How Do-It-All-Yourself Shoots Can Improve Your Photography

How Do-It-All-Yourself Shoots Can Improve Your Photography

Working with a team may be a blessing or a curse. Having a task delegated to a professional may sound relieving — assigning team members control of specific portions of a production, thus reducing headaches for you. It sounds like a great plan, and usually it is, until things go wrong.

Sometimes, it happens to my team and me. On set, we all work quickly, have good chemistry, and get the job done. Everything feels right. Later, when I look through the images, I find mistakes that could have easily been avoided that otherwise would have dramatically enhanced the end result. This realization of being so close to the perfect, powerful image can be discouraging. Missing that shot time and again due to a lack of strategic pivoting and planning can be depressing.

From personal experience, I understand that I may miss opportunities or make simple mistakes due to the fast-paced environment and constant distractions. I often make quick decisions in every passing moment. I have to approve the hair, makeup application, wardrobe, set design, manage the lighting setup, manipulate my camera settings, guide the model on posing, expression, and gesture, etc. As I prioritize elements of decision, in turn I neglect some by deeming them irrelevant, which results in these aforementioned mistakes.

At some point, I realized that I needed to improve my attentiveness and decision-making. I needed to take things to the next level, avoiding and resolving minor issues with a quickness. Fast resolution of common issues allows more time and space for creativity. Examples of common issues include: a lighting setup that is slightly off intended focus, hair and makeup that are not complimentary, wardrobe that isn't a good fit with the original idea or the overall look, etc.


Some of my best images were created during practice shoots.

Do-it-all-yourself shoots are perfect for prevention of these possible issues. I call it "photographic downshifting": when you consciously and purposely execute each process on your own, from concept building to casting, makeup, hairstyle, wardrobe, etc. Downshifting can aid in understanding the mechanics of the process you lack experience in so you can move forward with minimal mistakes and more creativity.

How does it work?

Creative Freedom  

You work on a concept that is fully yours. No one is interfering with your vision; no one tells you what to do: no time boundaries, no delivery dates. Freedom. 

Failure-Free Zone

Sometimes, it takes more than one extra shoot to resolve the issue, but every time, succeed or fail, you learn a lot. Every time, you will discover new techniques and approaches on top of what you’re aiming to learn. 

Destruction-Free Work

You eliminate destruction by executing each process on your own. You have no one to ask you questions, sing, dance, or take selfies in the background while you’re shooting.  

Make up Your Mind

This is my favorite. You get freedom to try new things and see if you like them or not. Change your ideas multiple times; fine-tune it all until you are happy with it. I think it is very important for decision-making to understand what you like and what you don’t, what fits the concept and what doesn’t, and which elements work together better than others. Very often, less is more. Learn to place the correct accents.

Build Consistency

These low-key shoots are perfect practice for concept implementation. Have you ever pitched an idea to your client, and you thought you had everything ready, but when you started shooting, you realized it was way off? Unfortunately, I have. Now, every time I have a practice shoot, I try to make my concepts work out, no matter what. I find this a great skill for future commercial work, when you get to execute the ideas of another person or group of individuals.

Challenge Yourself

These impromptu shoots are great for practicing new lighting schemes, trying new makeup, working with a new model, building a set, etc.  Use all available resources, create awesome from nothing, and use unconventional materials. Try transforming generic things into something extraordinary through your unique perspective and skills.


Repeat, Repeat, Repeat 

One morning, I had this discussion with my friend Erle, who is into game theory and design. He brought up an interesting gaming term: grinding. 

Wikipedia says that "grinding" is a term used in video gaming to describe the process of engaging in repetitive tasks. The most common usage is in the context of massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like "Realm of the Mad God," "Tibia," or "Lineage," in which it is often necessary for a character to repeatedly kill AI-controlled monsters, using basically the same strategy over and over again to advance their character level to be able to access newer content.

What a wonderful analogy, don’t you think? Such low-key shoots help you practice multiple shooting scenarios and teach you to solve any problem that may arise on the way.  

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Great article, i know exactly what you mean. My problem is you also have to earn money. So I'm lacking free work and practicing. How you deal with this?

Sennia Kyle's picture

personally, I look at it this way: if I don't get better, I won't be any good to my clients, and usually (although not always) the way I get better is from doing my own personal projects. Also, it gives your brain a break, and that can be the difference between total burnout and creative growth.

Martin Van Londen's picture

I herd Joel Grimes stay that he shoots 52 tests shoot a year on average. So maybe thats a big key to success. I think its just something you have to make time for. Maybe not one every week. But if you can more power to you!

I got kind of confused as to what this is all about, is this testing concepts on self-portraiture? Or testing concepts without *clients*, but still with a team?

Sennia Kyle's picture

Probably both? For me, I usually test with agency new faces or with models who are friends when one of us has a fun idea and we want to screw around to see what we can come up with.