoming shoots go more smoothly and comfortably than a healthy dose of preparedness.

Step 1 – Confirm the shoot

Leading up to the date of your photo shoot, contact your client a few days before to thank them for their booking and confirm the date, time, location and meeting place for your shoot.

Answer any last-minute questions they may have about wardrobe or anything else.

Give them a weather update. Visit or a similar site to see what the forecast is for the day of your shoot. Have a bad weather back-up or rescheduling plan. Set the expectation that you want your client to have. For example, I tell my clients that if the weather gets iffy the day of the shoot, I’ll call them to confirm or reschedule the shoot that morning. Then I follow-through – not knowing what should happen or is happening is a big source of stress in any situation. Always work to dissipate the chance for such stress.

As I’ve said many times, your art takes time to grow, but you can provide attentive, fantastic customer service like this starting with your very first shoot.

Step 2 – Your “Plenty of Time” Checklist

Right after you confirm the shoot is on with your client, go through your first round of preparations:

  • If you haven’t picked up your camera lately, do a dry run through all the gear you’ll be using. Pop in the battery, pop in the memory card, walk around and snap some photos. Plan on using an external flash? Load the batteries and snap some test shots. This is just to make sure all the gear you intend to use is in full working condition and working the way you want it to. If you’re going to have a problem, now’s the time to have it.
  • Is anything not working? Do you have backups for crucial items like batteries and memory cards? Grab a third-party backup camera battery and a cheap 1GB memory card if that’s all you can afford, but try to always have a backup. Try to have a backup camera body if you can, even if it’s just a decent point and shoot or – if necessary – a decent camera phone.
  • Day by day, stay abreast of the weather situation and forecast. Assuming at this point you are shooting outdoors with no off-camera flash or strobes, you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature. Respect her.
  • If time permits, do a walk through of the location you’ll be shooting at during the time of day you’ve booked to shoot. Look for cool nooks and crannies to get fun photos in. Look for attractive and evenly-lit backgrounds and foregrounds. What exactly you’re looking for will change depending on whether you’re shooting a high school senior or a newborn or a family of four. But familiarity with your location before you’re there with clients will make the experience more fluid for them and you will be more confident throughout.
  • If this is truly your first time with this kind of client or location (senior in a park, 50th wedding anniversary at a church, etc.), hit your favorite photography forum and post a request for some pointers and ideas. Fellow photographers are always a deep well of great experience and fresh perspectives. Ignore any discouraging bullbutter any grognards may heap your way, and take the good stuff to heart as you plan your shoot.
  • Raid the ark of inspiration that is Flickr’s talented artists. Do a search for photography in the type of location you’ll be shooting at and with the kind of people you’re shooting, such as family portraits in the park, or high school senior photos at a junk yard. Take note of anything that inspires you – analyze what you like about your favorite images and solve the puzzle of figuring out how you can make those types of images happen on your shoot. Perfection is not required, just an idea of what you’re aiming for. Start building your shot list.
  • Your shot list? Ahh, here’s one that some cocky starving artists don’t care for. That’s why the poor anemic things look like they’ve been living off two Starbucks lattes a day since they hit puberty. The shot list is good stuff, and unless you’re someone who can draw upon The Muse at will and MacGyver your way through a photo shoot with just a pinhole camera and your own force of will, said shot list will give you a big boost in confidence, flow, and most importantly, salable results.

In fact, let’s give The Shot List it’s own subhead:

Step 2.5 – The Shot List

Your shot list is a collection of images, ideas, and setups you want to work your way through on your forthcoming photo shoot.

In the beginning, your shot list may take the form of a scrapbook or folder with photos, notes, printed web pages, setup diagrams, and roughly illustrated concepts. As you grow as an artist, you’ll transition from a physical shot list to a purely mental one. With enough time and experience shooting all kinds of people, styles, locations and lighting, you’ll have enough swagger to let The Muse guide you through most shoots.

