How To Plan a Photoshoot From Start to Finish

Written by Robert Lowdon

Robert Lowdon is an internationally published commercial photographer based out of Toronto, Canada. He spends his time photographing architecture and industrial projects for the most part.

Published April 8, 2020

executive planning session


Are you looking to plan a photoshoot? It can be relatively easy or it can be complicated and difficult with multiple layers. Through my years as a commercial photographer, I have a get depth of experience of everything needed to plan a photoshoot. Below I have put together a guide to make it easier for anyone plan their own shoot. Let’s get started!


How to plan a photoshoot

Two people walk up the rocks to the peggy’s cove lighthouse.

Plan A Photoshoot: The Desired Outcome

As we start the planning stage let us go over the 5w’s. The who, what, where, when and why are the important questions we need to ask ourselves. As a side note, we are discussing planning a commercial photography shoot here. This guide is filled with great information that I believe is still applicable to wedding photography and family shoots as well. It will also work if you were looking at how to plan a fashion photoshoot also. Let’s dive in!


Plan a Photoshoot: Who Is the Client?

Sounds simple enough, know the client. This is the first step when we talk to anyone before starting a commercial photography shoot. We ask our contact what their company is about, what do they stand for? Usually a future client is going to be in the marketing department, meaning they will have a strong grasp of who they are from a branding perspective.

Now it’s time to search the internet. Visit the company’s website, do a news search before attempting plan a photoshoot. The goal is to gain knowledge about the client we are working with. In a way, the process to knowing a photography client is a lot like an actor who is taking on a new role. As the photographer, we need to understand our subjects. The resulting photographs we take will have a stronger impact in the end.


Plan a Photoshoot: What Are the Goals of the Shoot?

What does the client want? This is the reason photographers are hired in the first place. The goal is often not as simple as one would think.

First off there is always two goals to even the simplest photoshoot. On complex photography projects there could 50 or more! For our purposes in this blog post there are only two goals. To break this down further, there is the immediate goal and the long-term goal to plan a photoshoot seen below:

Immediate Goal: The immediate goal is defined by the client, as what they want right now. For example, an architect. The architect hires a photographer because they need photographs of a building project that has just been completed. The architect needs a picture of a building in the immediate.

Long Term Goal: The long-term goal is what the client really needs. The real purpose of hiring the photographer in the first place. Back to the example of the Architect. Sure, it seems like they only need a photograph of that building, but let’s look at the real long-term goal of this photography shoot.

The architect needs a picture of the building to put in their company’s portfolio. They show this portfolio to their potential clients. Client’s hire the architect because of the images the photographer takes for the firm. When we look at the goals of the photoshoot from start to finish, it is essential that the long-term goal is understood. We are going to expand on this point further below in the “why is the shoot important” section.

Planning a photo shoot can be relatively easy or it can be difficult, difficult, difficult. Through my years as a commercial photographer, i have planned a lot of photo shoots. I have put together a guide, to make it easier for anyone plan their own shoot. Let’s get started.


Plan a Photoshoot: Where Is the Location?

Simply enough, where is the photoshoot going to take place? Obviously, we must know where we are going, but there are other factors in play. I always suggest that every photographer should know what they are walking into before showing up to take a photo. I have a bit of a saying for this, “know what you are walking in to, and over prepare”. I’ll touch on the over preparing part later in this blog post. Below are a few ways to help determine what we are walking into:

“Know what you are walking in to, and over prepare”

Ask Your Client

We want to ask our client as much about the space as we can think of. One of the simplest, is the site clean? It may seem like a question that does not need to be asked, that it should go without saying that the space is clean. However, this comes up quite often and can be one of the first obstacles when I walk into an unprepared site for an architectural shoot. For example, many years ago I used to work with a company where I was contracted shoot real estate photos.

