Planning A Concept Shoot
When I started my photography journey, I started like most do. I shot a lot of sessions of random things, for little or no pay. I took sessions as they came, shooting EVERYTHING I could get my hands on. I knew that other photographers often specialized in a certain genre, but I didn’t understand how they targeted and booked only that audience.
I came to learn early on that the sessions that I found the greatest pleasure in were the sessions where I was working one-on-one with someone, and there was room for me to be creative.
Although this is what I wanted, I still couldn’t get anyone to book that kind of session, one where I had full creative control. I was booking family reunion after family reunion and was getting burned out quickly. This is when I decided to try my very own concept shoot. I knew ahead of time that I would probably be working for free. With this in mind, I had to do things frugally and have a plan. I will dive into that shoot a little later, and how that one shoot changed my business for good.
Concept shoots can be so diverse. I have learned since that first shoot that my sessions don’t have to be boring. I don’t have to try to conform to the ‘norm.’ I can make my family shoots actually be concept shoots. I can take my senior sessions to the next level. I can be creatively fulfilled and still get paid for it. I do not get paid for all the concept shoots I do, but I do get paid for some of them.
Concept shoots are great for so many thing, though: portfolio building, targeting a specific audience, collaborations, magazine or book submissions, book cover agencies, stock photos, and most of all, one-of-a-kind pieces of art.
Throughout this article, I will go through the steps that I take to make a concept shoot come to life. Below are some of the steps I take:
1. Type of Shoot
2. Find Inspiration
3. Inspiration Board
4. Sketch It Out
5. Plan & Prepare
Type of Shoot
There are two types of concept shoots: client-requested, and self-made. A client-requested shoot, of course, goes a little differently than a shoot I’ve put together for myself. My client may have ideas they are bringing to the table, and sometimes they don’t have any specific ideas about what they want. Either way, they are your model(s), and that element is already decided.
Usually a commissioned shoot client will be someone wanting a family shoot with a theme, or a senior shoot with some extreme element to it, like going underwater, etc. These shoots tend to be a little less on the fine art side, but are still different than just a regular family or senior shoot.
Once, I had a family that wanted to do a shoot with a Bohemian vibe to it. So after collaborating with them, I made a tee-pee, flower halos, and a dream catcher for the shoot. It was fun, and gave the kids some great places for more candid shots.
When the concept shoot is self-made, though, meaning that a client has not contacted me about it, I take time to really think out my own idea. I decide what I would like to portray, and the model, location, and everything else is influenced by that idea.
As artists, we are constantly looking for inspiration in new places. I get inspiration for concept shoots from many different places. Sometimes I see someone I think would make a great model. Sometimes a location inspires me. Sometimes I look for ideas in song lyrics, books, artwork, emotions, colors, my children, fairy tales, or myths. Inspiration is always the first step. Some ideas will be more elaborate than others, but the best concepts are ones that are well thought out.
An inspiration board is something I find immensely helpful for myself, makeup and hair artists, and for the client-requested sessions. Basically this is a collaboration of all of the elements of the shoot.
It will include ideas for models, hair and makeup, wardrobe, locations, posing, lighting ideas, and even editing ideas. In a client-requested shoot, I usually start by asking the client what feelings they are wanting to convey through these photos. Sounds cheesy, but it is important.
If they want the photos to be dark and heavy, for example, I wouldn’t choose a location that is all white and sunny. I sometimes have them send me 5-6 photos from Pinterest that they feel inspired by.
Clients may not be able to look past the ideas that have already been executed on Pinterest, and will want to duplicate it exactly. This is not why I want these photos. I do not want to duplicate anyone else’s work. I simply want to see what photos speak to them.
Say they choose 5 photos where all of the locations are in big fields with heavy clouds. I would take this to mean that the feeling they want is first, outside, and has a general open but dramatic feeling to it where they stand out more than the surroundings. I then use the Pinterest photos they chose to influence my choices for other parts of the shoot. When doing my own inspiration boards, I think about what I want the end result to be, and let the different parts of the shoot work towards that.
