It can be a struggle to produce our best work during the busy season. Once we’ve answered all the emails, backed up yesterday’s session, edited and processed last week’s session, worked on some social media posts, and, heavens forbid, got ourselves a cup of coffee and taken a short break, it can be daunting to head out and meet a client for a session. Today we’ll talk about a few ways to make each session count.
Producing repeatable work should be the goal of any photographer running a business. We need to be able to create what your clients are seeing from us on demand as it's likely the reason they hired us instead of one of the other great photographers within their reach. However, our ability to build on that base of great work and produce some additional images on top of that will not only make our clients happy but maintain our own interest in what we create.
When the busy season kicks in, it can be easy to slip into a routine and produce the same work over and over. We can find ourselves just trying to get through the session at hand so we can get to the next one. We fall back on things we know work and into old habits so we can produce the required images and move on to the next task. However, this isn't always healthy for our love of the craft and continued development as artists. Today, we'll run through how I keep myself producing new work that I’m happy with throughout the busiest times of the year.
Set Overarching Goals
Before the busy season begins, I like to review my images from the previous year (this is also a good time to blog my year in review) and set some overall goals for the upcoming year in my business. I make a note of these and review them before I begin preparing each session.
This year, for example, I wanted to ensure I was delivering cleaner looking files and more variety for every client. Before each session, I break these goals down and add one actionable goal to every shoot. We'll see how I do that below.
Create a Session Document
The first thing I do as I'm preparing for a session is to create a session preparation document. This houses any things of note during my communication with the client, a shot list, a gear list, and eventually some inspiration for what I hope to create during the session. Personally, I use Dropbox Paper for this. It allows me to easily create a document in a checklist format that I can refer to as I work and check off as I go. Below we'll look at some of the things I add to this document and some other things I try to achieve with each session.
Add a New Photograph
One of the things I do, not only to offer something fresh for my clients, but to keep the sessions interesting for myself, is to add a completely new type of image to each session I photograph. Before going into a session, I make a basic list of photographs I hope to get during the session. This contains some of my known images that work well and my clients love. At the end of this list, I add at least one new type of image that I hope to create during this session.
As I primarily work with families, these new shots come in the form of a new combination of people or a new way to express their connection. They don’t always work out so I try to tack them on to the end of my sessions after I’m satisfied that I have the photographs I want to deliver. At this point, I’ll usually let my clients know I’m going to try a new approach and it might not work out. I’ve never had anyone say no to receiving a few extra unique images.
I also put sample images into this document to inspire my locations, lighting, or posing for the day. These are always images that are similar to the new idea I’m hoping to implement for the session. This helps me to focus my efforts on creating something new each time in addition to the existing set of images I always try to create.
Fix One Issue
None of us is perfect and we all make mistakes. A great way to improve each session we photograph and keep things interesting for ourselves is to take mistakes we’ve made in previous sessions and improve on them in our next session. I like to add these mistakes to the top of my session preparation file in Dropbox Paper so I can focus on them as I take the metro to my location. By doing so, I keep mistakes I've made fresh in my mind and can attempt to improve on them each time.
These could be technical issues that I had on a previous session. Maybe I didn’t know a setting as well as I thought or maybe I made a bad exposure choice in the heat of the moment. They could also be psychological things, like the mental space I was in before a session. It can be tough to do your best work if you’re overtired or flustered from something else in life. Finding that mental space before a session is very important. It may also be something about the way I interacted with my clients. Perhaps there is a clearer way for me to articulate what I want from them as we work together. These are all things we can constantly improve on as photographers and business people.
Give Yourself Keywords
One other thing I put at the top of my session preparation document is a keyword or two to describe the feeling I would like my images to have or the compositions I would like to make. Over the years, I’ve tried to focus on adding one more adjective to the list every few sessions so I can improve on the variety I deliver and give myself new challenges each time. By doing this, my sessions have evolved but still resemble my earlier work.
When I began, these adjectives were things like genuine, happy, loving, or soft. As my ability to direct and create emotion in my images improved, I started to include more adjectives that would describe the light I wanted to use. Those were things like dramatic, airy, or directional. Then I began adding adjectives about my composition. Words like stable, geometric, or layered would help me to add different types of compositions to my deliveries. As my arsenal grows, I'm able to create more variety in a single session and then add to it each time as well.
Use a New Lens
I’m not suggesting we buy a new lens for every session here, but that we use a different lens (or focal length) than we would for an image we commonly make. Subjects, scenes, and the relationship between them all play out differently when we switch focal lengths or lens types. We can give a completely different feeling to an image by working with a 24mm lens instead of a 135mm lens, for example. We might even use a tilt-shift to give a whole different feeling again. This can help keep the images we create fresh and keep our minds active as we work on the challenges caused by shaking up our usual ways of working.
When I look at my basic list for an upcoming session, I'll often make a note like "try this at 35mm" to a shot that I have on the list. Of course, I can get a safe shot with the focal length I'm used to and then switch it up. This is really quick and easy when using two bodies or a zoom lens.
Scouting is absolutely essential when using a new location. There’s nothing worse than fumbling through a shoot because we didn't prepare well enough. We should give plenty of thought to the locations we're going to use and how we’re going to use them. However, after using a location a couple of times, it is easy to become complacent and feel like we know the location well enough that we don’t need to scout. I’ve found that even after working in the same locations multiple times, I always have new ideas when I re-scout.
At different times of year, we find different light and different scenes in the same locations. Walking around our locations in a different direction than we usually do can also lead to seeing new compositions. Again, making a note of this before the session so we don't lose the thought while we're working is a great idea. Sometimes this isn't practical, but if I ever find myself with an hour to spare in a commonly used area, I'll grab a cup of coffee and walk around my locations to see if I can find something new.
Photograph Something Completely Different
One final way to breathe some life into our sessions is to photograph something different. As a commercial product photographer, you might choose to photograph landscapes on the weekends to give yourself a break from studio work. As a wedding photographer, perhaps you might find joy in food photography. Having your mind work on an entirely different set of challenges can open you up to new possibilities when it comes time to work for a client.
One of the latent outcomes of working on my personal project, Tattoos of Asia, has been a heightened awareness of my surroundings and my subjects. Because my subjects and I don’t speak the same language, I’ve always had to be acutely aware of what’s going on around me as I work on these trips. So many things to affect the way my photograph turns out and this awareness has been a real boon on my family sessions as well. Different types of photography can develop different skills which can have crossovers with what we normally photograph. I recommend taking every chance you get to photograph something completely different.
These are the ways that I continue to improve my sessions each and every time. It can be tough to do when I'm photographing a session every single day while still managing the rest of my business. However, by spending some time at the beginning of the year building a list of goals and chipping away at that list every session, I have found that I can still enjoy each shoot and get something new out of it every time. How do you stay motivated and continue to develop your skills when things get busy?