These homes were just going on to the market. Some of the houses were immaculate and others were filthy. We were seeing houses sell for as much as $20,000 less because they weren’t cleaned to a high standard, resulting in the end goal or expectations of the client (homeowner) not met. I know If I were the home owner, I’d rather have the extra $20,000 and spend the short period of time to clean and make it look nice. So long story short, we always ensure we ask the condition of the site, where are we shooting and how much room we have for the shoot.

There are going to be scenarios where we won’t know everything, like a public event for example. As well as other scenarios where we might be roaming around multiple locations. Asking our clients about the site is going to provide pertinent information that will contribute to the success of a photoshoot.


Do a Site Tour / Site Visit

Conducting a site tour or site visit will give the photographer needed insight into the shooting location. On a site tour the client will guide us through the areas of the “set”. We can give feed back and plan the following location shoot together. Site tours can be invaluable for a long-complicated project. Conversely, site tours are not always viable depending on the budget and time lines.

Example: Recently I was contracted to conducted a rather large photoshoot for a casino. We did a site tour to plan the different areas of the shoot and share our vision for the final photographs. It was essential the we discuss the limitations that shooting in a live casino can represent. More so, the legal issues and security measures we needed to follow to guarantee a successful client outcome. Clients hire us for the quality of our photography, they value us for our professionalism.

A site visit varies a bit, in that the client may not be there or be available when the photographer visits. We do these site visits for building exteriors, agriculture photographs and/or public areas. For myself personally, I will often do a site visit prior do photographing a twilight photograph of a building. This way there are no surprises when light and timing is critical, and the photograph must be taken.

Example: I have the pleasure of photographing various retail buildings throughout Southern Ontario. Recently, I photographed multiple storage centers all over the province. This was a multi phased project with many moving parts. We needed exteriors, drone shots, drone videos and interiors. I would visit the site during the day to prepare for the exterior photography later at dusk.

When the sun falls low in the sky there is a very narrow window of opportunity to get the best architecture photos. It was crucial to have the site ready and know what to expect when taking the final images. Due to the vast amount of planning we were able to deliver the final images on time and on budget.

Use Google Earth Pro or Google Maps

It is amazing how often I use google maps for planning. Keep in mind I am a traveling photographer who shoots on location exclusively. Street view is a great way to get an idea of the landscape and what the area looks like. Google Earth Pro is essential for planning drone operations to ensure a smooth and seamless shoot.


Plan a Photoshoot: What Time of Day?

Time of day is very important in photography. Shooting outdoors requires a good command of outdoor lighting conditions. The angle of the sun can almost certainly destroy a well-intention shoot at the wrong time of day. For example, if the sun is shining over the back of the building and directly into the camera, we are going to see flairs. While these can be done creatively, flares in photography are often unacceptable.

Mood is also an important factor in the time of of day an image is created. Often the best images come in the hours before and after the sun rises and falls. Keeping a regular work schedule, 9-5 etc., can impede on this. To get the best photography for our clients flexibility is important, I often shoot outside of regular work hours to achieve this.

Planning a photo shoot can be relatively easy or it can be difficult, difficult, difficult. Through my years as a commercial photographer, i have planned a lot of photo shoots. I have put together a guide, to make it easier for anyone plan their own shoot. Let’s get started.


Plan a Photoshoot: Why Is the Shoot Important?

Asking oneself why the shoot is important is the single most important question to ask when planning a photoshoot. I really believe that to get outstanding results for my clients, I must share their goals for the shoot. So here is my generalized rationality for most commercial photography.

Most clients will hire a photographer to take photos of either a product or service. In one way or another those photos will be used for marketing and/or advertising. These images lead to sales for the business, which creates revenue. That revenue is used to hire more staff and grow a business. Great photography is essential to all businesses. Our clients trust us as photographers to increase their business, which is a huge responsibility. Understand that no photographer is hired to take pretty pictures. We are hired to grow revenue for the company.

Planning the Logistics

Similar to how I broke down the “Planning the Outcome” section, I am going to break this one down simply. We’re going with People, Places and Things. Below I will go through these more in depth.


