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How to Prepare for a Photo Shoot

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“What do we need to do to prepare for a photo shoot or portrait session?”

That’s a question I’m often asked.

A memorable portrait, just like a great movie or a compelling episode of television, begins with a solid plan. My goal is to make the process as easy, fun and hassle-free as possible for you. Yup! I’ll be asking a bunch of questions making sure I understand your vision, meet your expectations and deliver Beyond the Frame.”

In this article we’ll talk about what some of those questions are, why I ask those questions, and how you can best prepare for your portrait session.

The Objectives of Portrait Photography

The objective of the portraits I create is to tell visual stories using compelling imagery.

What’s your story? Are you funny, elegant, professional, academic, goofy, athletic? Are you a friendly, funny dentist? An experienced life coach? A veteran lawyer or a political candidate?

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For headshots, let’s tell your story in marketing-worthy portraits that communicate your brand and your personality. LinkedIn should light up after you upload your portrait.

For engagement shoots, families, etc., let’s tell a story that will last for generations.

After we establish your story, I tell that story visually by shooting your portraits:

  • in the best possible surroundings
  • with the least amount of distractions
  • in the best light
  • from the best angle(s)

It’s up to me as an experienced photographer to create the best composition – lighting, angles, environment, etc. I’ll ask you a series of questions to come up with a plan for the best portraits possible.

Which Locations to Choose for Your Portraits

Part of the conversation that we’ll have while planning your portrait session revolves around location.

If we are shooting at your home or business, for example, you probably have a pretty good idea of what makes for the best background, and even when it looks the best. Maybe you have a favourite café or nature spot? No problem, we can make it work!

I also have a depth of experience shooting at many photogenic locations around the Greater Toronto Area. From urban portraits in Toronto to picturesque portrait shoots at Niagara wineries, and practically everywhere in between, I can offer great GTA photo shoot locations that are best suitable for your objectives, the time of day, time of year, etc.

What Does the Background Look Like?

While I want to make you the “star” of the images, it’s also nice to have an atmospheric and photogenic background for a portrait.

Family portraits in front of your parents’ home of many years, for example, are something to be treasured for generations.

A couple’s autumn engagement shoot at Dundas Peak can be incredible. Some people like a more urban look, which Toronto’s streets provide nicely. Maybe you’re in love with the Marilyn Monroe Towers in Mississauga, or one of the many beautiful wineries in the Niagara Peninsula. The options for portrait locations are practically endless.

For headshots, the goal is usually to put you in flattering light and then blur out the background, making you the sole focus as subject. Sometimes headshots are appropriate with a sharp background, however, such as an office or boardroom for business shots, or other environments for different fields. That’s part of the conversation we’ll have.

What Time of Day Are We Shooting?

Any photographer worth their salt will speak with you about time of day. Why is this important? The simple answer is “light.”

wedding photos at toronto aga khan (1 of 15)

Light is the essence of photography. It’s literally the first part of the word “photography,” with “photo” being Greek for light.

As a photography teacher, I’m always emphasizing the importance of light with my students: How to read the light, how to harness available light, how to make your own light, and so on.

Natural sunlight is at its most glorious in the short time after sunrise as well as in the hour or so before sunset, depending on time of year; the warm and soft light at these times lends itself to wonderful photography. Conversely the light at midday or “high noon” is a harsh, unflattering light (unfortunately many weddings take place at noon, adding a challenge for photographers to deliver great images on that big day!).

So when I ask you on the phone, for example, something like “how is the light on that old barn at four in the afternoon?” – now you know why it’s important. I want to put you in the best light possible.

How’s the Weather?

One note: Despite the best planning, sometimes weather ends up being a wild card. “Oh no, it’s cloudy,” some people will inevitably say. Don’t worry! In fact, clouds can be our best friend. Remember that harsh light at high noon? Solid cloud cover can act as a giant soft-box in the sky, reducing the harshness of the light and creating a more ideal situation for portraits.

