Using Shot Lists Will Make You a Better Photographer

Using Shot Lists Will Make You a Better Photographer

When I first started shooting, I would spend absolutely no time planning my shots. I would focus tons of time and energy into every other aspect (location, wardrobe, mood, etc) but in some weird turn of events, it must have slipped my mind that the end goal is "The Shot." How that slipped my mind still baffles me. Instead of putting in the effort to plan what my actual finished images would look like, I found a model, found a location and showed up on shoot day with a plan to wing it. I would put together shots on the spot and when I was ready to move on to the next one, I would. To be honest, I am glad I started off this way because I believe it gave me a strong ability to think on the spot while on set which is something I often put into practice but as I started to find more value in preparation I began to plan every aspect of my shoots in order to have the most control of my final images.

Now, instead planning to wing it, I create with a complete shot list and I already know what my finished shoot will look like before I even step foot on set. This switch was a huge change in the way I do things but it puts me in a better frame of mind on shoot day and keeps me more organized and effective than I ever was.

Shot List Image

This is what my a page of my pre-shoot planning looks like. Yes, I know that your 5 year old sister can probably sketch better than I am. That's why I am a photographer. Even though they don't belong in a museum, these sketches help me keep me organized on set and often times, sketching out a shot will spark an idea for something else that I may not have had otherwise. You may have noticed that in the top left corner, I have a little check box to mark after I get the shot and in the top right corner I have written down the lens on plan on using depending on what mood I want to draw out. Organization keeps me sane.

Shot lists are just about the last thing I work on before shoot day. At this point, I already have almost all of the visual details worked out (wardrobe, location, mood, hair, make up, etc.) and just need to plan what my finished images should look like. This is where my trusty journal comes in (these journals are my personal favorite). My shot lists started as a few scribbles and notes of things I wanted to remember to shoot and now include a full rundown of shots (some are even sketched out) that I want to bring to life. These are all shots that I had visualized and loved. I had already seen the outcome in my mind and all I have to do is create them.

Making these shot lists left me with a shoot that was practically already finished and ensured that I didn't have an image in my head that I might forget to create. Even though this means you have a complete shoot built out, don't feel restricted. It is absolutely okay to go off script. I always bring a shot list to my sets but I spend about 50% of my time completing the list and 50% going off book. This means that even if 100% of my unplanned shots are complete failures, I still have a complete shoot because of the images I had visualized before hand and brought to life.

Shot lists come in all shapes and sizes. If you are shooting a test or personal work, you have the freedom to include anything you want and leave out what you don't. The joy in test shooting is that it is absolutely free of pressure and restraint. On the other hand, if you are working for a client, they may have a shot list already made up for you that includes a list of images that work for the advertising or editorial campaign that you are shooting for. If that is the case, easy peasy. You have the list and you are set to go! If not, you have a bit more work to do.

When I am working on a shot list I typically spend about 5-10 minutes freely writing every possible shot that comes to my head. The good, the bad and the ugly (and sometimes the hideous). I get everything out and then begin to narrow it down into a list that I feel fits exactly what I am aiming for. Typically, I break my lists down into three sections; Must Haves, Details, and Extras. The Must Have list includes the images that I would be absolutely heart broken if I forgot. These will be the shots that drive the shoot in the direction it needs to go.

For example, in my recent Mountain Fitness shoot these would include the shots of my model running, stretching, posing, etc. Next up is the Details list. These are the shots of things that draw more attention to the smaller aspects and can help solidify the shoot as a whole. In that same shoot, these would be the shots of the model tying up her shoes, putting up her hair, her shoes on the ground or even one of her foot prints on the trail. Last up is the Extras list. These would include all of the other shots that I would want if time permits. When on set, I am under the schedule of the sun. Since I shoot in almost all natural light, I need to budget my time so I don't run out of light with items still on my list. This is why I have an Extras list. If I have a shot in my head that I want but isn't crucial to the shoot, it goes here. If there is still light left after completing the Must Haves and the Details list, I move on to the Extras. Having this well organized shot list keeps me sane, organized and effective on set.



It is pretty much a given that most photographers are visual people. That means that when a spark of inspiration hits, we already know what we want our finished images to look like. This is why shot lists are just about the easiest part of our planning process. This is also why we don't have any excuses for not building them out. Consider yourself encouraged to spend a little bit of extra time to plan your shots and I promise you that not only will your shoots seem less chaotic and stressful, but you will come out on the other end with images that make you proud.

