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Mastering the Model Shoot: Clothing & Styling (The Most Important Things)

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  1. It's More Than Lighting
  2. Building a Team
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In our quest to recreate a certain look, we often forget the most important parts of the image: location, styling, and makeup. Without these vital elements, an image is nothing more than, well, an image.
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Photography is an art form. To create art we need inspiration, vision, etc. When you start out as a photographer, you will know this problem. You find a model who is willing to pose for you, but she shows up with the standard jeans and tank top that she wears in everyday life. In the end, you can make some images but it’s not what you really want, is it? It’s not about lighting; it’s not about gear; it’s about the image—you’re telling a story. When you take a photograph of a model wearing jeans and a tank top, your lighting has to be spectacular because there’s simply nothing else going on. When you start talking about styling and hair and makeup, you can shoot even in the bright sunlight and it will look amazing.

It’s More Than Lighting

Often, when we see images in magazines that we really like, we wonder, “Why do I really like this image?” One of the most common mistakes (and trust me, I started out the same way) is to concentrate on the lighting. I call this “being blind to what’s really going on.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, the light in an image is very important. We, as photographers, paint with light, so the light should be great. However, in our quest to recreate a certain look, we often forget the most important parts of the image: location, styling, and makeup. Without these vital elements, an image is nothing more than, well, an image. The light can be great, but if nothing else is going on, it’s only that.

Prepare for the Shoot

A photo shoot is something that takes preparation. Make sure you know what you’re gonna do the day of the shoot. A shoot that starts with, “We’ll see what happens” often ends in disaster. Yes, I know that some people always work that way and always get great results, but trust me, it will be much better if you prepare.

“Frank, do you always prepare for a shoot?” Ummm, well, you know. Okay, I’ll be honest. No, I don’t always prepare for a shoot, however, in some ways, I do. I know my gear, I know my lighting, and I often already have some ideas in my mind that I want to work on, so when I say to a model, “Let’s go to [a location] and we’ll see what happens,” it’s different than just going there and not knowing anything.

In most situations, I recognize the options and know how to light it to get the result I want. But, I’ve been doing this for some time, and this has to grow over time. It doesn’t happen in one or two years. So, although I sometimes go to a shoot with an attitude of, “We’ll see what happens,” I still go prepared. For example, we always have some sort of idea, like doing something with a motorcycle, or doing a session with balloons in a field. Often, I have sketches of ideas, even if they are not completely worked out. However, for about 95% of my sessions, I have prepared before the actual shoot, and these are often the ones that really rock. How can you do this?

Before the shoot

Let’s say you have your team together and you want to start preparing. The first thing you have to do is find a theme. In the old days, people would use physical mood boards and have meetings before the shoot. Today, that’s not necessary anymore. Instead, one of the things I love to use now is Pinterest.

Mood boards

The best way to prepare for a shoot is with a mood board. You can do it the old-fashioned way by gluing images, or colors, or materials to a piece of cardboard. But, you can, of course, also do it digitally. If you own an iPhone, iPad, or similar device, there are even apps that will help you design and store a mood board. So far, though, there aren’t any killer mood board apps for tablets that are cross-platform. My friend, UK-based photographer Glyn Dewis, uses an app for his iPad called Moodboard, but you can run into problems with there not being the same app for both Apple and Android users. On the other hand, Pinterest works for everybody (iPhone and Android), it’s online, and it’s free.

Just remember that a mood board is not about copying the images on the board; it should be used to “feel” the session. I’ve seen several mood boards over the years that, for example, also contained fabrics, just to get a feel for the material or structure. But, most boards will just contain images, colors, text, etc. You should see the mood board as your personal/team collection of ideas from which your shoot will grow.

The mood board should definitely be a team effort. I strongly believe that the whole team should know about it, see it, and participate in it (if necessary). Always remember that photography is a team sport and that if you work as an “ego,” it will almost always go wrong.

During the building of the mood board, you will get to know your team—you will be in contact with them, and share ideas and visions. This often breaks down the first barriers and will help when you finally meet up. It’s a given that if you know each other, working together will be easier. So, make sure you use social media, like Google+, Twitter, and Facebook, to their full extent and share, share, share with your team.


Now, if you want to do the mood board really right, create a Pinterest account ( It’s free and, for me, it’s the perfect way to share and create a mood board with my team. You just create a board and start pinning ideas to it. You can even add a Secret board, and then invite only your team to share information and ideas for the upcoming shoot on it.

I have several Secret boards that I share with the people who arrange the models for my shoots, and these boards change over time. Sometimes I’m more into long dresses, and sometimes I want something more edgy. The nice thing about Pinterest is that you can use it on both your mobile devices and your home/office computer without worrying about compatibility, because it is web-based. Also, you can pin almost anything you find on the web, as long as it has an image. For me, Pinterest has really changed the way we do mood boards. I love it!

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