But for now, let’s assume that the second you shake your client’s hand, all your intensive research and creative inspiration will transmute to grass growing in bullet time. Honestly, that’s probably what will happen. Again, good preparation can diffuse this stressful problem before it starts.

Check out my article on the top 10 money-making outdoor photos of people for a strong jumpstart to your shot list.

What you want on your shot list are enough go-to resources to keep you flowing through your photo shoot when your brain quits on you. And you want enough variety to show your client a wide range of imagery during your sales session.

It’s easier to sell a client one image each of 20 different setups than to sell three images each of only six or seven setups.

Start with some easy setups; some simple, specific poses and places that let you get into your groove and to make your subject comfortable in front of the camera. If you’re shooting a senior near a swimming pool, don’t start with the cannonball drop into the drink. Give yourself and your client some easy stuff to start with so you can both get warmed up.

Add as much fun and artistic stuff to your shot list as you like. This is where you’ll begin to develop your personal artistic style, and experiment with new looks and feelings in your images. Have a solid set of salable images you know you can pull off – then, as time permits during your shoot, try out as much fun and experimental work as strikes your fancy.

You don’t have to go through your entire shot list on every shoot. But starting with a core set of images that let you make salable art with any client, then introducing some fun and artsy stuff with flavor and impact, you’ll be able to put together a robust set of proofs to show and sell.

Your client will very rarely buy every image you shoot. But you better your odds for a happy client and a bigger sale if you give them a smooth experience and lots of variety to choose from, both of which are a direct result of having a good shot list.

Preparation = confidence.

Step 3 – Your “Day Before The Shoot” Checklist

Now that you’ve got a good sense of who, what, and where you’re shooting, let’s get into the technical stuff you’ll want to check off your to-do list the day before your shoot.

  • The obvious stuff: charge your batteries (both camera and flash if you use one); dump and clear memory cards; make sure your camera settings are about right for your shoot (TV mode is prepped at a fast enough shutter speed in case you start getting motion blur / camera shake, AV mode is prepped at a wide f-stop in case of low light, Manual mode is about where you think you’ll need to shoot, and your bloody ISO isn’t set to the noisiest-possible 1600 or H setting).
  • Gather and pack your gear, including bodies, lenses, batteries, cards, flashes, tripod, backups, and anything else you need for your shoot. Try to get everything you need into one camera bag so that if you remember to bring anything, you’ll have everything.
  • If you’re not too familiar with where you’ll be shooting, have directions in hand from someone who knows or, preferably, Google Maps. Plug the address into your GPS. Know how long it should take you to get there – then allot an extra 15-30 minutes. If there’s any chance of traffic issues, allow even more extra time.
  • Go back over your notes or e-mails from talking with your client and take heed of any specific requests or information they provide. If they “have to” get a family photo in their Texas Tech Red Raiders jerseys, by all means, write this down. Be sure to proactively remind your clients of this when you meet up – they will immediately appreciate that you remembered and that you’re excited about making “their” photo.
  • Check the weather yet again. If you may have to deal with light drizzle, intermittent cloud cover, overcast skies, or bold cloudless sunlight, you want to at least be solving those problems in your head the night before rather than the moment of your shoot.
  • Watch what you eat. A worthy mantra for anyone trying to maintain their girlish figure, this advice will also keep your intestinal issues at bay the day of your shoot. Overeating or eating abrasive food is only going to exacerbate problems the next day when your nerves go straight to your stomach as you’re driving to your shoot. Eat light, drink lots of water, stick to fruits and veggies and salads that you know are easy on your system, and by all means, have a bottle of Pepto at the ready if you need it. (This is one of those “been there, done that” real world tips you just won’t find elsewhere – there’s no BS or pretense here, this site is about really helping you do your best as a part time photographer).
  • Clean your gear. Whip out those microfiber cloths that come Free With Everything and give your lenses a good wipe down. Make sure your glass is clean and your camera body looks nice.
  • Set your alarm. If you’re shooting early, set your bedside alarm. If later in the day, set an alarm on your phone with time to get your gear together and get on the road. Much as you have prepared for your shoot, the moment you sit down for a second in front of Call of Duty on the Xbox or David Hasselhoff on YouTube, you will lose track of time and only realize you’re late when the phone rings, it’s your client wondering where you are, and your heart drops out of your chest.
  • Plan your wardrobe. Having checked out the weather for the next day, pick out what kind of professional-but-comfortably-artistic wardrobe you want to work your shoot in. Your wardrobe style should reflect your personal style and your artistic style. Some photographers belong in turtlenecks and scarves, others in jeans and T-shirts, still others in graphic T’s and khaki shorts. But guaranteed: if you don’t plan your shooting wardrobe, you’ll awaken to realize all your good clothes are in the hamper and either show up wearing a wool sweater and gym shorts or smelling like cheese.

