When planning a portrait shoot, should I use a shot list (a preplanned list of shots) or focus on letting creativity take over rather than planned shots? A hybrid approach?

What do most pros use?


3 Answers 3


I have learned from many activities that:

  • If you start with a detailed plan then
    1. You have to think through everything before you start
    2. You are free to abandon the plan - in whole or in part - and "get creative"
    3. You can always fall back to the plan


  • If you start with no plan then
    1. You are starting the event with a blank canvas (which is a bad thing in this case)
    2. You must spend time thinking and planning as you go along, leaving less brain power free for creativity
    3. You cannot fall back to the plan if the creativity fails

So: having a plan not only gives you a default and a safety net, but it also gets the creative juices flowing before the event as you think through the plan ahead of time.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Particularly the case for unfamiliar locations or event types. I imagine if you do wedding photography full-time, you have it down pat and probably don't need to write out a detailed plan. But for something you've never done before/aren't familiar with, or in a unique location, it's probably better to have a plan (and potentially abandon it) than not, for the reasons you state. Great answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – djangodude
    Apr 20, 2012 at 16:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything", Dwight D. Eisenhower \$\endgroup\$
    – Pete
    May 6, 2014 at 20:05

I do a bit of a hybrid approach when approaching a portrait session:

  1. I have a shot list of shots that I want to make sure I get: head and shoulders, three quarters standing and sitting, full length shot, 'action' shot, laying down, etc. Even if they're candids, I try to frame at least these shots. These are largely for the client.

  2. I try to go into the shoot with at least 2 new ideas for shots I haven't done before. It may not be drastic, but maybe its a specific lighting or a specific composition or two that I try to work into the shoot. These may turn out well for the client, but largely they help you grow as a photographer.

  3. After those shots (or if the moment takes me), I'll address the surroundings and determine what can be 'creatively' done in the moment. These could turn out to be golden shots and the best thing ever - or they could be total and utter crap. But you shouldn't have to worry, because you should already have a reasonable collection of pictures with #1.

This may sound a bit boring, but some routine helps you get consistent (which I'm still working on!). And consistency reduces the worry about getting a set of reasonable shots and then allows you to concentrate on #2 and #3 above - which is the fun part.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yep, I agree with all of this. This is a good process to follow. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Apr 18, 2012 at 18:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ this is quite a nice pose guide digital-photography-school.com/… \$\endgroup\$
    – Rob
    Apr 18, 2012 at 18:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Very informal. I'll direct them, but I definitely don't tell them precisely what shot I'm going for. Letting your subject know exactly what you're doing is asking for trouble when the shot "just doesn't work" but they remember you taking it. As as directing them, its stuff like "Move your whole head to look over my shoulder, now put your eyes just at the camera" or "Grab your ear, ok, now relax your hand and rest it on your cheek just there" Stuff like that. Simple directions. \$\endgroup\$
    – rfusca
    Apr 18, 2012 at 18:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 on the list of planned shots. Not necessarily because you'll stick to it, but because it's a point of departure. And it might prompt you to bring that essential prop. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18, 2012 at 21:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rob, I actually used that guide for a wedding recently, and my client was FLOORED by the pictures I got of the bride by herself. \$\endgroup\$
    – huzzah
    Apr 24, 2012 at 20:08

Portraits specifically, I've never used a shot list and I don't know of anyone that does. Usually the time constraints around these shots is less of a factor then some other photography so you have the time to review the shots take still capture any missing shots. You can do this either in camera or by memory. Sometimes for portrait shoots I will bring with me an "inspiration" list. It is kind of like a shot list, but it is usually a set of images from my scouting that gives examples of where I want to attempt shots at. I like having the images rather than just text of shots.

Weddings are a specific kind of portrait photography that I would recommend people do start with a shot list, as there is a long list of shots that most bride and grooms expect to see. For example "the kiss" immediately after the nuptials, the wedding rings, and the entire wedding party. If you are new to wedding photography, the list will help out a great deal and help you to plan the little time you may have with a couple(and family members especially). I do know that some professional wedding photographers still use a shot list even if they are experienced. They sometimes go over a shot list with the wedding couple prior to the event and make sure that they plan to capture each and every shot that is a "must have" for the couple. This isn't essential, but I have seen it done. Personally, once I was familiar enough with shooting weddings, I no longer felt the need for a shot list as I typically got the "essentials" down early at the locations which then gave me more time to be creative and capture things off of any list.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good point about weddings. When I first started shooting weddings I had a shot list to make sure I didn't forget anything. After a few weddings I had it down by heart so I didn't take a list with me. \$\endgroup\$
    – nwcs
    Apr 18, 2012 at 18:22

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