Planning Versus Improvisation: Are You a Planner or Just Winging It on Your Photoshoots?

Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail," but then again Franklin wasn't a photographer. Photoshoots with humans, animals, or even some objects are dynamic and even active situations that are at the same time part inspiration and part performance. Finding the right balance between planning and improvisation can help take your photography to the next level.

Making the Case for Planning 

Planning a shoot can take many forms. It can be a simple as a checklist for packing your camera bag. Or it can be complex choreography of models, artists, and assistants each performing highly defined roles. At some level there is planning on any shoot beyond a snapshot. Scheduling meeting times, selecting a location (even if it is a studio), and securing equipment is all planning at a base level. Some photographers dig deeper into planning a photoshoot to increase their odds of achieving their desired results through mood boards, casting, scouting, and outlines.

Important or complex shoots can sometimes require a detailed plan to help ensure that all parties at the shoot understand the direction or purpose of the project. Having a specific message or theme in a shoot often requires planning in advance to shift the odds of success in your favor. On one of my recent shoots I had a specific goal of highlighting the industrial features and textures of the studio I moved into this year to show to prospective clients. I decided that an all-white concept would highlight the bright atmosphere, large windows, and natural light of my studio. I tasked a fashion stylist and makeup artist to work with me on the shoot of a fashion model to create a series of images on this central theme.

All White fashion shoot at author's industrial factory studio. Styling by Julia Morris. Model is Anastasia S. from Wilhelmina NYC.

One way to get everyone on the same page is by creating a mood board. A mood board can simply be a group of images gathered to show ideas about lighting, posing, wardrobe, or other elements intended for the project at hand shared with stylists, makeup artists, and models before or at the shoot to focus their efforts to a single purpose. Stylists use mood boards in order to establish the parameters for the wardrobe and accessories they will bring to a shoot. Makeup artists often appreciate having a visual reference for the direction or mood a shoot will take as much as verbal direction. Models can often feel more comfortable working when they see examples of desired poses and have a better understanding of their role in the shot by looking at pre-selected photos in a mood board.

Mood boards in one form or another have been around as long as I have been working. Back in the "Mad Men"-era of advertising, storyboard artists were hired to illustrate layouts in advance of photoshoots and were an earlier form of a mood board. I have found that mood boards are have been even more common with the advent of Pinterest which is an easy way of gathering images into conceptual groups that can be shared with people in advance of a shoot. I also use the contact sheet function of Adobe Photoshop for sharing ideas with stylists and artists. On other shoots I have clients who tack a series of pages torn from magazines and catalogs to the wall for reference. 

On fashion, lifestyle, and conceptual shoots, selecting or casting the models can be one of the biggest influences to the look and success of a photographic project. Whether you are using a friend or booking a model through a modeling agency, selecting the face or faces in a photo will make an impact. Knowing the model's look, size, and experience is almost always helpful in planning a shoot. Most model agencies have websites that display they models they represent with their photos and sizes. An alternative to contacting modeling agencies are websites like Model Mayhem and which have searchable databases of models worldwide that also display photos and size information.

Freelance model Nang photographed on agains the splash of the Gulf of Thailand. Nang has a profile on Model Mayhem. The international database search on Model Mayhem can be valuable in finding models on travel shoots.

When casting a commercial project, I prefer working with established model agencies for the speed and reliability of getting the right models to consider and show up at shoots. With only a few phone calls or emails I can get a package of a variety of models to consider for a project or schedule a live casting or go-see to make selections. With the freelance modeling websites like Model Mayhem I have to make contact with each individual model I am considering to find out rates and availability. As expected, the rates that modeling agencies charge for their models is going to be higher than freelance or individual models in almost every case, but in general the quality and reliability of agency models is going to be higher too. When traveling though, I have often relied upon Model Mayhem as a valuable resource for finding models outside my home base.

As can be imagined, setting the location of a shoot can often have the biggest impact on the final look of an image and give the image a signature look, even if that location is inside a studio. Finding a good location for a shoot sometimes involves scouting or traveling in advance to the a number of sites to find interesting features or angles to stage a photoshoot. For outdoor shoots, time of day for lighting, parking and distance from car to shoot, access to bathrooms or changing facilities, and degree of interaction with the public are also important factors to consider. One of my favorite shoots was a desert sand dune in Nevada. I had first noticed the area driving from Las Vegas to Reno between assignments. I made notes on the location and set out to plan a fashion shoot there in the future. On another trip to the area I decided to do a formal scouting of the area I was interested in. I visited the location on a late-May afternoon and was fully pleased with the potential of the area, but I soon realized that the fine sand absorbed so much heat from the sun that very soon my feet were baking through my shoes. If I found this uncomfortable then almost any fashion model I have ever worked with would find it even more uncomfortable. I ended up scheduling the shoot in early November with more favorable weather.

White sand dunes Northwest of Las Vegas, where I scouted in advance and determined that a spring or summer shoot would be a risk for overheating the model.

When it comes time for the actual shoot, all of this information gets distilled down to a shoot outline or storyboard which can take a variety of forms. On my frequent catalog shoots I am given a shoot outline in the form of a spreadsheet with details like model's agency and arrival time, shot times, backgrounds, and even time for lunch break. This is especially important on shoots with multiple models and set changes. It also helps figuring out if you are running behind schedule. On those types of shoots I also have my digital technician print out 4x6-inch prints after each completed shot to create a running storyboard which is helpful to keep track of models, outfits, backgrounds, and props. 

