Why You Should Sketch Your Images When Planning a Photoshoot

Why You Should Sketch Your Images When Planning a Photoshoot

Whenever you are preparing for a shoot, sketching your images should be a part of your pre-planning process. The sketches don’t have to be the perfect storyboard. But it should have enough details to guide a creative vision.

When you take the time to think about the elements in your photos, you will quickly transform your photography from an act of simply snapping pictures to making an image with artistic vision. It helps to speed up the process when the time comes to pick up that camera. It will also help you to rapidly grow your skills. Here’s why.

Sketching Your Images Helps to Define Your Vision

Even if you are a wildlife photographer, spending time thinking about what it is you want to do that day before wandering out into the wild will allow you to find those shots quickly and efficiently. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate storyboard. The vision can be as simple as drawing some sketches with different composition rules and a big X where you want the wildlife to be in the frame. You can take it a step further and think about where you want your subject to be in relation to the sun.

For those of us who work with a lot of props, heroes, and artificial light, we also have the added benefit of being able to add some color to work out the color harmony. I find this especially beneficial in food photography where the colors of the props have a significant impact on how appetizing the hero will look.

Sketching Saves Time on Set

It doesn’t matter if it is just you are working on a personal project or if you have a full team of people on a complex set, having a firm idea of how a shot needs to look saves a boatload of time. My sketches play the foundation for my shoots. The sketch tells me what needs to be on my equipment lists. They tell me what needs to be on my prop list. They tell me who needs to be where and when. And they let assistants and everyone else on set know how things need to be set up.

When I do my sketches, I not only draw an idea of where I want everything to be in the frame, but I also add from where the light source is coming, the angle of the shot, the orientation of the shot, placement of gobos and reflectors, lens, and anything else that will be needed on set. This saves enormous amounts of time not only setting up but also changing scenes.

This sketch and image was for a workshop and live shoot about one light photography I was giving at a photography conference. In the end, I decided not to include the vines in the foreground.

Sketching Your Shoots Allows You to Problem Solve

The act of sketching allows your brain to actively problem solve and also passively problem solve. Maybe your vision includes an element that is tricky to stage. While you are sketching, you should also be actively figuring out how the tricky shots will be realized. There is nothing worse than getting on set and not having a single idea about the mechanics of getting that shot. If you are collaborating with a stylist, then you need to have the mechanical stuff sorted. You can’t be figuring this out as you go.

It also allows you to run some testing and experiments before you shoot to make sure your vision can be captured within the limitations of the shoot. All shoots have limitations. Because you have spent time actively problem-solving with testing, your brain already has an idea of what can go wrong and begins to figure out how it will solve those problems if they happen on set.

Sketching Allows You to Easily Pivot

Sketches function as a blueprint for your vision as an artist. Unlike blueprints for a building, things will not fall apart if you don’t follow them exactly. When you sketch, you have a clear understanding of everything you want to accomplish with an image including things that are more about feelings that can’t quite be captured with a sketch.

With my food photography, there is always a certain mood in my images that I can’t quite translate to my sketches, but I know what it is with every fiber of my being by the time I’m finished the sketching process. Because of this intrinsic feeling I gain as I’m preparing, there is a strong punch when it isn’t realized when that shutter goes off and the image comes up on the screen.

Because I have everything on hand that I need to make my dream a reality, it takes moments to pivot, reset, and capture that vision. I don't have to start from square one without an idea of what it is we are there to accomplish.

Sketching was vital to pre-planning to figure out exactly how I had to trim egg carton cups to get the eggs to stand on end and how far spaced they needed to be as to not topple each other.Then, I pivoted on-set to portrait orientation when landscape lacked the desired impact.

Sketching Helps to Nail Your Signature Style

I’ve worked with, taught, and continue to teach several photographers. “Finding your style” is the thing that stresses photographers out the most. It is such an ethereal thing to say, "find our style." I feel like I was in the minority in that I knew my style before I even picked up a camera. I had a strong aesthetic and knew what I liked and what I didn’t like. And that aesthetic hasn’t changed, even as I leveled up my skills.

