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What's in a Photo-shoot?

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How many of you have been on a photo-shoot? Have you ever been surprised at the costs involved, or wondered where all the money goes? Have you ever honestly looked at a picture and thought, ‘that’s good, but I could do that with my digital camera’?

With the proliferation of digital cameras now replacing film and permeating into nearly every household across the UK, and with the massive advancement in mobile phone technology which brings us closer and closer to one device that does it all (I mean I’ve even got an application on my iPhone that controls my TV - who needs the remote anymore?), who needs a photographer? Can’t we do their jobs ourselves?

The camera never lies

My digital camera cost £300 and it takes a 1metre image at 72 dpi. That means it’ll give me a 24 cm wide image at 300dpi, - plenty big enough for a brochure. Whilst this is often the thought process of many a client, it doesn’t mean that just because the resolution is there, the shot is any good. For example, if you took the shot indoors, there may well be a yellow cast over the image because of the fluorescent lighting in the room. If the photo was of a person, was he/she smiling, or did they look like they didn’t really want to be there? Were they dressed appropriately, or were they wearing a Megadeth t-shirt, while trying to sell a Classic FM album?

Get the picture?

There is a big difference in photography and the requirement of photography, and it’s an issue that I come across everyday. When producing a brochure, the addition of good quality, well-shot and relevant photography can (and does) make the difference between a boring dull product and an award-winning piece. A lot of design awards for print work go to projects that have stunning photography as part of their makeup. We are a visual culture and as much as we would wish to deny it, we react based on what we see first. Eddie Izzard quoted in one of his shows that 70% of what people react to is the look, how you look; and 20% is about how you sound; and only 10% is what you say. So if you look good and sound good, everyone will go wild! That’s advertising in a nutshell.

There are pictures, and then there are pictures

There are basically two types of photography and to illustrate this we are going to use a mug as our star attraction. The first approach sees us record the mug in photographic form for the sake of history. It is needed to make a permanent record that this particular mug existed on the planet, at a certain time on a certain day, almost frozen in time, so in 1000 years time, when future humans open up the time capsule, they’ll know we all used mugs!

This doesn’t require any real specialism and pretty much anybody with a camera phone that’s not older than 2 years, will have the ability to capture this, with some degree of quality. It’s never going to do anything else but exist as a recording that it was there. There’s no need for special lighting, we don’t need props, or models, - just a camera and the mug.

The importance of a good photo

The second option is to see our mug as the latest and greatest, most stylish and sophisticated mug ever made. We’ll need to sell a million of them, and we’ll do this by convincing you, the consumer, that everything I just said about my poor little mug is true. So I’ll either have to find myself a studio, or maybe I’ll shoot it on location with an idyllic scene in the background (the mug could look good resting on a palm tree, with white golden sandy beaches and crystal blue waters in the background!). I need to emphasise its best points and hide its worst (but if you asked me directly, I’d of course say it has no bad points). I need you to see this mug in an advert and say “wow, that’s the mug for me” and rush out and buy it.

These two options have two very different outcomes.

There are a series of steps that go into a photo-shoot and to show you how involved it is, I’ll demonstrate a recent project we have done for a client.


Our project is to produce a car park image where one of the car parking bays is occupied by a giant rat-trap. The shot was to be shot at nighttime and have a gritty yet realistic look to it.


The first thing to discuss with the client is the tone to the image. This is normally achieved by collating a mood board of imagery that encompasses the tone, style, lighting etc that ultimately, the finished shot is trying to achieve.

Mood Board


Once this has been agreed, the next stage is to find the location. This can be a fairly short stage (i.e., if it were only a studio shot we were after, we’d just need a studio and the photographers would usually have access to his/her own). Otherwise, we’d be trying to find the perfect scenario ‘on location’, such as a modern flat, a high-rise shot of a tower block. This can be accomplished with existing local knowledge and general research (using the Internet for example) or actually employing a company, which specialises in location finding and hiring for film and TV shows.

The potential site then needs to be visited and recce shots taken to see if the final composition for the image can be achieved and whether it matches up 100% with the brief, or only 70% and additional items will need to be brought in to fulfil the requirements.

The recce shots are then shown to the client via web upload in most instances. This way, the client gets no surprises and can confirm the shot is progressing as expected.

The following are the recce shots I took at the first stage of this particular project.

Recce Shots


This can be a very long stage depending on the location/organisation, but it is a key point nevertheless.

In our case, we needed permission from a large retail food outlet to use their car park. At the beginning on the discussion, we made it clear that we would make sure there would be no key features to show that the car park belonged to the retailer, and permission was given.

The Shoot

Setting up is the time consumer here. Depending on the image, setup can take anything from a few hours to a full day. In the case of our rat-trap photo-shoot, we took 3.5hrs to setup, arranging the bay parking correctly and getting enough cars to stay in place without making it look like they have specifically been positioned. Then a series of tests shots with different lighting configurations were performed, to get the shot composition we were happy with. Obviously while all this was going on, members of the public doing their weekly shop were interested in what we were doing, and often stopped to ask us about the shoot.