Maybe this level of planning isn't for everyone, but putting in the time to make sure the important details are covered can save a lot of frustration. For some photographers knowing that each detail has been taken care of presents a calming effect and allows them to concentrate on seeing the image. Other photographers might chaff under rigid schedules and planning.

Making the Case for Improvisation

The case for improvisation isn't lengthy. Leaving room in a shoot for the inspired or unexpected and still coming back with positive results is very satisfying. It requires either an advanced degree of comfort with the technical and technique and a confidence that you will be able to keep your ideas flowing as events unfold or the freedom to accept unsatisfactory results as a learning experience. On the plus side, you get to wrestle with your ultimate abilities as a photographer and the shoot can gain an authentic energy of discovery that is appreciated by the audience.

To be sure, going into a shoot blind presents risks. Sometimes you get soup when all you have is a fork. Or photographically, you were counting on streaming sunlight and an unexpected storm comes up. But every so often a shoot comes along with a simple goal of beautiful images. With no demands or criteria a photographer is left with an almost infinite number of possibilities and the space to improvise with a portrait subject or model. This is the time to take risks, satisfy curiosity, and challenge others. 

A beautiful model arrives at your studio with no plan and only the vintage top hat that has been kicking around for a year. Sometimes it yields a favorite shot.

I would assume this is more common with fine art photographers than commercial assignment photographers, but even the most commercial of us will have opportunities for inspiration when it come to personal work and growth. Most conventional commercial and editorial projects want to have some assurances or forecasting regarding what you will bring back.

I have been fortunate to be thrown some interesting challenges with few resources and only the broadest of parameters. A couple memorable ones were spending a couple of weeks on board yachts in the Aegean photographing the spirit of honeymoon yachting. The other was creating beautiful promotional images of a couple dozen legal brothel workers in Nevada. Neither assignment had any formal shot list or specific target images. It is both liberating and challenging to work with few restrictions. At the same time it was exhausting because I found that each time I took a new satisfying image it tended to push down all of the images I previously thought were good. That just made me hustle more to take more and better images.

Which Is Better? 

Even my planned shoots have some degree of improvisation and at the same time I have found few shoots are totally improvisational. Going into a shoot with no ideas and only a camera forces you to think faster which can sometimes cause mistakes. OK, maybe I should say, when I rush because I am overwhelmed with possibilities, sometimes I make careless technical mistakes. And then there are the times when you reach for inspiration and you come up short. Sometimes I think the only thing worse than that is getting the lightening bolt inspiration a day after the shoot. Planning can sometimes prevent this.

Planning gets you, the model, the camera and the location together at the same time. Improvisation gets you a shot with a fashion model who is also a ballet dancer wanting a fun shot.

It seems like I am chasing that Goldilocks ratio of sufficient planning and enough room for improvisation. At heart I am a methodical planner who knows where each of my lenses are at any given moment, and I tend to look at assignments or layouts from a problem solving perspective. Having a grasp on many of the details in a shoot can unlock some freedoms in the performance of a shoot. Even on my personal development shoots, I sweat many of the details in advance in order to allow for sudden inspiration whether they are a different approach to lighting or an unexpected mood or motion from a model. I even have one client conditioned to expect this from me. We stick to a conventional page layout for the bulk of the shoot, but they ask me to "go rogue" for 10-15 frames after the layout shots are done. Looking back on those shoots, the lion's share of the images I keep for my book come from rogue shots. Just sayin'...

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Niyi Abiola's picture

Well said Dan. I myself tend to lean towards the improvisation end of that spectrum for the bulk of my work. But every once in a while, a client comes in with a detailed mood board that they want followed to a T. For work like this, I always try to squeeze some "rogue" shots in. In some cases they have ended up loving the improvised shots more than the planned ones.

Lee Morris's picture

I'm up for either planning or winging it but what I hate is when photographers (or anyone) spends hours, days, weeks, or even months, planning something like it's the most important and complicated project of their lives. And then as soon as they get on set, they start improvising and throw everything they've planned out the window. I think a lot of photographers feel like they are more professional if they plan every detail, but if you don't stick to the plan, you aren't professional, you just wasted a bunch of time.

Motti Bembaron's picture

If I have a willing subject in front of me and my camera in my hands, I shoot! We will come up with something good. Usually at the last 20 minutes of the shoot. Planning is important but what in my opinion makes a shoot successful is a willing subject with an open mind.

Scott Spellman's picture

I find that I can always improvise, but a solid plan makes sure my investment in the shoot is rewarded properly with great images or client satisfaction. Sample photos, planning meeting to select location/clothing/styling, and detailed shoot instructions all make my shoots better. Planning is an essential tool to better results and more professional client work.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

If there is no clear brief from a client, it is usually ideas list as a plan and required for that gear.

steve prue's picture

Hey Dan! Great piece! you know me and my methods - I plan enough to make sure the basics are covered and client vision can be realized but I tend to get my best work once I start shooting and tweaking/improvising/riffing. I've come to realize that most detailed plans go south once the shoot starts - I love pre-production and I think a solid plan/base will enable improvisation during the shoot - "chance favors the prepared" and all that.

I do love seeing your work/workflow and will have try to come by and visit the new space!

Tim R's picture

I plan a little than wing it, especially for weddings. Other photo shoots, I think should have more planning if you can control the time of session in regards to daylight or have time for strobes, time to work with your subject, etc. Or cancel entirely and reschedule for a better day.