When you know what you like, you can add those elements to your sketches and then figure out a twist to make it yours. The style of my photography isn’t new. It is heavily influenced by Classical paintings, especially the Baroque and Romanticism eras. It is also influenced by my former days as an oil painter. Many also shoot in a style that can be described as “painterly.”

My twist is introduced with the color palette. I have three brand colors with three variations of each. In many of my images, there is an object that is one of my brand colors or a close variation of one of my colors. It isn’t always a prop that introduces the color. When it is the hero of the image, then the rest is about lighting and style. And when it isn’t possible to introduce those things into the image, the third thing that helps to define my signature style is the default edits I always do in Lightroom. Sketching helps to ensure my signature elements are in every image I make.

When you sketch, you are mindful of every single element. Quickly, you will level up your skills exponentially.

Hopefully, you have a new appreciation for sketching as an integral part of being an image-maker. What holds you back from sketching? What do you like about sketching?

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Jon Kellett's picture

I don't always sketch my concepts (eg for landscape/travel/wildlife) but I am a massive fan of sketching.

As you say, it really helps to hammer home the concept in much the same way as trying to teach something really helps you understand that thing.

I've got a large book of concepts that I keep meaning to scan but never get around to it. Even if I did, I don't think I'd be able to finance 10% of the photos I've conceived :-)

Another technique I like (but don't use enough) is mood board type collections of images that demonstrate aspects of what I wish to create.

Jules Sherred's picture

I also like to do treatments (for people not familiar with the term: the technical term for a mood board but are part of the process in commercial photography; a treatment is created and presented to the client to inform the art direction for the project). I don't do them all the time. I mostly reserve them for big projects where there needs to be a more cohesive look, like for a cookbook and I'm also doing the role of art director.

winzehnt gates's picture

I did that a lot, when I was experimenting with nude shots back in the 1990s. Ilford Film was expensive, so I didn't want to waste any of it just because of bad preparation.
Also when you have friends as models, you don't want to come across as badly prepared, so I made sketches of poses and lighting.

PS: I couldn't afford fancy flash, so I used portable floodlights from the next hardware store and Ilford 400 black and white film.

Jules Sherred's picture

LED Shop lights rated at 5500k are also a great budget item for people who can't afford continuous lighting. They make great strip lights with DIY honeycomb grids.

winzehnt gates's picture

Well, back in the 90s led lights were rare and very expensive, but today they're a great option.

Jules Sherred's picture

Yes. I wasnt clear that my comment was meant as a modern day alternative.

Michelle VanTine's picture

I have a sketchbook and draw out conepts often. It kind of helps my creative process jumpstart. Great article!

Jules Sherred's picture


Tom Reichner's picture

It's cool that you specifically mention wildlife photography in the article, as that is my genre.

I have sketched out images of wildlife scenes that I would like to take, because the sketching is fun to do! But seldom, if ever, does an opportunity to take an image like the sketch present itself. So for me sketching is an enjoyable past time, but I must admit that it hasn't exactly helped me visualize anything better or tangibly improved my wildlife photos.

Jules Sherred's picture

As I said in the article, in wildlife situations, it isn't about capturing the exact sketch but rather, getting a firm sense about what it is the photographer wants to accomplish. To be more specific, which way they want the shadows to be directed? Where in the frame do they want the subject? At what angle do they want to capture the subject? What kind of light do they want? I know a lot of wildlife photographers whose photography improved my leaps and bounds the moment they started to sketch out these specific details before heading out. They were no longer guessing and just taking images haphazardly.

But YMMV :)

Tom Reichner's picture

I understand you. But some of us, myself included, already consider all of these things before sketching. I mean, I don't even start a sketch until I have already figured all of these things out. Otherwise, how would I know exactly what to sketch?!

I suppose that people are different. Some people, it would seem from what you say, use the process of sketching as a way of considering all of these things, and figuring out just what they want. Meanwhile, other types of people, such as myself, obsessively think about all of these details during every waking moment of life. We need to have all of that sorted out and determined before we even start a sketch.

Some plan everything out in our minds, and then start to act. Others start to act, and the actions they take (sketching) help them to consider the details and figure them out.