Preparing for a Studio Shoot

Some Tips on Preparing for a Studio Shoot

In an ideal world each of your photographic jobs should be meticulously planned. Locations should be scouted, lighting conditions anticipated, shot lists drafted, equipment serviced and cleaned, clients quizzed in detail, and contingencies put in place. However in the real world photographers can rarely justify the time and expense to do all of these things for every job given the rate war out there, and the ‘seat of your pants’ situation sometimes results. Often it’s more likely that you cross your fingers and hope that the universe delivers a situation that can be managed, and that nothing disastrous occurs that makes it impossible to deliver an outstanding result, every time.

I have found that over time Murphy’s Law has proved itself to be an excellent benchmark for planning. It goes something like “If anything can go wrong it will, at the worst possible moment”. Aside from the elements completely out of your control, it is definitely advisable to plan as best you can and have contingencies in place for a good percentage of anticipated problems, without going overboard. I don’t believe that you have to write a detailed call sheet and schedule for every shoot.

I shoot on location and in the studio. The location shoots (for me) offer far more challenges and require a lot more planning and preparation than a studio shoot. But if you are new to studio photography and are planning, for example, to hire a studio, it is sensible to treat it like a location shoot and put a few things in place before you arrive:

1. Don’t make any assumptions

If you haven’t hired that space before, make sure you don’t create a false impression of the place in your own mind. If you do have time it would be ideal to visit the studio and make sure the space is adequate (including ceiling height) for your needs. Otherwise make sure you read the dimensions and map them out for yourself to ensure it will work well for your planned shoot.  Some photographers recently out of college assume that the studio comes equipped with every possible piece of equipment and accessory they might need, and arrive with just a camera. On the other hand, check the included facilities and equipment so that you don’t drag along things you actually don’t need. Think about what focal length you will be using and how far back you will likely be from your subject. Will the background be wide enough for that scenario? Is there enough room to position rear or front lights off the set at the right angle? Does the space provide things like ladders or do you need to bring something with you if you need it? Don’t assume anything, just in case.

2. Think about your background tone

Make sure you plan your shots and think about what density of tone you want in your background. A white background in the studio won’t necessarily appear white in the image if it is underexposed (in relation to the exposure on your subject). In many situations you would need to separately light the background to manage the tone you are after, or you would need to think about the Inverse Square Law and figure out the distances between your lights, subjects and background to achieve the tone you want. Consider any background lighting and shaping needs.

3. How will you light your subject in terms of contrast ratio and style?

In planning your lighting equipment (lights and their stands, shapers or modifiers) remember to work back from your lighting style and contrast ratio. A low ratio (1:1 or 1:2) is likely to need a 2-light setup directly on the subject whilst a high ratio could use just one light (depending on what you are after). What kind of contrast and falloff do you need from those lights? Do you need to minimise spill and carefully isolate each light, or can you afford broad spread from some of your lights? See point 6 below for more about this. It’s a good idea to create a lighting diagram for your primary setup if possible (I rarely do this on paper but I always do it in my head. On paper is far better, especially if you have an assistant and need to clearly communicate your plan. There are many online lighting diagram apps that can help).

4. What could go wrong with your lights?

If you have a lighting plan that involves 4 lights, would you still be able to achieve your plan if one of the lights refuses to work? Consider packing a back-up light (speedlights can help in an emergency) and things like spare fuses (do you know how to change the fuse if necessary?) and bulbs. I always have extra lights on hand for such situations (I’m no good at problem-solving fuses mid-shoot) and also things like extra reflectors and stands if things get desperate.

5. How will you trigger and measure your lights?

This is often where things unravel for me. I always have spare batteries for triggers, as well as a good ol’ fashioned sync cord in case of an emergency. Ideally you should have enough receivers to make sure all supplementary or accent lights will fire, every time. Optical slaves are great, but occasionally the lighting positions compromise the ‘line of sight’ required, and you end up compromising your lighting just to get the light to fire. Radio triggers that are simple and reliable are critical. I never seem to have enough receivers. Having just written this I have just bought a new receiver online so that I practice what I preach! I use a light meter and would be pretty lost if I didn’t have it with me on a shoot – don’t forget to pack yours if you’re old-school enough to still use one

6. Do you have all the required modifiers, stands and accessories?

Assuming you know what you are aiming to achieve with your lighting, there should be a reasonably obvious list of modifiers / shapers that you need to pack. If you have to collapse softboxes to travel, make sure you leave plenty of time to set them up again. I’m lazy and travel with all my softboxes ready to go, which is why I use a van. If you are new to studio work it can be quite a learning curve to figure out how a modifier behaves. Do your research and know what to expect. I have tested my various modifiers with my studio mascots (this is Bonnie – see below) and occasionally check this cheat-sheet in planning a particular look

Modifiers Explored-5 Modifiers Explored-4 Modifiers Explored-3 Modifiers Explored-2 Modifiers Explored-1



















I also keep a bag of nicknacks on all shoots. In this bag I have gaffers tape, masking tape, clamps and more clamps, pegs, bits of wire, AA and AAA batteries, black fabric, power cables and power boards, screwdrivers and various other miscellaneous bits you may need. We often have people who are hiring the studio knock on the office door to ask for those kinds of things – they are not obvious but often seem to be needed. We also lend out things like phone chargers when people realise they are shooting all day but haven’t charged their phone or left their laptop power cable behind.

Something that can also help is to have some reference images on hand for helping you with lighting, styling and poses etc. Again, it’s an obvious point but if you are working with others it can help them to visualise what you are planning.

7. Camera Equipment and accessories

It goes without saying that you need to charge your camera batteries and all spares, clean lenses, format memory cards and have backups (or appropriate tether solutions), and possibly pre-set some of your settings. But always make sure you have a spare camera in case something goes wrong. I always keep a second full-frame DSLR in the same camera bag (and it’s also useful for BTS shots). Also make sure you pack the lenses you need. This all sounds really obvious, but it may be worth creating or adapting an existing checklist. You most probably won’t need things like filters in the studio (but, well, you may) but things like calibration cards and lens cleaning supplies can be handy.

8. Catering supplies?

If you are planning for a long shoot, make sure you have food, snacks and refreshments for you and your team – or some nearby shops that someone can duck out to in order to get supplies. A fed crew is a happy crew, and it’s always a nice touch to have healthy snacks on set for people to enjoy while they work. Tea, coffee, milk and sugar often get forgotten, and although we usually have a ready supply on hand at Cog Creative Space, it gets difficult when huge crews deplete our own supplies because they haven’t planned ahead.

9. Don’t skimp on time

Most importantly, it is crucial that you are set up and ready to shoot before your clients / subjects arrive for the shoot. Always allow yourself extra time (double what you think you will need) to accommodate for things going wrong. It’s a better look to be preparing a round of tea for everyone when they arrive than you running around looking for power-points or problem-solving a lighting stand. If you are booking a studio you need to book your required setup (and pack down) time on either side of the actual shoot.

I will try to add to this list as things come to mind but hopefully this helps you plan better for your studio shoot!


Sam Oster

April 2016

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