Preparation = confidence!

Step 4 – F8 and Be There

If you’ve done your prep work – which despite the length of this article, should only take a couple of hours total – you can arrive at your shoot with time to spare and confidence oozing from every pore.

Or at least you won’t be hyperventilating and fighting to keep your breakfast down.

Your first time, as with a few other select experiences in life, won’t be your best. But there’s no reason you have to go into your shoot blind, deaf, and dumb. Take the small amount of time needed to give yourself the best odds at having a great shoot.

If you can show up with those ducks in a row, you’re honestly doing better than many paid professional photographers. What they lack in attention to detail, complacency brought on by arrogance and boredom, you can make up for in preparation and honest caring.

Art takes time, but providing the best experience you can for your clients starts right now, this very day.

The next articles in this series will walk you through a typical location portraiture shoot, your first sales session (in person or via online album), and how to follow through with a client to guarantee referrals and a customer for life.

Next Steps

  • Now that you’ve read through this article, make your own personal pre-shoot checklist that touches on the above advice in brief. Single-sentence To-Do’s should keep you on track to make the most of your shoot.
  • Make an inventory of all your shooting gear, piece by piece. Are you missing anything, specifically backups for crucial pieces of kit like batteries or memory cards? A spare of either costs about a tenth of what you’ll lose if you blow a shoot for lack of backup, and a hundredth of what you’ll lose long-term from looking like an unprepared amateur. If you have the coin, hit up or and get a good faith set of backups for your primary gear, even if it’s the cheapest thing you can buy. I’d rather fall back on a children’s $50 Disney Digital Camera than nothing at all.
  • Brainstorm session: What’s a quirk unique to you that could affect your ability to perform at your shoot? Irritable stomach? Profuse perspiration when nervous? Need Starbucks? Affirmations? Yoga? A jog? What should you add to your pre-shoot checklist that gives you, you personally, you specifically, the best chance at having an awesome photo shoot? File this in your Brainstorms folder (and add to your checklist!).
  • exists to provide sound, real-world advice from one photographer to another, me to you. If you like what you read here, please don’t hesitate to click the free “Subscribe” link at the top of any page of this site.
  • What’s one thing that you do to prepare for a shoot that’s unique to you? Did I miss anything in the above list? Leave a comment below, e-mail me, or call or text me at 830-688-1564.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

SaraK April 6, 2010 at 9:25 pm

This was very helpful! I have just recently opened my own photography company and though I will shortly be going on my first paying shoot, it’s not my first session and I am still nervous. This article was well written and very insightful. Thank you!


Outlaw Photographer James Taylor April 8, 2010 at 11:17 pm

Thanks for posting Sara! And congratulations on your first paying shoot, it’s an equally exciting and terrifying time.

Use that nervous energy to focus and prepare. Use that energy to be attentive to your gear, your settings, your in-camera results, your client’s wants and needs, and how best to serve them with your talents.

Nervous is good – it means you care, a lot, which is a big advantage over many burnt out pros.

Would love to see the results from your shoot and hear your thoughts on how it went. Drop me an e-mail to 🙂


Mary Santaga May 10, 2010 at 1:36 am

Great information!! I’m so thankful for people like you who are willing to share such terrific insight! I have lots of questions and you give lots of answers!! Thank you!!