How many people are we going to have in the shoot? 1, 25 or no people at all? Are they staff members, or models, or is the photoshoot editorial in nature (the person is the subject of the story)?

Special preparations need to be made when people are involved in order to successfully plan a photoshoot. I strongly recommend that model releases are completed when photographing people. If we are using models, we will have to plan the scheduling, compensation, and determine who to hire. It can be the same with employees, but typically the client will arrange with directly with the staff in this scenario.

When people are involved, the photographer will now work more as a director. Through controlling the mood of the shoot and get the reactions and emotions we want from our subjects. People can be difficult to work with, but the end result can be more rewarding depending on the needs of your brand. I often work with real people, for example the staff that work for the company, as I find it provides an authenticity to my images that can’t be achieved otherwise. This is of course my own preference and all ideas are welcome.


What areas / backgrounds should be in the resulting images. Much like location, we want to determine where each shot would take place to achieve a particular background. In studio, this place or environment can be built much like a film site. These places make up the required shot.

Example: Recently I was hired to plan a photoshoot for a large grocery chain. It was important to take pictures of workers in different environments doing their jobs. Much in the same way, a customer would see the employee in the store. These types of photos build a sense of familiarity with customers. Each individual shot was set to create a sense of place in the final images. The employees represented friendly, real people, like the ones at the stores we like to shop.


When I refer to “things”, I really mean props. Props are any item that is used to build a scene. For instance, we might have a mechanic holding a wrench. Simple props help build an image. They give context to the image and build a relationship between the subject and the place. A prop can be anything from a large vehicle or down to a small pencil. It can be any item really.


Plan a Photoshoot: Develop a Shot List

Now that we have all the background planning out of the way, it is time to develop a shot list. A shot list is exactly how it sounds, a list of all the shots that are required. Often the client will supply this list based on their needs, but it can be developed by the photographer separately or in collaboration as well.

Shot lists are not the be all and end all of the photography shoot, they are a guideline that provides insight into the clients needs. I tend to shoot in addition to the list. My method is to get all the shots my client has outlined, and then deliver images of my own. There are some scenarios that arise that make for a good shot that may not be on the list, which could result in an image that the client wasn’t aware at the time that they needed. I like happy clients, so the key here is to over deliver and exceed expectations.


Plan a Photoshoot: Prepare a Timeline

It is a good idea to develop a timeline of when the shoot will start and when it will be completed. This can have multiple dates and times within the start and finish time. Complicated photoshoots will have multiple parts and should be scheduled accordingly. My advice would be to allow time for unexpected delays and equipment changes. You might want to consider creating a photoshoot planner.


Plan a Photoshoot: Photography Brief

Now that we have compiled all of this information, we have everything we need to produce the photography brief. Typically supplied by the client, this brief gives us an overview of the information we have outlined above. Sometime these briefs are very informative and detailed, while other times they may just be point form, or include very basic information. I recommend going through all the steps above to ensure the communication is clear.


Special Considerations to Plan a Photoshoot

Model Releases

A model release form is essential for any shoot involving people where the images market a product or market a service. These releases can be handled by either the photographer, the client or both. I usually provide a general model release form, but there are some circumstances where the client may want something more detailed or specific. Generally speaking a model release prevents the person from asking for additional compensation after the fact. While this may be true, what model releases are also a method of obtaining informed consent form a person to have their likeness in advertising and marketing activities.

Model releases can be very specific for a certain specified use or they can be very general in nature. Usually we will see more specific or limited use model releases with models or celebrities. On the other hand, model releases for stock photography are very general. The reason for the general coverage is that a stock photo can be used for pretty much any and everything. Keep in mind that usage rights are a whole other ballgame.

