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It can be difficult to prepare for a photo session, even if you never intended it to be that way. Between coordinating family members, outfit changes, a photographer, and everything in between, it’s easy for the entire session to fly off the rails and get completely out of control.

You might be thinking to yourself that the stress is worth it as long as the pictures turn out well. Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t go that way. I can tell you from experience that the more stressed everyone is, the harder it is to get great photos. Particularly with young children, tempers have a way of reaching a breaking point in the middle of the photo session.

With that stress in mind, here’s a quick checklist of things to do in order to prepare for a photo session. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it’s a great starting point to prep for the big day.

1.  Get Inspired!

Before we do anything, my first recommendation to my clients is to get inspired. Whether you spot a picture in a magazine that you love or you’re browsing around on the Internet for photos that catch your eye, inspiration a critical piece in your planning stages.

I recommend using Pinterest to prepare for a photo session. Because Pinterest allows you to save boards and share them with others, it’s easy to pick out images you love and send them to your photographer (that’s me!), who can help you create a set of images you’ll enjoy.

While I do have a Pinterest account and feature some generic boards as a starting point, I highly encourage clients to build and curate their own board so that we’re on the same page about the end result. Having a shared vision vastly increases chance that you’ll enjoy the outcome of your session

2.  Ask questions.

While you’re getting inspired, be sure to write down a list of questions that might pertain to your photo shoot. Look at the photos you’re interested in and really ask yourself what makes that image looks good. Pull out a notepad and make a list.

This is also the stage when I encourage clients to ask any questions about my process or my credentials that they might have. I’m happy to explain how the shoot is going to go, any obstacles I see regarding their session — how the light looks at a given time of day, for example — and what we can do about it.

3.  Determine the location.

As you prepare for a photo session, you’ll reach a tipping point where you have to start making decisions that will affect the outcome of your images. If you’re planning a session on location, this is one of the first major choices you’ll have to make.

Armed with a few ideas, it’s not a bad idea to scout a location for your photo session. You should do this around the time you’re aiming for your photo session to take place. That beautiful fountain in the middle of the park may look great at 8:30 AM, but at 1:30 PM, when the harsh afternoon sun is beating down on it, it won’t photograph well.

I always advise my clients to talk with me about locations they have in mind. It’s almost impossible (even with great equipment) for any photographer to fight against the sun at its noonday peak. The sun is king, and everyone has to work around those weather conditions.

Wondering how to scout a location? Here’s a helpful guide!

4. Make a backup plan.

There’s something to be said about having a backup plan. In the days or weeks leading up to the session, it’s important to remember that the weather may have other ideas in mind regarding your venue. It’s a great idea to select a location which provides coverage or protection against unfavourable weather.

Alternatively, consider a backup date or a different location entirely. I’ve seen family portrait sessions planned in parks forced indoors because of severe storms. Clients have had to postpone more than once because someone couldn’t make it due to unforeseen circumstances.

Take the time to check the weather and check with everyone involved. While you prepare for a photo session, don’t just plan for one date. Make plans for two — just in case.

5.  Do all the paperwork in advance.

As a photographer, I’m thinking about different things on the day of the session than I am before the session takes place. In the run up to your session, I’m on standby to make any last minute changes. I’m also making sure that my equipment works, that all the paperwork is signed, and that any required payments and business logistics are handled.

I do all of this beforehand so that when I show up, my sole focus is creating great images and telling the story my clients hired me to tell.

Getting all the paperwork out of the way well before the session is a huge stress reliever for both parties. Consider building that into your checklist as you prepare for a photo session. Make sure everyone has signed the appropriate model and property releases and that you’ve got the permissions you need for the great images to happen.

There’s nothing more awkward than showing up to a venue only to be told that you can’t shoot there because you didn’t pay the fee or schedule in advance.

6.  Build a shot list.

Okay, imagine this: You’ve done everything you need to prepare for a photo session thus far. You get to the location with your family. I arrive with my gear and I say, “Who’s first?”

And that’s when the panic sets in. Sure, we’ve talked about a few things beforehand — maybe we’re focusing on group shots instead of individual shots or formal poses instead of candids — but now that you’re here, everything seems a little different. Maybe your daughter is doing something cute over by the playground equipment, and maybe those candids wouldn’t be such a bad idea. But the entire group is waiting, nobody knows what to do, and we’ve got a limited amount of time before the kids lose it.

Building a shot list during your planning stages can prevent a scenario like this. As a rule, the bigger your event, the more important a shot list becomes. For weddings and large groups, it’s almost a necessity. I’ve got a downloadable worksheet to help wedding couples get started, but it’s easy to retrofit for lifestyle sessions, as well.

I often invite clients to coordinate with me while building their shot list. It doesn’t have to be long or complicated. Most lists I see are just a shopping list of who needs to be photographed with whom. Before the session, you can plan out interesting group shots (all the kids together, families together and separate, grandparents with grandkids, etc.), and it’s a great reference during the session to make sure we don’t miss a shot you really want.

7.  Coordinate outfits!

By now, you might be saying, “Okay, Scott. Enough with the logistics!” and I have to say, “But wait, there’s more!”

When you prepare for a photo session, you can’t forget about the outfits! What’s everyone wearing? Is there a planned outfit change? What happens if the baby spits up on his shirt?

Particularly when other family members are involved, coordinating outfits can be a pain, but it beats Uncle Larry showing up in a lime-green vest when everyone else is wearing fall colours. Take the time to compare the backgrounds you anticipate with the colours you want to wear. As a rule, I like solid outfits over patterns, but there’s no hard and fast rule for what outfit looks good where.


8.  Pack the night before.

Especially if there’s any measure of travel or children involved, make an active effort to pack the night before. Create a little staging area by the front door or in a room where other family members don’t travel very much and put everything you need for your session right there.

It makes everything so much easier on the day of the shoot to know that you’ve already set everything aside. All you’ll have to do is give it a quick once over, gather it up, and get out the door.

9.  Leave early.

Leaving well in advance to arrive at your photo session on time is always a great idea. Particularly with kids, this is a useful trick to keep them calm. Kids notice when parents are frantic, and it’s easy to wind them to a breaking point before the session even begins.

The same is true for weddings and large family gatherings. I’ve seen some family friction because of sessions which were forced to start much later than using due to tardiness. Do yourself and everyone else a favour: Leave earlier than planned and arrive earlier than scheduled.

If you’re early enough, you might even show up before I do, which is difficult to do.


10. Have fun!

Building in “fun” while you prepare for a photo session might sound like a cop out, but it really isn’t. The other nine points in this article aren’t just there to make your life easier! They’re also present to make sure that you’re having fun during your photo session.

As a photographer, my goal is to take great images and streamline the photography process so that you don’t have to worry about how your images are going to turn out during your session. I don’t get to make all the decisions when it comes to your clothing or venue choice — you have to do that — but I offer as much advice as I can.

Realistically, though, if you’re not having fun during your session, your pictures will reflect that. If you’re frantic or worried, that’s likely to show up. There are a lot of secrets behind creating great imagery. Planning and logistics don’t have to be among them.

If you’ve got questions, or if you’re looking for a photographer, don’t hesitate to reach out!