In the spring and early summer of 2023, I decided to get serious about practicing my portraiture skills and growing my portfolio. I signed up for several styled shoots and... learned a lot, very quickly. I hope that in my sharing some of my advice for photographers signing up for shoots (and for those who are organizing them!) at least one person or so in the photography community can have an easier time.
Truthfully, I don't think the learning curve is that steep. I say that as someone who studied fine art and took photography courses in school for years, and as someone who is a professional creative (and has been in small startups, freelance capacities, and corporate roles).
As a learning photographer looking to join styled shoots...
1. The quality of the coordinating photographer does always not equate or correlate to the quality of the styled shoot.
Just because the Instagram profile and website of the coordinating photographer boasts tons of beautiful images does not mean that the styled shoot will result in you having the same quality. Styled shoots are often a little overwhelming and though not all might start chaotic, by the halfway point some portion of the shoot is likely to have unraveled a bit. Humans and creatives are practicing an art just like you, and the second half of shoots might be when you feel most comfortable or in a flow state, but the organization to take advantage of your flow might not be there.
2. The number of coordinators can be an indicator of ownership.
I attended one styled shoot with a team of 4-7 (?? still not sure) coordinators. There were too many models, photographers, and setups that starting 15 minutes late (and wardrobe changes taking too long) set the whole thing back. Rather than the whole coordinating team working to resolve this, though, I found them running around getting their own shots and making the most of it for themselves.
I've found that when a shoot is being coordinated by a solo photographer with little to no "support" team, the coordinator is much more likely to be tuning into how the event is running. My assumption is that on a team, there are enough people that each teammate gets plausible deniability and to brush off handling the disasters as they arise.
3. The smaller the shoot, the better.
The best styled shoot I attended had more models than photographers (family shoot), but there were 6 photographers and 3 sets of subjects. The solo subject had an outfit change and the coordinator brought a whole red wagon full of props, blankets, and accessories. We started as partners on each subject and after the first hour, the whole group was happily jumping around as we wanted and needed in a respectful manner. Everyone got support for holding the dress or holding a reflector while we all got opportunities to take the shots desired. The small group dynamic made the working relationship very quick to navigate and ultimately wound up being a beautiful team effort for all involved.
4. Expect shoots to not run perfectly
Shoots are not going to run perfectly. In the several I attended, I don't think a single one wound up starting on time. Group communication is a disaster for these things, typically (Instagram groups seem to be the MO). I recall at least one model passing out due to exhaustion. One went MIA for two whole 12-minute rotations at another shoot for her and her team to change her outfit. One was sick and had to depart shortly after hair getting done for an eye infection. A florist changed the setup of the venue decor mid-shoot because there were actually leftovers in the venue for which she couldn't claim credit. Rain sets in, clouds run out. Shoots will not run perfectly. Don't expect the coordinating photographer to drop their session to run interference, either.
5. Build room in your schedule to do your own thing.
I've stayed late and arrived early to shoots to grab extra shots of the venue, get the lighting for certain locations prepared, and sort of gotten a feel for what will be where when the shoot starts. It definitely helps you get that trigger-happy finger warmed up while gaining some confidence in your surroundings. When things go wrong, feel free to revisit some of those earlier explored spots. At one shoot the location for my session was still occupied with other models and photographers. I needed to take my model somewhere else and make the most of the opportunity. This is how you can get some experience breaking out and composing your own photos at these styled shoots.
6. Do your research.
Your city likely has a "<City Name> Photographers Black List" Facebook page. I didn't know this when I started, but, shocker! The host for the worst shoot I went to was on the DFW page for unrelated reasons.
Before you sign up, do a sanity check. Is the price really expensive because the venue is expensive? Is it expensive for exclusivity? Does the photographer have clear expectations and details shared out before you sign a contract? (It should!) Does the contract try to take ownership of your photographs? (It shouldn't.) What does it say about rescheduling, refunding, or when payment is due?
A series of photos grabbed from Pinterest for "inspiration" doesn't cut it for me for large and/or expensive shoots anymore. Show me the product from the vendors you are using. Share out the details for the models hired for this. ALSO: if you are paying as a photographer, the models should not be paying. TFP or "time for pictures" is not acceptable when funds are being put towards a venue, wardrobe, hair & makeup, florist, etc. Don't be part of the group that takes advantage of young or inexperienced talent.
As a photographer hosting a styled shoot for the first time, I'd recommend the following...
1. Start small!
I said it above but I'll repeat it here: the best styled shoots are the smallest styled shoots. Keep your group small and encourage partnerships of their own choice. Keep the conversation and dynamic casual so that learning photographers can ask questions while more senior photographers can step into leadership by demonstration. These dynamics are natural and will prosper if you give them room to do so. A small group is a healthy group to learn together and less overwhelming for all involved. Models might also be less uncomfortable with a smaller group (and therefore get to develop warm relationships with the photographers individually, resulting in better photos).
Starting small means you can keep costs low and reduce the number of variables. With less potential for wild-card behavior and a more intimate setting, there is a reduced cost to you (and to the attending photographers).
2. Keep out-of-pocket costs low
Family shoots, senior shoots, and engagement shoots have the lowest cost because you don't *have* to supply wardrobe for the models. Florists are not a prerequisite. You can ask models to come with their hair/makeup done as they like. You do not have to book a costly venue for these shoots, either. The best styled shoot I went to was a family/maternity shoot held at a park one evening. The fathers all came in their own clothes under the guidance of the coordinator, and the women received maternity dresses.
Rent wardrobes and feel free to leverage your own high-quality studio props/personal accessories as props when appropriate.
3. Leverage connections to secure models you trust to deliver
Do you have a pregnant friend? New baby in your social circle? Is your sister graduating soon? Did your brother just propose? Do you have a friend who actually models? Get people in your circle to fill out your talent roster. Pay them, of course! You can pay a *slightly smaller fee than standard model rates if this is not their livelihood.
Models you know will reduce yet another variable on the day of the shoot. With a series of strangers showing up to photograph alongside you and weather totally out of your control, it is best to have a group of trusted individuals. They are also going to be the fastest to pick up and reflect your positive, can-do attitude.
Finally, we all know that a comfortable subject is the most photogenic subject. When a subject is comfy with the photographer and setup, there is more likely to be an easy and approachable demeanor they bring with the other photographers, as well.
4. Communicate your expectations to your attending photographers
Are you expecting them to be there for 6 hours? Will there be food? Or a break? What is the method of communication you'll be using throughout the day and afterward?
Let your attending photographers know the details as you get clarity on outstanding logistical items. Helping them prepare will make them easier attendants without overwhelming expectations shouldered on yourself during a busy day. Not communicating with your attending photographers might result in them showing up already on edge and less likely to be very amiable or flexible.
5. Don't ask for ownership or copyrights to the deliverables
You can ask for the ability to have a few for your coordinating portfolio. And your vendors should also get copies for their work, too! But you do not own their photos. You cannot own their photos. I don't make the rules... Sherri Levine did with After Walker Evans.
6. Ask for feedback from attendees
This one can be hard, but asking for feedback is the fastest way to grow. You'll be able to determine what is honest and helpful feedback vs. unnecessarily critical likely based on the maturity and experience of your attending photographers. Be prepared to hear what didn't go well and take notes. A lot of things might feel outside of your hands - what expectations are reasonable and what are truly things you cannot control?
7. Stay small for the next one
You did it! Now keep it small again, but maybe this time branch out to industry models. Keep the load of work small because each shoot will bring a set of new learning opportunities and confusion to sort through.