Many people aren’t aware of the skill involved in taking a nighttime shot. You have a very short window of opportunity, where it’s dark, but the sky is still blue. If you miss this window, then the image can look quite flat as you lose the depth to the shot. This ‘late dusk window’ is around about 20mins.

As you can see from the shots below, the ‘Money Shot’ (which is generally called the ‘Hero Shot’, but I think the ‘Money Shot’ is more appropriate - as my old Creative Director used to say, it’s the shot that brings in the dosh!) has lots of equipment in the way of the two cars which feature heavily in the scene. These are removed in the final stages of production.

The Photoshoot

Studio Shot

The rat-trap element is then setup in a studio and photographed from a variety of angles and then quickly ‘comped’ into a ‘low-res’ shot of the car park location to see if it fits. In this case, we took nearly 500 shots before we settled on the final one. Again, this takes in the region of a full day, plus half a day to find the right type of trap of course (an old iron monger was the winner in this case).

Photo Studio


The final stage of the process is to supply both elements (the location ‘Money Shot’ and the rat-trap) to a high-end retoucher, along with the mood/style boards, which we started the process with. The retoucher is a very skilled individual, who spends a considerable amount of time to put a shine on the final shot. You can see bad examples of retouching whenever you watch a film and they show a family photo album where George Clooney’s childhood photos have been stuck on someone else’s body!

The following images show the various stages of the process before we arrive at the finished shot. The shot can and is amended as the retoucher will ask the agency if this is what they are after and usually, a brief is established for the retoucher to work against. There are small tweaks/removals which are inevitable with any retouching, and in our case, registration plate details needed to be removed so that the cars featuring within the image cannot be identified.


Before Retouching


Final Professional Photo


Retouching Process


Once all this is done, then and only then, do we present the finished shot to the client. It is hoped that the constant communication throughout the process means that the final shot is exactly what they were after. In this case it was!

Picture perfect

Photography is very important and the power of a good image should never be underestimated. A good image can change our outlook in the quickest of moments. It can stop us from drinking alcohol or smoking, it can make us desire and buy, or it can just make us stop and ponder. Either way, it forces us to engage in it’s subject and form our own opinions, and by doing so, it does what it was created to do…be seen.


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Comments (13)

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Tom wrote at

What an interesting article! I'm sure you'll have loads of people wanting to find out what's involved in a professional photoshoot - and this blog answers a lot of questions! More of the same please ;p

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Trudi wrote at

Very informative blog - I just don't EVER want to meet the mouse that fits in that trap!

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Emma wrote at

Great article. A really good explanation and illustration of an often overlooked area of design. With so many stock images readily available it's refreshing to see someone willing to go that 'extra mile' (to Asda!) to get the perfect shot. Hopefully people will read this and realise the skill (and value) of investing in professional photographers and effective art direction. Good stuff :)

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Alan wrote at

A good read. It must be great to have clients that let you spend the money to get a good shot rather than the 'get an image from the web' I always seem to have to fight against! The small, but important, para about permissions is a potential lawsuit reducing addition. Excellent retouching work as well!

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Pat wrote at

Great article......... never relised so much thought went into what seems a simple 'scene'. Can't wait for the next article....... keep up the good work.

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Lee wrote at

Hi guys, thanks for all your comments and support on the blog. It's great to have some feedback and to know that you're all finding the articles interesting! I hope you'll keep coming back for more, and you'll take a few minutes to forward the article onto anyone you know who might find it of interest.

The article is a bit of a beast, so for that, I apologise! Having said that, there's so much involved in a photoshoot, it was difficult to leave anything out - and I'm sure the pics we posted made it a bit more enjoyable - and less of a chore to read! :)

Anyway, keep the comments coming, and any questions, just give us a shout!

Thanks again!

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michelle carr wrote at

So any tips for a good wedding photographer?!!

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::MattLee wrote at

Thanks folks for taking the time out to write such an informative article.
A refreshing read & appreciation of what goes into a shoot!

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S_V wrote at

Sorry, got really turned off by the amount of text. Like the photos a lot though.

I appreciate a huge amount of effort went in to writing it, but maybe I'm not your target audience.... techno geek!! : p

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Jane Jordan wrote at

Lee you're right - an image can make or break a campaign. Creating the perfect photo takes imagination and courage. Why courage, because of the costs involved. Another point to take into account is the picking the right photographer and retoucher. Great photo though.

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Emma Bridges wrote at

A really interesting read - we all see a huge amount of adverts every day and I bet not many of us realise the time, effort and expertise that goes into each and every one (before readiing this blog).

I am our 'family photographer' and am always left with the responsibility of taking the photos at family events. I'm not sure how I ended up with this job because I am by no means a professional. Occasionally I manage a good action shot but that is definitely more luck then judgement!

I agree with Jane - picking the right photographer is vital. Also - the right marketing person behind the photo and campaign. With all the effort that goes into the photography - the photo has to work for the campaign and the target audience.

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Christie wrote at

Very informative Lee, I can now feel your pain when a client wants the photo back the next day after taking the shot!
I promise not to be that client!

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susi wrote at

what digital camera do i need to take

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