Property Releases

Property releases are given by the owner(s) of the property, for the ability of the property’s likeness to be used for commercial purposes. Property can consist of a building, a section of land or both. To some degree it could also cover personal property, intellectual property etc. Commercial purposes include but are not limited to; advertising a product or service, promoting a business, or for sale as art reproduction. There are some very particular rules as to when a property release needs to be used. Here are the main instances:

A recognizable private property that is either the sole or main subject of an image, video or other type of media that is to be used specifically for commercial purposes.

  • An area that has restricted access, that is not open to the public. Also, if the property has a photography policy in place.

  • Copyright Protected Works such as artwork, graffiti, books, games, products etc.

  • Logos, trademarks or distinguishable products.

  • Famous landmarks public or private may have restrictions

  • Animals that generate revenue, circus acts etc.

Information regarding model releases and copyrights can be added to exit data during post production. This way you will have it for later.


Editorial usage allows media to be used for news or “editorial” related purposes. If the media (image, video, etc.) is being used for such news related purposes a property release is not required. For example: I could take a picture of a chain restaurant for a news story, but I couldn’t take that same picture for an advertisement without permission.

Planning a photo shoot can be relatively easy or it can be difficult, difficult, difficult. Through my years as a commercial photographer, i have planned a lot of photo shoots. I have put together a guide, to make it easier for anyone plan their own shoot. Let’s get started.


A permit is needed as per the rules of the city, municipality or governing authority of where the shoot is to take place. Permits can be required for certain shoots, depending on these local authorities. Generally, permitting is related to a matter of the size of the production and if it will impede on the operations of the city. For instance, we would need a permit to close a road or need police presence to control traffic. Small photoshoots will rarely require a permit, but it depends on the local rules and scope of the project.

Photoshoots on private property with permission of the owner, would almost never require a permit. One scenario where a permit is required even on private property would be drone operations in restricted airspace. On a side note, drone operators do require a license and you will want to ensure they are licensed before hiring. We hold an RPAS advanced operator certification, which is the highest level of certification whereby we can apply for special permits while the basic certificate holders cannot.


On a very large-scale shoot both parties may want to take out a separate insurance policy to cover the specific production. This is commonplace on movie sets more so than on photoshoots, but it can happen. In common scenarios both parties, the client and the photographer, are carrying liability insurance. This insurance will more than cover any possible issues that may happen. I do strongly recommend that both parties have insurance. It is commonplace for our photography company to send over proof of insurance of 2 million for photography and 1 million for drone operations before any client shoot.


The contracts are going to cover what is expected from both the client and the photographer prior to the photography shoot. I do recommend having some form of a written agreement. As I mentioned above, I am not a lawyer so that is as far as I will go with that for now.


After the general planning is complete, I will put together a list of equipment required for the shoot based on the needs. At times, equipment may need to be rented depending on the scope of the project. Luckily, I live in a large city where I can pretty much rent any equipment that would be required. We usually require a few days to a week before the shoot to secure the rentals, making the planning stage very important.


And finally,

Over Prepare

I like the saying, “have back ups for your back ups” it means to have two of everything. If one piece of gear fails, I’m not going to be stuck. It is important to bring extra lights, diffusers, cameras, and lenses. Obviously, we can’t bring everything, but being prepared for things to go wrong is paramount to ensure the success of the shoot.

“have back ups for your back ups”

Part of over preparing is studying all the information we have gathered above. We can mentally place ourselves in scenarios before they happen. This helps us to practice for the unexpected. The key is to not be so rigid, to be flexible and adapt should the plan need to change on the spot. Also, we may find some additional inspiration on site and want to make a few changes anyway!


This covers how to plan a photoshoot from start to finish from both a photographer and client perspective. I hope that this article was informative and easy to digest. Some shoots are more complicated than others. The level of planning should be appropriate to the circumstances of the shoot.

I am always happy to answer any questions you might have. Feel free to get in touch should you have any projects we can help with. Now if you help to plan a photoshoot, we can handle the project from start to finish. We have experienced planners on staff, that can execute your vision to the highest level.

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