Outlaw Photographer James Taylor May 10, 2010 at 1:39 am

Thanks so much for your kind words and your readership Mary!

As you have any questions, feel free to ask! I’m happy to help in any way I can.

Looking at your web site, you have such a great variety of solid images! I can’t imagine you have any trouble booking as many shoots as you have time for. You do really good work. 🙂


Aaron McDonald May 15, 2011 at 4:21 pm

Very helpful! Thanks!
I too am heading to my first professional shoot, and I’m feeling relieved I’m not the only one who gets nervous!



Outlaw Photographer James Taylor May 15, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Rock on Aaron! Be focused on your best results, but relax and enjoy yourself at the same time. Be prepared, have a shot list, experiment a little, and just flow.l Don’t get too caught up in the moment, or in trying to be Mr. Professional – have some fun, check out your images in-camera, don’t be afraid to adjust and refine each setup to get what you want. Thank you for your readership, and let us know how your shoot turns out!


Aaron June 27, 2011 at 6:55 pm

Ok, it turned out great! My clients bought several of the images I took of their 67′ fishing yacht the “Ramble On”. And they also decided to commission one of the images as a 70″x60″ oil on canvas painting (the original intent for the shoot). Mission accomplished!
p.s. you can see some of the highlights here: Thanks again!

Aaron McDonald


Outlaw Photographer James Taylor June 27, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Beautiful work, Aaron! I can’t believe this was your first professional shoot – just amazing work, I don’t know how they could turn down such a great variety of great images. Congratulations! This is a huge step for you in growing your business and your talents as a businessman. Soon you’ll be doing shoots like this at least every week, and banking good pay in the process. Thanks for the update, and keep me posted on your future adventures!


Shariq March 4, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Thanks for these tips! Extremely handy…


Outlaw Photographer James Taylor March 25, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Thank you for your kind words Shariq! I greatly enjoyed visiting your web site tonight, what fun and beautiful photography you make! And thank you for your readership!


Noosh Black September 23, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Just wanted to say thanks James. This was a great article. And your advice was real! I’m sharing with friends in the field for sure. Your additional insights on your personal state was actually SO important too (ie/ mental state, nerves, checklist etc..) and this article helped me prepare. Thanks!


Kat January 8, 2013 at 12:31 am


I happened across your site, and will be referring some of my friends to it. You have great info here, and I like that you “tell it like it is.” I laughed about packing the Pepto because it is a really valuable tip! I prefer the Pepto Bismol tablets, though. They’re easier to carry, can use them more discretely than a bottle, and no worries about getting pink sticky liquid all over your gear.

One other tip for location shoots is to have a pre-printed checklist of all your gear, with 2 check boxes (pre-shoot & post-shoot) next to each piece of equipment. When you pack your gear in your bag (after cleaning and checking it, of course), you tick each item you’re taking with you. When you’re done with the shoot, you tick each item as you re-pack your bag. No more forgotten gear!

Thanks for your great articles!


Outlaw Photographer James Taylor January 8, 2013 at 11:41 pm


Thank you so much for your readership and for sharing PTP with your friends!

Thanks for sharing your tips as well! Preparation is one of the best (and only) ways to help assuage pre-shoot jitters. When you know you have everything you need and you’re not in a panicked rush, you can focus wholly on what you know, what you’re learning, what you want to practice, and how you’re going to make the experience awesome for your client.

Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures in 2013!


Noel Lizotte April 27, 2013 at 7:14 am

My husband found your post yesterday and shared it with me. I liked it enough to pin it! We’re kicking off 2013 with some new phtoography services – namely hot rod glamour shots and family portraits … these tips are real world and useful. Thanks for your insights and the dash of humor!