One example of a recent inspiration board I did was for a Halloween shoot this year. This was a self-made shoot. I knew I wanted something dark, but still have a sense of power to it. I immediately went to a Raven Queen Idea. I had a friend I wanted to model for it already so that part was done. I researched some photos that I found inspiring, and decided that the common theme they had that I liked was movement. There were birds moving, a dress swaying, and an overwhelming feeling or power in them.
Some of the final photos were very different than these inspiration photos because I made them my own, but I think the general feeling is still the same.
These boards have helped ensure that everyone involved in the shoot will understand the look and feel I have envisioned. When the makeup artist understands the entire concept, she will understand why I chose a certain look for them to create. The inspiration board also helps the model get into character and convey a certain emotion because she understands the final result I am going for.
After I have thought or found something that inspires me, I race to my journal to get the ideas on paper before I lose them. At this point, I usually have already created the inspiration board, and this step helps me get more ideas on paper that I couldn’t find visual reference for. For the Raven queen shoot, I wanted an elaborate outfit. I wanted black armor-like details. I wanted a long dress, that when standing on a stool would make her look ten feet tall. I wanted a mix of warrior and elegance. I couldn’t find this dress anywhere. So I drew out ideas for the design, and I made it. (I’ll admit it was a lot of work, but it was worth it.)
I have an idea journal full of things that I hope to shoot someday. Most of the things in that journal are of a more fine art nature and they involve a more creative approach or an elaborate wardrobe.
This seems like the no-brainer step, but it is what makes it happen. The viewer will never know how much went on behind the scenes. Coordinating schedules can be difficult; the date has to work for you, the model, the makeup and hair artists, the babysitter, and the assistant, for example.
You have to think about how long it will take to get the hair and makeup done, and plan so that you will still have plenty of light to shoot outside. Though weather can be unpredictable, be sure to think about the concept and match it to the best weather for your theme. If you are working with live animals, it may take extra time to calm them or get them to cooperate.
Give everyone a job. The last thing you need is to have a bunch of people there just watching you shoot. When there is so much going on, it is helpful to have a few extra pairs of eyes. Prepare for cold with blankets, coats, hand warmers etc. Bring blankets to lay on, umbrellas for rain, and snacks for long days. Not only will you feel better being prepared, but the team you are working with will appreciate it, too.
Going back to the very first concept shoot I ever did… I chose a location first. I was inspired by the rolling hills of sagebrush here in my local town. The surroundings were so green, so I wanted a model to compliment those colors. I chose a red-headed young model. I knew I wanted her to seem tall, and I almost wanted a stormy / gentle look to her. I wanted her to stand out from her surroundings, and be unafraid with the wind blowing in her hair and dress. A desert flower. I brought two of her friends along. One took behind-the-scenes photos for Instagram, held reflectors, and fixed her hair. The other held the leaf blower we brought to create ‘wind.’ It was a team effort, and although it was a lot of work, it was worth it.
I ended up making the dress for her as well, and she was so excited to have a custom dress made for the shoot. This shoot was unpaid, but it paid for itself later. After this shoot I received dozens of requests from girls to take their senior photos. This was the niche I wanted to be in. I wanted to take senior photos but didn’t have the portfolio to show that I could do the work. I booked more seniors that year than I ever had and I had some fun new photos for my portfolio, as well. I took them to the local fair, won some prizes, and the news kept spreading. The word-of-mouth advertising did wonders for me, and it was all because of a concept shoot I put together.
Overall, whether you are wanting to build your portfolio, target a specific audience, or just do something for yourself, a concept shoot will do that. I find it therapeutic to put together these shoots, and they have refueled my love for photography all over again.
Amanda Conley has been in business for 3 years. She specializes in fine art portraiture for the individual. She is a mom to two beautiful girls, and a wife to a hunky detective. She is from Portland, Oregon and currently lives in a farming community in Idaho. She loves to craft, dance, paint, eat chocolate, and spend time with her family. You can check out her work here.
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