Ben Sasso | Facebook | Instagram

Ben Sasso's picture

Aside from taking pictures, I love to be in nature (camping, climbing, running around) and I have an unmanly love for cats. I am a firm believer in fostering a close knit photo community and encouraging individual progression. We are all in this together.

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Awesome post man! Really like your work, both your articles have been very helpful to me.
This one reminds me of video shoots I've been a part of... every detail including shots planned down to the second, because we can't afford not to. Why wouldn't photography be deferent? This entry caused a large "doh!" moment for me haha.

Thanks Corban, I am glad to hear that they have been helpful!

It's great advice, planning shots does to photography what a storyboard does to a movie. Great thoughts. But there's something amiss with these two bottom shots. The colors are very desaturated and there is a blue tint to the bottom two shots making it seem a bit cold where she is which makes me think that she will be freezing. The upper shot however has this golden warm touch/tone to it which makes it feel warmer and makes the shot more believable.

Thanks Tobias!

This is great advice! Thank you for the post. Also, I really dig the style of your photography!

Thank you!

Great article. I completely agree.
"Failure to plan is a plan for failure" - Alan Lakein

Amen to that.

Good post! Thank you!

You are welcome!

Brianna is a great model. Great stuff ;)

I had a blast working with her!

Great tips.

I think it's funny that you're so self-deprecating about your sketches - my shot lists are just words. I like the idea of using sketches and will have to try out my stick figures next time I create a shot list.

haha, It's true. With a pencil, I am NOT an artist.

She needs a burger or something, poor skinny girl

Good tips on writing stuff down though

Thanks for the kind words. People come in all shapes and sizes. If you saw me in person you would probably want to give me a burger too.

Sorry to tell you, But I personally know Brianna and she has always been this way. I will tell you this, She will and can out eat most guys, Not that she stuffs her face, but she enjoys food, she really does. I have sat down next to her at sushi bars and had great conversations with my dear friend Brianna. She is genuine and honestly I can't think of a better person to promote health as Brianna does. I do understand your concerns about her size as so many models go overboard with not eating . But this is not Brianna, trust me, I owe her everything.

I like your ideas here. I usually write down the shots I would like to take.


I love shot lists. Wish I had more clients!

Me too, hahaha!

haha, put in hard work and it will happen.

Excellent use of stick figures.

Thanks haha.

I like the photos as well as the good tips thanks :)

You are welcome!

Quick question, can I ask all the annoying tech questions? Lens, lighting (all natural? with reflectors?) aperture etc.

Of course! These were shot with the 35L and 50L on a 5d II. All natural light with no reflectors/diffusers.

Great post. Many times I will use tear sheets out of magazines or captures off the internet to use as a basis. The idea of including the lens desired is a tip I will definitely use.

Good idea!

I am SO doing this. It's OK. I sketch like a child too.

Thanks for making me feel better!

Seems so obvious now you mention it! I have a shot list for weddings... don't know why I haven't thought of doing it for other assignments, but will from now on. I think the sketches work better than written lost too. Ta v much!

It was an Ah ha! moment for me too.

This is great stuff! Your sketches should help you compose your image, and have the key elements that you want in your frame. If you want your model leaning on a tree, you just outline it, ideas may vanish into thin air, you can't waste your time and risk letting one of them get away.
I like what you did with the 'must haves', these shots are the ones that you have planned and already know what to expect. Sometimes we miss great opportunities because we take too long to realize what we really want.

Glad to hear that this was helpful!

I use an app (Bamboo Paper) on the iPad to sketch ideas as I get them.. Sometimes I wake up from sleep, doodle, and go back to sleep.. On weekends, I browse them and see what I can make into a weekend project :)

Good call!

I started doing this a while ago with my portraits shots. I have a different list of posesfor women, men, groups, kids, families. I use the Wunderlist app for my iPhone and check off each shot as I shoot it. It doesn't allow me to draw but at least it keeps me focused. Like the drawing thing…need to figure out how to incorporate that. Great post!!

Thank you!

This is a great way to organize your thoughts ahead of time, rather than trying to recall in the heat of the moment. Might I add that you would also include lighting setups as well if you were using them.

Good call, I use all natural light but that would be included if I needed it!

Great ideas. But that model is anorexic... let's try and use more real looking (average) women!

Thanks! People come in all shapes and sizes. If you saw me in person you would probably want to give me a burger too.

Sorry, she is real and not anorexic. I have known her for too long, and that's years counting and we need to admit that some folks are just built this way. I have a daughter who is built this exact same way

Great post. Thanks for sharing.

You are welcome!

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