Great photos are a curious alchemy; equal parts lighting, composition, and the artistry of the photographer’s eye. But there’s a fourth ingredient that often gets overlooked. It’s less glamorous, though no less essential: planning. Eventually, every photographer has to learn how to plan a photoshoot. 

And it isn’t as easy as picking up a camera and calling friends to come lend a hand. Planning a photoshoot requires locking locations, renting equipment, and hiring a crew - all of which costs money. The good news is that learning how to plan a photoshoot that doesn’t break the bank is as easy as doing a little information gathering, staying organized, and making the most of the tools at your disposal.

Let’s break it down into some simple photoshoot steps.

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First, agree on deliverables

Many articles on how to plan a photoshoot emphasize the importance of creative concepts. Here at Wrapbook, we’re a little more practical. There’s no photoshoot to plan until you’ve determined what the client wants out of the shoot. 

These are what’s known as “deliverables.” What you’re ultimately being contracted to provide when planning a photoshoot.

Before you think about how to plan a photo shoot you need to know what kind of photos the client needs. How many? When do they need them by? Are the images going to be displayed on a billboard or posted on social media?

Planning a photoshoot session designed to launch a high end fashion label is very different from planning a photoshoot session for your neighbor’s holiday cards. Getting concrete answers to these photoshoot planning questions is an essential first step in determining the scope and scale of the project. 

Negotiate a budget

If you’ve never thought about how to set up a photoshoot before, this might not seem like a big deal, but determining a budget upfront is of the utmost importance. It’s the only way to make sure that you and the client agree on how much money can be spent to achieve the desired goals of the photoshoot plan.

Whether it’s spending on studio time, equipment, or even just payroll for yourself and your crew, planning a photoshoot requires spending money. Many of these hard costs will likely be non-negotiable. 

For instance, if the client needs you to shoot food close ups with a macro lens, the cost to rent that lens will need to be figured into the photoshoot plan.

Other costs will be more flexible. If you need to hire talent in front of the camera, you can discuss whether that talent should be a highly paid model or someone more affordable. 

We’ll get into more detail about all of these photoshoot plan options below. The key for now is to understand the client’s needs and negotiate for the budget you need to achieve those goals. 

You probably won’t be able to account for every line item without the creative in place, but this is a good place to start when it comes to how to plan a photoshoot.

It’s worth noting that if the client has a set budget or limited resources, it’s wise to manage expectations during the photoshoot planning process. A few hundred dollars might only cover yourself, an assistant, and a few hours of your time. This is probably okay for a series of quick headshots, but won’t cover something more advanced. 

Being upfront about costs when planning a photoshoot is one simple way to make sure there are no surprises that put you over budget later. 

Get creative

Now for the fun part! With all your deliverables and budgetary parameters in place, you are free to unleash your creativity. 

Are you planning a photoshoot around a high concept like “space cats” or “baby detectives”?  Maybe an emotion, like “fear” at a Halloween event or “joy” at a wedding?

Or maybe you’re trying to capture a specific look. Will it be slick sci-fi? A romantic black and white? Is the shoot going to focus on capturing human figures? Open, natural spaces?

Or maybe your vision is as simple and effective as unleashing a vintage wide angle lens to spice up a real estate listing. 

Whatever the case, this is the most important step on any photoshoot planning checklist. It will ideally drive each choice made from here on out. Without a creative vision, photoshoot planning cannot continue.

Once you’ve settled on an idea, it’s time to present it to the client. One easy way to do this is with a mood board. A mood board is a collection of images that inspire you when planning a photoshoot and indicate a creative direction. These can be sourced from anywhere you’d like, usually a visual search engine like Google Images or Pinterest. 

You can create a mood board yourself in Photoshop or use a website designed to make mood board creation fun and easy.

Assuming the client is on board with your vision for how to plan a photoshoot and it fits within the agreed-upon budgetary parameters, it’s time to get down to executing your photoshoot plan.

Source locations

The next essential part of planning a photoshoot is selecting the shoot’s location. This step will require scouting your area (or the area where the shoot will take place) to determine what locations work within both your creative vision and your budget. 

Will you need a studio space with a lighting grid? Or are you looking for an outdoor space with plenty of natural light? Are you looking to shoot somewhere private or public? 

Consider how long you’re going to be at each location. If you are planning how to set up a photoshoot as an all day event, make sure there are plenty of accessible restrooms, as well as a comfortable place for your crew to take a break and eat. 

There are so many questions and considerations during this step in photoshoot planning that it’s useful to bring a location scouting checklist along to make sure you’ve thought through every variable. This is especially important if you’ve never thought about how to set up a photo shoot before!