Outlaw Photographer James Taylor June 4, 2013 at 8:41 pm

Thank you for your comment and kind words, Noel! I greatly enjoyed visiting your web site tonight, it looks like you guys stay very active! Hot Rod Glamour Shots is an awesome niche, and it looks like you guys already run in the awesome car circles, so surely you’ve got access to a plentiful lot. Way to carve out your own niche!

Thank you for your readership! Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!


Melody April 29, 2013 at 4:14 pm

I’m a professional photographer and I glean the web nearly every day still searching for more tips and improvements. These are all great! I’m totally using the client prep cheat-sheet. I’m somewhat introverted, so sipping on a Starbucks double mocha or a Rockstar Recovery Orange on my way keeps me talkative during the session. It also boosts my creativity and has my mind bouncing with ideas all day.


Outlaw Photographer James Taylor June 4, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Thank you for your comment and kinds words, Melody! I see you’ve shot some great jump shots recently! I love it when I get a family I can convince to do a group jump portrait – talk about a conversation piece for their home!

I’m more and more becoming a Starbucks fan. A tall kids-temp marble macchiato has become a weekly treat for me, deferring to black Bavarian Hazlenut from the drip maker during the week to keep the carbs down. I have yet to find any place that I feel so welcome, comfortable, and inspired than inside of a Starbucks cafe – just walking through the door and smelling that incredible coffee aroma perks up my inspiration and creativity!

Thank you for your readership! Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!


Alicia May 17, 2013 at 7:58 am

Thank you so much for all your articles. Very helpful and informative.


Outlaw Photographer James Taylor July 20, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Alicia, thank you for your kind words and your readership! I greatly enjoyed visiting your Facebook page tonight. Your portfolio is wonderful! You have a great eye for families, kids, and bringing out the personalities of your subjects.

Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!


Freddy Rios August 29, 2013 at 2:51 pm

I was looking on the net on how to start a small photography business I came across your page. Love the way you formatted your steps. It practical easy to understand and all makes good business seance, keep up the good work. I have a question, looking to rent a small space in my town to start a Photo Studio Company. Do you have and ideal about square footage? Retail space is Price high in Westchester County, NY. I have a complete studio equipments ready for setup. I also have some new desk tops. Apple I pad, and some Lap Tops, Two Canon pro 9000 mark 11,and 10.T.Y. Freddy Rios.


Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor May 26, 2014 at 8:05 am

Freddy, thank you so much for your kind words and readership!

I’d offer two considerations:

First, are you already making more than enough money with your photography to cover your retail space rent? Are you willing and able to sacrifice that money to ‘test’ the growth you experience with a retail space? I’m big on boostrapping, especially after I made the mistake of investing $8,000 over six months in my own retail studio space years ago without gaining a single new client as a result. I won’t say the money was wasted, it was a good education, but just having a storefront, signage, and the potential of walk-in clientele was not enough to move the needle in my business.

If you do want to test the waters and have the money earned to experiment with it, I’d suggest going with the smallest space you can get in a location that your ideal clients frequent. A storefront is like a billboard, and you want to make an impression with the right people.

Your success will never solely come from your studio decor or your location or your equipment – it will be about the value you create for your clients, and how well you communicate that value to your target market.

A studio is like a newspaper ad is like a new flash is like a reflector – everything you use to create your art and communicate your value is a tool. A studio is a huge investment, and I’m more bullish on investing in marketing than in retail space, but only you know your market and your unique opportunities.

Please do let me know what you decide on and how it works out for you! I’d love to hear about your successes and adventures!


Rachel Moncrieff May 23, 2014 at 9:23 am

Thank you so much for this information I’m about to do my first shoot for a stranger (all previous have been friends/family) and your information has really helped make me feel prepared


Demetria Kelly June 29, 2016 at 4:46 pm

This is by far the most helpful site I have been on! I love the useful information in all of your links and how you tell a story but you keep it short and simple! Many thanks, from one photographer to another!


Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor June 29, 2016 at 4:48 pm

Thank you so much for your kind words Demetria! Honored to have you as a reader. If there’s anything more I can do to help, don’t hesitate to reach out!


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