Even a little rain is something we can work with. Of course, if it’s a downpour or a blizzard, we may need to postpone that outdoor session or make alternate (indoor) plans.

How to Dress for a Portrait Session

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To get the most out of your portrait session, it’s important to consider the wardrobe and accessories that you’ll be wearing. You want to look your best for your portraits, after all. There are also considerations for how the camera will pick up certain patterns and materials.

This is especially true if there are two or more people involved as subjects in the portraits (e.g. couple’s portraits, family portraits, team shots, etc.) as mismatched and clashing clothing has a tendency to call attention to itself and away from the best areas of focus. For group portrait sessions we’ll want to coordinate wardrobe and make sure everyone is on the same page to wear complementary or matching outfits.

It’s also a good idea to bring wardrobe changes and to have backup clothing available. Our scenery and light may change as we work through the session, and you may want different clothing for different portrait results.

Textures, Patterns & Colours

Solids are preferable, as they draw less attention to themselves and, when the right colours are selected, are complementary with a person’s skin tone and hair colour, as well as with the surroundings. Solid white on a bright day, however, is not ideal as it can get washed out; while solid black in a darker scene also blends in too much.

That’s why we tend to recommend mid tones – beige, yellow, orange, pink, etc., as well as diluted tones such as gray (and its many color blend variants), salmon, rose, etc. Again, match these colours with skin tone and hair colour for best results.

If you are wearing a pattern, better that it be subtle and not too pronounced. Broad patterns can also work. For example, a thick red-and-black plaid flannel shirt in an autumn portrait session could work well, so long as the plaid pattern is broad (think big squares); tight plaid patterns are best avoided, however, as they create a “moiré” effect that’s distracting with unsightly shapes on the images.

For group portraits, limit the colours involved to two or three colours at most (main colours, with some slight variations possible within that). And have a talk amongst the group about patterns, textures, fabrics, etc.

As far as accessories such as jewelry, scarves, etc. – again think back to the goal of not having anything that draws the viewer’s attention away from the main subject (you). A few accessories that are subtle and complement the subject are good. But the wrong accessories – or too many accessories – are distracting. If we’re in a shoot and I suggest removing or replacing a particular accessory, now you know why.

Classic vs. Trendy

It’s also good to consider something “classic” or “timeless” in your wardrobe choices. You may be wearing something that’s very “in” today, but a few years down the road could scream “dated!” We all have a grad, prom, wedding or other photo that makes us cringe when we look back upon the fashion of the times!

I like to think of portraits as memories that we’re creating with the intention to last years or generations. With that in mind, why not go for a classic fashion choice. I’ll let you be the judge of what that is and what works best for you. Just some food for thought.

A Rundown of the Photo Shoot Process

So with all that in mind, here in a nutshell is the how the photo shoot plays out:

  • We chat briefly to plan the details, storyboard and logistics of the shoot (overall look, location and time). Yup! I can come to your office/home; and of course, we can do outdoor, weather permitting. Unless you want to be photographed in the blizzard (hey, I’m game if this is the look we’re going for).
  • The photo session. A relaxed approach with input from me (my director’s hat is usually on) as needed to make sure things are in place and no distractions are in my frame. You see that clenched fist you have there? Let’s relax that a bit. I don’t want your portrait to convey that you’re nervous. Let’s show that confident smile!
  • As needed, I might show you a few preview images as the shoot progresses, making sure we are heading in the right direction. I know! That yellow shirt looked better in front of the mirror, but now that you see it on the screen you’re considering alternatives.
  • After the shoot I’ll send you a digital copy of the proofs to select your favorites (or we can do that on location before I leave, whichever is easier for you).
  • I’ll retouch the ones you selected.
  • When it’s all ready, I’ll send you a link to an online private gallery to download the images.

It’s all pretty straightforward, and I aim to make things smooth and enjoyable.


I hope this article has helped answer your questions about how to prepare for a portrait session.

Contact me today to inquire more about portraits or other services, or to book your portrait session. I look forward to working with you!

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