You’ll also want to bring along location release forms in the event that you find a suitable location. This form, filled out by a location’s owner, is the paperwork that gives you written permission to shoot at a given place. If you forget the forms during your scout, that’s okay - just make sure they’re filled out before you show up to shoot!

If you can, this is the point in the photoshoot steps that you’ll want to square away any and all fees associated with the location. This will allow you to keep an eye on the budget as you go and adjust to keep costs down if necessary. 

Rent equipment

Now that you know what space you’re working with, it’s time to talk equipment. A photoshoot planning checklist wouldn’t be complete without the following:

  • A camera
  • A tripod
  • Camera lenses
  • Lights or a flash
  • Lighting stands
  • Extension cords
  • Charging cables
  • Extra batteries 
  • Extra memory cards (or film, if you’re old school!)
  • A computer workstation where the photos can be transferred and stored.

While this isn’t a technical guide to how to plan a photoshoot, remember that not all shoots call for the same equipment. If you’re shooting subjects in portraiture, you’ll probably want to have a 35mm or 50mm lens on hand, as well as a wide variety of lights, gels, and diffusion options to shape and color light and shadow.

On the other hand, if you’re hired to shoot a wedding, much of your work will be done on the fly with little time for set up. You’ll want to make sure you have multiple lenses at the ready for wide shots, close ups, and everything in between. You’ll want to keep lighting on stands to a minimum since your subjects will be constantly on the move.

The creative decisions made early in the process will help to determine what other specialized equipment you will need to pull off each of the following photoshoot steps. If you need to shoot underwater, you’ll need waterproof camera casings. If you need to light up an exterior location at night you’ll need to use massive lights that can take a number of people to operate safely.

Finally, this is the  place to plan for any props or costumes that you will need. Items that can be borrowed for free are great cost savers, but rentals need to be budgeted for and booked in advance. 

Think carefully about each element of the shoot to make sure you’re not overspending on equipment you don’t need or overlooking equipment that you do. 

Build out a shooting schedule

Time is money, and as soon as you step on location, both are going to be slipping away. The best way to get what you need on the budget you have is to create a shooting schedule well before you ever take your camera out of its case. 

This is essential to bringing your project in on budget because it allows you to visualize how many hours and days you will need to make your money stretch.

This schedule should include call times for your crew and on camera talent, arrival and departure times at each location (if you are shooting at more than one), and wrap times for each day of the shoot. When it comes to how to plan a photoshoot, there’s no better way to stay organized!

In most cases, a detailed photoshoot plan should also include notes on cast, locations, and lighting necessary for each shot. The exception to this rule might be an event where you are expected to shoot photos on the fly. 

Not only will a thorough shooting schedule keep you from missing anything on the day, but it will allow you to show the client exactly what you’re planning to shoot in advance. It will also give them the opportunity to point out any additional shots they might need.

Hire talent and crew

Finally, with your creative set, your locations locked, your equipment rented, and your schedule built, you’ll know how much money you have to hire on-camera talent and behind-the-scenes crew. 

In some cases, ‌talent might be one of your most expensive line items. If your client wants a very specific look or the shoot requires models with a high degree of experience, your options will be limited. 

You may prefer to source your on camera talent through a modeling agency who will set their client’s fees for on camera work. If this happens and you find yourself exceeding your budget, you will need to go back through your numbers and make trims elsewhere. 

The same goes for crew. If you’re in search of an extra hand to hold a bounce board in the park, you might be able to avoid hiring a high-priced professional. However, if you need someone to operate a specific piece of equipment - say, a crane or a drone that allows you to shoot from the air - it’s best to pay someone who knows what they’re doing.

How to Plan a Photoshoot & Stay Under Budget - Wrapbook - Crew Database
Wrapbook's All-Crew Database makes hiring trusted crew easy and painless.

And what better place to find those crew members when planning a photoshoot than right here on Wrapbook? Visit our onboarding section to take a deeper dive into our All-Crew Database and other tools to make the hiring and payroll process easier than ever before.

If you think you know how to plan a photoshoot, but you’ve never organized crew and talent before: think again. Hiring people comes with a stack of new paperwork, like deal memos for crew and appearance release forms for talent.

Just as with locations, make sure everyone is comfortable with the role they are expected to perform and that their paperwork is signed before anyone steps on set. 

Wrapping up

By following this simple photoshoot planning checklist, you’re on your way to completing any photoshoot - no matter how complicated - on time and on budget. 

Learning how to plan a photoshoot is just one step on the photographer’s journey, so make sure to check out our tips on how to start a successful photography business to keep this party going.

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Last Updated 
February 10, 2023


At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Chris Cullari

Chris Cullari is a writer/director based out of Los Angeles. His most recent film, THE AVIARY, is available for streaming on Paramount Plus and Showtime. You can find him tweeting about monsters, pro-wrestling, and horror movies.

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