Lessons Learned From My First Photo Shoot (Guest Post)

Tommy Holt, a reader of the Improve Photography website, wrote this fantastic (and share-worthy) post which teaches the lessons that he learned after doing his first “real” portrait photography shoot.  He has shot candids and portraits of friends and family members for years, but this was the first time that he worked with a model for a planned shoot.  I thought the lessons that Tommy learned from this shoot would be valuable for the whole community, so I’m posting it as today’s photography tip.  To see more of Tommy’s photography, go to www.tommyholtphotography.com.

Portrait photography model in large brimmed hat

Platinum black and white - by Tommy Holt

1.  Have a Vision, Preparation is Key

This may be the most important lesson.  This may be even more important to amateurs like me.  I spent about two months planning out scenes, researching different locations, and rehearsing things in my head.  I came up with a theme and a title for the photo shoot beforehand.  Thinking about a title for the photo shoot helped me concentrate on exactly what I wanted to convey with my photos.  Also, I made an equipment list that encompassed the entire shoot (camera bag, different lenses, accessories).  You want a clear list of equipment that you can easily check off so you can shift your attention to the actual shoot.

2. Choose an Interesting Location, Props are Helpful

An interesting location can take some of the pressure away.  Initially, my entire focus was on my subject, how to pose him/her, etc.  But, adding an interesting location can reduce the anxiety of that perfect pose.  The location can enhance your photos even if you do not capture that perfect pose.  Also, I think props are useful for a first shoot.  For example, I utilized hats in my first photo shoot.  For amateurs, it is sometimes difficult to know where to pose a subject’s hands.  I utilized the brims of the hats for the subject’s hand placement.  The props gave me assistance in posing my subject’s hands naturally.

Milk and Honey with Frame - Tommy Holt

By Tommy Holt

3.  Practice Posing Yourself in a Mirror

This may sound awkward, but I highly recommend it.  Like me, I would assume that most amateur photographers do not have much experience posing subjects.  In addition to examining work from other photographers, I also posed myself before the shoot.  I wore the big-brimmed hats used in my shoot and practiced different poses in the mirror.  In retrospect, I should have done even more of it!  It really gave me clarity on which poses I should focus on.  Maybe I should not admit that I wear big-brimmed hats and pose in the mirror…..??

4.  Vary Your Depth of Field

I would recommend capturing a variety of shots, both vertical and horizontal orientation.  The one point of emphasis for me was depth of field.  I have read many portrait photographers who suggest stopping down your aperture to get that blurry background (bokeh effect) with the subject in focus (narrow depth of field).  I would recommend this technique for very tight shots of the subject.  But, I wouldn’t discount using a larger aperture and capturing the entire background, too.  A larger aperture captures more of your scene, and tells a story merging your subject with the background.  This holds true especially if you have an interesting location for your photo shoot.

5.  Things Move Fast, Expect the Unexpected

In looking back at the photo shoot, things are a blur!  It seems like things move very fast.  I couldn’t believe how many things were racing through my head!  I was concentrating on posing my subject, framing the scene, metering for my exposure, etc.  It really confirmed the importance of preparation beforehand.  Even though I was prepared, you have to expect the unexpected sometimes.  For example, I wanted to bring a step-stool to get a slightly overhead angle.  When I found out it wasn’t feasible to carry the step-stool around to our different locations, I had to scrap that idea and move on to the next scene.  Even though a plan of attack is crucial, the need for improvisation still exists.

Defocused portrait - By Tommy Holt

6.  Listen to Input From the Subject

Even though I had a gameplan, I received input from my subject.  There may be a slippery slope involved in accepting and utilizing that input.  Obviously, you want to be the director and in control of the event.  You don’t want the subject overriding your overall concept and theme.  But, I think it’s beneficial to listen and you can determine whether or not you want to incorporate the subject’s ideas.  In my example, the subject politely suggested a pose that really worked well at our location.  You don’t want too much of that, but the subject can have valuable ideas in certain instances.

Turquoise hat portrait - By Tommy Holt

7.  Embrace Criticism, It’s Coming No Matter What

This was a shock to the ole system!  When you share your work after the photo shoot, there is going to be praise and criticism.  I think amateur photographers are ready for the praise, but we are not ready for the criticism.  I would look at the criticism as a sign of things to work on.  Try to ask your viewers what they liked, what they didn’t like, etc.  It helps if your viewers are specific in their critique.  Then, you can internalize the comments and see where you can improve.  It helps if you view criticism as a chance to learn.

8.  “The Shot That Got Away”

 In looking back at my photo shoot, I always think about the “shot that got away”.  I think to myself, “Man, that photo would have been perfect if I just did this…”  I am sure this happens with every photographer of every skill level.  It seems to be human nature that you come up with the best vision after the fact.  Again, this underscores the importance of brainstorming and game-planning beforehand so you minimize this effect as much as possible.  And, “the shot that got away” just urges me to do another photo shoot!

Antique Portrait - By Tommy Holt

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. Paolo Russo says

    I was asking myself some question when…POP! I saw your post and there were many answers, more then questions i had.
    Thx for the story. For ppl like me (not pro) is kind of scary.

  2. says

    Just completing my second shoot just last night, I can totally vouch for this.

    Themes and concepts I think will be the most difficult as i’ve found, and oddly enough I’m also a character designer that relies on themes. But on paper, you can put anything- in the real world completing a theme is a combination of a lot of factors, especially with on location work (one of my main shots couldn’t be done yesterday because other artists set up shop).

    Working in very generic genres like editorial and such can make you worry about fitting the genre instead of just carrying through on the main idea. And hopefully that actually fits a genre because ultimately people like to make sense of things, or otherwise pigeonhole. You see what I mean?

    Good luck to all photo adventurers out there- im having a ball with it

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