Planning a Photoshoot: The Concept

Planning a photoshoot for the first time can quickly become overwhelming. The more elements you consider bringing into your final composition, the larger your equipment list and support team will need to be. With careful and considerate planning, you can not only increase your chances of creating great photos, but give yourself the time to take risks and be more creative.

This article is an easy to follow, step by step guide, on how I plan a photoshoot. In particular the Aztec Workshops I run on Mexico’s beautiful Pacific coastline.

The Concept

Every photoshoot starts with an idea. Sometimes the idea pops into existence fully formed, ready to commit to digital celluloid. But many do not, and need to be coaxed out and molded into mature concepts.

Storytelling

Over time, I have started thinking about the concept stage as more than just a journey towards a static image. Instead, I try and consider a ‘broader story’ which adds context to the initial idea. This results in photos with more depth than those that focus solely on composition.

Finding a nice location and model isn’t enough. To really give meaning to your photos, you need to explore your theme.

Let me try and qualify this with an example. The below photo is from an early Aztec workshop and was based entirely on a compositional idea: using the stem of the fern to guide the viewer’s eyes towards the model. And while this is an aesthetically pleasing image, I don’t feel it tells a story.

Fun Fact: This is my most stolen photo. It seems to appear on almost every article about Mexico’s Aztec past I come across. It used to drive me nuts, but now I just send them a letter explaining to them that they stole my photo without credit, which is illegal, and asking for a feature article as an apology. It works quite well actually.

Planning a Photoshoot - Aztec Photography Workshop

Now let’s compare it with the next photo, taken more recently, that was conceived around a story. Many Meso-American cultures believe that the soul is bound to the body at birth and released only in death. In pre-hispanic times, when a warrior died in battle, his body would be burned and turn to ash: releasing his soul. I attempted to explore this fascinating theme, and the end result is a more emotional, almost cinematic, capture.

Planning a Photoshoot - Aztec Photography Workshop

This type of storytelling is becoming an increasingly important aspect of my photography. Finding a nice location and model isn’t enough. To really give meaning to your photos, you need to explore your theme.

Many of these ideas still apply if you are planning a photoshoot for a client. You will need to find out the story they are trying to tell, and build your concept around that. I find it helpful to have a face to face conversation with the client, and just keep digging into the brand’s story and visual identity.

Idea Generation

It may sound counter-intuitive, but I find that having a system in place helps fuel my creative process. I’m very much a subscriber to the sentiment behind Picasso’s “Good artists borrow, great artists steal” quote. Namely, that being inspired by people you admire is a perfectly noble way to improve your own work. As a result, I make time to collect and great art, across many disciplines and channels.

For example:

  • I’m a nightmare to watch TV with, as I am constantly pausing and screen grabbing scenes from films or series that are beautifully lit or composed.
  • I religiously analyze the lighting of photos from social accounts I love. Guessing the light source and modifiers being used.
  • I also put aside time every week to read stories, or watch films, that cover topics I am interested in covering. At the moment that means a lot of Meso-American myths.

Following this process typically gives me a stream of ideas that I scribble down into a notepad. These ideas are initially barely legible, but I follow the more interesting ones until they start to take shape.

Let’s follow one of these ideas, from concept to execution. I had been reading some mythology about how the Aztecs believed that the current age we are in, the 5th age, came into existence after the god Nanahuatzin sacrificed himself by walking into a giant fire and turning into the sun. It’s a pretty powerful image.

I had wanted to work with fire for a while and had already created a Pinterest Board with some pinned photos from the internet and a few film stills – an awesome scene in Apocalypto in particular.

Pinterest Board for Planning a Photoshoot Concept

Above: The Pinterest Board I created in preparation for planning a photoshoot.

Storyboarding

With this seed of an idea in place, it was time to start fleshing things out. The first step is always to dig deeper, so I looked into other photos which included fire, fire walking, sacrifice and anything else that was linked to my idea. Pinterest is great for this style of research: you click on a photo you like, and the similar photos take you down fascinating rabbit holes. All the while you pick and mix concepts until you get enough material for a photoshoot. 

Sketching

Once I had populated my storyboard with enough idea candy, I moved to sketch out some of the ideas onto paper. And I really do mean paper: I prefer going old school with this, putting pencil to paper and scribbling away.

Here are 2 of the sketches. One showing a model walking into the flames, as per the creation myth, and another holding a flaming torch. (Don’t laugh, I’m a photographer, not an illustrator!)

Sketch for Planning a Photoshoot Concept

Above: 2 sketches I created in preparation for planning a photoshoot.

I’m just showing two sketches here, but I will wait until I have five ideas ready before I move forward with planning a photoshoot. Five is kind of a magic number, as I aim to get three great photos from every photoshoot. Having extra sketches gives me some wiggle room for when things go wrong – which they do pretty frequently.

As we will see in the next part of this article, sketches serve many purposes beyond helping you visualise how the end photos will look. I use them to help me work out potential light setups. This in turn helps me think through the equipment and team I will need on the day.

You can try this yourself by looking at the above sketches and thinking through the following questions. 

  • Are there any space constraints that could affect lens choice? Eg: A small room.
  • Are there any vantage points that would improve this photo and would need specific equipment? Eg: a ladder.
  • Does the environment require any specific lights or light modifiers? Eg: Are you shooting into the sun or dealing with direct sunlight.

In Part 2, Planning a Photoshoot: Location Scouting, we will look at how you can scout the perfect location for your photoshoot. 

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